The Monster You Know

Stirrup vase with image of an octopus, Rhodes, ca 1200-1100 BC (Currently in the Louvre).

If something is large, and from the darker corners of the deepest oceans, people tend to call it a sea monster, or, if it is vaguely tubular in shape, a sea serpent. It is a powerful and not entirely rational response to the strangeness, and yet also the familiar nature of marine life. In the ancient Mediterranean world, as well as in the Scandinavian nations during the northern renaissance, there were three conceptual categories of sea creature, chimerical sea monsters, strange sea monsters, and familiar animals. Most interesting, however, is how strange, borderline sea monsters intersected with the familiar in a way that had definite consequences for how marine biology was explored and recorded. The ancient Greeks and Romans generally excluded marine invertebrates from their list of sea monsters because of their familiarity with them. However, the very category of sea monster could itself become something familiar. Historically, the feeling that sea monsters were prevalent off of their shores caused the people of many Scandinavian nations to see them less and less as something truly monstrous, and more as objects of national pride.

There were two kinds of sea monster in the ancient world. The first kind was described when strange creatures were discovered to have washed ashore. The earliest written records of these kinds of encounters come from the Greeks and Romans, most noticeably in the writings of Pliny the Elder (23 to 79), but also in the writings of Aristotle. Pliny attests that: “During the rule of Tiberius, in an island off the coast of the province of Lyons the receding ocean tide left more than 300 monsters at the same time, of marvelous variety and size, and an equal number on the coast of Saintes”. Furthermore, “Turranius has stated that a monster was cast ashore on the coast at Cadiz that had 24 feet of tail-end between its two fins, and also 120 teeth”. While Pliny is known to have accepted second and third hand accounts in his study of the natural world, there is some consistency in the manner in which most of the creatures he described were discovered. Those that bear some resemblance to the living but strange things we recognize today all washed ashore. The second kind, whose stories lack this costal caveat, tend to be of a composite nature (Mermaids, Tritons, Nereids, the hippocampus and their ilk).

Cephalopods, in particular octopi and squid generally transcended both of these distinctions though, since they were so familiar to those living around the Mediterranean. Though a partial exception to this is an anecdote that is generally seen as featuring a giant squid. One was found stealing salted fish out of the fish ponds in Carteia on the Atlantic coast of Spain. According to Pliny the guards that came to protect the fish stores were held at bay for some time, as the creature used its tentacles as clubs before being dispatched. While the behavior is hard to account for, the physical description as well as the creature being designated as a polyp, rather than merely as a monster, would seem to indicate that it possessed a cephalopodan nature of immense proportions. They were “astounded by its strangeness: in the first place its size was unheard of and so was its color as well […] who would have expected to find a polyp there, or who would recognize it in such circumstances? They felt they were pitted against something uncanny”. Thus even in this case, the story of the sea monster is almost of something familiar, strange only in virtue of its size and colour.

Unlike later interpreters, the ancient Greeks did not possess a strong aversion to cephalopods, and indeed even considered them a delicacy. As C. P. Idyll noted in Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It: “The ancients of the Mediterranean region considered cephalopods choice morsels. […] Pliny tells us that the gourmands of Rome ate every variety of octopus known in the Mediterranean”. Also, some of the earliest know depictions of cephalopods on pottery and other crafts emerge from this region. Thus, the appearance of a giant squid or other similar cephalopod would not have been as difficult for the ancients to comprehend, and such creatures fit easily into the taxonomic classifications of that time. This ancient familiarity with large aquatic invertebrates was what allowed Aristotle (384 BC to 322 BC) to characterize the giant squid teuthos along with its smaller brethren teuthis without defaulting to assigning it a monstrous status, unlike other cultural groups. It was this same familiarity that allowed Pliny to characterize the creature in Carteia as a polyp, rather than a monster. As the lessons of the ancient world show, we are really always talking about a continuum of strange, but familiar creatures, oddities that wash ashore and fantastical chimeras when attempting to understand the nature of sea monsters. For this continuum to appear in such a definite form in western literature after this time, we must next look to the Scandinavian nations during the northern renaissance, and the writings of the Swedish Archbishop Olaus Magnus (1490 to 1557).

The Malstrum, in Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina

Magnus’s Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes, Vandals and Other Northern Nations records the existence of sea monsters. In it he describes creatures which have “horrible [forms], their Heads square, all set with prickles, and they have sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree rooted up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve Cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes”. It is now generally considered that the creature Magnus is describing was a giant squid, and that the “horns” were a complete misunderstanding of where the creature’s head was supposed to be. Richard Ellis points out that this can be a problem even for modern day observers: “Architeuthis is assembled of a strange collection of parts that bespeak an alien creature rather than one we are used to”. There is no ready frame of reference for some of the creatures of the deep, no common ground telling us what is front to back, or what is head from tail.

Interestingly, the quality of familiarity that we saw in the ancient world takes on a different aspect in Scandinavia, appearing not largely in the form of the culinary arts, but as a defining aspect of national and regional identity. Magnus’ account appears in a history of the northern nations, and he would not be alone in paring this history with a rich collection of benthic monstrosities. Bishop Erik Pontoppidan of Bergen, Norway (1698 to 1764), Magnus’ intellectual descendent in matters relating to sea monsters, was also a part of this tradition.

Despite Pontoppidan’s use of first hand accounts in his Natural History of Norway, he was largely recognized through most of the 20th century as an unreliable source for natural historians because of his seemingly fanciful descriptions of sea serpents and the notorious kraken. Most seemingly absurd was one of the accounts he collected from local fishermen, which stated that the kraken’s: “back or upper part, which seems to be in appearance an English mile and a half in circumference, (some say more, but I chuse the least for greater certainty) looks at first like a number of small islands, surrounded with something that floats […] like seaweed”. In 1941 W. Ley writing in the Natural History Magazine criticized this description, and chided the Bishop for his uncritical acceptance of unskilled witnesses, saying: “It was because of this story that the existence of giant squids was doubted and ridiculed for more than a century after the first printing of Bishop Pontoppidan’s book”. However, most of the Bishop’s methods for collecting his data were sound, even by today’s standards. He used first hand accounts and described cases in which the creatures had been well documented as having washed ashore. He discussed the existence of sea serpents and krakens with reputable captains who had claimed to have seen such creatures, including one Capitan von Ferry, who sent a description of his encounter to the Court of Justice in Bergen by Pontoppidan’s request. Here we begin to get a picture of how strange biology can become familiar through regional traditions, even when there is no daily contact as in the case of the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean. This same source of knowledge is also highly susceptible to criticism attacking its seemingly bucolic origins.

Yet while tradition can be undermined by those who denigrate the quality of witness testimony, in the study of sea monsters we can also see how strangeness, unified with this very same sense of familiarity, can nevertheless produce definite agendas for exploration. It did so in the Scandinavian nations from the middle ages to the present. Conversely, in the case of the world around the ancient Mediterranean, the message is different, showing how not only are we what we eat, but we also ingest a large portion of our view of nature and the world around us from the comfort of our dining tables.

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