Friday, October 31, 2014

The Beautiful Monster: Mermaids

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed out from Spain with a mission to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, he found a whole “New World”…and something altogether more mysterious.

On January 9, 1493, near the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three “mermaids.” How did he describe them? “They are not as beautiful as they are painted, since in some ways they have a face like a man” (

The myth of a marine human extends as far back as 5,000 BCE, when the Babylonians worshipped a fish-tailed god named Oannes. John Ashton, author of Curious Creatures in Zoology, proposes that this is the first depiction of a merman. Also in classical antiquity, the goddess Atargatis, chief goddess of northern Syria, was depicted as a fish-bodied human, thus constituting the first known representation of a mermaid.

Ancient god Oannes, perhaps first representation of a merman. Ashton, John. Curious Creatures in Zoology. 1890.

By the Common Era, mermen and mermaids had made their way into the accepted zoological canon. Pliny the Elder, who lived in the first century CE and had quite a lot to contribute to the discussion of mythical beasts, asserted that mermaids were real. According to Philemon Hollands’s 1601 translation (1634 edition in BHL), Pliny stated,

“And as for the Mermaids called Nereides, it is no fabulous tale that goeth of them: for looke how painters draw them, so they are indeed: only their body is rough and scaled all over, even in those parts where they resemble a woman.” 

Tritons, or Nereids, the merpeople of the Greeks and Romans. Ashton, John. Curious Creatures in Zoology. 1890.

In the centuries that followed, many people claimed to actually see mermaids. In 1608, during an expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, Henry Hudson claimed that several crewmembers spotted a mermaid. From the naval upwards, she was like a woman, with long, black hair, but she had a tail like a porpoise.

Mermaid of the type inhabiting the Dutch East Indies. Valentijn's mermaid, after Fallours. Lee, Henry. Sea Fables Explained. 1883.

By the eighteenth century, many believed that mermaids inhabited the seas surrounding the Dutch East Indies. The official painter of the Dutch East India Company, Samuel Fallours, included a tantalizing mermaid within his 1718 drawing depicting the assortment of exotic biodiversity found around the islands. Francois Valentijn included a copy of Fallours’ mermaid in his publication on the East Indies, entitled Natural History of Amboina (1727). He claims that this “monster resembling a siren” was captured on the coast of Borneo.

Mermaid as Monster 

Valentijn’s “monster” title alludes to the fact that merpeople were not always represented in a sensual light. Sometimes, they were just plain monsters. Within the 13th century Norwegian manuscript Konungs skuggsjá (linked: English translation by Laurence Larson), we read of the merman:

“The monster is tall and of great size and rises straight out of the water…It has shoulders like a man but no hands…No one has ever observed it closely enough to determine whether its body has scales like a fish or skin like a man. Whenever the monster has shown itself, men have always been sure that a storm would follow.” 

Sea Satyr, or Sea Demon. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

And of course, we can’t omit Conrad Gessner from our discussion. His 16th century book Historia Animalium depicts the Sea Satyr, also calling it a sea demon. According to John Ashton, Gessner “tries to pass it off as a veritable merman.” Gessner also claims that, on November 3, 1523, a man-fish, about the size of a five year old boy, was seen at Rome.

Man-fish, about the size of a boy, seen at Rome. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

Two other curious, merman-esque monsters include the Monk and Bishop Fish. Gessner, and later others including Guillaume Rondelet, Ulisse Aldrovandi, and Gaspar Schott, portray these beasts, claiming that a Monk-fish was caught off Norway, in a troubled sea, and that the Bishop-fish was seen off the coast of Poland in 1531. Despite such observational reports, these monsters were likely a commentary on the religious tension of the day, resulting in an association between cleric figures and monsters.

Monk and Bishop Fish, as republished by Schott. Not all historians accepted the full veracity of these beasts. Guillaume Rondelet, who included a picture of the bishop fish in his 1554-55 book, stated, "I think that certain details beyond the truth of the matter have been added by the painter to make the thing seem more marvelous." (Ellis, pg. 85). Schott, Gaspar. Physica Curiosa. 1662.

Mermaids Through Misidentification 

If an exploration of historic monsters has taught us anything, it’s that most were not fabricated out of pure myth. Usually, they proceed from an attempt to categorize an unknown animal sighting.

Bernard Heuvelmans, considered the father of cryptozoology, studied the process by which unknown animals become monsters and monsters are identified as known animals. Of this transformation, he wrote, “The mythifying process can sometimes be carried to the point of altering its object beyond recognition” (Heuvelmans, 1990).

Case in point: The Manatee.

Manatees. Biologia Centrali-Americana. Mammalia. 1879-82. Read a manatee dissection in this 1941 fieldbook by Edward Chapin from The Field Book Project. 

As Heuvelmans explained,

“Since the manatee has pectoral mammae…and a body that tapers to a fishlike tail, it has always been identified, on both side of the Atlantic, with the fascinating mermaid, despite its (to our eyes) ugly face…” (Heuvelmans, 1990)

The three mermaids that Columbus spotted in 1493 (or sirens as he called them), were undoubtedly manatees. He, and many explorers after him, determined that these aquatic mammals were mermaids in flesh and blood. Sightings of dugongs, a member of the manatee’s order, have also been associated with mermaids throughout history. Indeed, the order containing manatees and dugongs to this day is called “Sirenia.”

Dugong and Manatee. Craig, Hugh. Johnson's Household Book of Nature. 1880.

Manatees aren’t the only animals that have played the part of a mermaid. In the thirteenth century, a fisherman in Lake Constance, outside Bregenz, Austria, found a mermaid (Shadows in the Sea, 1963). He heard a voice call to him from the sea, saying, “Take my daughter and hang her in the Arch of Martinster. She is begat of a land woman and is of no use here.” He followed the voice’s command and hung the mermaid in the archway, after which it died in a contorted shape. The true identity of the creature? A shark, possibly a Porbeagle. The original mummified shark was replaced with a stone replica so that it could always stand guard over the city.

