I’ve had a few friends and strangers comment that they loved the story, but they didn’t understand what the name “Here be dragons” meant. Unless you know a little bit about cartographic history, it could mean a lot of things….
This morning I found a good explaination from the MapHist website:
How and when did the notion that old maps commonly bore the phrase “here be dragons” become established in popular belief? Did a Shakespeare or a Byron put it into circulation? It must at least pre-date the publication of Dorothy L. Sayers’ short story “The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head” in Lord Peter Views the Body (London: Gollancz, 1928), in which a character refers to having seen “hic dracones” on an old map [spotted by both Andrew S. Cook and Benjamin Darius Weiss]. Does it pre-date the publication of the text of the LenoxGlobe in 1879? Why dragons, and not one of the other terrifying creatures depicted on old maps? We don’t know.
According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “The animal called a dragon is a winged crocodile with a serpent’s tail; whence the words serpent and dragon are sometimes interchangeable.” Furthermore, says Brewer, the word “dragon” was used “by ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages as the symbol of sin in general and paganism in particular. The metaphor is derived from Rev. xii. 9, where Satan is termed ‘the great dragon’.” In this sense, a picture of a dragon on an old map is analogous to a modern map which shows Commonwealth countries in pink, not to a vignette of the Official State Bird, or the notation “unsurveyed area”. As M. Hoogvliet pointed out to MapHist, “The dragon (draco) is a sub-species of the serpents (cf. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae XII,4,4: “Draco maior cunctorum serpentium …”); most medieval maps have serpents in southern Africa (i.e. southernmost part of habitable world), which derives from Classical Roman authors, e.g. Pliny the Elder and Soninus.”
Read the rest here. Or to summarize, “Here Be Dragons” / “Hic sunt dracones” was placed at the edges of maps showing the edge of the known world. However, I am told there aren’t any maps that actually use the exact text and I have not seen a map with that text on it.