Measuring Immensity: Symbolism of Maps

I decided to explore my neighbourhood a little last weekend, and I started my walk by entering into the heart of a dense and dark forest. I let myself wander and get lost, walking round in circles, not paying attention to which direction I was going. I did stick to footpaths, though, so I knew I would emerge somewhere into the civilized world, eventually. I had not taken my phone or a paper map, but somehow after a few hours of meandering I emerged into a road that turned out to be the one leading to my building. I experienced a similar sensation of being lost and loving it on a trip to Venice, when I was navigating the dense network of its countless streets, which twist and turn unexpectedly filling the explorer with a constant sense of bewilderment, exhilaration and sensual pleasure of permanent dizziness. The very shape of the map of Venice is meaningful and stirs imagination, as Tiziano Scarpa described beautifully in his book Venice is a Fish:

Venice is a fish. Just look at it on a map. It’s like a vast sole stretched out against the deep. … Venice has always existed as you see it today… It’s been sailing since the dawn of time; it’s put in at every port, it’s rubbed against every shore, quay and landing-stage: Middle Eastern pearls, transparent Phoenician sand, Greek seashells, Byzantine seaweed all accreted on its scales. But one day it felt all the weight of those scales, those fragments and splinters that had permanently accumulated on its skin… It decided to climb once and for all into one of the most northerly and sheltered inlets of the Mediterranean, and rest there.”


Map of Venice, The Vatican Museum, Hall of Maps

I strongly believe it can be refreshing not to know where one is going. “Perhaps, being lost, one should get loster,” as Saul Bellow once said. I listened to a lecture of James Hillman recently, in which he lamented over our modern tendency to lose touch with the earth and the ground. Our feet are getting lighter and lighter; we demand the quickest possible access, focusing on the destination and never on the journey. Also, Hillman said, we are obsessed with getting a bird’s eye view of our current location; this is why we love to climb hills, towers and other observation points. Listening to this, I was thinking of the philosopher’s Korzybski’s famous aphorism: “The map is not the territory.” Images are not reality, symbols are not what they symbolize. “This is not a pipe” is a painting by Renè Magritte. You cannot stuff this pipe:


I think that writers, artists, psychotherapists and all those whose daily lives revolve around concepts and symbols would be wise to regularly renew their contact with the earth instead of getting lost in the endless symbolic loop. I think it is wise to lose the map from time to time. This is quite hard for me because I have a passion for maps, especially old ones. For me they have a reality of their own, unconnected to the territory. Old maps are like exquisite paintings: their beauty exceeds their practical purpose.


Caverio map of the world (1505)

I always suspected that my love of maps was connected to both my love of books and my love of symbols. When looking at a map one gets the illusion of having control of the whole territory: time and distance do not matter anymore; our imagination can take us anywhere within seconds. Symbolic thinking means being able to see the connections that we had not noticed before: as a result a holistic view emerges and we are able to notice patterns and regularities. Maps are directly related to symbolization: psychologists often talk about mapping out the human psyche. They love to put labels on certain behaviours, which may be a dangerous practice if taken too far because it may lead to freezing a human life into concepts. Conceptual maps may explain and illuminate problems, but they do not automatically take them away.


An artistic rendering of an astrological chart, image via

I think astrological charts can also be compared to maps. A natal chart shows symbolically what an individual can become, what potential his or her psyche holds. Not all potentials manifest; sometimes we insist on living in one corner of the map and do not dare explore further. A natal chart is a blueprint for exploration. A good astrological reading is oriented towards our unfulfilled potential. We are not victims or prisoners of our past patterns and conditionings. A map of our personal symbols in the form of a natal chart can guide us towards the blank, unexplored areas of our psyche, the life unlived. Our own mental maps are so often limited and fragmentary. In medieval maps blank spaces were filled with phantasmagorical drawings – of dragons, sea serpents and other freakish creatures. They showed the inner truth of the psyche. The dragons may have disappeared from the public sphere but they are alive and well on the maps of our inner lives.