Bregenz Mermaid, actually a mummified shark. McCormick, Harold. Shadows in the Sea. 1963.

Of course, mistaking a manatee or a shark for a mermaid with breasts and flowing locks, which so many sailors vehemently claimed to have seen, seems impossible. It’s clear that some good old exaggeration (and blatant lies) contributed to the mermaid myth.

Mermaids Through Fabrication 

The lies associated with the mermaid’s history are more tangible than exaggerating manatees as beautiful women. “Unlike most other monsters, which, almost by definition are very large” explains Richard Ellis in his book Monsters of the Sea, “’mermaids’ are small enough to tempt people to manufacture them.” (pg. 80). And that’s exactly what they did.

Mermaid Fabrication falls into two general categories: "Monkey" Mermaids and Jenny Hanivers.

"Monkey" Mermaid. Lee, Henry. Sea Fables Explained. 1883.

"Monkey" Mermaids made their way into western mermaid lore in the nineteenth century. Apparently manufactured in Japan, these twisted mermaid interpretations were created by combining a small monkey’s head and torso with a dehydrated fish. In the 1840s, P.T. Barnum made a fortune by exhibiting what he claimed, and successfully convinced many people, were the remains of a mermaid. Today it is famously known as the Feejee Mermaid.

Barnum's Feejee Mermaid. Lee, Henry. Sea Fables Explained. 1883.

Over time the Jenny Haniver also came to be associated with mermaids. The first known illustration of a Jenny Haniver appears in Gessner’s Historia Animalium in the mid-1500s.

A ray, mutilated to look mermaid-esque. This image is the first known depiction of a Jenny Haniver-style specimen. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

What exactly are these disturbing specimens? They are mutilated elasmobranchs - either a ray, skate, or guitarfish. The fins are cut so that they resemble wings, a string is tied around the “neck” area to give it a human appearance, and the tail is twisted into a suitable mermaid-esque form. The charade is then allowed to dry in the sun and varnished for preservation.

"basilicus ex raia," another Jenny Haniver-style farce. These specimens were also sometimes associated with dragons. Aldrovandi, Ulisse. Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo. 1640.

In the mid-1600s, Ulisse Aldrovandi published what he called a basilisk but which was created in the same fashion as Gessner’s Jenny Haniver. He includes a caption with his illustrations reading “basilicus ex raia,” indicating his awareness of the illegitimacy of the monster. Both Gessner and Aldrovandi classify these strange beasts as rays, but provide no further information.

Over time, rays mutilated to resemble human-fish hybrids came to be associated with mermaids under the term Jenny Hanivers. Ulisse Aldrovandi, who published this image in 1640, described it as "basilicus ex raia," indicating an awareness of the illegitimacy of the creature. See more fantastic historic monsters come to life on the Smithsonian Libraries' Tumblr. GIF created by Richard Naples (Smithsonian Libraries), based on Aldrovandi, Ulisse. Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo. 1640.

Of course, by Gessner and Aldrovandi’s time, the term Jenny Haniver was not yet in use. The name does not appear in published form until 1928, when Gilbert Whitley wrote about these monsters in an Australian Museum Magazine article. The origin of the name is unknown, though it has been suggested that it is a derivative of ‘Anvers,’ the French name for Antwerp and a possible place of origin for the deception.

The Case for the Mermaid 

So, does the mermaid exist? Obviously not in the form of a half man or woman, half fish, but, to quote Dr. Ellis in Monsters of the Sea, “The sirens are still with us, however, in the form of the manatees and dugongs. They may not have the sex appeal of their namesake, and they certainly are not as beautiful as the mermaid, but they differ from their historic and literary ancestors in one irrefutable respect: they exist.” (pg. 98).

  • Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopp, Inc., 1994. Print.
  • Heuvelmans, Bernard. The Metamorphosis of Unknown Animals into Fabulous Beasts and of Fabulous Beasts into Known Animals. Cryptozoology 9 (1990) 1-12.

Grace Costantino
BHL Outreach and Communication Manager

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Octopus…The Monster that Isn’t

“…A very formidable animal, and possess[ing] such a degree of strength as to make it dangerous to attack it without great precaution. Such is the ferocity and violence with which it defends itself, that even the strongest Mastiff can hardly subdue it without a long and doubtful contest. It has even been known to attack a person while swimming, and to fasten itself with dangerous force round the body and limbs.”

Such a description conjures up images of a great behemoth, perhaps with sharp fangs, great talons, and fiery red eyes. It was given by George Shaw in a lecture to the Royal Institute and published in 1809.

It is a description of the Curled Octopus (Eledone cirrhosa), reaching a total size of 5-15 inches. Not quite the beast the description implies… 

"Eight Armed Cuttle Fish" aka Curled Octopus. Shaw, George. Zoological Lectures Delivered at the Royal Institution by George Shaw. v. 2. 1809.

The octopus, like the squid (aka kraken), has long held an unwarranted reputation as a monster. “Their strangely repulsive appearance, and the fictional stories of their attacks, have built up in the popular mind a picture of the ‘devil fish’ which no amount of accurate description is ever likely to cut down to authentic size,” mused Frank W. Lane in Kingdom of the Octopus (1962).

“Ever since people started writing about such things – and probably when they only talked about them – they have never been content simply to name and describe the octopus, but have insisted on passing judgment upon it,” wrote James Artz of the American Museum of Natural History (Ellis, pg. 257).

