Oceans are large, unforgiving, and a big mystery. A ship on the ocean is surrounded by vast amounts of water in every direction – including down!
Throughout history, encounters with unknown oceanic creatures have filled stories. Modern technology has made it significantly easier to explore the Earth’s oceans. To explore the deepest parts of oceans, scientists rely on autonomous submarines – remember Boaty McBoatface?- are used to delve to the deep depths of the ocean floor and identify the animals unknown. In fact, in May 2023 scientists revelaed that over 5,000 new species had been identified in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean.
There are still many mysteries that remain unsolved.
So, where do stories and descriptions of sea monsters come from? It’s not an easy question to answer.
TYPES OF SEAMONSTERS
Possibly the most infamous sea monster is the Kraken. Today it is imagined to be a large octopus-type creature. However, in its Scandinavian origins the beast was more like an oversized crab that was described to be as large as ten ships. The Kraken was believed to have horns, spikes, or spindly spikes and could eat ships whole.
The Kraken was believed to lurk deep in the waters between Norway and Greenland, occasionally coming to the surface to bask on the surface. Whilst at rest, the Kraken was reputed to look like an island that tricking ships in believing they could land and take respite from the ocean. Unfortunately, if the Kraken woke with a ship at anchor, it would plunge back in to the water dragging the boat and crew with it.
It is unknown where the true origins for the Kraken came from, but modern theories could explain elements of the myth. The water between Greenland and Norway consists of the Vesteris Seamount, which has underwater volcanic activity that produces large amounts of bubbles, dangerous currents, and floating masses of pumice.
Contemporary representations of mermaids do not suggest that they could be anything considered as a monster, however in the early folklore they were considered as abominations.
A mermaid is described as a being with the head and upper body of a female human with the tail of a fish. Depictions of mermaids appear worldwide in cultures in the Near east, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Western origins for mermaids can be traced to a couple of influences including the Ancient Syrian goddess Atargatis, who was sometimes depicted with a tail of a fish. Greek mythology also a key influencer, in particular the Sirens that started as half-bird and half-woman but later evolved to be half-fish.
SEA MONK & SEA BISHOP
Writers in the 1500s referred to two creatures named the ‘sea monk’ and the ‘sea bishop’. Both had human characteristics but with religious garments. The sea monk had a long, hooded cowl and a tonsure haircut, whereas the sea bishop was shaped like a human but with a tall shape like a bishop’s mitre (hat) on its head.
These very real objects demonstrate people’s appetite to believe that the sea monsters existed. These strange, mummified creatures were taken as evidence of proving the existence of dragons, or even a basilisk.
Jenny Hanivers are made from the carcass of skates or rays that were modified by hand and then dried out.
CARTOGRAPHY AND MONSTERS
Medieval cartographers (map makers) filled in large, featureless expanses of water with animals, gusts of wind, whirlpools, and other details. These details and decorations not only made a map more interesting but earned the creator more money. A secondary reason for including fearsome sea monsters to scare people away from certain regions such as trade routes or prosperous fishing grounds.
The inclusion of sea monsters became so successful that cartographers were frequently looking for new inspiration. Some mapmakers were inventive by themselves but others took inspiration from older maps, books, and the world around them.