Legends about the water – and what lies beneath its murky surface – have existed for as long as humans have had stories to tell. From monsters to mermaids, cultural beliefs in water-borne creatures have revealed themselves in art, culture, history, and mythology – and, on occasion, has even worked itself into religion. This article will take a dive (no pun intended) through some of the most intriguing myths surrounding oceanic creatures. And at the very end, we’ll conclude their general cultural significance.
As Above, So Below
The written works of Pliny the Elder, a famous Roman author, contributed to many Medieval beliefs about marine life. For instance, the belief that every land animal had its oceanic counterpart. Or else, the belief that the motion of the waves would cause animals to merge and form hybrids. He also described specific mythological creatures such as the Blemmyes (headless men) and Cynocephalus (dog-headed people).
Illustrations of these creatures, among others, made it into the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), published by Albrecht Dürer. The Chronicle was one of the first printed books to combine written text with illustrations. It helped popularize both the existence and images of mythical sea creatures.
Other written records from Western history detail the significance and existence of oceanic creatures, particularly details from travellers. This list includes Christopher Columbus, who reportedly came across three mermaids near Haiti. According to him, they were “not as pretty as they are depicted.” Historians now believe that he came into contact with manatees, not mermaids.
Beyond the sixteenth century, the appearance of sea creatures in written records dwindled. Yet their mystery, appeal, and frequent appearances in art and literature have yet to disappear.
Sea Creatures in Scottish and English Lore
According to Scottish mythology, Ashrays are translucent water creatures. Also called Water Lovers, they can be both male and female, and can only be found at night, underwater – never above the surface. When captured and exposed to sunlight, they melt and leave a puddle of water in their wake.
Detailing Scottish mythological sea creatures would be incomplete without talking about the Loch Ness monster. Inhabiting the Loch Ness lake near Inverness, Scotland, many argue that she is a plesiosaur (a carnivorous aquatic animal from the dinosaur era). Though people have claimed sightings of her, scientists have yet to find conclusive evidence of her existence.
Scottish sea mythology also discusses Selkies – sea lions that can shed their skin and take on human form. Selkies lived on the shores of Orkney and Shetland. They could be male or female. Historically, Scots believed that when a female Selkie shed her skin and was subsequently captured by a human, she would have to marry them. If, however, she found her Selkie skin again, she could return to the sea, leaving her partner alone.
On a darker note, British folktales from Yorkshire mention the existence of Grindylows. These water demons had grisly, long fingers, and would drag children into the deep waters. Parents would tell their children stories of Grindylows to prevent them from getting in the cold water, especially after dark.
Sea Monsters in Greek Mythology
If you’re particularly interested in astrology and zodiac signs, then you’ve probably heard the word “Capricorn” before. However, did you know that this sign shares its name with a Greek mythological sea monster? This half-goat, half-fish was apparently capable of swimming and lying on the shore, as well as speech. Capricorns were often favoured by the Greek gods.
Greek mythology, however, is also famous for its hideous monsters – including Ceto, the daughter of Gaia (the earth) and Pontus (the sea). She is a personification of the sea’s many dangers – namely, its unforeseen harms. Her children were called the Phorcydes – including the Hesperides (nymphs), the Graeae (water goddesses), the gorgons (famous for their hair of venomous snakes). Eventually, Ceto became the general name for any sea monster.
Scylla and Charybdis are other examples of Greek sea monsters. Both represented the dangers of the rocky shore and a whirlpool respectively. Often, Scylla is depicted as a woman with a dragon-like tail, and dog heads sprouting from her body, while Charybdis is illustrated as a deadly whirlpool.
On the flip side, Greek Nereids were friendly nymphs. Unlike their monstrous counterparts, they were always willing to help sailors through rough storms. They mainly lived in the Mediterranean Sea. Examples of famous Nereids include Amphitrite, Poseidon’s wife, and Thetis.
Finally, perhaps the most famous of them all were the Greek Sirens. They would lure sailors to their rocks by singing to them, ultimately causing their ships to sink. Sirens were often illustrated as women with the legs and wings of birds, playing a variety of musical instruments. Otherwise, artists would draw them as half-human, half-fish creatures, much like merpeople.
Sea Monsters in Chinese and Japanese Mythology
Chinese mythology, with its heavy focus on dragons, proposes the existence of the Dragon Kings. These comprised four separate dragons, each of which ruled over the four seas in the north, east, south and west. They lived in underwater crystal palaces, guarded by shrimps and crabs, and could shape-shift to human form.
In Japanese mythology, Kappas are monkey-like underwater spirits with long noses and lime-green skin. They are believed to lure children into the water and pull them under, in order to feast on their blood.
The Umibōzu offers another example of a Japanese sea monster. A giant, shadowy, humanoid monster, the Umibōzu would terrorize sailors during their voyages, bringing with it tumultuous waves, endless rain, and all-round oceanic chaos.
Oceanic Creatures from Norse and Scandinavian Mythology
Fosse grim, according to Scandinavian mythology, was a water spirit. Much like the Sirens, he would play enchanted songs on the violin, luring women and children to their deaths. Some stories, however, depict him in a lighter way. In the lighter tales, he was a harmless entertainer of men, women and children with his music.
The Kraken’s name is recognized globally, due to its appearances in films such as Clash of the Titans and Pirates of the Caribbean. It is a Nordic sea monster with a legendary legacy, like its Scottish counterpart, the Loch Ness monster. Folklore describes the monster as a giant squid living deep in the ocean, surfacing every now and then to wreak havoc on ships. Its name comes from Norwegian, meaning “unhealthy” or “twisted animal”.