Amazing Mollusca from the Gulf of Naples: Octopus macropus, Tremoctopus violaceus, and Ocythoe tuberculata. Jatta, Giuseppe. I Cefalopodi viventi nel Golfo di Napoli (sistematica) : monografia. 1896.  

Accounts of the Octopus’ “vile” personality can be found throughout hundreds of years’ worth of literature, even well into the twentieth century and by respected scientists.

The Octopus as Monster 

In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder positions the octopus (which he labels a polyp, along with squids) as a gruesome monster, writing, “no animal is more savage in causing the death of a man in the water; for it struggles with him by coiling round him and it swallows him with its sucker-cups and drags him asunder by its multiple suction” (Ellis, pg. 261).

Not surprisingly, Denys de Montfort, the personality behind the legendary kraken image, could not resist the opportunity to contribute to the growing octopus lore in the early nineteenth century. Within Histoire Naturelle Générale et Particulière des Mollusques, he describes an episode where an octopus attacked and nearly succeeded in drowning his dog on the beach. He and his dog were finally able to subdue the monster by tearing off its arms…Given Montfort’s demonstrated history of untruths, his account is hardly to be believed.

"The Common Octopus." Montfort, Denys. Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière des mollusques : animaux sans vertèbres et a sang blanc. v. 2. 1801.

Perhaps the most sensational, and damaging, account of the octopus was presented by Victor Hugo in Toilers of the Sea (1866). Within it, Hugo describes his protagonist’s (Gillat) encounter with an octopus in a cave, which does its utmost to annihilate him. Hugo writes of the beast’s attack: “The hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man becomes one with the hydra. The spectre lies upon you…the devil-fish, horrible, sucks your life blood away…Powerless, you feel yourself gradually emptied into this horrible pouch, which is the monster itself.”

Gillat's struggle with the "monster" octopus, as described in Toilers of the SeaAnnual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. 1916.

Henry Lee and Addison Verrill, both of whom wrote extensively on squid and octopus, boldly challenged Hugo’s passages, outlining the multiple fallacies included. In Cephalopods of the North-eastern Coast of America, Verrill writes, “The description of the ‘poulpe’ or devil-fish by Victor Hugo…is quite as fabulous and unreal as any of the earlier accounts, and even more bizarre. His description represents no real animal whatever.”

Graneledone verrucosa. Verrill, A.E. Cephalopods of the North-eastern Coast of America. v. 2. 1881.

Unfortunately, such melodramatic accounts, popular among the public, helped to further secure the octopus’ reputation as a monster, despite the counterarguments against them.

Similar descriptions of the octopus as a monster continued into the twentieth century. For instance, a 1907 fieldbook from Florence Merriam Bailey, American ornithologist and nature writer, whilst in California, deems the octopus a “horrible creature,” describing an episode where a friend was attacked by one in Bermuda. “Their strength is tremendous & they put out [[strikethrough]] au [[/strikethrough]] arms and grasp you and hold on with suction discs & then draw the object up and cut it across the back of the neck with thin knives.”

Thomas Beale, surgeon on a British whaling voyage in 1835, claimed he was attacked by an octopus on the beach on the Bonin Islands, south of Japan. Gosse, Philip Henry. The Romance of Natural History. 1864.

A 1919 National Geographic article by John Oliver La Gorce, called “Devil-Fishing in the Gulf Stream,” presents the mollusk as “most repulsive, having a large, ugly head, a fierce-looking mouth…two diabolical eyes…capable of sending forth a demonic glare when angered…When challenged [it] will fight to the last, doing its best to pull the object of its wrath beneath the surface of the waters.”

But while natural history has been cruelly unkind to the octopus, presenting the creature itself as a monster, this cephalopod also served to inspire one of mythology’s greatest beasts – The Hydra.

The Hydra: A Case of Mistaken Identity 

The Hydra is a “mythical” beast most commonly described as having nine heads, each of which will regenerate if decapitated. The Greek hero Hercules was commanded to kill a Hydra as his second labor. The marble tablet in the Vatican depicting this exploit interprets the hydra as a strikingly octopus-like monster.

The Hydra, as illustrated by Gessner. Notice the suction-cup like spots on its body...very octopus-like. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

In the book Sea Fables Explained, Henry Lee writes that the Lernean Hydra was simply a huge Octopus. Many scholars have postulated that hydra are based on octopus. After all, their many tentacles could be misinterpreted as heads, and octopus can regenerate lost limbs, possibly explaining the unending head supply of the hydra.

Hercules slaying the Lernean Hydra, as depicted on a marble tablet in the Vatican. Lee, Henry. Sea Fables Explained. 1883.

Well into the eighteenth century, many naturalists believed the hydra to be a real creature. Albertus Seba, a famed apothecary from Amsterdam, boasted an extensive cabinet of curiosities, filled with many magnificent biodiversity specimens. From 1734-65, Seba published an account of his cabinet in Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio, et iconibus artificiosissimis expressio, per universam physices historiam. This work included an image of a hydra, based on a specimen held by the Burgomeister of Hamburg. While Linnaeus later proved this particular specimen to be a fake, an amalgamation of snake skins and weasel heads with possible religious overtones, exaggerated accounts of an octopus likely inspired such monsters in the first place.

The Hydra! Seba, Albertus. Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio, et iconibus artificiosissimis expressio, per universam physices historiam. v. 1. 1734.

An Undeserved Reputation and the Monster that Isn’t 

The octopus’ “monster” reputation is completely unwarranted. It is hardly necessary to emphasize the fact that the hydra, though inspired by a real animal, is not itself a real species. Debunking longstanding conceptions of the octopus itself as a terrible, vicious monster, however, has proven more difficult.

Benthoctopus levis. Chun, Carl. The Cephalopoda. 1975.

