On the last episode, I discussed our knowledge of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which destroyed something like 75% of all life on the planet. Whether this was the result of widespread volcanic eruption or asteroid impacts or both, there is consensus, based on the fossil record, that most of Earth’s life forms died off at the time. Everyone knows about the extinction of the dinosaurs, but there were many other species destroyed in the same extinction event, from mammals to invertebrates and even single-celled creatures and plant life. But of course, we also know that some life survived that extinction event. If this were not the case, then we humans and other animals would not be around to proliferate and dominate the planet. So then, how do we know that some dinosaurs did not themselves survive extinction? Considering the myths and legends of antiquity and the Middle Ages, one might be tempted to see in tales of dragons proof that some great saurian monsters survived, not just into further prehistoric eras, but even into historical eras, their encounters with men recorded for posterity. For where did the notion of dragons originate, if not derived from those gargantuan reptiles? Some historians have suggested that ancient peoples must have discovered dinosaur fossils and thus extrapolated legends of dragons (Stothers 221). Certainly the concept of dragons colored our imagery of dinosaurs in the 19th century. Indeed, much of the early writing about the ichthyosaur and plesiosaur named them “sea-dragons,” and even the staunchest opponent of mythologizing the dinosaurs, the originator of scientific dinosaur taxonomy, Richard Owen, conceded to calling the pterodactyl a “dragon” (McGowan-Hartmann 54-55). This comparison may have even influenced our conception of dinosaur physiology, as only recently have we begun to question the portrait of giant, scaled beasts, believing them instead to have often been feathered creatures. There is, however, no convincing evidence for the reverse notion, that such fossils created our myths of dragons and other monstrous reptilian beasts. Another view holds that the notion of such monsters entered human culture simple because of encounters with known creatures, like large crocodiles and pythons, but this also doubtful, for considering the great size attributed to them, not to mention their other preternatural attributes, these would have to be inordinately exaggerated tales to establish such myths and legends. Is it not easier to believe, then, that some dinosaurian species could have survived the extinction event that destroyed others, and that perhaps they lived and procreated long enough to have encounters with mankind before going extinct in some later era? Certainly not, you’d say, or the fossil record would surely demonstrate their continued existence in later periods. A nearly unimpeachable argument, to be sure. But what if the evidentiary remains of these few surviving creatures have simply not been discovered yet, and could this be because they dwelt in the most remote places on earth, the deepest and darkest of habitats, the ocean depths? If so, could it possibly be that some have survived even to this day? (Please join me next time for) Thank you for listening to Leviathan; or the Great Sea Serpent, Part One: Here Be Dragons.
Despite the speculation that dinosaur fossils may have been stumbled upon in antiquity and recognized as the remains of enormous reptiles, the knowledge of such creatures appears to have originated in the late 17th century, when in 1677 English naturalist Robert Plot discovered a massive petrified femur. Plot’s assumption that it was the bone of a gargantuan man might serve as an example of what discoverers of fossil remains in antiquity may have assumed upon finding large bones. Likewise, when the Lewis & Clark expedition found a large bone in a Cliffside in 1806, Meriwether Lewis believed it to have belonged to a great fish. It was not until the 1820s and ‘30s and the discovery of further fossilized bones in England that the classification of the dinosaur began with the description of the Megalosaurus in 1824. The vocabulary we know today would come into use in 1841, when the aforementioned Richard Owen coined the term dinosaur, a Greek portmanteau of “terrible” and “lizard.” Still, however, the notion of dinosaurs did not take hold of the public imagination. It had much to overcome, not the least of which was the resistance of a religious establishment that had decided in the 17th century that the Earth had been created in 4004 B.C., on October 23rd at 9 a.m. to be as precise as the Archbishop on whose calculations they relied. Therefore, the entire notion of vast primordial ages, proven by the fossil record of extinct creatures, challenged their entire worldview (McGowan-Hartmann 52). Another hurdle that early paleontologists faced was the very conception of dinosaurs; it was one thing to read about the bones and to hear the descriptions of the creatures, but another entirely to see them and conceive of them as they might have been in life. Richard Owen overcame this obstacle in 1854, when he opened a display of life-size dinosaur statues at Crystal Palace, in Sydenham, London. He called it the “first public ‘revivifying’ of the dinosaur,” and the display may be responsible with Western culture’s obsession with dinosaurs ever since (qtd. in McGowan-Hartmann 53). But of course, as previously indicated, even the scientifically-minded Owen resorted to evoking the image of ancient dragons at Crystal Palace in order to help the viewing public to conceive of the creatures as he conceived of them.
