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Monsters, Sea-Monks, and Mermaids: Strange Creatures from the Sea from Antiquity to the Modern Age

Throughout the centuries, sea-monsters have featured not only in stories, legend and art, but also in the study of nature. In Antiquity, scholars theorised that water generated more monstrosities than any other environment. Medieval and Early Modern scholars did not exclude the possibility that sea-monsters exist, and collected rather than contradicted reported sightings. As a consequence they helped spread stories about monstrosities from the sea and contributed to a culture in which such monsters were omnipresent. Medieval and Early Modern depictions of strange creatures from the sea can be found as decorative elements on maps and in works recording folklore, man-made monsters were included in Early Modern collections of naturalia, and sea-monsters were described in scholarly works, even up until the Modern period. Many of these creatures and their characteristics were based on descriptions from Antiquity, while at the same time new monsters were introduced.

The Nature of Monsters

In Antiquity nature in general was seen as flexible and capable of producing any variety of creatures. This was believed to be particularly true for aquatic environments. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder stated that monstrosities form most easily in water, due to its liquid nature and the amount of nutrients it contains. Later on, Christian authors presented this plasticity of nature as the consequence of divine omnipotence. As a result, monsters were on the one hand seen as natural phenomena and on the other often interpreted as divine signs. For example, several sixteenth century scholars describe a ‘sea-monk’, a creature with a tonsured head and scaly robes. This was interpreted by the religious author and counter-reformer Aegidius Albertinus (1560–1620) as a divine expression of dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of the clergy, while the scholar Paracelsus (1493–1541) provided a natural explanation for its existence by stating the creature must be the offspring of a fish and a drowned monk.

Monachus marinus, in Conrad Gessner, Historiae animalium liber IIII qui est de piscium et aquatilium animantium natura, Zürich, C. Froschauer, 1558, p. 519. [Leiden University Library, 665 A 7]

Terrestrial Counterparts

Like the sea-monk, many aquatic monsters resembled something or someone we might find on land. Since Antiquity it had been assumed that aquatic creatures often took the form of a, natural or artificial, terrestrial counterpart. As evidence of this principle, classical authors referred to creatures such as the sea-cucumber, the swordfish, and the sawfish. Classical mythology also featured a range of aquatic deities with human upper bodies and the lower body of a fish, such as Nereids, as well as creatures which were part terrestrial animal, such as the hippocampus, with the upper body of a horse and lower body of a fish. Descriptions and depictions of sea-monsters from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern era show us similar mixtures of aquatic and terrestrial features. The popular late fifteenth century natural history encyclopedia Hortus Sanitatis for example, presents to us a range of sea-creatures with terrestrial characteristics. The illustration shows a page from a 1536 German edition, Gart der Gesundheit, which bears depictions of a sea-cow with the upper body of a cow and lower body of a fish, a bird with a fishtail, and several Nereids.

Various monsters and mythical creatures, in Gart der Gesundheit zu latein Hortus Sanitatis : Sagt in vier Bücheren von Vierfüszsigen vnd Krichenden, Vöglen vnd den Fliegenden, Vischen vnd Schwimmenden thieren, dem Edlen Gesteyn vnd allem so in den Aderen der erden wachsen ist, Strasbourg, M. Apiarius, 1536, fo. XCII. [Leiden University Library, 1370 B 15]


While there was much continuity in the way sea-monsters were portrayed and perceived, new developments also took place. While mermaids were unknown in Antiquity, sightings of these creatures were reported with some regularity by Medieval and Early Modern authors. A page-wide depiction in a work on monstrosities, Monstrorum historia (1642) by the first professor of natural sciences at the University of Bologna and founder of its botanical garden, Ulysse Aldrovandi (1522–1605), shows us what such creatures were believed to look like. In appearance these much resemble the Nereids from Antiquity, which were believed to be friendly and keen to help sailors in distress. In this, they resemble the benevolent aquatic fairies native to western European folklore. By contrast, mermaids were believed to be dangerous and seductive creatures that shipwreck vessels and lead sailors to their doom. In this, they resemble another creature from classical mythology, the siren. These birdlike creatures with human faces were believed to enchant sailors with their singing in order to cause them harm. During the Middle Ages, elements of sirens, sea nymphs, and aquatic fairies, were combined in popular imagination to form the mermaid.

