Early maps warned sailors of the mysteries and dangers of the sea. Wherever the maps ended in unexplored areas, they would leave the iconic message “Here there be dragons.” By far, the most numerous of the creatures that our medieval pioneers reported were sea serpents. These reptilian monsters would be depicted undulating in the water or coiled around ships, where they would devour unfortunate sailors who got too close to their gaping jaws. Their appearance was often thought to be prophetic—they were harbingers of doom and disaster well before they became a zoological mystery. Here are 10 of the more famous of these calamities of the deep sea.
10 Olaus’s Sea Serpent
Before he wrote about the critter for which he’s most famous, Olaus Magnus set down another account in his Historia de Gentibus. It’s one of the oldest widely accepted accounts of what we think of today as a sea serpent. In it, the Catholic priest who was exiled from his Swedish homeland spoke of a creature “of an astonishing size”—about 23 meters (75 ft) long—that was sighted in 1522 near an island in the Diocese of Hammer called Moo, “which portends a change in the Kingdom of Norway, as a comet does in the whole world.” Such prophecies are a common theme in early sea serpent tales. The appearance of these creatures was said to foreshadow some terrible event—in this case, the banishment of King Christiernus and “a great persecution of Bishops”—which may be why sea monsters were often called “calamities” in the 16th and 17th centuries.
But Magnus’s most famous work is 1539′s Carta Marina, which was the most accurate map of Scandinavia or any other European region in existence at the time. What makes it remarkable today is the series of vignettes that accompanied the map, which described various monsters of the sea. The most notorious of these is a creature named the “Sea Orm” but best known as “Olaus’s Sea Serpent.”
Colored in blood red despite being described as black, it is drawn coiled around a Norman ship and devouring a crew member who was unlucky enough to get close to its gaping maw. It’s a striking image that has been copied by cartographers, engravers, and woodcutters several times throughout history. As Magnus described it, “There is a Serpent there which is of a vast magnitude, namely 200 foot long, and more –– over 20 feet thick; and is wont to live in Rocks and Caves . . . He hath commonly hair hanging from his neck a Cubit long, and sharp Scales, and is black, and he hath flaming shining eyes.” This serpent also came with a prophecy, as Magnus went on to declare that it “signifies some wonderful change of the Kingdom near at hand; namely that the Princes shall die, or be banished; or some Tumultuous Wars shall presently follow.”
Magnus’s description could almost serve as a template for all of the sightings that took place in the future. His account of the Sea Orm was accepted as fact until the early 17th century, when Erik Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, began to question the details of Magnus’s story in his Natural History of Norway. Henry Lee even dismissed Olaus’s Sea Serpent as giant calamari in his now-classic Sea Monsters Unmasked.
9 Gloucester’s Sea Serpent
The first American sea serpent sighting took place off the coast of New England near Cape Ann, Massachusetts in 1639. The creature would eventually become known as “Gloucester’s Sea Serpent,” named after the harbor just north of Boston.
The monster was first reported in 1641′s An Account of Two Voyages to New England by John Josselyn, who wrote “They told me of a sea serpent, or snake, that lay quoiled up like a cable upon the rock at Cape Ann; a boat passing by with English on board, and two Indians, they would have shot the serpent, but the Indians dissuaded them, saying that if he were not killed outright, they would all be in danger of their lives.” Three years later, Obadiah Turner reported a similar incident near Lynn, Massachusetts, where he allegedly saw a serpent as wide as a wine pipe and around 27 meters (90 ft) in length.
While sporadic sightings continued through the 18th and 19th centuries, the serpent had become a seasonal phenomenon by the early 1900s, much like today’s “lake monsters.” In 1917, the Linnean Society of New England performed one of the first scientific investigations of a sea serpent, providing a list of carefully chosen questions to eyewitnesses in an attempt to discover the creature’s true nature. They concluded that a dead snake which had been found on the coast of Cape Ann was the creature’s progeny and named it Scioliophis atlanticus because of the scalloped shape of its back. Rather than a new species, the snake turned out to be a common black snake with a deformation.
8 Egede’s Sea Serpent
Hans Poulsen Egede was a Dano-Norwegian Lutheran known for his missionary work throughout Greenland, where he eventually settled in the town of Gothaab. In 1722, he wrote a report to his employer, the Bergen Company, which was published without his knowledge in 1729 as Det gamle Gronlands nye perlustration. It was the first written account of Greenland and so popular that it was translated into German the following year. He also published the first book ever written in the Eskimo language, beautiful and meticulous maps of Greenland, and excellent woodcut illustrations that demonstrated a powerful eye for natural detail. When he reported that he had witnessed a sea serpent off the coast in 1734, people paid attention.
Egede wrote that on July 6, he and his crew witnessed a “frightful sea monster” so large that it towered over the ship’s maintop. He claimed that it had a long snout and broad flippers and “spouted water like a whale,” although the translation of this phrase is heavily contested. The prophetic nature of sea serpents might have still been a common belief at this time, since Egede made sure to mention that “the following evening, [they] had very bad weather.” A fellow missionary named Mr. Bing captured the creature’s likeness on a map of the region. Based on this illustration and translations of Egede’s writing, Henry Lee believes that the serpent was actually a giant squid, a claim that Antoon Cornelius Oudemans refutes in his The Great Sea-Serpent.