It is perhaps, however, a strange supposition to think that people would have had a hard time imagining such beasts without statues and directions to think of them as dragonlike. It would seem mid-nineteenth century Englishmen and women would have been easily able to conceive of giant reptilian monsters, for there had been unsettling news in the press for decades, complete with illustrations, of colossal sea serpents spotted all over the world. Visitors to Owen’s exhibition surely had heard of the so-called Great Sea Serpent, a fantastical hypothesized marine creature that had come to worldwide attention over the course of a spate of sightings in New England in 1817 and had been witnessed in various parts of the world’s oceans ever since, from the coasts of Norway to the waters of Nova Scotia and all the way down to the south Atlantic Ocean, where in 1848 the crew of the H.M.S. Daedalus experienced one of the most publicized and compelling encounters with an unidentified sea creature that has ever been recorded. The irony is that the father of the dinosaurs, Richard Owen, had taken umbrage at the attention these sightings had drawn, especially that of the Daedalus, for he saw the public’s fascination with them and the credulous acceptance of them as unscientific (McGowan-Hartmann 51). He had dedicated his life to the painstaking study of the fossil record and anatomical science, and here were some squinting sailors and hucksters come around to tell the world that one of the principal tenets of paleontology, that the monstrous primordial creatures he studied had all gone extinct, was false. To Owen, this represented a backsliding into pre-Enlightenment superstition, when rather than simply marking unknown areas of maps as terra incognita, cartographers would write hic sunt dracones, or “here be dragons,” and would populate the blank spaces of their maps with fanciful illustrations of monsters, and scholars would compile lists of preposterous phenomena, as in Konrad Lykosthenes’s 1557 Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, or Chronicle of Prodigies and Portents, which featured more than a thousand woodcuts of strange spectacles, including numerous sea monsters. Indeed, Richard Owen’s vocal criticism of the validity of sea serpent sightings and the credibility of their witnesses had earned him the nickname “the sea-serpent killer.” Thus it is exceedingly ironic that even he would have recourse to comparing dinosaurs to dragons in his strictly scientific exhibition. The underlying truth this fact may suggest is that, even disregarding the rampant sea serpent sightings of the 19th century—all of which, rest assured, we will examine or review, with varying detail, in this series before we conclude—and notwithstanding the rich lore of dragons and sea monsters originating before the Age of Enlightenment, in the Age of Discovery and the Middle Ages, notions of huge reptilian and serpentine beasts have been embedded in human consciousness across cultures, far back into antiquity and beyond, to the very foundations of myth.
Even in the furthest reaches of human civilization, we have traditions of gods or great heroes who did battle with serpentine monsters associated with the ocean. Consider, for example, the Mesopotamian myth of Marduk and Tiamat, the mother of monsters and dragons. The hero-god Marduk faced her on the battlefield, loosing an arrow into her open jaws and splitting her heart in two. Although some scholars dispute her general appearance, as portrayed by Babylonians, it is generally accepted she took a snake-like form, and she is clearly associated with the salt waters and was of so immense a size that Marduk was able to form all of heaven and earth out of her corpse, so one might justly consider her the first Great Sea Serpent. The idea of all creation being made possible by the heroic defeat of a sea monster or god appears across cultures. Canaanites held that Baal defeated Yam to create the world, and likewise, Yahweh, god of the Israelites, struggled against a sea monster, or monsters, at the time of creation. In various places in the Bible, we find reference to Rahab, the “boisterous” sea serpent, Tannim, variously translated as sea monster or dragon, and of course, Leviathan, the “twisting serpent” of Isaiah, the Psalms, and Job ( qtd. in Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 214). While it is unclear whether these were single or separate serpents, their role is the same. By defeating them, Yahweh establishes order out of the chaos of the waters. The creature is also presented as proof of the power of Yahweh, for in Job, the question is posed whether a mere man could hope to catch Leviathan with a fishhook. And funny enough, that is exactly what is done in Norse mythology, though not by a mere man, when the god Thor undertakes an ambitious fishing trip, hoping to land the World Serpent, Jormungandr. Baiting his hook with a giant ox’s head and hooking the beast, Thor thrusts his feet through the bottom of his boat and into the floor of the sea, hauling the serpent up to look it in the eye. The serpent got away that day, but it was foretold that Thor would face it again during the final struggle of Ragnarok. Thor sought out the World Serpent for vengeance, but often we find in these sea serpent myths the hero, perhaps not a god but at least a demigod, facing the beast in an effort to save a damsel. Greek mythology provides more than one example of this, with Heracles saving Hesione from a sea monster, and likewise Perseus rescuing Andromeda, both women having been chained to rocks as sacrifices to appease the god Poseidon, who had sent the monsters to devastate their kingdoms. Now, I am no Alexander Hislop; I do not suggest that these similarities mean these are but different names for the same figure, or that these myths represent retellings of one real encounter between an ancient hero and a primordial monster, but is it not possible that this sea-monster motif in ancient mythology suggests some inherited human knowledge of gigantic, sea-dwelling reptiles? Or did these remarkably dinosaurian creatures spring fully formed from human imagination?