Monstra Niliaca, in Ulisse Aldrovandi, Opera omnia. XI Monstrorum historia cum paralipomenis historiae omnium animalium, Bologna, N. Tebaldini, 1642, p. 354. [Leiden University Library, 655 A 13]

Monstrous Whales

While monstrous whales had been described since Antiquity, the sixteenth century generated an unprecedented variety of such creatures. Little knowledge on whales had been gathered during Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and often monstrous proportions and strength were attributed to these animals. For unknown reasons, in the second half of the sixteenth century whales beached more frequently than usual on European shores. Around the same time whaling increased. As a result, knowledge expanded, but up until then accurate depictions and descriptions were scarce and the line between whale and monster remained difficult to draw. The Swedish chronicler Olaus Magnus published depictions of monstrous whales based on folklore on his 1539 map of Scandinavia Carta marina et descriptio septentrionalium terrarium and in his 1555 chronic of Scandinavia Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, which became instantly popularThe creatures shown on the map of Iceland from the Antwerp cartographer Abraham Ortelius’s atlas Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570) are based on Magnus’s monsters. The map shows ten monstrous whales, with claws that resemble those of terrestrial animals.

Islandia, in Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum orbis terrarum, Antwerp, s.n., 1570. [Leiden University Library, COLLBN Atlas 43: 1]

Man-Made Monsters

Basilisks were first described in Antiquity as dangerous serpents and acquired new characteristics in later centuries. By the late Middle Ages they had become winged monsters, born as the result of a bizarre sequence of events, which could kill anyone by looking at them. During the Early Modern period basilisk-like monsters were manufactured out of rays. The scholar Ulysse Aldrovandi describes two such creations as basilisks, while others are described as winged snakes or dragons. In 1558 the Swiss scholar Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) explained, in his encyclopaedia of animals Historia animalium, how these were made, by twisting, cutting and drying a ray. He complains that the man-made monsters were passed off as real to impress the masses and were often exhibited in apothecary shops. However, they were also part of scholarly naturalia collections. Aldrovandi collected several and described no fewer than five in his Serpentum et draconum historiae (1640) and De piscibus et de cetis (1623).

Winged snake, in Conrad Gessner, Nomenclator aquatilium animantium icones animalium aquitilium in mari et dulcibus aquis degentium, Zürich, C. Froschauer, 1560, p. 139. [Leiden University Library, 665 A 9]

Draco ex Raia effictus, in Ulysse Aldrovandi, Opera omnia. X: Serpentum et draconum historiae libri duo, Bologna, N. Tebaldini 1640, p. 315. [Leiden University Library, 655 A 12]

The Sea-Unicorn and the Narwhal

First reports of the unicorn date back to the fourth century BC, when the scholar Ctesias described a one-horned horse which he had heard about. The legend subsequently spread through the work of Aristotle and other scholars. In addition, a mistranslation in the bible gave the impression that the unicorn was mentioned in the Old Testament. Scholars of the Middle Ages and first half of the Early Modern period consequently had good reason to believe in unicorns. The assumption that animals on land have aquatic counterparts, meant that the existence of a sea-unicorn was also widely accepted. Believed to neutralise poison, what was sold as unicorn horn fetched exorbitant prices. In the sixteenth century scholars began to suspect that these ‘horns’ were in fact narwhal teeth. The collector Ole Worm published a treaty on this subject in 1638. The discovery quickly became common knowledge and inspired the depiction from Pierre Pomet’s Histoire generale des drogues, published in 1694, of a sea-unicorn and narwhal side by side. However, rather than diminishing belief in the medical properties of the horns, this led many to belief that the narwhal was in fact the sea-unicorn. The last recorded use of unicorn horn in folk medicine took place in the nineteenth century.

