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Here Be Monsters

Bridgeman Art Library
‘St. Brendan and his monks celebrate Easter mass on the back of the giant whale Jasconius’; map by Honorius Philoponus, 1621

Chet Van Duzer’s study begins with the first mappaemundi in antiquity and the early Middle Ages; the author is an encyclopedic scholar of historical cartography, with a magisterial command of comparative knowledge and scrupulous attentiveness to detail, noticing the slightest drollery drawn in the waves. By contrast, Nigg shows a juicier interest in the myths and stories, and provides a useful, gleeful “sea monster key.” (“ZIPHIUS, a horrible sea monster that swallows a black seal in one bite…. ROSTUNGER…somewhat like a sea calf. It goes to the bottom of the sea on all four of its feet, which are very short.”) He also quotes most entertainingly from the anonymous 1568 English translation of Olaus’s commentary, which reads like a cross between Thomas Browne’s Pseudoxica Epidemica, an invention from Borges’s library of Babel, and a recovered gnomic relic of Middle Earth:

And not onely may we understand by sight that there are Images of Animals in the Sea, but a Pitcher, a Sword; Saws and Horses heads apparent in small Shell fish, Moreover you shall find Sponges, Nettles, Stars, Fairies, Kites, Monkies, Cows, Woolves, Mice, Sparrows, Black-Birds, Crows, Frogs, Hogs, Oxen, Rams, Horses, Asses, Dogs, Locusts, Calves, Trees, Wheels, Beetles, Lions, Eagles, Dragons, Swallows and such like: Amongst which, some huge Monsters go on Land and eat the roots of Trees and Plants: Some grow fat with the South wind; some with a North wind blowing.

The monsters teeming in the seas of Olaus’s lost native land, Nigg proposes, might have been aimed at warning off trespassing fishermen—monsters usefully policing the sea roads. This would account for the huge spouting creatures in Scandinavian and Icelandic waters, but the rest of the teeming bestiary displays that fabulist Catholic sensibility that the Protestants deplored as aberrant, and the archbishop’s entry on Sea Swine allegorizes the monster as the Protestant heresy: “the eyes on its scaly body their temptations…and its dragonlike feet the evil that they spread throughout the world.”

The word “monster” encloses a memory of monstrare, to show, as in “demonstrate,” and monsters were interpreted as revealing in many different ways: as in the Arabian Nights, the sea gave evidence of the plenitude and infinite variety of creation and the maps enriched understanding of the Book of Nature and its mirabilia. Artists working for the mapmakers portrayed elements of monstrosity with wonderful ingenuity, shuffling tusks, horns, fins, flippers, flukes, blowholes, tentacles, gills, scales, spikes, tails, and limbs to produce a catalog of jumbled creatures with eyes on their bodies and jaws on their tails and so forth. Many of these are “Poetical Animals,” as Thomas Browne called griffins, but others approximate whales and sharks, polyps and crabs, and in the view of these studies, the mappers were fumbling toward an empirical grasp, and trying to guide and protect navigators.

An echo of monere, to warn, may also sound in the word “monster,” and while sea monsters may have embodied physical dangers, they were also frequently taken to be divine portents—Leviathans to punish the wicked or prophesy doom. Olaus Magnus was facing both ways, backward to medieval allegory, forward to empirical inquiry; but ancient fears still suffuse Melville’s vision of the white whale and Ahab’s pursuit, while recently, when two dead oarfish were discovered in California, one eighteen feet long, the other fourteen feet, they were immediately connected, rather shiveringly, with a local legend that such colossal snaky deepwater fish only surface when an earthquake is pending.

Medieval and early modern mapmakers, before and after Olaus, invoke eyewitnesses, the kind that still report sightings of Nessie in Loch Ness. They are early travelers like Marco Polo, sailors, pilgrims, collectors of curiosities, and the mountebanks who showed wonders and freaks in their shows in Amsterdam, Venice, and London. Petrarch is one of the unexpected authorities—cited by the explorer Sebastian Cabot—for the remora, a monster that, though small in size, attaches itself to a ship, stalls it against wind and current, and sucks it under. In illustrations it looks like a gigantic wood louse.

Magnification and accumulation are the mapmakers’ principles. “The richest collection of sea monsters in any one manuscript” appears in the fifteenth-century Latin version of Ptolemy’s Geographia; Van Duzer has counted them: 476 in all, of which 411 are “generic,” leaving sixty-five “more or less exotic and interesting sea creatures.” These are pen-and-ink doodles, bobbing in a sepia sea of undulating lines; fanciful creatures drawn rapidly, spontaneously, and humorously, they are closer to mischievous marginalia than terrifying scriptural portents. The warnings that monsters issue do call attention to perils and evils, but they can also remind us what relief there can be in fancy, in the spirit of play. “More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, and though the lines don’t describe the rich pigments on display here, they do apply to the light touch of some of the maps’ artists.