It is interesting that the customary explanations relied on to dismiss later sea serpent encounters—usually that they were actually encounters with creatures that we can easily identify today—are also used to explain away old myths such as these. For example, the Leviathan of Job is simply a crocodile, some claim, even though descriptions have it breathing fire or rearing seven heads, or it was just a whale (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 214). This one, of course, is a perennial favorite, as the sheer size of whales, and the fact that only part of them could be glimpsed in the water surely could have meant they were the source of some supposed sea monster sightings. Leviathan is also sometimes conflated with the creature that swallowed Jonah in the Bible, and this creature has clearly been assumed to have been a whale, although the Hebrew calls it rather vaguely a “big sea creature.” Then there is the sea monster of Greek mythology, the so-called “cetus” that Poseidon sent against man. It is often pointed out that this is the same word from which the word “cetacean” is derived, which is our scientific classification for marine mammals like whales. Indeed, the word “cetus,” or more accurately “ketos” (κῆτος) before its Latinization, appears to have been used in ancient Greece to mean both a whale and a sea monster or sea serpent. But to suggest that ancient Greeks held some misconception of the nature of the whales that populated the Mediterranean would be inaccurate. Among other sea creatures, whales in particular presented themselves for easy anatomical study, for they beached themselves and died, or expanded with methane when dying at sea and floated to shore to continue decomposing (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 198). The bones of whales have been recovered as ancient Greek artifacts, used to make objects like tables (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 197). And Greek and Roman philosophers and naturalists such Aristotle and Pliny make their knowledge of whales clear. Aristotle, for example, notes they “have no gills but a blowhole instead” and lacking teeth, they “have instead hairs similar to pigs’ bristles,” a clear description of baleen plates (qtd. in Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 210, 212).
Rather than convince us that the “cetus” of legend was not a whale, perhaps their knowledge of whales might cement the notion that the word was always only used to refer to whales. And it should be pointed out that in the Bible, Jonah boarded his ship in Jaffa, and that was the same place where it was said Andromeda had been chained in offering to the monstrous Cetus. (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 213). So perhaps both of these encounters were, after all, with a whale, although chaining up a human sacrifice for a whale seems rather ridiculous, given what we know of whales. And other descriptions of the monstrous Cetus make its differences from a whale starkly clear. When Virgil uses the term to refer to the sea serpents that attack Laocoön and his sons, he describes them as “rearing in coils…their bodies thrashing, backs rolling in coil on mammoth coil… flickering tongues licking their hissing maws.” Now of course, this creature was a poetic invention, as was the Marcus Manilius description of the Cetus that attacked Andromeda at Jaffa. But in much the same way, Manilius describes it as coiled, with scales and jaws (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 212). At least one scholar, Kathleen Coleman, has attempted to see a description of a whale in Manilius’s portrait, but one would be hard-pressed to see in these descriptions anything but the monstrous sea serpent of legend. And although not witness accounts, they certainly go to show that ancient Greeks were not only thinking of whales when using the word “cetus” or “ketos.” A couple final examples to illustrate this come to us from Pliny, who recorded the discovery of more than one huge sea monster whose remains had washed ashore. On the coasts of an island near Lyon, he describes the tide leaving hundreds of monsters of incredible size stranded. Another, on the coast of Spain, was said to have more than a hundred teeth as long as nine inches, and yet another, on the eastern side of Mediterranean, again near Jaffa, was more than forty feet long, with a spine one and a half feet thick and ribs taller than any elephant. One might argue that these could very well have been the remains of whales, but considering the Greeks’ known familiarity with whales, it is then unusual that the bones of the latter creature were thereafter taken to Rome and placed on display as the very sea monster that had attacked Andromeda at Jaffa so many years before (Papadopolous and Ruscillo 213).
