Mythic Creatures That Inhabit The Depths
The open ocean can be a terrifying place. Miles from shore on storm-tossed seas, with nothing but water in all directions—including straight down—a sailor or fisherman cannot help but wonder what lurks in the depths. When the oceans were still unexplored, these fears often took the form of imaginary monsters.
Many sea monsters include features from living animals. A large tentacle becomes part of a monstrous sea serpent or many-armed kraken: the eye sees a fragment, the mind fills in the rest. A blend of tall tales, mistaken identity and resonant cultural symbols, stories of sea monsters often reveal more about the minds of the imaginers than they do about the natural world.
It was a giant squid twenty-five feet long. It was heading toward the Nautilus, swimming backward very fast….We could clearly make out the 250 suckers lining the inside of its tentacles, some of which fastened onto the glass panel of the lounge. The monster's mouth—a horny beak like that of a parakeet—opened and closed vertically… What a whim of nature! A bird's beak in a mollusk!
The mythical kraken may be the largest sea monster ever imagined. Some stories described it as more than 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) around with arms as large as ship's masts. Perhaps based on sightings of giant squid tentacles, this multi-armed monster rarely attacked humans, preferring to stay in deep water where it feasted on fish. The chief dangers came from being too close when it surfaced—or too close when it sank, as a boat could be sucked down in the whirlpool created when it submerged.
Stories that appeal to the imagination are hard to dispel—especially when there is no way to disprove them. Take the Loch Ness Monster, which is said to inhabit a lake in northern Scotland. Though investigators have searched for the monster with underwater cameras and sonar for decades—and some alleged evidence was exposed as a fraud—people still flock to the site, hoping for a glimpse of "Nessie."
Five hundred years ago, sailors in northern Europe told of an amazing creature: a monster bigger than a man with numerous long, snakelike arms covered with suckers for grabbing prey. Evidence for this so-called devilfish included bits of giant tentacles found in whale stomachs and vicious battle scars left on the skin of whales by its suckers and claws. Eventually, in the 1850s, scientists recognized the devilfish as an authentic animal—the giant squid.
In 1873, fishermen presented a squid arm—supposedly hacked off the animal when it attacked the men's boat—to the Reverend Moses Harvey, a prominent Canadian naturalist. Harvey wrote about the 5.8-meter (19-foot) long arm: "I was now the possessor of one of the rarest curiosities in the whole animal kingdom—the veritable tentacle of the hitherto mythical devilfish, about whose existence naturalists had been disputing for centuries. I knew that I held in my hand the key of a great mystery, and that a new chapter would now be added to Natural History.
After the success of Jaws, American author Peter Benchley frightened readers all over again in 1991 with his bestselling novel Beast, about a giant squid. In the novel, the squid attacks several people—something yet to occur in reality. Benchley wrote, "In the frenzy of a kill, the tentacles would spring forward, like tooth-studded whips." Some squids do have claws on their arms, but never in the center of their suckers.
The giant squid is not the biggest squid. Scientists have known of an even larger species since at least 1925, but no adult specimen had been found in one piece until 2007, when fishermen hauled one up near New Zealand. Dubbed the "colossal squid," it is thought to be the largest living creature without a backbone. Classified in its own genus, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni outweighs all of the eight giant squid species in the genus Architeuthis.
Hundreds of years ago, European sailors told of a sea monster called the kraken that could toss ships into the air with its many long arms. Today we know sea monsters aren't real—but a living sea animal, the giant squid, has 10 arms and can grow longer than a school bus.
On the 6th of July 1734, when off the south coast of Greenland, a sea-monster appeared to us, whose head, when raised, was on level with our main-top. Its snout was long and sharp, and it blew water almost like a whale; it has large broad paws; its body was covered with scales; its skin was rough and uneven; in other respects it was as a serpent; and when it dived, its tail, which was raised in the air, appeared to be a whole ship's length from its body.
