'Some Sea-Serpents, Original and Selected'

Posted by September Blue Friday, 27 April 2007

(Cornhill, March 1886.)

No doubt the sea-serpent, like most other animals, has varied a little from time to time, and has been affected by the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest, in proportion as the credulity of the sea-serpent-observing world grew less and less. Still, the monsters that devoured Laocoon possessed in very full perfection all the 'points' that ought to distinguish a perfectly thorough-bred and first prize sea-serpent. Their heads and shoulders were raised (in the most orthodox manner) high above the waves, while their bodies trailed behind upon the surface, rising up in an undulating fashion here and there between the foaming billows. They had a bristly mane upon their necks; and it is well known that a good mane is highly desirable, or even absolutely indispensible, in the get-up of a successful sea-serpent, to this very moment. They were more or less blood-stained and fiery creatures; and the original and only genuine medieval portent went so far as actually to belch forth flames and black wreaths of smoke from his mouth and nostrils. This last alarming feature, however, has been greatly mitigated in his modern representatives, who now don't care, apparently, to put themselves into competition with an ordinary locomotive, and so content themselves with making the sea boil, and spurting out foam from their unspeakable blowholes (if any).
Abbreviated Aeneid: Laocoön told the Trojans to beware of Greeks bearing gifts, threw a spear at the wooden horse when they didn't believe him, and Poseidon sent sea serpents to kill Laocoön and his sons.) There's a gorgeous woodcut of Laocoön wrestling with the serpent here (by Daniel Biehl).
There are a good many theories now extant about the semi-mythical monster, which have been defended with varying ability by various learned men. Mr. P. H. Gosse was of opinion that the sea-serpent (if there be a sea-serpent) was a modern representative of the otherwise extinct saurians, who enacted the part of whales in the teeming secondary seas. Whether any of these big dragons of the prime have really left any descendants or not, there can be no doubt at all that they were certainly very parlous monsters in their own day. Naturally, the biggest things in such extinct reptiles have been discovered in the Western States of America, which whip creation for big trees, big rivers, big fossils, and big fortunes. One of the most disconcerting creatures to meet a yachting expedition in cretaceous seas must evidently have been that uncanny beast from the Colorado beds, which Professor Geikie soberly describes as 'a huge snake-like form, forty feet long, with slim, arrow-shaped head on a swan-like neck, rising twenty feet out of the water.' According to Dr. Cope, who has closely studied the habits and manners of this unpleasant animal in his native rocks, the monster must often have swum several yards below the surface of the sea, only occasionally popping up his head for forty feet to take a breath, and then withdrawing it to feed forty feet below on the bottom, without once moving the position of his body. Such an unaccountable saurian as this, suddenly rearing his 'swan-like neck' (as if he were a noble Anglo-Saxon lady) within a few yards of the observant pleasure-boat among the Inner Hebrides, would create a far greater impression than any that can be produced by the degenerate and somewhat shadowy krakens of these prosaic latter days.
I think that's a plesiosaur, and if plesiosaurs interest you at all, even a tiny tiny little bit, then you need to read this story by Wardon Allen Curtis. That's a link to the e-text, which is illustrated. I don't want to give away the ending, but I will share one brief passage with you, written shortly after the narrator removes the brain from the still-living elasmosaurus (a species of large plesiosaur) Because It Was There and realised that his friend Framington was dying. Ask not how he found a plesiosaur in the first place; linger not on what happened to Framington; just wallow, for a moment, in the kind of thought process that could bring you this:
"If you hear me, wink," I cried [to Framingham]. The right eye closed and opened with a snap. Ah, here the body was dead and the brain lived. I glanced at the elasmosaurus. Its mouth, half closed over its gleaming teeth, seemed to smile an invitation. The intelligence of the man and the strength of the brain. The living body and the living brain. The curious resemblance of the reptile's brain-pan to that of a man flashed across my mind.
I won't tell you what happens next, although you can probably guess. Scientists, eh? Anyway. Back at the Cornhill article, we're talking about 'pythonomorphic saurians'. More of that below the fold.
[...] I am not aware that any modern theorist has yet proclaimed the identity of the various scattered sea-serpents of our own day with the pythonomorphic saurians; but if any enterprising young writer cares to act upon the hint in the silly season, when Parliament has ceased from troubling, and reporters are at peace, he is perfectly welcome to accept the suggestion without further acknowledgement.

