The Münster Mash: Mythical Monsters at Maynooth

By Yvette Campbell, Assistant Librarian, Special Collections & Archives

CK 967 -Cosmographiae Universalis (1550)

The month of October marks the 820th anniversary of St. Canice’s Cathedral. To celebrate this occasion, I have selected an interesting piece from the St. Canice’s Cathedral Library Collection that also ties in with the celebration of Halloween.

Cosmographiae Universalis by Sebastian Münster printed in Basel by Heinrich Petri in 1550 includes approximately 900 woodcuts of sea and land monsters thought to have existed around the world. Aside from the famous maps present in the Cosmographia, the text is richly filled with woodcuts of flora and fauna, monsters, obscurities, Kings/Queens and customs. This success of this work was due to the notable woodcuts (some by Hans Holbein the Younger, Urs Graf, Hans Rudolph Manuel Deutsch, and David Kandel).

This Latin edition and the German edition, both published in the same year by Münster’s son-in-law Heinrich Petri, were the first of Münster’s works to contain town views. The map of the modern world, “Typus Orbis Universalis,” also first appeared in this edition, replacing the Ptolemaic world map used in previous editions.

Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was a German cartographer, cosmographer, and Hebrew scholar whose Cosmographia or “Cosmography”) first printed in 1544, was the earliest German description of the world, and a major work in the revival of geographic thought in 16th century Europe. Although the Cosmographia records encyclopaedic details about the known world at that time, what is interesting from a modern perspective, is the speculations surrounding the unknown worlds at that time. It is highly likely that Münster relied heavily on the works of Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) for descriptions of the unknown lands and those thought to have dwelt there.

From left to right: Sciapodes, Cyclopes, Bicephales, blemmyae and Cynocephali woodcuts printed by Heinrich Petri (1550)


The Sciapodes (or Monopods) were a legendary people with one leg and one gigantic foot which they used like an umbrella to shade from the sun during extreme heat. A Sciapod is often depicted lying on their back in a curved shape, with their huge foot in the air. They were also popular in Medieval bestiaries and map illustrations of Terra Incognita.


More familiar to us, (thanks to famous fairy tales, Greek myths and Harryhausen movies) is the Cyclops. Cyclopes (‘wheel-eyed’) were odd-looking giants with one eye in the middle of their foreheads.


Two-headed people as pictured above in the centre of the image, were likely manifestations representing the duality of good and evil, fire and water, light and darkness – a common sight in many cultures and myths for thousands of years.


A Panotii

The famous mythical blemmyae or akephaloi (“headless ones”) are described and illustrated throughout numerous Greek and Roman sources. They were first mentioned 2,500 years ago by Herodotus in ‘The Histories’. Pictured here in the Cosmographia, the headless blemmyae were thought to have been cannibalistic creatures with a face on their chest and could reach up to 12 feet in height and 6 feet wide. Following reports of their existence by several famous explorers and as testament to the popularity of these creatures , Shakespeare even incorporated them into his plays The Tempest and Othello.


The Cynocephali, or ‘dog-headed’ people were one of the best-known monstrous races. They were said to be fierce warriors with the body of a man and the head of a dog. Other than the god Anubis in Ancient Egypt, both the ancient Greeks and the Chinese have recorded their sightings of these creatures in several surviving texts.


The Panotii or Panotiorum (All-Ears Islands) were a tribe of giant-eared people, measuring 27 inches in height who were native to the cold islands of the far north and slept snuggled up inside the flaps of their gigantic ears. According to some sources, they also used these wing-like appendages to fly.

Slideshow of other mythical creatures in the Cosmographia

For the month of Halloween, check out the Cosmographiae Universalis on display outside the Special Collections and Archives reading room located on Level 2 of the John Paul II Library. If you would like to learn more about the wonderful books from the St. Canice’s Cathedral Library Collection, check out our introductory video below as part of our Library Treasures series:

All images in this post © The Representative Body of the Church of Ireland from the collections of Maynooth University Library

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