When European explorers like Christopher Columbus set out on their voyages of discovery in the 1400s and 1500s, they were literally sailing into uncharted waters. Sea monsters were a concern for them, and frightening rumors ran rampant. Sailors' tales were sometimes the only first-hand information available about ocean animals. These stories ranged from accurate observations to honest mistakes to outright tall tales, with no way for even the most objective naturalist to separate fact from fiction. The meticulous drawings of sea monsters in European natural history books from the 1500s and 1600s reveal the overlap between science and legend at that time.
The period from the 1400s to the 1600s in Europe is sometimes called the "Age of Exploration." Adventurers set sail from western Europe seeking wealth, power—and knowledge. Before then, Europeans who wrote and illustrated natural history books based them mostly on older books, often deferring to Greek masters such as Aristotle. But as a new view of knowledge arose in Europe emphasizing first-hand observation, data from traveling naturalists became increasingly important. In this transitional era, an author might present a newly discovered animal on the same page as a mythical creature.
Many sincere sea serpent sightings were later debunked as cases of mistaken identity. For instance, several "sea monster" carcasses turned out to be partially decayed basking sharks, an immense fish that grows to 9 meters (30 feet). Other examples of mistaken identity include a "baby sea serpent" that proved to be a deformed blacksnake, and enormous serpents that turned out to be a mass of floating seaweed.
Several pictures of sea serpents on old maps appear to be based on sightings of the oarfish, or ribbon-fish (Regalecus glesne). A long, eel-shaped fish that grows to 36 feet, the oarfish has a crest of bright red spines on its head and a spiny dorsal fin running down its entire back.
A picture from a 1563 book by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner shows a hippocampus, a sea creature with a horse's head. According to a theory still popular at that time, every animal found on land had its counterpart in the ocean. Konrad Lykosthenes, a German encyclopedia writer, published a book in 1557 showing the dangerous monsters awaiting sailors on the open seas, including an oversized lobster shown spearing a man with its antenna. Although these monsters are fanciful, many include elements of real animals.
All mythic creatures are mysterious. No one really knows where these stories come from, what they mean, or why they appeal to us so much. The best way to get answers about myths and other stories is to ask the people who tell them. But what if all those people are gone, their songs and stories silent forever? And what if there is no written record of the culture that produced a mythical creature? Anthropologists, archaeologists and psychologists can offer powerful theories and profound insights by studying artifacts. But in many cases, the ultimate answer for questions about myths is: we will never know for certain.
A killer whale…clutching a human head? The ancient people known today as the Nasca painted this startling creature on their pottery and carved enormous outlines of it into the ground. Who is this beast? What does it do with the human heads it carries? No one knows.
The Nasca people lived along the coast of South America in what is now Peru from around AD 1 until about 700. Then they disappeared. Their colorful ceramics are covered with puzzling images such as the mythic killer whale—but there is no one left to explain what these images mean.
Ritually preserved human skulls have been found in many Nasca sites. The taking of trophy heads played an important role in Nasca culture; many mythic beings of the Nasca are shown holding human heads. The most famous Nasca creations are the immense patterns of lines carved into the ground, still visible today. The lines form mysterious patterns and pictures so large they cannot be seen from the ground—and so were most likely never seen by the Nasca people themselves. Many of these giant pictures depict the same creatures shown on Nasca pottery, including the mythic killer whale. At various times these lines were thought to be roads, a giant calendar, even landing sites for space ships—theories that have all been largely discarded.
|Questions? Anything Not Work? Not Look Right? My Policy Is To Blame The Computer.|
|Oneliners, Stories, etc. | About Eerie | Site Navigation | Parting Shots | Google Search|
|My Other Sites: Cruisin' - A Little Drag Racin', Nostalgia And My Favorite Rides | The Eerie Side Of Things | It's An Enigma | That"s Entertainment | Just For The Fun Of It | Gender Wars | Golf And Other Non-Contact Sports | JCS Group, Inc., A little business... A little fun... | John Wayne: American, The Movies And The Old West | Something About Everything Military | The Spell Of The West | Once Upon A Time | By The People, For The People | Something About Everything Racin' | Baseball and Other Contact Sports | The St. Louis Blues At The Arena | What? Strange? Peculiar? Maybe.|