“The octopus is, in fact, a gentle, curious creature with a surprising ‘intelligence,’” argues marine biologist Richard Ellis of the American Museum of Natural History (Ellis, pg. 261). Around 300 species are recognized, constituting over a third of all cephalopods. They are perhaps the most intelligent invertebrate, demonstrating complex problem-solving abilities and the use of tools.

Octopus range in size from the minute Octopus wolfi, measuring about 0.6 inches in length, to the Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), with a radial span of 20ft (and possibly as much as 32ft) – certainly large enough to inspire some fantastic monster myths. The only octopus species truly dangerous to humans are the three (or perhaps four) species of Blue-Ringed Octopus, which are some of the world’s most venomous marine animals and capable of killing humans.

Giant Octopus. Holder, C.F. Along the Florida Reef. 1899.

So, in the case of the octopus, it is more a story of the monster that isn’t. These cephalopods most definitely are not, as Victor Hugo asserts in Toilers of the Sea, “the concrete forms of evil,” but are in fact a wonderfully diverse, spectacularly intelligent, and reportedly shy group.

So, are monsters real? In the case of the octopus, no.

Hydra. Aldrovandi, Ulisse. Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo. 1640.

  • Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopp, Inc., 1994. Print.

Grace Costantino
BHL Outreach and Communication Manager

Release the Kraken!

“Architeuthis, the giant squid, is the quintessential sea monster, probably responsible for more myths, fables, fantasies, and fictions than all other marine monsters combined…[It] surely is the most remarkable unscheduled arrival in the history of zoology, crypto or otherwise. An animal that was believed by many to be mythological verified its existence…” (Ellis, 122, 133-34). 

Science knows it by the name Architeuthis dux. For centuries, however, it was known by an altogether more infamous one – The Kraken.

The Kraken: A History

Aristotle first introduced us to the giant squid (which he called teuthos) in 350 BCE, and then, in AD 77-79, Pliny the Elder related a tale of a “polyp” that was killed during its attempt to steal salted fish from the fish ponds in Carteia (Ellis, pg. 123). Described as having 30-foot long arms, the beast has been identified as a squid.

Giant squids have been seen throughout the world’s oceans, but they are quite common in the seas around Norway and Greenland. Indeed, the word “kraken” comes from the Norwegian “krake,” meaning “fabulous sea monsters.” The late 14th century version of the Icelandic saga Örvar-Oddr gives an account of the Hafgufa ("sea mist") and Lyngbakr ("heather-back") - beasts occurring in the Greenland Sea. While Lyngbakr is credited as the “largest whale in the sea,” the Hafgufa

“is the hugest monster in the sea. It is the nature of this creature to swallow men and ships, and even whales and everything else within reach. It stays submerged for days, then rears its head and nostrils above surface and stays that way at least until the change of tide.” 

Hafgufa, it has been suggested, is a giant squid. The thirteenth century Norwegian work Konungs skuggsjá describes the beast, saying that it appears "more like an island than a fish." The 1917 translation identifies this "monster" as the Kraken.

The Kraken. Magnus, Olaus. Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. 1555.

Never missing a chance to tell a good monster tale, Olaus Magnus detailed the kraken as a “monstrous fish” within Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, describing them as having long sharp horns, huge red eyes, and “hairs like goose feathers, thick and long, like a beard hanging down.” He claims that “one of these Sea-Monsters will drown easily many great ships provided with many strong Marriners” – a characteristic reported in the earlier Icelandic work. Magnus' depiction of the beast, as a strange mix of fish and squid, is quite different from those we find later in the literature, suggesting that his monster is likely a confusion of many sightings, including not only the giant squid but perhaps whales and cuttlefish as well.

Kraken, after Magnus. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

In his first edition of Systema Naturae (1735), Carolus Linnaeus classified the kraken as a cephalopod with the scientific name Microcosmus marinus. Though it was removed from later editions of Systema, Linnaeus’ 1746 publication, Fauna Suecica, describes the kraken as “a unique monster” inhabiting the seas of Norway. He does, however, include a disclaimer that he has never seen the animal himself.

Erik Pontoppidan, bishop of Bergen, in his Det Forste Forsorg paa Norges Naturlige Historie "Natural History of Norway" (Copenhagen, 1752–3), added significantly to the kraken tale. Also writing extensively on mermaids and sea serpents, Pontoppidan describes the kraken as “the largest sea monster in the world…round, flat, and full of arms, or branches.” He writes that not only is the kraken sometimes mistaken for an island, but also that it is possible of pulling the largest ships down to the ocean’s bottom. The greatest danger to sailors he claims, however, is the whirlpool created when it sinks, capable of “draw[ing] everything down with it.”

A very octopus-like Kraken. Montfort, Denys. Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière des mollusques : animaux sans vertèbres et a sang blanc. v. 2. 1801.

One of the most famous illustrations associated with the kraken, and one in which we see it take a definite cephalopod (if not more octopus-like) persona, comes from French malacologist Pierre Dénys de Montfort’s 1802 book Histoire Naturelle Générale et Particulière des Mollusques. Advertised as an encyclopedic description of mollusks, Montfort describes two kinds of giant octopus in the work: the Kraken Octopus, so often described by Norwegian sailors, and the Colossal Octopus, which he claims attacked a ship off the coast of Angola. The besieged sailors, he reports, prayed to St. Thomas, and were subsequently saved from the creature. He asserts that a votive picture of a ship embraced by this monster octopus was displayed in the St. Thomas chapel at St. Malo, though its existence has not been proven.