Mr. Searles V. Wood, on the other hand, will have it that the sea-serpent (supposing there is a sea-serpent) is not a reptile at all, of what sort soever, but a whale-like monster, belonging to the same group as certain extinct toothed whales who flourished (as the history books say) in the eocene period. The particular part, in fact, which they flourished most effectively, according to Mr. Wood, was their formidable head; and with that they (as well as all their hypothetical heirs, executors, or assigns, the modern sea-serpents) were wont to attack less warlike whales, whom they killed and devoured with their big teeth. These undeniable eocene monsters ran to about fifty or sixty feet in length, and were certainly provided with most carnivorous fangs, sufficient to render them very unpleasant contemporaries for the other whales who lived side by side with them. Several of the most respectable authorities believe that the toothed cetaceans in question were really (to put it plainly) big seals, caught in the very act of developing into thoroughgoing whales. They are, by origin, warm-blooded, air-breathing, terrestrial animals, which have taken to the habit of swimming, till at last their outer form has come closely to resemble that of cold-blooded, gill-bearing, egg-laying fish. Mr. Wood has set forth his very hypothetical views with an air of sober conviction which is quite charming in its simplicity, and has assigned the as yet undiscovered sea-serpent to the 'order Zeuglodontia,' almost as confidently as though he had got a specimen or two of the evasive monster securely bottled for examination in his own private museum. On the whole, it might be better to follow Mrs. Glasse's admirable advice, and first catch your sea-serpent.
Zeuglodonts were early whales. One of them, Basilosaurus, achieved brief fame in the early 21st century with the BBC series Walking With Beasts, and has a picture here along with a great profile: "Length: 20m. Diet: Omnivore. Predators: Probably none." No, really, you think?
[...] Now, the question is, could one of the forty-eight known species of sea-snakes ever attain sufficient dimensions to have given rise (allowance being made for human exaggeration) to the best recorded instances of the great sea-serpent? Bishop Pontoppidan's specimen, seen off Norway in 1740, was one of the finest on the record, and measured about 600 feet in length. On the other hand, the biggest sea-snake known to Dr. Gunther of the British Museum (the great authority on things reptilian) is only twelve feet long; which leaves a considerable margin for the bishop's specimen to make up, even under the most favourable circumstances. Again, the very notable beast spied off Boston, Massachusetts, in 1819, is described with a noble and poetical vagueness as being 'from 80 to 250 yards in length;' which reminds one of the ingenuous advertising dodge, whereby shopkeepers announce that a lot of goods, worth obviously on an average five pounds apiece, are 'from one shilling.' In 1822, a second sea-serpent, spied off the Norwegian coast, was again calculated at 600 feet long, which seems a suspicious reminiscence of the father of all sea-serpent seen by Pontoppidan. Captain Drevar's great snake, which coiled itself twice round a sperm whale, was of indefinite length, but as it raised its head 'some sixty feet perpendicularly in the air,' its total extent must have been pretty good for an overgrown sea-snake.