In the oceans charted here, the monsters are correspondingly huge: indeed hugeness, an attribute of sublimity, is a defining characteristic of monstrosity—Robert Hooke turned a common flea into a grotesque and terrifying apparition when he drew what he saw through his microscope at approximately 288 times life size. The Bible gave its authority to the existence of sea monsters, with its story of Jonah and the whale, and its blazing poetic invocation of Leviathan in the story of Job:

Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about…. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or cauldron…. He maketh the deep to boil like a pot; he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment…. Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.

The colossal sea dragons that blast and spout in the observed sea lanes of Olaus’s and others’ maps owe more to the furious rhetoric of the author of Job than to the sightings of mariners.

The gigantism of the monstrous is also an effect of an imagined, primordial time of emergence and infinite possibility. Even from a post-Darwinian perspective, the sea inspires wonder—and fear. Since the latest of the maps reproduced in these books were made, zoologists have found more and more extraordinary life forms deep in the ocean, with peculiar, rare properties: bioluminescence already has beneficial uses, and more are being researched, while the starfish and other animals’ ability to generate new limbs is being closely studied; the miraculous glass sponge, an intricate mesh of silica, has exceptional tensile strength and durability, and withstands high stress in ways that give new dreams to the architects of Gulf State follies.

Anxiety might be behind the encyclopedic impulse: knowing your monsters can help contain them. One particular section of the Indian Ocean pictured on the Catalan Estense mappamundi (circa 1460) displays three varieties of sirens, including a centaur-like, female hippocampus. With his keen eye, Van Duzer has noticed that blank spaces were left in the sea for a different artist to fill in later, an artist whose speciality would have been sirens. Indeed, Van Duzer reminds us that the majority of old maps do not show monsters—they were expensive and beyond most patrons’ reach. But when they could afford them, patrons wanted them.

Shakespeare, who was writing in the world that Olaus Magnus and his successors were charting, shows every sign of fascination with bestiaries and their legends and lore, and The Tempest, which was first performed in 1611, interestingly conveys this double nature of the monster, perpetually oscillating between illusion and actual presence. Caliban as monster—and a fishy-smelling one—is a phenomenon and a figment; on the one hand, the “savage and deformed slave” of the cast of characters is treated as a sport of nature, whom Trinculo and Stefano plot to capture and exhibit, but on the other, the play also reveals Caliban to be the subject of misprision by those who maltreat him. When Prospero says at the end of the play, “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” his avowal could mean many things. But it patently shows us Prospero recognizing that the darkness belongs to him, too, figuratively.

The development of modern cartography unexpectedly produced a Counter-Enlightenment result: to make monsters real. Both authors assume that the mariners had seen something, which they had mistaken for something else, and then identified the phenomenon with an existing mythical monster—jellyfish are called Medusae, the remora becomes Echidna, zoology constantly poeticized according to prior imaginative construction. Did sex-starved sailors really mistake walruses for mermaids? Or even the swollen, ungainly manatee? A glossary at the back of Nigg’s book tentatively matches some of the marvels tossing in the sea charts to known species: the prister as sperm whale, for example. Cryptozoology, the science of imaginary monsters, only emerges as distinct from zoology and biology after the period covered by the maps that are explored with such rich delight in these two studies.

Some other tales of sea monsters are not so far-fetched, however, which makes them more deeply troubling. For example, when the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reported that in the year 1187 a wild man was fished up from the sea off the coast at Orford, in Suffolk, England, what can have happened?

The wild man was completely naked and all his limbs were formed like those of a man. He was hairy and his beard was long and pointed. Around the chest he was very rough and shaggy…he devoured fish raw rather than cooked, squeezing the raw fishes in his hands until all the moisture was removed and then eating them. He did not wish to talk, or rather did not have the power to talk, even when suspended by his feet and tortured….

He survived this treatment over a long period, but eventually “secretly fled back to the sea and was never seen again.” The chronicler concludes, “Whether this was some sort of mortal man, of whether it was an evil spirit inside the body of a drowned man or whether it was some fish in human form, it is not easy to tell….”

Neither author is much concerned with alternative myths of mingling and cooperation. Yet in the far distant past, there were stories told about humans and monsters that promised a mutual alliance: in the Arabian Nights, mortal men fall madly in love with jinn who live under the sea, as in “The Tale of Julnar the Sea-Born”; unlike European legends of man and sea creature (Undine, Rusalka), these interspecies marriages are not doomed.

Today’s sea monsters are less sublime frights than “beguiling” diversions. Yet “why mermaids still swim in our dreams” (as the poet Michael Symmons Roberts asks) leads to more questions about the structure of the minds that produce such marvels, comic and terrible, beguiling and ghastly. In Fishskin Trousers, a lyric drama inspired by the Wild Man of Orford, which was staged in England earlier this year, the playwright Elizabeth Kuti takes up the challenge that the monster from the sea sets us in modern times, when the ignorance he figures is no longer epistemological but ethical, and does not belong to him as much as to his tormentors: scientific overreach, as well as cruelty, exclusion, intolerance. The monstrousness of the monsters can still show us dangers, from the sea and from ourselves.

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