Whether or not Montfort truly believed this tale, he apparently had no qualms about publishing fiction as fact. Henry Lee, author of The Octopus in 1875, quoted Montfort as stating, “If my entangled ship is accepted, I will make my ‘colossal poulpe’ otherthrow a whole fleet.” True to his word, soon after his Histoire Naturelle publication, Montfort claimed that this same giant beast attacked and sunk a fleet of six French man-of-wars and four British ships. His reports, apparently, were influenced by Magnus and Pontoppidan’s description of the kraken’s capabilities.

"Kraken" attacking a fleet after a fashion described by Montfort. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. 1916.

In the mid-1800s, the kraken took an authentic biological form as Architeuthis, passing from myth to science. Prof. Japetus Steenstrup, lecturer at Copenhagen University, introduced the giant squid in a paper that related the original description of the earliest record of a giant squid carcass washing ashore: Thingore Sand, Iceland, in 1639. The paper was read in 1849, and the official scientific name was later published in 1857.

Although the giant squid was finally taxonomically official, physical evidence of the creature remained scarce. A near-catch of a specimen in November, 1861, by the Alecton off Tenerife in the Canary Islands ended with only a detached piece of the squid’s tail as any evidence of the encounter. In 1871 and 1872, two giant squid carcasses were collected on the Grand Banks and at Coombs’ Cove, Fortune Bay, Newfoundland, respectively, the latter of which was a reported 52 feet long.

Near-catch of Giant Squid by crew of the Alecton, 1861. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. 1916.

Finally, in December 1873, science caught a break. Four fishermen in Logy Bay, Newfoundland caught a giant squid in their fishing nets. The in-tact specimen was brought to Reverend Moses Harvey, an amateur naturalist, who draped it over a sponge bath for display. He then contacted Addison Emery Verrill, professor of zoology at Yale University, who conducted a full study of the specimen, which measured in at 32 feet long.

Giant Squid specimen draped over a sponge bath, 1873. Verrill, A.E. The Cephalopods of the North-eastern Coast of America. pt. 1. 1882.

Verrill collected information on every known specimen of Architeuthis and published his findings in a paper entitled The Cephalopods of the North-eastern Coast of America. Part I. The Giant Squids (Architeuthis) and their Allies; with Observations on Similar Large Species from Foreign Localities.

"In 1855, Danish zoologist Japetus Steenstrup proposed that the fabled sea bishop [another mythical monster often associated with mermaids] was actually a giant squid. He offered a picture illustrating how the misunderstanding could have occurred." Learn more in the American Museum of Natural History's Mythic Creatures online exhibit, from which this quote is derived. This image: Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

The Giant Squid in Science

But while the giant squid’s acceptance into the scientific canon established the cephalopod as fact, Architeuthis’ habitat, life history, breeding habits, and even definitive size remain shrouded in mystery. It currently holds the record as the second-largest mollusk and extant invertebrate (exceeded only by the colossal squid). Recent studies have revealed that it feeds on deep-sea fish and other squids, but its hunting methods and reproductive cycle are still unknown. While it was long believed that there were many species within the Architeuthis genus, recent genetic analysis suggests there is only one: Architeuthis dux. Claims of lengths reaching 150 -200 feet have been reported, even by scientists, without evidence to justify such claims. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History suggests maximum lengths of nearly 60 feet.

Until recently, no images of the giant squid in its natural habitat had ever been taken. But, on September 30, 2004, Tsunemi Kubodera (National Science Museum of Japan) and Kyoichi Mori (Ogasawara Whale Watching Association) changed this, capturing 500 photographs of a 26 foot giant squid using a camera attached to a baited line. From 2006-2012, in three separate incidents, the giant squid was reportedly filmed, though two of the specimens were less than twelve feet long.

This female giant squid, caught in a net by a Spanish fisherman in 2005, is on display in the Smithsonian’s Sant Ocean Hall. Image Credit: Don Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution, CC:BY-NC-SA. Learn more about the Giant Squid from the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

While our knowledge about this species is increasing, we still have much to learn. Considering its size, the Giant Squid remains a surprisingly elusive creature. It demonstrates just how much we still have to learn about the ocean.

A World with a Kraken 

So, does the kraken really exist? Most definitely. It is the species Architeuthis dux, the giant squid (possibly with some giant cuttlefish, colossal squid, and octopus sightings thrown into the mix).

Is it a warship-sized beast, capable of pulling entire ships to the ocean floor and indiscriminately devouring helpless sailors? No.

Yet again, inexperience and sensationalism turned reality into fiction. And to some degree, this continues to this day. Our research about this animal is still in its infancy, and much misinformation abounds. There is still much we have to learn about the “Kraken.”

"Release the Kraken!" In H. P. Lovecraft's short story "The Call of Cthulhu," Cthulhu (a part man, part dragon, and part octopus monster) attacks a ship. The sailors try to kill the beast by ramming it repeatedly, but Cthulhu simply turns into green mist and reassembles. See more fantastic historic monsters come to life on the Smithsonian Libraries' Tumblr. GIF created by Richard Naples (Smithsonian Libraries), based on Montfort, Denys. Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière des mollusques : animaux sans vertèbres et a sang blanc. v. 2. 1801.

  • Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopp, Inc., 1994. Print.

Grace Costantino
BHL Outreach and Communication Manager

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Quest for the Sea Serpent: An Oarfish or Something More?

"Soe Orm." Magnus, Olaus. Historia de Gentibus Septentionalibus. [ca. 1557 edition].

In the 16th century, the ocean was a terrifying place. Creatures of unimaginable size and ferocity stalked the waters. One such beast was Soe Orm.

“A very large sea serpent of a length upwards of 200 feet and 20 feet in diameter which lives in rocks and in holes near the shore of Bergen; it comes out of its cavern only on summer nights and in fine weather to destroy calves, lambs, or hogs, or goes into the sea to eat cuttles, lobster, and all kinds of sea crabs. It has a growth of hairs of two feet in length hanging from the neck, sharp scales of a dark brown color, and brilliant flaming eyes.”