There can be no doubt that certain kinds of animals do really produce at times abnormally large individuals; and this is particularly the case with fish and reptiles, where the size of the different adults always varies greatly with varying circumstances. Everybody knows that a full-grown trout may be almost any size, big or little; while as for pike, Mr. Frank Buckland records the biggest he ever saw as being no less than 3 feet 10 1/2 inches long. Still, the amount of lee-way that a twelve-foot sea-snake has to bring up before it reaches the 600 feet of the Norwegian specimens, or the 750 of the Bostom champion monster, is really too immense to be readily granted by sober reasoning. Moreover, it is a curious fact that sea-serpents should be most frequently seen in the North, while sea-snakes are almost confined to the tropics. Why do the gigantic growths always come northward, to the exact spot where they may be seen by credulous Norwegians and wonder-loving Americans? Is it not just a trifle significant that these portents are oftenest beheld by the superstitious Norse sailors, and the still more superstitious Celts of the west coast of Scotland?
We go on to discuss giant squid (called simply 'big squid' here, which does have a certain something going for it here as far as snappy names go). Dead giant squid had been washing up on beaches throughout the nineteenth century, but there were also accounts of live squid. They don't make holidays to Tenerife like this one these days:
Very recently, the big squid has become quite a respectable scientific character, and has been duly admitted to our natural histories under the specific titles of Architeuthis monachus and A. dux. When an animal comes to have a double Latin name, for genus and species, he may be considered as having fairly forced his way into good society, and attained for himself a public recognition. The first big calamary found in modern times, according to Dr. Woodward, was sighted by the French steamer Alecton, off Teneriffe, in 1861. Every effort was made to secure it; but after a long fight, the monster got away, leaving its tail behind it, in the running noose of a rope. This brute was supposed to be about eighteen feet long, with arms of five or six feet more (still a long way off from the sea-serpent). But one must remember that the salmon that got away from one is always a far larger and heavier fish than any salmon one ever actually landed and weighed in the impartial scales of undistorted reality. Perhaps the size of the Alecton's squid was computed not in British feet, but in a measure of length equivalent to that well-known angling standard commonly called fisherman's weight.
Something similar applies to wordcounts on student assignments, I think. Especially the ones with the really wide margins.

Can we conclude then, as a clever writer has lately done, that the giant squids are the real creatures which have given rise to the belief in sea-serpents? To me at least it seems improbable. I can hardly believe that any one form of sea-serpent will cover all the various myths and observed cases. I have, rather, a modest theory of my own as to the true origin and development of the entire family, which I shall proceed to set forth in the usual scientific classificatory fashion. [...]

There seem to be two grand divisions of the genus sea-serpent: firstly, those due mainly to preconceptions and superstitions, and so ultimately mythical in origin; and, secondly, those due mainly to observations, accurate or inaccurate, and so mainly genuine in origin.

The mythical sea-serpent, in my humble opinion, is by far the commoner animal of the two. His origin goes back in time to a very early period, when he and many other formidable dragons stalked abroad, unchecked and rampant, over sea and land alike. In the old English epic of Beowulf there is a very fine monster called the Fire Drake (drake being good Anglo-Saxon for a dragon), which guards a mysterious submarine treasure, and which comes out by night to slaughter the people of the royal hero. Beowulf himself goes forth, with his royal sword, to battle with this relentless monster, and slays it, indeed, by his own strong arm, but is blasted by its fiery breath, ad dies shortly after the fierce encounter. Now, the old literature of the North is full of sea-dragons of just the same type – fire-breathing krakens, which devour ships: terrible shapes, begotten of the dread and mystery of the ocean, and possessing all the ordinary mythical features of dragon-kind. It is a very significant fact that, as we go down in time, the dragons and sea-serpents of each age are, as a rule, exactly what that particular age expected to find them. In the fifteenth century a dragon that didn't breathe fire would have been quite unworthy of notice, and a mere big marine snake, with a prosaic habit of lolling on the top of the water, would have been considered not one whit better than an ordinary whale or walrus. At the present day, on the other hand, the common sea-serpent possesses few obviously mythical features, though he has still a distinct tendency to retain a mane, which, in the memorable instance of the Daedalus's monster, is significantly described as 'something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of sea-weed, washing about its back.'
The HMS Daedalus was a British navy ship of the nineteenth century whose crew saw... well, a sea-serpent, obviously... in 1848. (You can read more on that, and other Mysteries Of The Deep, here.)
[...] The final question is just this: In an ocean teeming with so many known animals of huge size, ought we to set down any un-caught specimen as a new species, on a cursory examination, under eminently deceptive and unsatisfactory circumstances? And if we do, are we not in all probability more or less directly influenced by surviving memories of the great extinct krakens and fire-breathing dragons? Are we not, in short, trying to make a sea-serpent out of it? Let us rest satisfied with our big cuttle-fish and huge whales and monstrous sharks for the present; and whenever anybody catches us an enaliosaurian or an zeuglodon or an immense marine snake, let us accept their new addition to zoology with all acclamation. Meanwhile, let us urge once more on all theorists, 'First catch your sea-serpent': then proceed to classify him.

1 Responses to 'Some Sea-Serpents, Original and Selected'

  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. is a sea serpent a omnivore or a carnivore?