Licorne de Mer, in Pierre Pomet, Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, et des mineraux, Paris, J.-B. Loyson, etc.,1694, p. 78. [Museum Boerhaave Library, BOERH e 2459 a]

Modern Sea-Monsters

Certain sea-monsters have proved surprisingly durable. The depiction of a giant sea serpent published by the Dutch zoologist Anthonie Oudemans in 1892, is not unlike many depicted in mosaics from Antiquity or in books from the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. Towards the end of the nineteenth century sightings of this mythical creature were still reported with such regularity that Oudemans was able to collect nearly two hundred reports over the course of three years. Applying what is known as a crypto-zoological approach, in the absence of empirical evidence, Oudemans used the quantity of sightings as an argument that the giant sea serpent was an existing species. He proposed the scientific name Megophias megophias for the yet to be discovered creatureOudemans received a lukewarm reaction from the academic world, where both cryptozoology and the existence of sea-monsters were considered controversial. Nonetheless, The Great Sea Serpent was published by reputable academic publishers. As Oudemans pointed out, the fact that a sea-monster has not yet been discovered does not prove it does not exist.

The sea-monster, as Mr. C. Renard supposed to have seen it, in Anthonie Cornelis Oudemans, The great sea-serpent: An historical and critical treatise: With the reports of 187 appearances, Leiden, Brill etc. – London, Luzac & Co, 1892, p. 56. [Leiden University Library, 290 B 7]

This blogpost is an extract from my contribution to the exhibition catalogue ‘Fish & Fiction. Aquatic Animals between Science and Imagination (1500–1900)’. The exhibition was a collaboration between the Leiden University Library and the LUCAS project ‘A New History of Fishes. A long-term approach to fishes in science and culture, 1550-1880’.

© Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Fantastic Beast and How to Make Them. Part I

A year and a half ago in a blogpost on sixteenth century Monstreous Rays and Fraudulent Apothecaries, I referred to a description of a sea-creature resembling a winged snake or a dragon from Conrad Gessner’s 1558 Historia Piscium. Last weekend my colleague Robbert Striekwold and I made an attempt at making such a dragon ourselves. Our project at Leiden University, A New History of Fishes, is at the moment organising an exhibition at the Leiden University Library which opens on September 20. If by then we have managed to create a dragon that looks like Gessner’s, this will be put on display. The photo below shows our first, somewhat clumsy, attempt. We used the wrong type of fish, and the result is a far cry from Gessner’s dragon. However, we will continue to try, and so this blogpost is the first of a series.




Gessner described how sea-monsters were made out of rays, often by apothecaries who displayed them in their shops. For more information on these monstrosities, nowadays known as Jenny Hanivers, I refer to my previous blogpost. For now, let’s return to Gessner’s text for a moment.

“Apothecaries and others”, he writes, “let the body of the ray dry and twist the skeleton, making the animal look like a winged serpent or a dragon. They bend the body and alter the shape of the head and mouth, and cut other parts off. The forward part of the wings is cut away, and what is left is turned upright, making the animal look like it has wings”



Conrad Gesner. Historiae animalium liber IIII. Zurich, Christoph Froschauer, 1558. SUB Göttingen HSD


Gessner complained that ordinary people were easily impressed by such things, referring to the fact that such man-made monsters were often exhibited and people would readily pay to see them. Jenny Hanivers were therefore no rare sight. Gessner’s acquaintance, the naturalist Ulysse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) depicted no fewer than five of them.



Ulysse Aldrovandi. De piscibus. Bologna, Baptiste Bellagamba, 1613. Université Louis Pasteur from University of Strasbourg.


To us this suggested that they might not be so difficult to make, and armed with Gessner’s instructions we set out to try this for ourselves. However, we faced several challenges, beginning at the fish market. Rays, I had been told, are at their leanest and therefore not sold during the summer. However, with a few days notice, my fishmonger could get me one. Unfortunately, when I came to collect my ray, it had been chopped up and neatly wrapped up with a lemon and a bunch of parsley. Unable to get another ray at short notice, Robbert and I decided to practice on the scariest looking thing we could find, a monkfish (Lophius piscatorius).