Image via

This post is particularly inspired by a great book I have read recently called Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, written by Peter Turchi. I loved it for many reasons, not least for its visual merits: beautiful maps featured all over the text. The author asserts at the beginning: “To ask for a map is to say, ‘Tell me a story.’”


Ancient maps were not created for practical purposes as we see them today; as a matter of fact, the earliest maps in many cultures were created and passed on orally. For Native Americans, for example, the stories were vitally connected to natural features of the earth, and for Australian Aboriginals, the land was traversed by songlines or Dreaming Tracks, thus described by another author, Bruce Chatwin in his novel The Songlines:

“…the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’.”

Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes – and thus singing the world into existence. The first maps were always gifts of imagination.


Aboriginal Art

I see symbolism as a gift of meaning and not something that would make me blind to my raw existence. I acknowledge that life is ultimately a voyage into the unknown and any meaningful order would always compete with chaos. I also acknowledge the warning of a short story “On Exactitude of Science,” in which Borges describes a one-to-one map as utterly useless:

…the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars…”

Nevertheless, my instinct and my whole being draws me more to symbols, archetypes, images than the so called hard reality. One is not supposed to fight the instinct: that would be an anti-life stance, wouldn’t it?

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56 Responses to Measuring Immensity: Symbolism of Maps

  1. Interesting dots you have connected here. I’ll return for a second read and more thought about what you are saying. Thank you.

  2. Love maps and their imagery.

  3. Henry Jekyll says:

    Very interesting piece Monika. It reminded me of the Borges fable where cartographers created an actual size map of a fictional Empire that coincided point for point. In time the problem of confusing simulacra for the real would ultimately be realized. You definitely stimulate the old thinking apparatus.

  4. To quote Steve Jobs last word ” wow!!” Like Steven I will have to reread this. But for now I can say that you captured some of the magic that is Venice. It is very close to the best of many cultures all at one point, like a complex curry or Mexican Mole, the stewing and seasoning of combined and separate unique ingredients arranged in one sumptuous platter. Venice is both the synthesis of numerous cultures and a place with its own unique flavor and history.

    I also enjoy driving or walking without a destination, using my wits or mind’s eye. I fully embrace the explorer Archetype except when I have to be somewhere specific and then my patience alludes me! There is something primal about just exploring as images present themselves to you, the yellow brick road if you will.

    One last quote :

    Life’s like a road that you travel on
    There’s one day here and the next day gone
    Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand
    Sometimes you turn your back to the wind

    There’s a world outside every darkened door
    Where blues won’t haunt you anymore where the brave are free and lovers soar
    Come ride with me to the distant shore – Life is a Highway by Rascal Flatts

  5. Wonderful! Love the connections and variations on the theme. How do you think the obscuration of the sky plays into the picture? In those locations, is there any frame of relational context?

    Like you, I love simply walking (or now with MS driving) unconcerned at least for a time frame. The energy trails of the animals used to always bring me home pre-MS. Now, I follow the Sun.

    Delightful post.

    • What do you mean by the obscuration of the sky, Donna? But as for the sky, I wanted to include something on ancient sky maps – I’ve got quite a few reproductions hanging on the walls – they are amazing. It is a nice metaphor that you are following the Sun now. So true.

      • In most cities around the world, and therefore suburbs too, the night sky can no longer be seen. I believe that this is hyper-focusing modern humanity in self-absorbed myopia. People don’t look up anymore, unless they live where the night sky can be seen. The map of human awareness, then, is becoming very small for millions of people. This seems to be a part of the denial syndrome (witnessed in and by the US). That expresses with large factors worthy of deep consideration are not in deference to self-serving interests.

      • Oh, that is a very interesting point, Donna. I agree with it. Thank you for this clarification.