Olaus Magnus gave this gripping description of his sea serpent, accompanied by an equally formidable woodcut, in the 1555 masterpiece Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (ca. 1557 edition available in BHL). Magnus was hardly the first to assert that giant sea serpents existed, but his prestigious reputation (he was, after all, the archbishop of Sweden), and the subsequent recirculation of his descriptions and imagery by other notable historians, solidified a belief in the existence of such monsters.

"Sea Serpent, after Magnus." Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd ed. 1604.

Magnus, of course, did not come up with the tale of Soe Orm on his own. The creatures he describes are based on accounts from sailors and Scandinavian locales, which in turn were based on encounters with strange aquatic creatures that became immortalized as sea serpents.

One of the earliest illustrations of a sea serpent drawn from an eye-witness account comes from Danish missionary Hans Egede, who claimed to have seen one off the coast of Greenland in 1734.

“The monster was of so huge a size, that coming out of the water its head reached as high as the mast-head; its body was as bulky as the ship, and three or four times as long. It had a long pointed snout, and spouted like a Whale-Fish; great broad paws, and the body seemed covered with shell-work.” 

"Sea Serpent drawn after Hans Egede's description." Reproduced in: Oudemans, A.C. The Great Sea Serpent. 1892.

A drawing of Egede’s beast, and this description, was published in Det Gronlands nye Perlustration in 1741. Fourteen years later, Bishop Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan of Bergen published The Natural History of Norway, which relates two separate eye witness accounts of a sea serpent, one with a head that resembled a horse, and another with a snake-like body. Pontoppidan asserts that these eye-witness accounts provide “proper authorities for the real existence of this creature.”

"Sea Serpent representations based on accounts given to Erik Pontoppidan." The Natural History of Norway. 1755.

Descriptions of sea serpents with manes or growths of hair about their necks (like those of Magnus and Pontoppidan) are common amongst monster lore. This feature provides a clue to one of the animals commonly mistaken for a sea serpent: the Oarfish.

"Oarfish." Natural History of Victoria. Decades 11-15. 1890. See an oarfish on display at Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County. See a video of a real oarfish.

An enigmatic creature, the oarfish is the longest bony fish alive, possibly measuring as long as 45-50 feet. Human encounters with these fish are rare, but they do have a red cockscomb of spines on their head and a red dorsal fin running the length of their bodies. Fleeting glimpses of oarfish could easily be exaggerated into an encounter with a monstrous sea serpent, and, to an untrained eye, the remains of such a fish washed up on a beach could understandably resemble the sea serpent of legend.

Basking Sharks, the second largest living fish (behind whale sharks) measuring up to 40 feet in length, have also been mistaken for sea serpents. In 1808, a badly decomposed carcass washed up on Stronsay. At a meeting of the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh, it was asserted that this carcass was the same creature described by Egede and Pontoppidan, and it was given the name Halsydrus (“sea water snake”). Later analysis of the skin and cartilage revealed that the “monster” was in fact a basking shark, and hardly a monster. These gentle giants are passive feeders with a diet of zooplankton and small fish and invertebrates.

"Basking Shark." Couch, Jonathan. A History of the Fishes of the British Isles. v. 1. 1868.

One of the most infamous sea serpent episodes spanned decades. From 1817-19, a mass of people, including fishermen, military personnel, and pedestrians, reported seeing a sea monster at least eighty, but perhaps one hundred feet, long, with a head resembling a horse, in the harbor off Gloucester, MA. There were so many eye-witness reports that the Linnaean Society of New England formed a special investigating committee to examine the possibility of such a creature.

"The Sea Serpent 'baby' found in Massachusetts: Scoliopus atlanticus." Oudemans, A.C. The Great Sea Serpent. 1892. Learn more about the Gloucester mystery, and see a digitized letter from Francis Boott describing the events, in a post from Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, by Jon Nicholls. 

Then, in October 1817, two young boys found a three-foot-long, serpent body with humps on a beach not far from where the sightings had occurred. The Linnaean Society declared that the Gloucester sea serpent had visited the harbor in order to lay eggs, and that the specimen the boys had found represented one of its young. They invented an entirely new genus and named the sea serpent Scoliophis atlanticus (“Atlantic Humped Snake”). Shortly thereafter, naturalist Alexandre Lesueur examined the specimen and reported that it was, in fact, a deformed common blacksnake (Coluber constrictor).

"Common Blacksnake." North American Herpetology. v. 4. 1840.

In 1819, undaunted by Lesueur’s findings, and still believing the Gloucester serpent to be valid, French-American naturalist Constantin Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz gave the creature a scientific name, Pelamis megophias, but admitted that it might constitute its own genus, in which case it should be named Megophias monstrosus.

Enthusiasm and belief in the Gloucester sea serpent continued, with repeated sightings throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (the last documented sighting was in 1962). While the identity of the creature has never been established, several candidates have been proposed, including a row of leaping porpoises, giant eels, sea snakes, whales, seals, and, of course, our good friend the oarfish. The spontaneously-created scientific name Scoliophis atlanticus is now considered a synonym of the basking shark, revealing yet another likely identity for the monster. No evidence confirming the existence of a new-to-science species off the coast of Massachusetts has been found.

Sea Serpent proponents enjoyed a brief moment of triumph in 1845 when Albert C. Koch, a German collector, exhibited a full skeleton of what he called Hydrarchos sillimani at the Apollo Saloon on Broadway. Claiming to have found the entire skeleton in Clarksville, Alabama, his sea serpent was 114 feet in length. The glory was short-lived. Harvard anatomist Jeffries Wyman debunked the skeleton as an “artfully assembled collection of bones from at least five fossil specimens of Basilosaurus, a 45-foot long ancestral whale.” (Ellis, pg. 56).

