The inspiration for this display and guide was the BioDiversity Heritage Library's (https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/) "Monsters are Real" campaign from 2014:
Based on Medieval Maps, the seas appear terrifying and treacherous: Sirens or mermaids leading sailors to their deaths with their seductive song, sea serpents, writhing about, capsizing boats and devouring the crew, and the dreaded Kraken, the worst of the worst.
But is there any basis in science for these creatures?
Mermaids and Sirens
In 2011, Discovery Communications aired a “mockumentary,” “Mermaids: The Body Found” on Animal Planet. According to Radford and Dutfield,
It presented the story of scientists finding proof of real mermaids in the oceans. It was fiction but presented in a fake-documentary format that seemed realistic. The show was so convincing that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received enough inquiries following the TV special that they issued a statement officially denying the existence of mermaids (2022).
Depictions of merfolk and sirens on the maps of medieval seafarers vary:
Merfolk Siren Ningyo
Sirens come from Greek mythology, specifically The Odyssey by Homer:
“First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross-piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope's ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster.”
Some possible explanations for mermaids are manatees:
Others believe that otters, dolphins, or, really, any other sea creature could have been mistaken for a human/fish hybrid.
Sea Serpents or Sea Dragons (Leviathan)
Sea serpents or sea dragons are described throughout history from the earliest, Classical Mythology, such as the Greco-Roman Hydra or Echidna and Hebrew Leviathan, to the Dark Ages slaying of a sea serpent by the Norwegian St. Olaf. A Middle eastern Goddess, Tiamat, is depicted as a dragon and represented the seas, from which all life emerged. As recently as 2002, there have been sightings of the Morgawr, a Welsh sea serpent, off the coast of Cornwall. (Some even say “Nessie,” or the Loch Ness Monster is a sea serpent, but more about her later!) In the 19th century, there was a well-documented sighting of “a 20 meters long serpent traveling 24 kilometers per hour on the surface of the South Atlantic water” (Black, 2022).
A really good candidate for the sea serpent is the oarfish, which can grow to about 25 feet in length:
Oarfish that washed ashore in Bermuda in 1860, originally described as a sea serpent;
Wikipedia Public Domain Image
The Kraken, “originated in Greek mythology. It is said to have been born from the titans Oceanus and Ceto. It supposedly has tentacles large enough to pull entire ships down into the ocean with ease. It could even destroy cities” (Baldwin, 2022).
This creature is probably based on the Giant Squid (Architeuthis dux), an elusive creature who lives in the depths of the ocean and has only recently been filmed or photgraphed (Kubodera and Mori). The giant squid can grow quite large, though “"there are no confirmed records of giant squid longer than about 45 feet total length. Most are in the 25-35 foot range”(Dery).
These elusive creatures live in the deepest parts of the ocean and have only recently been filmed in their habitat (Kubodera and Mori). Most of the documented contact with the Giant Squid has been with dead animals which washed up on shore. They are the prey of the sperm whale and their beaks, portions of arms, and tentacles have been found in whale remains and ambergris. There are are also documented scars from squid suckers left on the skin of the whales:
Bibliography and Recommended Further Reading
Baldwin, Emma. “10 Incredible Sea Monsters from Mythology.” Ocean Info, 22 Sept. 2022, https://oceaninfo.com/list/sea-monsters-mythology/.
Bavetta, Christina, director. Mermaids: The New Evidence. YouTube, YouTube, 27 May 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qILZZ5fVW8I.
Bennett, Sid, director. Mermaids: The Body Found. YouTube, YouTube, 27 May 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9nZlTxTpEI.
BHL Consortium. “Biodiversity Heritage Library.” Monsters Are Real - Biodiversity Heritage Library, BHL Consortium, 2014, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/collection/MonstersAreReal#:~:text=The%20BHL%20Monsters%20Are%20Real,on%20Twitter%20and%20Facebook%2C%20Oct.
Black, Joe. “The Unexplained Sea Serpent Myth.” Ocean Info, 11 Sept. 2022, https://oceaninfo.com/exploration/myths-and-legends/sea-serpent/.
Dery, Mark. "The Kraken Wakes: What Architeuthis is Trying to Tell Us." https://boingboing.net/2013/01/28/the-kraken-awakes-what-ar.html
Ellis, Richard. The Search for the Giant Squid. Lyons Press, 1998.
Fairclough, Caty. “From Mermaids to Manatees: The Myth and the Reality.” From Mermaids to Manatees: the Myth and the Reality, Smithsonian Institution, 14 May 2018, https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/marine-mammals/mermaids-manatees-myth-and-reality.
Flight, Tim. “Where the Wild Things Weren't: A Dozen Map Monsters from History.” History Collection, Spike Media Property, 26 Mar. 2022, https://historycollection.com/where-the-wild-things-werent-a-dozen-map-monsters-from-history/8/.
“Giant Squid Sucker Marks.” Smithsonian Ocean, 18 May 2018, https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/invertebrates/giant-squid-sucker-marks.
Giblett, Rodney James. Environmental Humanities and the Uncanny : Ecoculture, Literature and Religion. Routledge, 2019.