With the discovery of physical remains, one sees that antiquity offers more than just poetic renderings of mythical sea creatures. And beyond reports of remains, which one could argue might be misidentified, there are records of eyewitness encounters with monsters that dwell in the deep. One incident, recorded by Orosius but likely derived from a lost history by Livy, occurred in the Bagradas, a river near Carthage in northern Africa that spills directly into the Mediterranean Sea. A Roman commander had his troops encamp beside the river, and when they went to fetch water, a huge reptile, some 120 feet long, poisoned and devoured numerous men, and the soldiers’ javelins glanced harmlessly off of its thick scales (Stothers 223). The report goes into singular detail, indicating that the creature had no feet and describing its motion as that of a serpent or snake, “by a sinuous movement, extending its sides first right and then left.” Eventually, the Roman soldiers defeated the serpent by flinging a boulder on it with a ballista, and its viscera were said to poison the water (Stothers 224). They carried this creature’s skin and jaws back with them to Rome for all to wonder at. Aristotle indirectly corroborates this incident on the Bagradas River when he describes massive serpents overturning fleets of boats in the sea off the North African coast (Stothers 226). Meanwhile, Pliny the Elder mentions large snakes swimming in the Red Sea and Livy describes massive snakes leaping out of the water in the seas south of Rome (Stothers 228, 232). Now all of these encounters might be explained by suggesting they were exaggerated accounts of encounters with prosaic beasts. The leaping snakes seen from Rome may have actually been the backs of dolphins, and others may have been genuine sea snakes of large size. The Bagradas beast, often supposed to be a crocodile, does not seem as easily explained away, though, for its sinuous, serpentine movements would not suggest those of a crocodile, and even if its reported length of 120 feet were inaccurate, it must have been miraculously large to warrant the display of its remains as an “object of wonder” for more than a hundred years (Stothers 224). Nor was the Bagradas beast alone in its mythic proportions. Around 75 BCE, Posidonius described the corpse of a sea monster a hundred feet long and its jaws 7 feet wide. Describing the same creature, Strabo noted that its jaws were large enough when gaping for a man on horseback to enter it, that each of its scales was 4 feet long, the size of a shield, and men mounted on horseback on either side of it could not see each other (Stothers 232). These descriptions were not of bones but of fresh creatures with the scales of their flesh intact, and so, considering the knowledge of whales that we know ancient mariners and coastal dwellers had, it seems unlikely they would have mistaken a beached whale for a scaled monster. And we have reports of similarly massive sea creatures when they were still alive, as when Aelian shares the reports of mariners who have seen the so-called Scolopendra, a creature that was supposed to be able to lift its head above the water as it swam, the entirety of its body visible on the surface, with what appeared to be thousands of tiny feet or flippers propelling it like oars protruding from a galley. We have reports of the remains of these Scolopendra from Theodoridas and Antipater (Stothers 233). To explain them, scholars have suggested, again, they were merely whales, and the feet must have simply been an illusion caused by ripples, or perhaps suckerfish attached all in a row to the whale’s side, and I suppose attached in this way also to every whale mistaken for a Scolopendra by experienced sailors who had likely seen whales before. Another theory goes that the Scolopendra may have not been a whale at all, but rather a giant squid, a creature whose own existences was for so long doubted, and its sightings explained away.
