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Medieval illustration of sea monster and ship in the ocean.

The Sea and Its Monsters: Some of the Creatures to Have Populated the Oceans


In distinct historical epochs, the sea has been populated by imaginary beings that have shaped our nescience.

Our planet still holds many mysteries. If any one of these has persisted, since humans ventured out to explore their environment, it’s the bottom of the sea. Even in an era like our own, which presumes to boast of advanced technology, the ocean depths continue to elude our understanding. Perhaps this is less so than was true a couple of centuries ago, but it’s still nearly sufficient to vindicate, again, the phrase by which old maps indicated unexplored areas: HIC SVNT DRACONES; “here be dragons.”

Likewise, because the unknown is such a great stimulus to fantasy, humans have populated the sea with non-existent creatures intended to express the same reverence for our desire to know. The bottom of the sea scares us, but at the same time it attracts us.

Thus we share a brief semblance of maritime creatures which, at varying times, have inhabited the nightmares of both sailors and any aspiring explorers of the unknown.

Scylla and Charybdis

medieval illustration of ship and hydra-like creature.

In the Greek imagination of antiquity, near the strait now called Messina (between Sicily and mainland Italy), were two monsters deadly to any vessel: Scylla, with six heads, and Charybdis, a whirlwind of impressive strength. One distinctive feature, so typical of Greek mythology, was that boaters had to make an impossible choice: avoiding one always meant approaching the other. Only Ulysses, ingenious as he was, could advance through the strait, because he chose to confront Scylla (at the loss of a few sailors) and not Charybdis (which would risk the entire crew).


medieval illustration of Leviathan sea monster.

The Renaissance was perhaps the first grand era of humanity’s great explorations. Prior to that, humankind walked and rode on the planet, but had perhaps never widened geographical reality so much as thereafter. The Renaissance coincided with the proliferation of sea creatures. One of these, the Leviathan, with roots in the biblical Book of Job and elsewhere in Jewish literature, in the 15th and 16th centuries rose to some fame as an inhabitant of the oceans beyond Europe. Dürer, for example, traveled in 1520 to Zeeland, that northernmost province in present-day Netherlands, hoping to glimpse the great whale. Part of this fascination certainly survived until the disembarkation of Herman Melville.


Illustration of Cthulhu sea monster floating under the water below a ship.

“A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” Thus H. P. Lovecraft described the Cthulhu, a creature revered as a deity in his personal mythology.

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