  6. Lovely post! I, too, see natal charts as maps to an individual, and well as their souls’ journeys through time (seen via karmic influences in the chart). Maps indeed are works of art in themselves! Namaste _/l\_

  7. Landlooper says:

    Nice! Charts are definitely interesting, how about this one. Europe as a Queen – By Sebastian Münster ( 1488 – 1552)

    My Personal favorites are the beautiful landscape zodiacs by Mary Caine:

  8. Bisquefinch says:

    I’ve been doing a lot of mostly aimless walking lately, no goals, no intentions other than to walk. It seems a more available thing here than in most of the U.S. somehow. I don’t yet know my way around other than to and from the village, so in a way it’s all done without maps other than the landscape itself: The valley leads down to the sea, and heading inland I always have the village behind me to orient myself. Landmarks make the world into a map of itself?

    I feel better the more I walk, and not knowing where I’m going gives me space to figure out where I will be going eventually.

    And I feel obligated to point out that cover versions of songs I love make me feel old and grumpy. Rascal Flatts, my ancient tuckus! 🙂

    • ”Landmarks make the world into a map of itself” – that is so true, and well said. One thing I cannot complain about in Switzerland is the abundance of walking trails. I am happy you’ve got that now as well. I am not familiar with Rascal Flatts – will check them out.

  9. Do you study Astrocartography? I have been to a few lectures and have had mine done. It is all about maps connecting with our natal map. I welcome your thoughts Monika.

  10. Pingback: Patterns | Bisquefinch

  11. ptero9 says:

    I couldn’t wait until the National Geographic arrived in the mailbox of my childhood home. The maps were mine and I would rotate them on the walls of my bedroom, right in between my pictures of Bobby Sherman and Mike Nesmith. On family trips, I was the navigator. Pre-GPS of course.
    It’s curious to me that so many of us here have the same interest in symbols as well as maps and getting lost. I have been trying to get lost all of my life. 🙂
    It may be that the obsession with mapping is tested on the trail, wandering through the woods, trying to get somewhere where sense of location is lost. Maybe the obsession with mapping looks for relief in the deep dark woods. Besides, Pan is there, bringing the excitement of unknown and unnamed creatures.
    I have never been to Venice, but would love to someday, as well as other places in Europe, but my native Long Island is also shaped like a fish. My dear Aunt Bunny left behind a map of LI dated 1868, my parents were going to throw it out! I begged and they let me keep it, one more map on the wall! Today it hangs on the wall above where I do my writing.
    Thank you Monika, this is a great read. I really did not connect maps to symbolic thinking, but of couse, it makes perfect sense!The book sounds really good too!

    • Haha, I did touch a nerve with our precious community, you are right. Do I attract ‘lost’ souls? So delighted you mention Pan and the delight in naming the unnamed. That is so exciting to think of a name and put it on a map, think of the Middle Earth – he must have felt like a god. Thank you for a matvellous comment. I am happy we have so much in common.

  12. Nicely thought out and written …. I want to read this again.

  13. Awesome post, Monika. You know, after I posted the scopes today I poured myself one glass of wine into a thermos, put on a bikini, and stumbled out onto the beach to read in the sun. When I got too hot I swam in the ocean. I LOVE the way the ocean rocks me and lifts me up; green and perfectly cold. And I always figure the kelp must be really good for my skin and hair. Hahaha. The map has almost nothing to do with the territory, but most people are so busy pouring over them in their many varieties, they don’t even experience the raw sensations of the terrain.

  14. Don says:

    Fascinating post Monika. That description of Venice is sheer magic. I must say that I feel extremely comfortable with the “unknown” and “getting lost.” I have a real problem with this constant preoccupation with goals and direction and knowing where you want to be etc etc. I think by constantly following this kind of approach we miss so many possibles that come our way which we simply do not see. I also loved what you said about older maps.Thanks again for a great post.

  15. Soul Fields says:

    Brilliant post, thank you!