"Albert Koch's Sea Serpent." Oudemans, A.C. The Great Sea Serpent. 1892.

In the late nineteenth century, Olaus Magnus’ accounts were again repurposed, this time in Antoon Cornelis Oudemans’ The Great Sea-Serpent. An entomologist by training, Oudemans spent a majority of his free-time amassing a wealth of information on sea serpents, in which he fully believed. His book represents a systematic collection and analysis of the sightings supporting the sea-serpents’ existence. He claimed that all verified sightings of the beast belonged to the creature classified by Rafinesque, but that the monster was not a reptile at all but a mammal that belonged within the order Pinnipedia. Demonstrating some transformation in public opinion by the end of the nineteenth century, Oudemans’ book was highly criticized at its release. Times (London) went so far as to call it “a joke.” Nevertheless, it is an invaluable resource as record of sea serpent lore and sightings.

"The Sea Monster." Oudemans, A.C. The Great Sea Serpent. 1892.

Does the Sea Serpent Exist? 

Accounts of sea serpents continue to this day, including the still unresolved debate regarding the Cadborosaurus. Many have been unquestionably linked to known species, while others are associated with likely candidates.

Reported specimen of Cadborosaurus willsi, an alleged sea serpent from the Pacific Ocean. Over 200 sightings have been attributed to this species. This image captures a carcass taken from a Sperm Whale's stomach and photographed in October, 1937. Researchers believe this specimen is actually a fetal baleen whale.

So, does a sea creature roaming the seas, seen by countless witnesses over the centuries, really exist? Yes. It just goes by the more common name of Oarfish…or Basking Shark…or Humpback Whale…or Eel…It’s just another classic case of mistaken identity flavored with some good-old-fashioned embellishment…

Then again…

…Unlike the hydra and mermaids, questions as to the existence of the legendary sea serpent still remains. It’s a favorite topic within cryptozoology. The rediscovery of the coelacanth in 1938, believed extinct for 70 million years, and the discovery of the megamouth shark in 1976, leads many proponents to insist that an undiscovered marine titan, or a surviving dinosaur, is yet to be found. 

In 1976, an extremely rare deep water shark, the Megamouth, was discovered off the coast of Hawaii. See the description of the new species in Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences. 4th series, v. 43. 1983. See a Megamouth and Coelacanth on display at the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County.

Does an unidentified species of untold length, serpentine in appearance, lurk in the ocean depths, waiting to be discovered? Only time will tell...though we’d venture to guess it does not come ashore at night to feast on livestock….

"The Sea Serpent." Belon, Pierre. Petri Bellonii Cenomani De aquatilibus, libri duo cum [epsilon, iota] conibus ad viuam ipsorum effigiem, quoad eius fieri potuit, expressis. 1553. Explore more Sea Serpent lore in the Mythic Creatures online exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History.

More Monsters Are Real fun!

"Attack of the Sea Monster!" In 1555, Olaus Magnus published an image and description of the Soe Orm, which he claimed was a giant sea serpent 200 feet in length that lived near the shore or Bergen and came out at night to eat the farmers' livestock. His image and description was republished for centuries. See more fantastic historic monsters come to life on the Smithsonian Libraries' Tumblr. GIF created by Richard Naples (Smithsonian Libraries), based on Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd ed. 1604.

  • Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopp, Inc., 1994. Print.

Grace Costantino
BHL Outreach and Communication Manager

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Whale of a Tale...The Leviathan

The Devil Whale 

In the 6th century AD, St. Brendan, an Irish cleric, and eighteen other monks, sailed out from Ireland to cross the ocean. Amidst their journey, they came upon a black, treeless island and decided to make camp for the night. Several monks set up a cooking station and lit a fire. And then the island began to move. Terrified, the monks fled back to their boat, leaving the food and fire behind. St. Brandon urged them not to be afraid; it was simply the great fish Jasconius, “which laboreth night and day to put his tail in his mouth, but for greatness he may not” (Navigatio sancti Brendan abbatis, 9th century, translated from Latin).

St. Brendan atop Jasconius. Manuscriptum translationis germanicae (ca. 1460, Cod. Pal. Germ. 60, fol. 179v, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg).

Gessner describes Jasconius by another name: the Trol whale or Devil Whale, which lies asleep in the water and is often mistaken for an island by hapless sailors. Gessner was likely inspired by Magnus, who claims that the whale's skin is like sand, lending to its confusion with a beach. When the whale is disturbed by the sailors’ dinner fires, it sinks, causing such a whirpool that the ships themselves are often sunk.

The Devil Whale, complete with sailors trying to cook a meal on its back. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

For centuries, men have imagined all manner of aquatic monsters. The ocean was a strange and foreign place, and even several hundred years ago, was very little explored. “If the very body of the ocean presented a fearsome aspect, with its dark, roiling waters, its threatening visage, and its intimidating vistas, its occupants were the quintessence of terror,” wrote marine biologist Richard Ellis in his book Monsters of the Sea. “The landlubbers’ only contact with the large creatures of the sea was at best sporadic and often completely incomprehensible” (Ellis, pgs. 193-194).

This sporadic contact spawned tales of horrible beasts. Quite often, these horrible beasts were, in truth, cetaceans.

The Sperm Whale: Chief Among the Leviathans 

Even before sailors encountered whales in the ocean, washed up carcasses, sometimes badly mutilated, ignited a fear of the creatures of the deep. According to Ellis, “the sperm whale, with its mysterious habit of stranding on shallow beaches, was probably responsible for many of the legends and myths of sea monsters.” (pg. 194).

