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Documented Sea Monsters

Poseidon's Pets
  • Ora Maritima. [Liber 1 (by )
  • Kraken, The (by )
  • 20, 000 Leagues under the Sea (by )
  • The Prose Edda (by )
  • The Legend of St. Olaf's Kirk (by )
  • Stories for the Household (by )
  • The Water Queen, Or, The Mermaid of Loch... (by )
  • Maiden Mona the Mermaid : A Fairy Play f... (by )
  • Sea Monsters Unmasked (by )
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Dragons, mermaids, and kraken, oh my! Forget the circus and head for water to find the world’s most frightening and unusual creatures. Sightings of sea monsters go back as far as men have sailed, span cultures around the globe, and persist even today.

In the Ora Maritima (4 A.D.),  which borrows heavily from a 6th century B.C. Massiliote Periplus and the Periplus of Himilco, author Rufius Festus Avienus writes, “... there be monsters of the deep and beasts swim amid the slow and sluggishly crawling ships” (lines 117-29). Pliny the Elder reported upon seeing a sea monster that, by description, must have been a giant octopus. The Bible also references a sea monster, Leviathan, in Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, the Book of Amos, and the Book of Job:

He makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.
Behind him he leaves a glistening wake; one would think the deep had white hair.
Nothing on earth is his equal—a creature without fear.
He looks down on all that are haughty; he is king over all that are proud. (Job 41:31-34)

Leviathan was not a biblical construct, but imported from the Canaanite myths of Lotan, a sea monster defeated by Ba’al.

In 1546, people of the Danish island of Zealand found an unusual creature which they described as a fish that looked like a monk, thereby giving birth to legends of a sea monk. Guillaume du Bartas described the the monster in epic poem “La Sepmaine; ou, Creation du monde.” Although more modern scholars suggest that the creature was likely a giant squid or angel shark, references to the sea monk occur in other places: the 5-volume Historiae Animalium by Swiss Naturalist Conrad Gesner (1551-1558) and in the Firth of Forth by Boethius. Sightings of the Loch Ness monster continue through present day, with the latest scientific attempt using robot technology to disprove the existence of the legendary and popular sea monster occurring in 2016. Discoveries of that exploration included a WWII bomber, an old fishing vessel, and a movie prop of--you guessed it--the monster.

Sea serpents or sea dragons find their home in sailors’ tales and nightmares. It’s reasonable to assume that tales of the kraken refer to sightings of giant species of octopus or squid; however, that monster featured in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s epic poem The Kraken and in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1883). The Chinese imagined dragons populating the sea. In his Historia Animalium, Greek philosopher Aristotle provides an eye-witness account. Strabo, another Greek philosopher, also reported on a sea monster witnessed by Posidonius. Norse mythological texts in the Prose Edda, the skaldic poem Húsdrápa, and the Eddic poems Hymiskviða and Völuspá envisioned Jörmungandr as so enormous it circled the realm of Midgard. In Valldal, Norway legend speaks of St. Olaf who killed a sea serpent and threw its body onto the mountain Syltefjellet. In his History of the Northern Peoples (1555), Norwegian Archbishop Olaus Magnus describes a Norwegian sea serpent:

Those who sail up along the coast of Norway to trade or to fish, all tell the remarkable story of how a serpent of fearsome size, 200 feet long and 20 feet wide, resides in rifts and caves outside Bergen. On bright summer nights this serpent leaves the caves to eat calves, lambs and pigs, or it fares out to the sea and feeds on sea nettles, crabs and similar marine animals. It has ell-long hair hanging from its neck, sharp black scales and flaming red eyes. It attacks vessels, grabs and swallows people, as it lifts itself up like a column from the water.
Pliny the Elder also described Triton and his offspring, which we today refer to as merpeople, hybrids human above the waist and fish below. First appearing in ancient Assyrian literature, mermaids acquired a lethal reputation for luring sailors to their deaths. In 1837, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy tale dedicated to the species, The Little Seamaid (p. 543), more popularly known as The Little Mermaid. For more mermaid tales, check out The Water Queen, Or, the Mermaid of Loch Lene and Other Tales by H. Coates, Maiden Mona the Mermaid: A Fairy Play for Fairy People by Frederick A. Dixon. Scholars believe the myth of Greek sirens influenced the tales of mermaids and that eye-witness accounts were inspired by manatees and other aquatic mammals. However, mermaid sightings continue to occur. Animal Planet dedicates a page of its website to video recordings of alleged mermaid sightings.

Many examples giving evidence of sea monsters have been disproved or revealed as blatant hoaxes, such as the dried and shaped carcasses of rays “proving” the existence of mermaids. Debunking the legends of sea monsters began long before science could analyze DNA and other incontrovertible methods for establishing veracity or discrediting hoaxes. To begin, read Sea Monsters Unmasked (1883) by Henry Lee.

By Karen M. Smith

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