    PS. “…and sensual pleasure of permanent dizziness. ” I´m still laughing at this.

    • Haha, but it is exactly the feeling that I had.

      • Soul Fields says:


        PPS. Last time I got lost (a jogging area in a wood that I thought is easy to take a short cut from even to me :D) I got into a new area of beautiful, big houses, that was having street names of different riches, gold and diamonds etc. Maybe I should get lost more often as I´m thinking about the symbolism of finding new “treasures”(and so on)…

      • You’ve just inspired me to go for a run right now – the weather is so beautiful. I like your little adventure.

  16. shreejacob says:

    Interesting post Monika. As I read about your little adventure I realized how much one would need to let go of control and trust to do what you did. It’s a good exercise to do so! And, even though we trust we need to also use “common sense” or discernment to “stay on the footpath” – which isn’t the same as toeing the line and blindly following what is “normal” either!
    I’ve never really felt anything towards maps..but I got the idea when you talk about being too caught up with the concepts of things that we lose the other aspect of “spirituality” or whatever we study and that is the practice, which is why I feel that I can’t safely say that all religions and traditions stress not just the study and the inner work but to also go out there and live in the “real” world!

    • As a doctor you must at least like the map of the human body. 😉 Thanks for a nice comment, I really like your writing style. I think that spirituality cannot be divorced from ”the real life.”

      • shreejacob says:

        Heh…anatomy was not really my strong point…always gravitated to Physiology though 😀

        Thank you for the sweet comment about my writing style 😀

  17. herongrace says:

    1 of my very favourite aspects of my place here is that I can get lost in it if I venture off the tracks a bit. It’s not terribly big, but it’s pretty wild. I always feel that it’s such a luxury in today’s suburban world that I can surface from the wild forest and look around at new territory with amazed eyes.

  18. dreamrly says:

    This is a lovely post that has left me with a mind full of ideas. I used to love maps as well, that is, until I started working in commercial real estate – my “day job.” Daily my work includes creating maps that create artificial/economic boundaries, based on tax designations, ownership or development. Some days, I need a walk in the woods to recover from this never-ending vivisection of the beautiful land, that is no one’s and everyone’s in reality. This work has made me realize, especially, as your reference to Hillman indicates, our obsession with the bird’s eye view – and the role that view plays in domination of the land, the control of it. Truly, to get lost in that labyrinth of the woods, or the maze of the unconscious, seems to have a restorative effect to our modern culture’s Icharus-view of the land. Because from the bottom looking upward / the inside looking outward, whether it is within the woods itself or from the depths of the unconscious, it is impossible to imagine that we could control or dominate this living, breathing land or this very-much-alive body of collective knowledge. I loved your discussion of the medieval maps and their monsters fringing the known boundaries of civilization – and how those monsters – the hybrid beasts, such as dragons reflected the unconscious projections of the time. I wonder about our “final frontiers” as we attempt to map out space and wonder what the symbolic portrayal of “martians” and aliens indicate about our changing projections, aliens being, also in their artistic portrayals, a sort of lizard with “wings,” albeit an ability to fly that is technological rather than anatomical. I wonder what this imagery, these symbols indicate about our modern fears of the unknown, as we encroach on a new and vaster unknown. Wonderful, wonderful post! As always : )

    • Thank you for this rich and beautitul comment. I agree that getting lost can put us in touch with the soul and be restorative. You bring up a very interesting point about maps used as tools for domination. Finally, I am also really fascinated by aliens and their imagery. The blank spots of medieval maps have now moved into space – great analogy to lizard-like creatures!

  19. Stuff Jeff Reads says:

    Not all who wander are lost. 😉 Interesting how you tied this in to the use of symbols as a way to map the psyche. I’m going to have to think on this a bit. The psyche is an ever shifting and morphing landscape, which would make charting it very challenging. Anyway, thought-provoking as always. Thanks!!

  20. i love the map of the imagination… Barbara

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