While doing some research into maps over the last month or so, I came across an interesting item which I found recurring on two different sources. I first encountered this scene on a copy of the Abraham Ortelius Atlas, the 1570 Theatrum orbis terrarum. From page showing the map labeled Russia at the Library of Congress site:

enter image description here

It looked like a curious scene, and I thought to look into it later. When looking at an different map, the earlier Carta Marina of 1539 by Olaus Magnus, I was surprised to find a very similar scene, this from Bell Library: enter image description here

Interestingly enough, the later Ortelius map seemed to have more information in its legend than the earlier. As Latin was not part of my education, I attempted to feed the information on the legends into Google translate, but the machine translation was confusing, and did not really clear things up for me.

Further research found another image yet, at the same UofM Bell Library site, also from a Olaus Magnus publication, The Historia pg 98, showing another slightly different version of the same scene: enter image description here

So, what is this scene representing? I understand we can't take everything we find on these maps as fact (I do enjoy the sea monsters, unicorns and dragons however), but the placement of this scene on two different maps, both in northern regions, makes me wonder if it isn't a representation of some cultural behavior specific to a group, or perhaps a historical event.

What is the story here?

Just wanted to add a link for some more information about the cartographer Olaus Magnus in the History of Cartography, Vol 3, chptr 60 • Scandinavian Renaissance Cartography which has a discussion of Magnus and his Carta Marina and Historia. A section there addresses a concern I had about whether or not his maps vignettes also might have been copied from an earlier source (emphasis mine):

A complementary text, Historia de gentibvs septentrionalibvs, published in Rome in 1555, contains a small modified version of the map. As with the Carta marina, the Historia offers a splendid mixture of fact and fancy— a veritable hyperborean apotheosis. The large number of vignettes are in the same style as those that decorate the original map. They are the work of Olaus Magnus himself: he was no mean artist. Indeed, the Swedish historian Hjalmar Grape juxtaposes some of his woodcuts with those of Hans Holbein, whose style possibly influenced Olaus Magnus. The illustrations belong to the bold, vigorous, and occasionally naive artistry of the north. The pictorial content seems to have been designed to show the Catholic world of the south what had been lost through the Reformation in the north. At the same time, Olaus Magnus remained a Nordic patriot who was anxious to replace the concept of a barbaric north with a more civilized image.

  • I don't know enough Latin to understand how adjectival binding occurs, or whether Red is acting as an adjective or an adverb here. Grammar should disambiguate, but I lack the skill.
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 17:15
  • "Regionum incole Solem" seems to be the key phrase, but my Latin is also insufficient to explain the relationship of the Sun to these regions.
    – user18968
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 17:22
  • 3
    @MarkC.Wallace: "Flag" is a noun, and "red" is not an adverb. You're right that "red flag worshipers" can mean "red {flag worshipers}", but it can certainly also mean "{red flag} worshipers". Compare "chocolate cake lovers", "classical music lovers", "foreign film lovers", etc.
    – ruakh
    Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 22:57
  • So I have a similar question. In the 1539 Carta Marina map (not the snippet shown in this question, but in the "Section C" the Bell Library linked image) just to the east of the flag worshipers at locus "B", under the "49" longitude mark, is an "Insula Magetum" at locus "D". What is it? The magnetite deposits near Kirkenes? Commented Feb 9, 2020 at 2:21
  • Good find. Look what it is directly under, the North Pole. back as far a Ptolemy there were legends of islands which were strongly magnetic. This must have been the 'explanation' for the compass pointing to the North pole.
    – justCal
    Commented Feb 9, 2020 at 4:13

2 Answers 2


See Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus / auctore Olao Magno ... Magnus, Olaus, 1490-1558 (click here for full Hathi Trust catalog entry for the 1562 edition) or here for Wikipedia's description. Your explanation is in Book 3, Chap 2, folio 30 verso, near the bottom of the page of the 1562 edition, and on page 98 of the nicer-looking fuller 1555 edition.

The title of the chapter is "De Suppolarium hominum superstitiosa cultura", "On the superstitious cults of the arctic people". The gist is, it's cold up there, and dark, they worship the sun and moon, and the color red reminds them of the color of the blood of animals. A better latinist with better eyesight than mine will be able to transcribe and translate it properly.

