“Men may sail the seas for a lifetime and seldom, if ever, come in contact with the nightmare monsters that inhabit the caves and cliffs of the ocean floor. It was a foul sight, an obscene growth from the dark places of the world, where incessant hunger is the driving force.”
– William Outserson, Monster Mix
I’ve always been afraid to swim in lakes and oceans if I couldn’t see what was below me. The other day I even felt nervous by the seafood counter at the grocery store, because the king crab legs were so big. I started to wonder what an entire king crab looked like, and then I was unable to wait in the line for sushi, because the whole thing was creepin’ me out.
I read once that our best guess about the characteristics of alien life is the type of creature that flourishes in our deepest oceans, because the conditions they live in are so intense. It’s a testament to how badly we’re treating the planet that scientists believe even these tough monstrous fish are in danger, evidenced here.
On fear: I had a visual encyclopedia when I was a little kid, and the fear followed me through those pages. I wasn’t able to touch the pictures of deep sea creatures because they scared me so much. In my defense, they’re pretty horrific looking by normal standards. If Cracked has written a listicle about something, you know it’s pretty shocking.
When they’re not the subject of shock-factor click bait online, deep sea creatures tend to rack up views on YouTube, perhaps because we enjoy the idea that our world hasn’t been fully discovered and dissected. It’s not often that scientists look at an image of a creature on earth and wonder aloud, “what is that thing?”, and when this does happen, it usually involves something you could call a sea monster.
I’m talking primarily about the video below, which a writer-friend sent to me as inspiration for my monster blog. How terrifying and romantic is the idea of an unknown species, an organism that we haven’t categorized and studied yet? I love that it swam up to a camera and simply floated away after a while, existing outside our realm of knowledge.
Deep-sea creatures look monstrous because they are constructed the way horror directors create their monsters and villains. They remind us of familiar creatures, fish and the like, but certain parts are disturbingly omitted (gills, limbs, a visible face) or enhanced due to the environment (much larger eyes to combat the dark, luminescent body parts, transparent skin).
Creatures like the leviathan originated in Biblical text (actually, in my favorite book, Job), and they are patchwork images created by men who lived primarily on land. The leviathan is part dinosaur, part classical sea monster, and art including the leviathan is often haunting. There’s something terribly wondrous about a great beast living in the dark seas.
Job reads, “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you soft words?” The verse is meant to demonstrate God’s majesty, by suggesting that a mere human would be unable to tame or communicate with the leviathan.
In the middle ages, as with most Biblical monsters, the leviathan was equated to images of Satan in classical art. It is described as a serpent in some verses, and since modern Christians eventually adopted the serpent mentioned in Genesis (the one who really wanted Adam and Eve to eat that fruit?), they all melded into one creature. In some Jewish texts, the leviathan is considered a sea-bound brother to the behemoth, a land-dweller. In Hebrew, leviathan is sometimes called taninim as in “God created the great sea monsters, taninim” in Genesis.
This, of course, is an example of my favorite questions about monsters, one voiced by John Gardner’s beast-protagonist in Grendel. Grendel wonders aloud what he was created for, if a creator like God made him in some image, if not his own. Genesis says God created the leviathan. For what purpose, I wonder?
In The Odyssey, we meet the Scylla, another creature described as both a sea-dweller and a serpent. One imagines the scylla could be a mythological cousin of the Biblical leviathan, both based on our fear of the unknown.
The text reads, “…they writhed
gasping as Scylla swung them up her cliff and there
at her cavern’s mouth she bolted them down raw—
screaming out, flinging their arms toward me,
lost in that mortal struggle.”
Also technically sea monsters are mermaids, romanticized in films like The Little Mermaid or Splash. These creatures began as sexualized, half-fish monsters who lured seaward men from their ships, and many times over photos of scammed “mermaid skeletons” have popped up on the internet. Why are we so interested in creatures that are not quite human, but human enough to lust after? How much of a mermaid is woman, and how much is something else entirely?
Mermaids are often equated with sirens, half-sea-bird creatures who use song to lure sailors into the ocean to their deaths. Some websites speculate about the two small bones in creatures like the manatee or dugong, professing that these hardened remnants of legs suggest a complicated evolutionary history and hint toward the existence of human hybrids in nature.
Finally, in my research on aquatic monsters, I came across the kelpie, or aquatic horse. What at first began as a laughable series of images (mostly Deviantart “artists” drawing My Little Pony style water-ponies) became a strange, haunting visual stream.
Celtic folklore tells us that the kelpie haunts the streams and bogs in Ireland and Scotland. It drips bog water even when on dry land, and it moans in the night. Some report the kelpie shifting its shape into the form of a pale woman, and others describe a scent of decay coming from the creature when spotted in the mud. There are factions of Scottish monster-lovers who believe the Loch Ness monster is simply a kelpie who prefers to appear as a serpent. Each different description of the kelpie was more chilling, and I was happy to have found something so strange in my research on sea monsters.
In closing, here is an octopus stealing a camera and swimming away with it: