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Here Be Monsters

Witches and Wicked Bodies

an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, July 27–November 3, 2013; and the British Museum, London, September 2014–January 2015
Catalog of the exhibition by Deanna Petherbridge. National Galleries of Scotland, 128 pp., £14.95 (paper)
James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
A sea monster from the ‘Carta Marina,’ the map of Scandinavia and Iceland produced between 1527 and 1539 by Olaus Magnus, the archbishop of Uppsala, after his exile to Danzig

In “The Tale of ’Abd Allah of the Land and ’Abd Allah of the Sea” from the Arabian Nights, a poor fisherman fails day after day to catch anything but at last, in answer to his ever more desperate prayers, he feels something heavy land in his net. Joyfully, he hauls it up, only to find a merman, who begs for mercy—and for fresh fruit and vegetables, which are greatly lacking under the sea, he tells his captor. He promises that if the fisherman will bring him the produce and then release him back into the water, he’ll return with lavish recompense. ’Abd Allah of the Land doesn’t believe him, but lets him go anyway out of the goodness of his heart.

But this is a fairy tale, and so the merman will keep his word and rise again from the depths with basketfuls of fabulous gems from the sea bed—pearls and coral and chrysolites and other precious minerals—for his deliverer. Fruitful exchanges continue between them, and eventually, ’Abd Allah of the Sea invites his earthly friend down into the underwater world where, he tells him, he lives in one of many fine and diverse marine cities, each with its own society and culture. The fisherman protests that he will choke on seawater and drown. But the merman has a remedy: a powerful grease from a monstrous and terrifying fish called a dandan: “It is larger than any animal you have on land and were it to come across a camel or an elephant, it would swallow them up.”

The dandan’s liver—or in some versions of the tale its blubber—exudes a potent ointment that “looked like cow’s grease, golden yellow in colour, with a clean smell.” The substance is indispensable to mer-people for their own survival under the sea, but they cannot harvest it without human help. The monster is ferocious and deadly and voracious for flesh, mer- and other; however, it has a fatal flaw: it can’t abide the sound of a human voice. As the great fish approaches, intent on devouring him, ’Abd Allah of the Land must cry out. The mighty dandan will then keel over and die, and ’Abd Allah of the Sea will be able to harvest the precious secretion.

And so it comes about.

Now properly smeared all over in the wonder grease, ’Abd Allah of the Land is given a full tour of the extensive settlements, where different peoples and creatures dwell under the sea. He learns in amazement of the symbiosis between fish and humans, and then finds himself collected by the sultan of the sea for his cabinet of curiosities. When the merman’s mermaid daughters laugh at the fisherman for being “tail-less,” he’s hurt, and wants to go home and eat something besides raw fish; he is also affronted that the mermaids go about in the water bare-breasted and bare-faced, and speak their views so uninhibitedly. So he leaves the world under the sea.

This kind of fairy tale, as it brings the speculative imagination to play on surmises and glimpses of undersea conditions, strikes notes of delightful preposterousness. Much of the lore surrounding sea monsters exhibits the same wonderful mix of fantasy and observation, in which one can catch glimpses of whales and their valuable products, the vast lacy architectures of coral reefs, marine ecosystems, and pearl fishers’ experiences, all mixed up with sheer fancy. Several of the maps explored in these vivid studies by Chet Van Duzer and Joseph Nigg illustrate, for example, the unfortunate sailors who camp on a colossal fish they mistake for an island: they’ve made a landfall on its back and built a fire to cook themselves a meal, but when the beast feels the heat of the flames, it rouses itself and dives, taking the heedless picnickers to their death in the deeps.

This cautionary tale was so popular that the island-monster was given its own name: aspidoceleon, after its resemblance to a shield turtle, and the scene is widely illustrated and told—in the Romance of Alexander, the tale of Sindbad, and in the legend of Saint Brendan, in which the medieval monk glosses it as a warning that too much pleasure-loving idling and dalliance in this world will take you down to hell (see illustration below). Like other monster stories the aspidoceleon envisions a horrible—comically horrible—possibility, and issues a warning; but above all , it belongs to the literature of astonishment—mirabilia, in Latin, or ’ajaib, as in the Arabian Nights, and its tellers aim to astonish and delight.

The status of monsters is never stable: Are they fact or are they fiction? It is a question that early modern mapmakers do not answer. The two ’Abd Allahs reflect the theory, found in Pliny’s natural history, that “anything which is produced in any other department of Nature, may be found in the sea as well.” This fantasy proved convincing to many, although in the thirteenth century Gervase of Tilbury, mindful that sea creatures need to swim, added a touch of hybridity:

There is no form of any creature found living among us on dry land whose likeness, from the navel upwards, may not be observed among the fish of the ocean off Britain.

The terms sea horse, sea cow, and sea lion still enfold this dream of parallel plenitude, while in the past the catalog of sea creatures included every species: sea snakes, sea pigs, sea hares, and the appealing sea mouse that, according to Pliny, helps whales to see where they are heading by parting the heavy brows above their eyes.

