Humanity has always had a love/hate relationship with the world’s oceans. It is from the seas we were born and, for millennia, trying both to navigate and live off those waters has created dreams and nightmares. Plowing across the oceans has been crucial to our survival, but people always wonder what lurks beneath. Even now, with advances in deep sea diving, we know more about the surface of Earth’s moon than its oceans.
Medieval European artists were particularly adept at bringing seafarers’ worst hallucinations to life. Everything from beautiful sirens luring sailors into a rocky demise to gigantic serpents wrapping themselves around entire ships populated ancient oceanic lore. Here are just four colorful delights that make you wonder if these folks were genuinely frightened or if they just needed some loving after long days at sea.
In “Theatrum orbis terrarum,” first published in 1570 by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, Jonah is cast overboard to a sea monster.
Ortelius became even more creative with this chimeric entity: an ichthyocentaur (part human, horse and fish) playing a viol on a map of Scandinavia from the 1573 edition of “Theatrum orbis terrarum.” The sea surrounding Scandinavia showed sailing ships and the otherwise peaceful ichthyocentaur, perhaps suggesting safe passage.
In Olaus Magnus’s “Carta Marina” from 1539, a sea pig – which was compared to heretics that distorted truth and lived like swine – dwelled in the North Sea.
This giant lobster in Magnus’s “Carta Marina,” is described as an octopus in the accompanying text. Polypus, which means “many-footed,” was often used to describe many different types of multi-limbed creatures, from lobsters to octopi. Such sweeping designations showed confusion about what types of creatures actually lived in the sea.
In a classic delineation, a siren admires herself in a mirror while surrounded by ships in the Southern Ocean on a 1550 map by Pierre Descelier. Other monsters can be seen on the nearby lands.