Mythological Sea Creatures

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Throughout world mythologies, people tell stories of fantastical creatures that inhabit the seas. In this lesson, we'll explore some of those myths and see what they meant to ancient people as well as what they mean to people today.

Ancient Peoples and the Sea

The oceans are mysterious places. You may have heard that we know more about the solar system than we do about our own oceans, but what does this mean? While we can map with accuracy the world's oceans to a depth of about 5 kilometers, less than a single percent of Earth's water-covered surface is mapped to the degree of our above-water landmass. In fact, only about 15% of the ocean floor is even mapped with the same detail as our maps of Mars or Venus.

So, a lot of the oceans still seem mysterious, and it's really no wonder why scientists are continually discovering new marine species never before seen by humans. Well, the oceans have fascinated humans for millennia, and the mysteries of the deep have played an important role in world mythologies, inspiring fantastical creatures. These creatures suggest a message of caution: be careful when exploring the mysterious seas; you never know what you might unleash.

Sea Creatures in World Mythologies

Nearly every world culture that had contact with sizeable bodies of water believed in some form of mythical creature that lived there. For the sake of time, in this lesson we're just going to focus on those of the actual oceans, not lakes or rivers, although such creatures certainly existed (ever heard of the Loch Ness Monster?).

So, where did these stories come from? Well, we can look at this in two ways. One source is practicality. Many sea creatures were likely inspired by actual marine animals. Whales, sharks, giant squid, octopi, seals, and even dolphins may have inspired legends of immense monsters, half-human creatures like mermaids, or magical guides. The monstrous creatures of mythology, said to be hundreds of feet tall or long that could have been inspired by whales or sharks may have also been results of optical illusions.

The ocean is big and vast, and when you're in the middle of it, it's easy to lose all sense of perspective. How big is that creature off the port bow? Who knows? You've got nothing to compare it to; no frame of reference. This can make things seem larger than they are.

This 16th-century sea monster was almost certainly inspired by whales.
Sea monster

The other source of mystical maritime creatures is morality. A great number of mythical sea creatures, particularly monsters, serve as cautionary tales that illustrate the dangers of the sea. Especially in the years when shipbuilding was a relatively new science, drowning at sea was a very real risk, as it still is today. Maritime monsters were both blamed for the losses of sailors to the sea and used as cultural reminders that oceans were inherently dangerous places.

Examples of Mythical Sea Creatures

So, let's take a look at some mythical sea creatures from around the world. European sailors created maps filled with fantastical sea serpents and other monsters which generally represented uncharted or dangerous areas. Perhaps amongst the most feared creatures, however, was the Kraken, a gigantic octopus-squid-like creature that was believed to be able to devour entire boats and generate massive whirlpools. European sailors since the Greek and Roman times were also warned of creatures like the Aspidochelone, gigantic fish or turtles which are large enough to be mistaken for islands that wrecked ships that got too close.

Early 19th-century drawing of a kraken, said to be based on firsthand accounts
Kraken

Across the Eurasian continent, Asian sailors had their own worries. Japanese folklore told of the Umibozu, water spirits who were sometimes said to be the souls of drowned monks. According to legends, the Umibozu asks sailors for a barrel, and then fills it with salt water to drown them, so it is always necessary to carry a bottomless barrel while at sea.

Philippine traditions told of a giant sea serpent with wings, whiskers, and gills called Bakunawa that could cause eclipses by swallowing the moon. According to Hindu stories from India, Buddha himself was once devoured by a monstrous fish with scales made of the four elements. Villagers had to capture the so-called Rainbow Fish to release Buddha from its stomach. That fish was said to feed all the people for a whole year.

Umibozu
Umibozu

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