The Walrus as you Never Knew Him

Conrad Gessner desired to reconcile ancient knowledge about the animal kingdom with the modern discoveries of the Renaissance. This endeavor spurred him to produce his magnificent Historia Animalium, a work synonymous with the beginning of modern zoology. This five-volume masterpiece covered the subjects of “live-bearing four footed animals” (mammals), “egg-laying quadrupeds” (crocodiles and lizards), birds, fish and sea creatures, and a fifth posthumous volume on snakes and scorpions.

Compiling knowledge from Old Testament, Greek, Hebrew and Latin sources, Animalium boasts a rich collection of woodcut illustrations – something uncommon in other contemporary natural history publications. Gessner repurposed images from many famous researchers of his time, including Olaus Magnus, Guillaume Rondelet, Pierre Belon, Ulisse Aldrovandi, and Albrecht Durer. Their existing images were carved into woodblocks by craftsmen, which were used to “stamp” the reproductions onto designated pages within the text blocks.

Though Gessner intended to produce an authoritative encyclopedia of scientific knowledge about the natural world, his five volumes do include mythical beasts and fancifully-rendered factual creatures. Many of the more exotic of the species he depicted were based on textual or second-hand accounts, explaining the sometimes substantial divergence from reality.

Case in point: The Walrus.

Gessner’s Walrus comes from descriptions by Olaus Magnus in his work on the northern European ocean: Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555). Basing his description on Albertus Magnus’ thirteenth century accounts of walrus hunting and reports from two more recent travelers to Russia (Maciej z Miechowa, 1517, and Paolo Giovio, 1525), Olaus recounted the walrus as “a mighty fish, as big as an elephant, called morse or rosmari” that was capable of climbing mountains. The rendering he provided for the creature depicted a beast with legs and tusks in its lower jaw.

Gessner voiced some hesitations about Magnus’ representation of the Walrus. Writing that he believed Olaus based many of his creatures on sailors’ accounts rather than life studies, Gessner reasoned that “fish don’t have feet.” Since common wisdom of the day, and even Olaus himself, grouped Walrus with fish, it was an understandable concern. Nevertheless, Olaus was a well-respected authority, with a good family lineage and a travel resume that had brought him further north than any of his intellectual European contemporaries. Thus, Gessner included two illustrations in his work, one closely resembling Olaus’ beast and another more recognizable as the pinniped we know today.

The inaccurate renderings of Magnus and Gessner’s Walrus, and many other Walrus depictions of the time, may have originated in part from confused reports on ivory sources. The ivory trade in China consisted of a combination of elephant, walrus, and narwhal tusks. Practically no documentation was kept regarding the source of the ivory, and while the European ivory trade was more segmented among source types, the Scandinavians, Russians, and Nenets that supplied the western trade did not share information readily. Thus, natural historians like Olaus Magnus likely tailored their depictions to reconcile the vague second-hand accounts they received with the appearance of other animals they knew produced ivory tusks – elephants. Indeed, many other Walrus portraits of the day (such as those by Waldseemüller and Fries) portray the animal in a much more elephant-like manner, complete with long legs, floppy ears, and, in the case of Fries, even a trunk.

Thus, all things considered, though we today may look at Gessner’s Walrus and giggle, his was actually a much more accurate representation of the animal than many alternative sources in his time. Despite the factual deviations it may contain, “for an understanding of the history of zoology and a peek at some truly fascinating and five-hundred-year-old illustrations, there is no better historical guide than Conrad Gessner’s Historia Animalium.” (Ellis, pg. 2).

And, come on, Gessner’s Walrus is pretty adorable!



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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.