If I were a good friend, I would take Kim – a wonderful and talented writer – to visit the birthplace of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon in the literary heart of England. Or to Prague to glimpse the remarkable life of Franz Kafka; the German-language writer who described the cobblestone roads and castles of the beautiful city in minute detail.
I am not such a friend, however.
While Shakespeare and Kafka would be delightful company, Kim and I would travel to Europe to unravel the mystery of our age-old thirst for adventure!
At the turn of the sixteenth century, Europe was aflame with gossip. The printing press had become established throughout Western Europe and creatures hitherto conveyed only in myth and legend assumed a most terrible and tangible form.
Seafaring maps, like those of the Flemish artist and scientist, Abraham Ortelius, published in 1570, show a plethora of monsters surrounding the ports and bays of Iceland. Beasts with the head of a boar, tusks the size of a man, and jets of water – or fire – shooting out from devilish horns. Others lie in wait. Some have the head and torso of a horse, webbed talons, and long, serpentine tails. Others appear as cruel fish with hungry mouths, and mermaids with vicious claws and spikes placed high on their head.
What prompts a person, upon hearing of Leviathan monsters and the Kraken, to leave his home on land and offer his life to the Fates? According to the gossiping masses of the time, these were the monsters that awaited sailors just beyond the safely of the harbour waters.
At The German National Library in Frankfurt and Berlin, Kim and I would find maps from the past 500 years and chart the journeys made by sailors and pirates through the treacherous waters. Within the rich archives, we would stumble upon images of every sea monster imaginable and the stories that led to them.
Often, to add credibility to their tales, sailors would return home with ‘souvenirs’. These were not mere trifles. The souvenirs collected were tattoos from distant lands and exotic places and would show the monsters encountered in their travels. Remarkably, some of these tattoos remain today.
During the past two centuries a large number of tanned tattoos from pirates, sailors, and murderers were gathered from various disreputable sources and obtained by Dr. La Valette4in the early 1900s. Some 300 pieces were then sold to the Wellcome Collection in 1929 and later moved into the possession of the Science Museum archives in London.
This is the largest known physical record of the lives of seafarers living in a world that has all but receded into legend. A similar collection is also housed at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris and Kim and I would embark on a search for the most bizarre and fascinating tattoo imagery to be found within those collections.
Together, Kim and I would muse upon the lives of people who had a thirst for travel and a willingness to take a risk as they ventured into the great unknown. It won’t be Shakespeare’s birthplace, but it will make for a fine adventure (and a good story)!