Photo: Kai Henry


Of course monkfish are nothing like rays, and, because they are much more fleshy, much less suitable for our purpose. Nevertheless, we got to work. We knew certain parts of the fish would be impossible to preserve, so our first step was to remove those, beginning with the eyes.




Then we turned our fish over and began to remove as much flesh as possible, leaving the bone and the skin. This would make it easier to twist and shape, and would hopefully leave us with something that would easily dry in the sun. Having chosen a hot day for our experiment, we were hopeful. Monkfish have a thick spinal cord and no small bones, and so, using a standard dissection kit, we were able to easily remove almost all of the flesh from the tail. The head however, contains a lot of cartilage and we couldn’t get to the fleshy parts.




Not wanting to let this discourage us, we began to shape our fish. Because Gessner’s instructions applied to rays, we abandoned them and used our imagination. We decided to spread out the pectoral fins and lift them to make them look like wings, twist the tail and spread out the dorsal fin, and open the mouth wide for a scary finishing touch. Then of course everything had to be kept in position until it dried. We began with the tail, and pinned the tail fin down. All the while, we kept spraying water on our fish to keep it from drying out before we’d shaped it.




The next step was to spread out and lift the dorsal fin. This was easy enough, but then we had to keep it like this until it was dry. Some wooden building blocks my son no longer plays with came in useful. We propped one up against the fin and used a pipe cleaner to provide extra support.




Then we spread out and lifted the pectoral fins, using the same system. We propped them up using blocks, then used aluminium wire for extra support. This accomplished, we added pipe cleaners to hold up the filaments on the head. By now our fish was beginning to somewhat resemble Frankenstein’s monster.





We moved on to the head, again using building blocks and wire. We wrapped the wire around the head and stuffed one of the blocks into the mouth. And just like that we were done, now all we had to do was leave our creation out in the sun and hope for it to dry.




And here comes the sad part. After a long and well deserved lemonade break during which we named our monster Oscar, we returned to find the fins fairly dry but everything else more or less like we left it. By now it was late afternoon, Robbert had to go home and we left Oscar on my roof terrace, hoping he would magically dry while my family and I had dinner.




That evening, once the kids were in bed, my husband and I went to check on Oscar. He had begun to dry out but still had a long way to go, and the sun was going down. Not wanting to give up, and not wanting to leave Oscar unprotected in case the neighbourhood cats would feast on him, we put him on salt and in a box.




The next morning I went to check on him. The salt had little to no effect, Oscar was still wet. And so, once again I left him out in the sun and hoped for the best.




It was not to be. By evening, Oscar had begun to decompose and smell. He was also attracting flies.




It was time to make a decision. And so Oscar went into the bin…




Nevertheless, Oscar taught us a few valuable lessons. Making a dragon like Gessner’s is fairly easy, however drying it proves difficult. In this case, we did not manage to remove quite enough flesh, but this may be easier working with rays, as Gessner prescribes. And while we hoped that leaving Oscar out in the sun and putting him on salt would do the trick, we should keep in mind that Gessner does not explain how to dry the fish, therefore we may have to consider other methods.

This weekend we will try again. This time using a ray and following Gessner’s instructions to the letter. To be continued..



Further reading:

Pierre Belon. De aquatilibus. Paris, Charles Estienne, 1553.

Conrad Gesner. Historiae animalium liber IIII. Zurich, Christoph Froschauer, 1558.

Ulysse Aldrovandi. De piscibus. Bologna, Baptiste Bellagamba, 1613.

Sophia Hendrikx. Het eerste en misschien ook wel het kleinste en mooiste boek over waterdieren. In: Hans Mulder en Erik Zevenhuizen (Red.), De natuur op papier. 175 jaar Artis Bibliotheek. Amsterdam, Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, 2013.

Peter Dance. Animal frauds and fakes. Maidenhead, Berkshire, Sampson Low, 1976.


© Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.