The record of sperm whale strandings is quite dramatic. Quite often, they are stranded en masse. For instance, in 1723, seventeen whales were stranded ashore the Elbe River in Germany. In 1784, thirty-one made landfall in Brittany. In 1888, sixteen washed up in Cape Canaveral, and in 1974, 72 were found on the coasts of New Zealand.

A variety of circumstances can result in a stranding, including rough weather, illness or age, difficulty giving birth, hunting mishaps, or even attempts to rescue another whale in distress.

Sperm Whale stranding. Jonstonus, Joannes. Historiae naturalis de quadrupetibus libri. pt. 2-6. 1650.

The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is a strange animal, even among whales. The largest toothed whale, and toothed predator, in the world, the sperm whale holds many records. It has the longest intestinal tract and largest brain in the animal kingdom. It also has the largest nose of any animal and cavities within its head hold reservoirs of liquid wax called Spermaceti. This behemoth can reach up to 67 feet long and weigh as much as 125,000 pounds!

A Sperm Whale in search of food. Scammon, C.M. The marine mammals of the north-western coast of North America. 1874.

A Whole Order of Leviathan Inspiration 

While their strange appearance and prolific beachings likely inspired many monster stories, sperm whales are not the only cetaceans that natural history writers had contact with. For instance, a blue whale – the largest animal to have ever lived – is documented as having come ashore as early as 1692, in Scotland. A 95-foot specimen was placed on exhibit in Europe in 1827, “further enhancing the image of the whale as a gigantic monster” (Ellis, pg. 197). Interactions with right whales, bowheads, baleens, and orcas also inspired Leviathan legends.

Whales From Hell

The range of monsters inspired by cetaceans is charmingly diverse, including many varieties in addition to the Devil Whale. Most are likely the result of an amalgamation of many species, and some (like the Devil Whale) may also have been shaped by religious undercurrents.


Pristers are found in multiple forms throughout Carta Marina and in many subsequent publications. Magnus actually identified these beasts as whales, describing them as “two hundred cubits long, and very cruel.”

Physeter, or Prister. Magnus, Olaus. Historiae de gentibus septentrionalibus. 1555.

The common feature among them is the presence of two blowholes, most often acting as water cannons drowning unlucky vessels. Magnus warns, “to the danger of Sea men, he will sometimes raise himself beyond the sail yards, and cast such floods of waters above his head, which he had sucked in, that with a cloud of them, he will often sink the strongest ships…Sometimes, not content to do hurt by water only…he will cruelly over throw the ship like any small vessel, striking it with his back, or tail.” If that isn’t bad enough, Magnus also claims that it has a mouth like a Lamprey, “whereby he sucks in his meat or water.”

Prister attacking a ship. Magnus, Olaus. Historiae de gentibus septentrionalibus. 1555.

How can such a beast be defeated? Not by cannon-fire. Magnus warns that the beast’s layer of fat is too thick for such absurdities. Instead, try sounding a trumpet, which will startle the monster, or dump some empty barrels in the ocean, with which the creature will become distracted and stop to play.

The Prister, monsters actually identified as whales in historic publications, are reported to be mighty enough to sink the strongest ships. Cannon-fire was, according to Olaus Magnus, who published three versions of them in 1555, useless against these beasts. Instead, sailors should sound trumpets and throw barrels into the water to distract these monsters. See more fantastic historic monsters come to life on the Smithsonian Libraries' Tumblr. GIF created by Richard Naples (Smithsonian Libraries), based on Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd ed. 1604.

What species is this monster likely based on? Well, Baleen Whales do actually have two blowholes, and Magnus refers to the beasts as Physeter. The modern-day suberfamily including sperm whales is Physeteroidea.

The Ziphius

“The sword-fish is like no other, but in something it is like a whale. He hath as ugly a head as an Owl; his mouth is wondrous deep, as a vast pit, whereby he terrifies and drives away those that look into it. His eyes are horrible, his back Wedge-fashion, or elevated like a sword. His snout is pointed. These often enter upon the Northern Coasts as Thieves and hurtful Guests, that are always doing mischief to ships they meet, by boring holes in them, and sinking them.” 

The Ziphius, after Magnus. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

Thus Magnus describes the Ziphius (translation via John Ashton's Curious Creatures in Zoology (1890)), whose name comes from the Greek xiphias, meaning sword (recall Magnus’ comparison of its fin to a sword). This bizarre, owl-headed creature is depicted with a seal in its jaws. This, and the shape of the fin, suggest that the monster may be based on an Orca. A Great White Shark has also been suggested.

And the porcupine-fish attacking the Ziphius? Jury’s still out on that one…

The Case for the Leviathan 

We all know whales are real, and we know that they can grow to extraordinary sizes (the largest size on earth, in fact). They have even been documented to attack and sink ships (for instance, in 1820, the vessel Essex was sunk by a sperm whale), so those crews wishing to harpoon a whale has reason to be cautious.

Physeter, or Prister. Magnus, Olaus. Historiae de gentibus septentrionalibus. 1555.

Does the Leviathan exist? Yes. Even within the sixteenth century writings of Magnus and Gessner, Leviathan monsters such as Devil Whales and Pristers are identified as whales. However, are you likely to mistake a whale for an island and try to cook your dinner on it? Is a whale prone to kill a human simply for the fun of it? Probably not.

As is the case with all monsters inspired by real animals, limited - and sometimes dramatic (think witnessing a breaching near your boat for the first time, or stumbling upon the decomposing corpse of a sperm whale) - contact with these mammals fueled fear and sensationalism, resulting in harrowing tales of great beasts roaming the oceans.

But, in the end, a Leviathan, by any other name, is simply a whale (or perhaps an Orca) and most definitely not a monster.


Grace Costantino
BHL Outreach and Communication Manager