There is an early modern English translation, cited by the Minnesota library site:

Olaus, Magnus, Archbishop of Uppsala, 1490-1557. A Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes, & Vandals, and Other Northern Nations. John Streater active 1650-1670 London : printed by J. Streater, and are to be sold by Humphrey Mosely, George Sawbridge, Henry Twiford, Tho. Dring, John Place, and Henry Haringman 1658

and a recent one

Olaus, Magnus, Archbishop of Uppsala. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus: Rome 1555/ Description of the Northern Peoples.Rome 1555. Translated by Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgens; Edited by Peter Foote with annotation derived from the commentary by John Granlund. 3 vols. London: Hakluyt Society, 1996-1999.

A Google search for "Compendious history of the goths" found a pdf of the 1658 translation; relevant snippets (from p.37) read

... they adore the Sun that shines to them all the Summer, giving thanks unto him, because he brings them light instead of darkness they endured, and heat against extream cold ... so likewise they adore the Moon because in winter, when the Sun is absent, they alwaies enjoy the light of the Moon: but when that fails by reason of the conjunction, they dispatch their businesse in the day, by help of most clear Starrs, which shine the brighter by reason of the white Snow. Moreover those people that live under the Pole are deluded by a more stupid errour by the Devills. For they hang a red Cloth upon a Pole or Speare, and with attentive prayers and customs of worship, they adore it, thinking that there is some vertue in it, by reason of the red colour which is like to a beasts blood. And also because they suppose that by looking upon it, they shall be more fortunate in killing beasts, drinking their blood, as I shall shew underneath, concerning the manners of the Laplanders.

It's not totally clear to me who "they" are. The previous chapter mentions Norwegians and Värmlanders and Lithuania and Muscovy; this chapter mentions (as above) Laplanders. In general Olaus describes the inhabitants of current Nordic countries and lands near the Baltic, stretching east as far as the Kola peninsula and the White Sea. My guess is, Laplanders. (This is consistent with the placement of the vignette on the 1539 Carta Marina, at the northern extreme of the Scandinavia.)

  • 1
    Interesting. Looks like this pretty much covers the bases, and we can assume Ortelius or his engraver just 'borrowed' the vignette for his atlas. Clip art 1570 style...I read somewhere Magnus was a Catholic Church official, and some of his writings were to show how 'evil' was out there after the Reformation. Even 16th century cartographers could show bias...
    – justCal
    Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 0:58
  • 2
    Thank you for finding and posing this question. It's been a real pleasure tracking this stuff down. I'll spend the next few happy days reading the "Compendious History" (the Paul Bunyan-like giant is Starchaterus Thavestus, a man of admirable and heroic Vertues, etc.) Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 2:16
  • See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starkad for more about Starchaterus. Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 2:25
  • Sorry: late at night for me, and I forgot to copy the url. I got mine from the NOAA library, too. The runeberg.org/olmagnus site is more legible than the Hathi trust one, if you are content with the Latin. I agree, Olaus was truly great, & very much like P and H. Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 14:06
  • I do like the format of the runeberg.org site, showing the vignette, with the original print and an OCR text copy below. Good for the Latin readers out there.
    – justCal
    Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 14:33

The map explicitly says: rubrum pannum pertica suspensum adorant (they adore a red cloth hanging from a pole)

And this guy states that these vignettes come from Marco Polo (a good guess when seeing cute figures on late medieval maps...). He also gives full translations of all of them.


Here is the complete quote:

Cartouche top right: Horum regionum incole Solem,vel rubrum pannum pertica suspensum adorant. In castris vitam ducunt; ac oim animatium, serpentiu, vermiunque carne vescentur.ac proprio idiomate vtuntur (The inhabitants of this region adore the Sun or a red cloth hanging from a pole. They live their lives in fortresses and eat the meat of animals, snakes and worms, and they have their own language).

Can somebody find this quote from Marco Polo? I do not remember anything of sorts when reading a short version of his Travels and could not find it searching for 'red'.

  • 1
    Thanks for the quick response. Now we just need to figure out who the inhabitants of this region are!
    – justCal
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 17:26
  • I've heard that red is considered a lucky colour in China, and Marco Polo of course went to China. I'm not aware that they have ever worshipped red flags, but could that be part of the answer?
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 19:00
  • 1
    Though it is tempting to associate this vignette with its position on the Ortelius atlas, remember that the Olaus Magnus work predates Ortelius by 30 years, and places the scene in the Northern reaches of Scandinavia or Finland, alongside soldiers riding reindeer , alongside giants holding runestones. Hence the mystery.
    – justCal
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 20:28

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