Goggin, Peter. “D.-Goggin-Shima-v12n2.Pdf - ‘Are Mermaids Real?" Rhetorical Discourses and the Science of Merfolk [Received February 28th 2018; Accepted May 8th 2018 –: Course Hero.” d.-Goggin-Shima-v12n2.Pdf - "ARE MERMAIDS REAL?" Rhetorical Discourses and the Science of Merfolk [Received February 28th 2018; Accepted May 8th 2018 – | Course Hero, SHIMA, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/file/111924228/d-Goggin-Shima-v12n2pdf/.
“The Great Sea Serpent. The Sea Serpent When First Seen from H[Er] M[Ajesty's] S[Hip] DAEDALUS.” The Great Sea Serpent. The Sea Serpent When First Seen from H[Er] M[Ajesty's] S[Hip] DAEDALUS, Library of Congress, n.d., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003680172/.
Harrington, Sean, and Jon Hackett. Beasts of the Deep : Sea Creatures and Popular Culture. Edited by Sean Harrington and Jon Hackett, John Libbey Publishing Ltd, 2018.
Homer. “The Internet Classics Archive: The Odyssey by Homer.” The Internet Classics Archive | The Odyssey by Homer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011, http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.12.xii.html#:~:text=Therefore%20pass%20these%20Sirens%20by,may%20have%20the%20pleasure%20of.
“INFORMATION ABOUT SEA WORMS IN NORWEGIAN LAKES.” Mjoesormen.no | En Nettside Om Sjøormer, Mjoesormen.no, 5 Feb. 2018, https://mjoesormen.no/.
Koch, Albert C. Description of Missourium, or Missouri Leviathan: Together with Its Supposed Habits and Indian Traditions Concerning the Location from Whence It Was Exhumed ; Also, Comparisons of the Whale, Crocodile and Missourium with the Leviathan, as Described in 41st Chapter of The Book of Job. Prentice and Weissinger, 1841, Biodiversity Heritage Library, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/81522#page/3/mode/1up .
Kubodera, Tsunemi, and Kyoichi Mori. “First-Ever Observations of a Live Giant Squid in the Wild.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Royal Society Publishing, 29 Sept. 2005, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2005.3158.
Lambert, O., Bianucci, G., Post, K. et al. The giant bite of a new raptorial sperm whale from the Miocene epoch of Peru. Nature 466, 105–108 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09067
“Leviathan Dragon of the Sea.” Leviathan: Giant Sea Monsters of Myth and Legend, Leviathan: Lady Gryphon's Mythical Realm, 2012, https://www.mythicalrealm.com/creatures/leviathan.html.
Loh-Hagan, Virginia. Kraken. Cherry Lake Publishing, 2017.
Mouritsen, O.G., Styrbæk, K. Strange Beings from the Depths of the Sea. In: Octopuses, Squid & Cuttlefish. Springer, Cham. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-58027-8_2
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Are Mermaids Real?” NOAA's National Ocean Service, US Department of Commerce, 1 June 2013, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/mermaids.html.
Nigg, Joe. Sea Monsters : a Voyage Around the World’s Most Beguiling Marine Map. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Ogden, Daniel. The Dragon in the West : from Ancient Myth to Modern Legend. First edition., Oxford University Press, 2021.
Perkins, Sid. Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science., 11 Mar. 2015, https://www.science.org/content/article/newly-discovered-sea-creature-was-once-largest-animal-earth?cookieSet=1.
Radford, Benjamin, and Scott Dutfield. “Mermaids & Mermen: Facts & Legends.” LiveScience, Purch, 14 Feb. 2022, https://www.livescience.com/39882-mermaid.html#section-real-mermaids.
Salvador, Roigo B., and Barbara M. Tomotani. “The Kraken: When Myth Encounters Science.” História, Ciências, Saúde--Manguinhos, vol. 21, no. 3, 2014, pp. 971–94, https://doi.org/10.1590/S0104-59702014000300010.
Shinan, Avigdor, et al. “From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends.” From Gods to God, Jewish Publication Society, 2012.
Smithsonian Magazine. “How 13th-Century ‘Mermaid Bones’ Came to Be Displayed in a Japanese Temple.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 16 Feb. 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-13th-century-mermaid-bones-came-be-displayed-japanese-temple-180962209/.
Uehlinger, C. “Leviathan לויתן”, in: Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible Online, Edited by: Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2589-7802_DDDO_DDDO_Leviathan
Urban, Misty, et al. Melusine’s Footprint: Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth. BRILL, 2017.
Van Bekkum, Koert, et al. Playing with Leviathan. BRILL, 2017. https://uosc.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01USC_INST/273cgt/cdi_proquest_ebookcentral_EBC4790855
Van Duzer, Chet. Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps. The British Library, 2013.
Verhaegen, M.J.B. “The Aquatic Ape Theory: Evidence and a Possible Scenario.” Medical Hypotheses, vol. 16, no. 1, 1985, pp. 17–32., https://doi.org/10.1016/0306-9877(85)90036-2.
Waugh, Arthur. “The Folklore of the Merfolk.” Folklore, vol. 71, no. 2, 1960, pp. 73–84. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1258382.
Yong, Ed. “Behold Livyatan: The Sperm Whale That Killed Other Whales.” Science, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/behold-leviathan-the-sperm-whale-that-killed-other-whales.