As the sea serpent enters medieval lore, it is difficult to separate myth inspired by Greek and Roman poets from genuine sightings. One example of the fanciful legends coming out of medieval Europe would be that of King Olaf II of Norway who was said to have slain an “orm” or sea serpent and thrown it onto a cliff side, where its shape could still be discerned. And as we leave the Middle Ages with their tales of dragons and dragon slayers behind and enter the Age of Exploration, we continue to find Norway, with its storied Sea Orm, to be a hotbed for sea serpent sightings. In the mid-16th century, historian and cartographer Olaus Magnus did much to make this Great Norway Serpent famous. A Catholic priest exiled from Sweden after its conversion to Lutheranism, Magnus started drawing up his Carta Marina, or Sea Map, in 1527. By 1539, it was the biggest and most detailed and accurate map of any European region, and scattered across it were illustrations of a variety of sea monsters. These were no decorative dragons set down merely to fill empty space, though, as had been the practice among mapmakers previously, but rather depictions of sea monsters that sailors had actually reported seeing, whose eyewitness accounts were collected in Magnus’s History of the Northern People to accompany the map. The most fantastic of those shown on the map is coiled about a ship’s mast and striking with bared fangs at a sailor on the ship’s deck. This sea serpent had been reported by numerous fishermen and trade navigators that plied the waters around Norway’s coasts. It was between 200 and 300 feet long, and 20 feet thick, living in caves and feeding on livestock that strayed too close to the shore. The beast was black, they said, with shining eyes that seemed to gleam like fire. Covered with scales, it swam about with its head held high out of the water, a mane of hair glistening on the back of its neck, and sailors knew not to watch it from the decks of their ships, lest it draw near and snap them up. Magnus’s sea serpent stories spread from there into early zoological texts, like Sebastian Münster’s 1544 chart of marine and terrestrial monsters, Conrad Gesner’s 1558 Historiae Animalium, Edward Topsell’s 1608 History of Serpents, and on they went, from the 17th to the 18th century, when more modern sightings began to shape the notion of the Great Sea Serpent with which Richard Owens would do intellectual battle.
Perhaps the first of these modern sightings, again in Norway, was that of missionary Hans Egede in 1734, who saw a monster emerge from the water, raising its head “as high as the Mast-Head.” Its body he said was as big as the ship that carried him, and it “spouted like a Whale-Fish” before falling backward and raising its tail. Now to the modern reader, it is easy to dismiss this as a breaching whale, despite the fact that Egede’s own words indicate some familiarity with whales. But Egede also described its skin as “rugged and uneven” and “covered in Shell work” (McGowan-Hartmann 50). This scale-like quality to the skin might be explained away with the presence of excessive barnacles on the whale, one may suppose, but this was not the only sighting in Norwegian waters in those years, for a Captain Lawrence de Ferry would report seeing another serpent, or “Sea-snake,” as he called it, near Bergen in 1746, and he and his fellow sailors would describe it under oath in a deposition. The creature passed them, and they brought the ship about to draw nearer to it, firing a gun at it until it disappeared into the bloody water. This serpent, they said, held its very horse-like head with its long white mane two feet above the water, and behind its neck, they spied as many as eight coils of its thick body, with about a fathom, or six feet, between each, making it at least 50 feet long. If this is the creature Egede saw—for he also described its head as “oblong,” like a horse’s—then it sounds less and less like a whale. As sightings like these were spread in those years, in works like Bishop Erich Pontoppidan’s 1753 Natural History of Norway, or John Jonston’s 1767 Natural History of Fishes, they were sometimes treated as genuine and sometimes relayed with skepticism, and the scholarly practice of suggesting that the sailors had just seen some other readily identifiable animal began. Despite the fact that often sailors were far more likely to have seen firsthand and be able to discern such creatures than the writers who doubted their faculties, their sea serpent sightings were blamed in the nineteenth century on not only whales and squids, but on sharks, seals, sea lions, porpoises, eels, oarfish, and simple logs and seaweed. But while this scientific skepticism became almost zealous, an atmosphere that Richard Owens, father of the dinosaur, would do much to establish and perpetuate, the seemingly credible sightings of sea serpents seemed to multiply, almost as if to spite their doubts.
Join me next time for Part Two of Leviathan, the Great Sea Serpent, as we enter the chaos waters of sea monster sightings in the modern era and try to come to some conclusion as to the believability of all these big fish stories.
McGowan-Hartmann, John. “Shadow of the Dragon: The Convergence of Myth and Science in Nineteenth Century Paleontological Imagery.” Journal of Social History, vol. 47, no. 1, 2013, pp. 47–70. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43306045.
Nigg, Joseph. Olaus Magnus’s Sea Serpent.” The Public Domain Review, publicdomainreview.org/2014/02/05/olaus-magnuss-sea-serpent/
Papadopoulos, John K., and Deborah Ruscillo. “A Ketos in Early Athens: An Archaeology of Whales and Sea Monsters in the Greek World.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 106, no. 2, 2002, pp. 187–227. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4126243.
Stothers, Richard B. “Ancient Scientific Basis of the ‘Great Serpent’ from Historical Evidence.” Isis, vol. 95, no. 2, 2004, pp. 220–238. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/426195.