Who doesn't love a mystery, especially if it involves sailors and serpents on the high seas.
Medieval bestiaries are replete with references to serpents, none of which are flattering. Second only to the bible in popularity, these early accounts, with their fantastic images, gave animals mythical or human qualities to drive home the Christian dichotomy of good and evil.
As is the case with modern crytozoology, some accounts were just plain silly. Take the bonnacon, a delightful bull-like beast. With useless horns that curved backward, the bonnacon's only defense was to blast toxic dung at its adversaries–enough to cover two acres of land, scorching everything in sight. Some accounts replaced dung with flatulence. As if serfs didn't have it hard enough as it is.
So what of sea serpents?
French and Latin bestiaries refer to the whale as the Aspidochelone:
The whale remains floating at the surface for long periods, so its back becomes covered with sand. Approaching sailors, thinking the whale to be an island, land there and build a fire to cook their food. After a time the heat penetrates the whale's thick skin, and it dives to cool itself. The ship is dragged down with it and the sailors drown.
When the whale is hungry it opens its mouth and emits a sweet odor, which attracts small fish. The fish swim into the whale's mouth, which closes on them.
The whale who deceives sailors and drags them down to their deaths signifies the devil, who deceives those he drags down to hell. Those of weak faith who give in to the sweet odor of worldly desires will be swallowed up by the devil.
Similarly, the Serra, or sawfish, grew from a flying fish into a monstrous beast with wings and a serrated back, fond of racing ships and cutting them in half.
Now that whales and sawfishes have been demystified, they've been replaced by the leviathan of the Old Testament and the Scandanavian kraken popularized in The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Theories of what these creatures really are abound: from the unlikely plesiosaur to the plausible giant squid.
However, my favorite explanation would have to be that of Scottish fisheries ecologist/statistician Charles Paxton, who wrote in Cetaceans, Sex & Sea Serpents: An analysis of the Egede Accounts of A "Most Dreadful Monster" Seen off the Coast of Greenland in 1734 (Natural History, 2004), that what ancient mariners thought were sea serpents attacking whales, may have been whales mating.
You be the judge:
©2009 Tammy Yee