In honor of a particularly awesome show I watched about Colossal Squids last night, I present to you, gentle readers, a brief historical and archaeological overview of some of the more fearsome sea creatures that terrorized the seas of yesteryear.
Perhaps the most popular of the sea-dwelling folks, mermaids (or mermen) were traditionally thought to be half human and half fish, and usually with the upper portion of a woman. Sailors throughout history had varying opinions on these watery ladies but most agreed that the most common act of mermaids was to distract unsuspecting sailors and ultimately result in their deaths. Their mere presence could cause a sailor to accidentally fall overboard or run the ship aground, with the particularly unlucky ones being dragged into the depths. This is another point at which there can be variations on mermaids and their mythology. Some mermaids were simply lonely women who, upon spying a particularly attractive sailor, would attempt to bring the unlucky man with them back to their undersea home and usually forget that humans can’t breathe underwater, resulting in the rather unfortunate death of the sailor and only compounding whatever sea-related issues the mermaid may have. This was also said to have happened when mermaids tried to rescue drowning sailors, as they often were not aware of their own strength and would often end up squeezing the unsuspecting sailor too hard, not unlike a puppy playing with a small animal. Other times sailors would be dragged below the waves out of spite because that was apparently how they rolled…or swam. In any case, it is generally agreed that the most popular form of mermaid was that of, you guessed it, a maid. It gave the homesick and lady-sick sailors something to focus on during their long voyages.
The first known tales of mermaids came from Assyria around 1000 BC. The story told of how the goddess Atargatis, mother to the queen Semiramis, fell in love with a mortal shepherd and accidentally killed him. Out of shame and grief, she jumped into a lake but the lake couldn’t hide her divine beauty, so she remained human above the waist and fish below. Thus, mermaid!
Another fun story is Greek in origin and concerns the greatest Alexander. Legend has it that his sister Thessalonike became a mermaid after she died and patrolled the waters of the Aegean asking any ship she encountered, “Ζει ο Βασιλιάς Αλέξανδρος”– “Is King Alexander alive?” to which the appropriate response was, “Ζει και βασιλεύει και τον κόσμο κυριεύει“–“He lives and still rules” and she would allow the ships fair passage. Any other responses were promptly met with storms and shipwrecks.
Mermaids were not always limited to the sea. They often inhabited lakes and other bodies of water existing as water nymphs or other similar beings. They could be benevolent, offering cures for illnesses or immortality, or a bit nastier and continue to lure or forcefully encourage humans into the mysterious watery depths.
…or they were manatees.
Like mermaids, sirens were also popularly depicted as being half female human and half something else. Some sirens were essentially land-frequenting mermaids or various combinations of ladies and birds. Sirens could have talons and/or wings with a regular female body or fish tails like their mermaid cousins but regardless of what animal part they had, they too would usually contribute to the deaths of unsuspecting sailors. The most famous sirens are found in The Odyssey (XII, 39). Odysseus, being ever the hero, volunteered to have himself tied to the mast as his ship sailed by the Sirens because he wanted to say that he had heard the Sirens’ Song and lived to tell the tale. The rest of his crew stuffed their ears with wax and rowed their ship safely past the dreaded rock while Odysseus proved his machismo and was untied once they were safely out of earshot of the nefarious bird-women.On the whole, sirens were one of the less pleasant creatures one could encounter out at sea. Whether there were two, three or five of them (depending on who you talk to or where they’re from…) these seductive bird-fish-women could be found either on Anthemoessa, Cape Pelorum, Capreae or near Paestum. It is perhaps best to avoid these places should you find yourself boating around there.
Often sailors would find themselves navigating rather treacherous areas along the coast and had no idea why that area seemed like it was actively trying to keep them from reaching their destination. One such place is the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and Calabria, Italy. This narrow strait is generally accepted to be the inspiration for the dreaded Scylla and Charybdis also found in The Odyssey, although more recently people have favored Cape Skilla in northwestern Greece as the location. This particular passage was so dangerous because it posed a dual threat: if you try to sail a safe distance from one threat, you will encounter the other. In the case of Odysseus, the option was to either lose a few sailors to Scylla, the six-headed beastie who dwelled in the rocky cliffs, or lose the entire ship and crew to the whirlpool Charybdis. He chose the former. Jason, of …and the Argonauts fame, sailed right through the dreaded strait with Hera’s assistance and Aeneas was able to bypass the strait entirely! Of course, Odysseus would choose the path of most resistance just to continue to prove his superiority.
The story of Charybdis varies by source, but everyone seems to agree that Charybdis was once a naiad who was transformed into a sea monster that would swallow huge amounts of water and then belch them out three times a day, creating a giant whirlpool.
Also, “between Scylla and Charybdis” is the origin of the phrase “between the rock and the whirlpool” (the rock upon which Scylla dwelt and the whirlpool of Charybdis) and may also be where we get the phrase “between a rock and a hard place”. This sounds a bit more reasonable than being between a horrible six-headed monster and killer whirlpool.
These legendary beasties were the scourge of sailors in colder climates. Regardless of origin, krakens were giant tentacley sea monsters that had a nasty habit of rising from the deep and attacking passing ships. The word actually comes from the Scandinavian word krake, meaning a twisted, unhealthy animal. In German, kraken is the singular form of krake and it means ‘octopus’ or The Kraken, depending on the context. It’s always good to figure out if you’re just talking about one octopus…or one REALLY BIG OCTOPUS. There are many different mythologies surrounding krakens but it is generally agreed that the mythical kraken was inspired by sightings of COLOSSAL SQUIDS. I mean, seriously. Look at this squid. You’d think this was a sea monster too!
And that, my Spanish Galleons, is all I have time for today. Until next time, keep your eyes peeled on the horizon and stay out of the doldrums!