The National Library and University Library of Iceland has various versions of Ortelius’s Islandia map in its collection, and have transcribed the text on the backside for its website (see References below). This text is probably derived from Icelandic tales and superstitions. Most of the sea monster pictures can be traced originally to the artist Olaus Magnus, though the immediate source for Ortelius was more likely Sebastian Münster, who adopted many of Magnus’s pictures in engravings in his Cosmographia (1488–1552).
The following is the map key from the version that was originally published in English (with some archaic spellings changed here for readability) which describes the marine life:
A. Is a fish which they commonly call Nahual. If any man eat of this fish, he dies presently. It hath a tooth in the forepart of his head, standing out seven cubits. This, divers have sold for the Unicorn’s horn. It is thought to be a good antidote and sovereign medicine against poison. This Monster is forty ells in length.
B. The Roider, a fish of a hundred and thirty ells in length, which hath no teeth. The flesh of it is very good meat, wholesome and toothsome. The fat of it is good against many diseases.
C. The Burchvalur, hath his head bigger than all the body beside. It hath many very strong teeth, whereof they make Chessmen or Tablemen. It is threescore cubits long.
D. The Hyena, the sea hog, a monstrous kind of fish, of which thou mayest read in the 21st book of Olaus Magnus.
E. Ziphius, (it may be he means Xiphius, the sword fish) a horrible sea monster, swallowing the black seal at one bite.
F. The English whale, thirty ells long: it hath no teeth, but the tongue of it is seven ells in length.
G. Hroshualur, that is as much to say as the Sea-horse, with a mane hanging down from his neck like a horse. It often does the fishermen great hurt and scare.
H. The greatest kind of Whales, which seldom shows it self; it is more like a little island, than a fish. It cannot follow or chase the smaller fishes, by reason of the huge greatness and weight of his body, yet he preys upon many, which he catches by a natural wile and subtlety which he uses for to get his food.
I. Skautuhvalur, this fish altogether full of gristles or bones; is somewhat like a ray or skate but an infinite deal bigger: when it appears, it is like an island, and with his fins overturns ships and boats.
K. Seanaut, sea cows, of colour gray: they sometimes come out of the sea and do feed upon the land many in a company together. They have a little bag hanging at their nose, by the help of which they live in the water: that being broken, they live altogether upon the land, and do accompany themselves with other kind.
L. Steipereidur, a most gentle and tame kind of whale; which for the defence of the fishermen fights against other Whales. It is forbidden by Proclamation that no man may kill or hurt this sort of Whale. It is in length a hundred cubits at the least.
M. Staukul, the Dutchmen call it Springval; he hath been seen to stand a whole day together upright upon his tail. It is so called of leaping or skipping. It is a very dangerous enemy to seamen and fishers; and greedily seeks after man’s flesh.
N. Rostunger, (which also is otherwise called a Rosmar,) is somewhat like a sea-calf: it goeth in the bottom of the sea upon four feet, but very short ones. His skin may scarcely be pierced with any weapon. He sleeps twelve hours together hanging by his two long teeth upon some rock or cliff. Each of his teeth are at the least an ell long, but the length of his whole body is fourteen ells long.
O. Spermaceti, parmacitty, or a base kind of amber, they commonly call it Hualambur.
P. Blocks and Trunks of tree by force of wind and violent tempest blown up by the roots from off the cliffs of Norway, tossed to and fro and passing through many storms at length are cast up, or do rest against this shore.
Q. Huge and marvelous great heaps of ice brought hither with the tide from the frozen sea, making a great and terrible noise; some pieces of which oft times are forty cubits big; upon these in some places white bears do fit closely, watching the silly fish which here about do play and sport themselves.
Abraham Ortelius began as a print colorist, and as an art dealer buying and selling old objects. From about 1558, he is recorded as having purchased multiple copies of maps in order to color them and building a large personal map collection. In about 1560, possibly as a result of his friendship with Gerard Mercator, the great Dutch cartographer who produced the first book of maps literally to be called an “atlas,” Ortelius began to produce maps starting with Typus Orbis Terrarum, an eight-sheet world map. Shortly thereafter, Ortelius commenced his greatest project, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. As the leading cartographic bibliographer of the period, Ortelius was able to prepare 53 map sheets based on the most up-to-date information. These were engraved by Frans Hogenberg with rich Mannerist details and strap work cartouches. The printed atlas with these engravings was first published in 1570 and was an immediate commercial success, being reprinted four times just that year. “The publication of [the first edition] of this atlas marked an epoch in the history of cartography. It was the first uniformly sized, systematic collection of maps of the countries of the world based only on contemporary knowledge and in that sense may be called the first modern atlas” (Tooley). In the next decades, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was reprinted numerous times in a variety of languages, with many of the maps re-engraved and updated. Additional maps were added; later editions contained up to 163 map sheets.
“Islandia.” I, Íslandskort. National and University Library of Iceland. https://islandskort.is/en/map/show/2 (9 March 2020).
Tooley, R.V. Maps and Map-Makers. 4th Ed. New York: Bonanza Books, 1970. p.29.
van den Broecke, Marcel P.R. Ortelius Atlas Maps: An Illustrated Guide. Amsterdam: MS ‘t Goy, H&S Publishers, 1996. 161.
van der Krogt, Peter C.J. Koeman’s Atlantes Neerlandici. New Edition. Vol. III: Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, De Jode’s Speculum Orbis Terrarum, et al. ‘t Goy-Houten, Netherlands: Hes & De Graff, 2003.