Mesopotamian Sea Monsters
Among the most famous of all sea monsters is the Biblical Leviathan, from ancient Canaan. He took the form of a giant sea serpent. He was originally described in the Old Testament as a water-inhabiting reptilian whom God killed and offered as food to the Hebrews. Far from describing fearsome monsters, in modern Hebrew, the word “Leviathan” simply means “whale”.
Leviathan lore gradually developed, and his image slowly distorted more and more. Some religions portrayed him as a whale demon with several heads or a sort of water dragon. Some Christian interpretations posit that he might just be a giant crocodile, while others depict him as a ravenous demon with an unquenchable desire to consume all of God’s creations. He was believed to be the king of fish – and a notable liar.
Sea Beasts in Western European Lore
In European mythology, Melusine was a feminine spirit of freshwater – not quite an ocean spirit, but still worth including in this list. She was a mermaid-like creature, sometimes possessing wings. Some believe that she was born to the fay (fairy) Pressyne, and a common mortal man.
Afterwards, she went to the island of Avalon, where her parents then raised her. When her father betrayed her mother, she sought revenge on him. However, her mother heard of this and cursed her, forcing her to look like a serpent from the waist down. Because of this, her arms turned to scales, her hands to fins, and she lived her life out as a half-reptile, half-human.
Merpeople aren’t restricted to European mythology – every culture and/or religion features them in some form, though slightly altered. As any child who grew up watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid or shows like H2O: Just Add Water will know, merpeople are, perhaps, one of the most famous sea creatures – given their popularity in both fiction, mythology, and the media.
Merpeople typically have the head and upper body of a human, and a fishtail instead of legs. Males are known as mermen and female merpeople as mermaids. In many stories, they are beautiful and charming – sometimes, in order to lure sailors and humans to their deaths. Some stories – including The Little Mermaid, as previously mentioned – include mermaids altering their forms to fully resemble humans, sometimes permanently, in order to live amongst humans.
Sea Monsters in Eastern European and Slavic Beliefs
Slavic mythology presents us with the Rusalka – female ghosts that haunt water bodies. The Rusalka are the souls of young women who died in or near water bodies. Typically, these were young women who had drowned to death, or else been murdered. Their ghostly existences were often not violent, but they required their deaths to be avenged in order to move onto the next life.
Some propose that the Rusalka were women who died prematurely – due to suicide or murder. Therefore, in their ghostly forms, they continued to live out their designated time on earth as spirits. Others argue that the Rusalka were the unclean dead – such as unbaptized individuals.
Slavic mythology also proposes the existence of the Vodyanoy (also spelt Vodianoi). These water spirits lived in underwater palaces, formed from sunken ships. They were old men, with lengthy seaweed-green beards. They were covered in hair, scales, and slime – like the ship ruins they often haunted. Like most sea monsters, the Vodyanoy were feared because of their tendency to cause humans, particularly swimmers, to drown.
Unlike other monsters, however, they wouldn’t stop there. They would then take the drowned human down to underwater dwellings to serve as sea slaves – unless the human was a miller or fisherman, in which case they might have befriended them or let them go. The Vodyanoy were typically married to the Rusalka and, like the Rusalka, represented the unclean (unbaptized, or murdered) dead.
Polynesian and Native American Mythology
Polynesian mythology’s Tahoratakarar bears some resemblances to the Greek mythological character Charon, who was in charge of the boat ferrying the dead to the entrance of the Underworld.
In this myth, two evil spirits abducted a pregnant woman named Takua. These spirits stole her baby. After this, the sea rose, and the two spirits dissolved in a cloud.
The baby boy, Tahoratakarar, was raised by the sea itself. Once he had grown old enough, other sea spirits built him a boat tied to the Underworld. The boat sailed by night, stopping for the individuals who died at sea. There, Tahoratakarar would collect the individual’s soul and add them to the boat, carrying them to the Underworld. This boat was known as the Boat of Souls, or the Boat of the Dead.
By contrast, Native American (Lakota) mythology proposes the existence of Uncegila, a mighty water snake. She would pollute rivers and flood land with saltwater, damaging crops and preventing agricultural and horticultural growth. This occurred repeatedly until a pair of twins killed her, by hitting the only fragile spot on her body. As a result, the sun scorched her body, as well as the soil of the surrounding land. It is this that led to the development of the Dakota and Nebraska Badlands, a huge North American desert area.
Cultural Significance of Sea Creatures
The mythological and cultural folktales surrounding the sea’s inhabitants tend to fall into two categories. First, the helpful and kind – such as the Greek Nereids, for instance, or, occasionally, the Nordic Fosse grim. Alternatively, the more common category for sea creatures is that of monsters, unjustly luring sailors and swimmers to their deaths, or else destroying their ships and causing immense chaos.
Both types of sea creatures have impacted the artistic and cultural world. However, the latter’s legacies – from the Loch Ness monster, an imposing figure of timeless paleolithic majesty, to the Kraken – are far-reaching and all-encompassing.
Sea nymphs represent the familiarity of the ocean – its surface, all that which is within reach, and easy to see with our human eyes. The lapping of the waves, the grazing of the sand, a helpful hand easily within reach.
It is no wonder, then, that some of the most fearsome oceanic creatures exist solely in the depths of the ocean, lurking and looming, ready to pounce at any moment. They are the literalisations of our fears of the unknown, of the vast, immense, incomprehensible death that the ocean, in all its grand emptiness, represents. These monsters – the Grindylow, Charybdis, and the Leviathan – are externalizations of all of humanity’s deepest fears. The unseen. The unknown. And death itself.