3 Things That Were Once Thought To Be At The North Pole

Although we now know that the North Pole is a floating area of sea ice, growing and shrinking with the seasons and generally moving a few degrees every year, there was a time when maps showed far more outlandish things in this part of the world. Before the first explorers made their way to this remote region in 1909, rumours were bandied around regarding what was thought to occupy this space on the map.

One of the chief instigators of these rumours was renowned cartographer Gerard Mercator. Whilst he may have created an innovative way for sailors to plan straight routes across the Earth’s curved surface (a technique that is still used today) he also took a few wild stabs in the dark when creating the first ever world map in 1569. Here are three things he included on this iconic piece of cartography which, until the truth was discovered, were taken as fact.

A Giant Whirlpool

The thought behind this inclusion on the map was driven by reports from Martin Frobisher and James Davis. These two explorers had travelled further north than anyone else at the time (to Northern Canada) and told stories of swirling currents and treacherous waters. Mercator used this information to divide the North Pole area of his map into four different sections with his proposed whirlpool in the middle. The wording describes the current as being able to drag all in its path into the bowels of the Earth. We know that whirlpools (maelstroms) do exist in the Artic region, but nothing on this scale.

A Magnetic Rock

Mercator's World Map Rock

In order to explain why compasses always pointed north, Mercator stated that there was a giant black rock right at the spot where the North Pole should be. This vision was brought about after reading a book entitled ‘Inventio Fortunata’ or ‘Fortunate Discoveries’ which was written in the 14th century and told of the magical travels of a friar from Oxford. As we now know, it is the Earth’s magnetic field that causes a compass to point north and not, as Mercator puts it, a ‘black, very high cliff’.


Mercator's World Map mentions Pygmies

This is perhaps the strangest mistake to be included on the inaugural world map, but Mercator actually refers to there being pygmies living at the North Pole. One of the four sections which he cuts the area into includes the words ‘four feet high pygmies live here, like those found in Greenland’ written in Latin. Although it’s quite likely that he was just using his imagination to fill the empty space at the top of the map, the idea that small humans inhabited this area could have again come from ‘Inventio Fortunata’. The book talks about people of small stature being encountered in Greenland and Lapland during past expeditions.

As time moved on, maps were updated as more and more information was learned about the Arctic region. If you wish to see the wildlife, landscapes and indigenous people that can actually be found inside the Arctic Circle, we have some fantastic Arctic cruises for you to choose from. Speak to our team today to find an adventure suited to you.


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