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

Stories of King Arthur

By Saoirse Reynolds, Special Collections and Archives

The story of Arthur’s life and death has fascinated people for over a thousand years. Different aspects of his story have been told and retold with embellishments and in many ways throughout this time. What fascinated people is how he came to power, his career as a King and war-leader of the Celts against the Saxons, how he was able to establish a long and secure peace but eventually ended in the break-down of his court and the descent into civil war and finally his death on the battle field.

Dragons fighting
” And from end to end of the fairy lake they fought each other, until, with a great cry, the red dragon fell dead upon the beach”

Many of these stories have been told as children’s tales and in our Special Collections room we have the beautifully illustrated book; Stories of King Arthur, retold by Blanche Winder. It is by Harry G. Theaker and was published by Ward, Lock & Co. in London & Melbourne in 1925.

It consists of 24 seemingly independent stories which actually all link chronologically and start with the birth of Merlin to a Princess who had been tricked into marrying an evil fairy after the meeting of fairies at midnight.

“All the others hushed their talk to listen to the terrible-looking old wizard”

Many people love the stories of King Arthur and this book tells them from the beginning. The preface gives us an insight into the different stories surrounding King Arthur and where they originated.

“The sword came easily and lightly from the steel in the middle of the marble”

Many of the stories in this book are taken from Sir Thomas Malory’s book La Morte D’Arthur. However some of the other stories are actually taken from even earlier sources. The first British historian who seriously wrote of Arthur was a Welsh Bishop, Geoffrey of Monmouth. In the 12th Century he wrote a Latin book about the King and Merlin. There were other books which came after this – many written in French by poets and were attached to the courts of the period. The Mabinogion, an old Welsh book which was translated by Lady Charlotte Guest also contains several stories of Arthur and one of these is retold in this book as the Tale of the Pig-Sty Prince. This is about King Arthur’s cousin, a little prince who was found in a pig-sty and when he grew up his struggles in trying to gain permission to marry Princess Olwyn from her difficult and demanding father.

“Then the princess mounted her beautiful white pony and went back to the castle, accompanied for the first half of the way by the Pig-Sty Prince. King Arthur’s messengers remarked what a handsome pair they made.”

“Right in the middle of the lake a white hand and arm were stretched out from the water… and the hand held the most beautiful jewelled sword that Arthur had ever seen”

There are many stories of the cup called The Holy Grail and of the adventures of Arthur’s knights as they searched for this precious treasure. According to the author the ‘loveliest’ story of these tales were used by Tennyson in his Idylls of the King.

An interesting fact that the author notes is that the exact same stories were told in Brittany as in Wales and Broeliande. The enchanted forest in which Merlin is now imprisoned is supposed to be in Brittany. There are also many places which claim to be the real Avalon, the island which Arthur was taken after his last battle and from where the legend says he will someday come again. There seems to be a great many Arthur stories which are contained literally in hundreds of books in English, French and German Libraries.

“Merlin let his beard grow very long and white and he would sit outside the great doors of Camelot singing to himself and playing on a harp that he held in his long magician’s fingers. And with him very often, in those days, would sit the fairy Nimue, who was, as you know, one of the Ladies of the Lake”

King Arthur is often seen as a fantasy from the medieval ages and even those who accept that he exists often disregard the tales surrounding him. Those interested in another book concerned with proving the existence of a real King Arthur see King Arthur: Truth Behind the Legend which we hold as an e-book.