While Chet Van Duzer, in his authoritative, wide-ranging study, and Joseph Nigg, who concentrates his full attention on the masterpiece made by Olaus Magnus between 1527 and 1539, strive to distinguish fantasy and reality in their accompanying texts, the pictures have such living presence (that quality of enargeia, the Greek ideal of vivid, hallucinatory representation) that the possibility of any monster—whale or dragon—remains just as likely as it is unlikely. And it must be said that their unlikelihood adds to the pleasurable curiosity such stories excite and feed, the delight in disagreeable and frightening things that Aristotle puzzles over toward the very beginning of the Poetics.

Both these sumptuously produced volumes about sea monsters place maps at the heart of scientific marine inquiry; the mapmakers attempted accurate documentation and measurement of land masses and coastlines but fill the surrounding seas with marvelous, terrible, and colossal fishes, serpents, sirens, and other creatures from the populous mythological cast—besides sea pigs, sea snakes, and sea horses, they include tritons, sirens, Scylla, Charybdis, the kraken, the remora, the grampus, the prister, each of them colossal, singular, and fearsome.

At the unknown beginnings of the world, gigantic monsters embody chaos and emergence, in Babylonian myth as well as in the fabulous classical zoo that Hesiod set down; he traces our anthropomorphic forebears—the Titans and Cyclopes and Olympians—back to terrifying gorgons and dragons and sphinxes. John Boardman has argued in his book The Archaeology of Nostalgia (2002) that the Greeks were attempting to make sense of dinosaur bones they found in the landscape, and he convincingly compares the bone-white sea monster on a vase, lurking in a cave and ready to pounce on Hesione, with the fossil skull of a Samotherium, or Miocene giraffe, such as was found around Troy.

But rational conjectures of this kind, however entertaining, don’t explain the whole activity of the monstrous imagination, which revels in excess and assemblage; tricephalous and multilimbed, with arthropod and reptilian features such as ruffs, tusks, fangs, tentacles, and jaws, many of these primordial monsters are hybrids defying nature. They belong to dark places, those underworlds under land and sea—volcanoes, ocean abysses—because they embody our lack of understanding, and mirror it in their savagery and disorderly, heterogeneous asymmetries of shape. For this reason, at the same time that Olaus Magnus was making his marine map, artists conjured extremes of physical monstrosity to convey spellbound states, in which perverse desires are spoken and thrilling moral transgressions follow.

The artist and art historian Deanna Petherbridge, with her selection of mostly printed images for the exhibition “Witches and Wicked Bodies,” explores how some of the most powerful artists—from Dürer to Goya, Jacques de Gheyn to Fuseli—combine and recombine grotesque medleys of limbs and disfigure and exaggerate aging female bodies to express the terrors of witchcraft. These expressions of monstrosity stigmatize the flesh, especially old women’s, while also appealing to the viewers’ appetite for thrilling perversity; rather like modern British tabloids, lurid scenes of other people’s sins—night-flying and Sabbath orgies—are titillating even while they purport to condemn. (In the case of Goya, the targets are many, ferocious, and tragic.)

Monsters still fascinate precisely because they express what might lie beyond the light of common day. And as in the case of Goya’s dream of reason, the fear and awe monsters inspire can’t entirely be dispelled by enlightened investigations, neither in the past nor today. The ocean swirls in a condition of mythopoeic duality: it is there, it covers two thirds of the world, it is navigable and palpable and visible, but at the same time, unfathomable, stretching down in lightless space and into the backward abysm of time where every fantasy can be incubated.

Both Chet Van Duzer and Joseph Nigg explore maps as maps, with monsters as the decorative—and instructive—elements in the mapmakers’ repertory, and both bring the story into the present, showing how “the geography of the marvellous” has deeply imprinted the collective imagination and has naturalized ancient sea monsters through different media, including video games. Neither author widens out into relations with the Zodiac or cosmology, or dwells on the mythology of shape-shifting Proteus or the terrifying Old Man of the Sea, nor do they linger on the rich fairy-tale lore of undines and selkies.

Nevertheless, they prove the case for the maps’ importance to the continuing life of myth and, above all, to the present vogue for fantasy in film and fiction. Moby-Dick, the giant squid and other sea monsters in Jules Verne, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and even the computer-generated mask of glaucous, waving, suckered tentacles that the actor Bill Nighy is condemned to wear in the role of Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest reveal the near-indestructible longevity of the marine world picture that was crystallized by early cartographic visionaries. It’s also significant that both the volumes under review exemplify a new rich phase in the history of book production: digital magnification and reproduction have made practicable marvelous close-up details from every moment of the maps’ journeys, while the jacket of Nigg’s study unfolds into a full-color poster of Olaus Magnus’s masterpiece, mapping his native Scandinavia.

Olaus Magnus was the Catholic archbishop of Uppsala, who was ousted from his cathedral by the Swedish Reformers and took refuge in Danzig, and he may have been inspired by nostalgic pride in his lost homeland. He truffled the northern oceans with dozens of colossal and polymorphous mythic monsters, as if laying out a deluxe box of chocolates with glorious flavors and varieties, emerald green and crimson, frilled and bulbous, toothy, barbed, and serpentine. In 1555, he went on to add a learned commentary, in which he melded together classical fable and science, lore from bestiaries as old as the Sanskrit Panchatantra, dating to the third century BCE, with observations gleaned from Aristotle, Pliny, and the anonymous Hortus Sanitatis.

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