Five “Real” Sea Monsters Brought to Life by Early Naturalists

From kraken to mermaids, some monsters are real—if you know how to look for them

A "Sea Devil" as depicted by Conrad Gessner in Historia Animalium, 2nd ed, 1604. (Smithsonian Biodiversity Heritage Library)


This phrase translates from the Latin as “here are dragons.” It is etched on the eastern coast of Asia on one of the oldest terrestrial globe maps, the Lenox Globe, dating to 1510. Though the phrase itself is found on only one other historical artifact—a 1504 globe crafted on an ostrich egg—depictions of monsters and mythological beasts are common on early maps. They mostly crop up in unexplored reaches of the oceans, warning would-be explorers of the perils of these unknown territories.

One of the most famous of these maps is Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina, drawn between 1527and 1539. Magnus (1490-1557) was the Catholic archbishop of Sweden and a prominent historian. His travels brought him farther north than any of his contemporary European intellectuals, lending a great deal of perceived credibility to his accounts and publications. Carta Marina is a detailed map of Scandinavia—one of the oldest ever created—and it depicts the Norwegian Sea so teaming with monsters that it would seem impossible to escape these waters uneaten. In 1555, Magnus published Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (“A Description of the Northern Peoples”), which not only related the history, customs, and beliefs of the Scandinavian people, but also reprinted and described the creatures found on Carta Marina. His standing and reputation secured the widespread acceptance of his stories.

Kraken gif created by Richard Naples [Smithsonian Libraries], based on a drawing by Denys Montfort in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière des mollusques: animaux sans vertèbres et a sang blanc, v.2, 1801. (Smithsonian Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Magnus’ descriptions and drawings were copied repeatedly, with little to no modification, for centuries by such historical titans as Edward Topsell, Ulisse Aldrovandi, John Jonstonus and Conrad Gessner, whose Historia Animalium, replete with Magnus’ drawings, is the first modern zoological work attempting to describe all known animals. Such repurposing ensured that these creatures were ingrained in the public mind as truth. And over the centuries, many new monsters were added to the mix.

Where did the accounts of monsters come from in the first place? Were they simply fairy tales invented to scare curious minds and small children? Henry Lee, who wrote extensively on sea creatures and monsters, emphasized that many classical monsters are not simply pure myth. In his publication Sea Fables Explained (1883), he wrote, “… the descriptions by ancient writers of so-called ‘fabulous creatures’ are rather distorted portraits than invented falsehoods, and there is hardly any of the monsters of old which has not its prototype in Nature at the present day.”

These “distorted portraits” came about in part because by the 1500s extensive oceanic exploration was still limited, and the fauna that called these places home remained virtually unknown. Publications by Magnus and those who copied him represented some of the first attempts to systematically aggregate and describe these animals. More often than not, their information came not from first-hand observations but from sailors’ accounts of mysterious encounters while at sea. Less often, the decomposing remains of a washed-up carcass fueled confidence in the existence of these terrible beasts.

Wiggle Serpent
Sea serpent gif created by Richard Naples (Smithsonian Libraries) based on a depiction by Conrad Gessner in Historia Animalium, 2nd ed., 1604. (Smithsonian Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Sailors, or beachgoers who had the misfortune to stumble upon a rotting basking shark, had no experience with such creatures. So they explained them with what they knew well: myths and legends. If they enlivened their accounts, that simply made for a better story. And so an oarfish became a 200-foot-long sea serpent. A giant squid became a blood-thirsty kraken. A manatee became a mermaid. Magnus and others like him gobbled up the stories and published them alongside authentic species. The more the stories were circulated and published, the more likely people were to mistake what they did see for a monster. And the cycle continued.

The atmosphere of the day also fed people’s willingness to believe such tales. The 1500s were rampant with superstition. The Scientific Revolution would not start to make headway until later in the 17th century. There was no division between magic and reality—the two simply coexisted, so there was no reason to doubt mythical beasts. And even when scientists began to embrace the scientific method, they still struggled to reconcile previous beliefs in the supernatural with science. It would take hundreds of years of dedicated scientific study and exploration to overturn classical and common opinion. In the case of some creatures (i.e., sea serpents), sightings and questions of authenticity still remain.

Today we know that the animals that inspired such hair-raising tales as the sea serpent, leviathans and hydra and authenticated stories of mermaids and the kraken are real. They just received some creative embellishments (and sometimes blatant artistic fraudulence) along the way. And in a world just beginning to turn away from superstition, but still inclined to embrace elements of mysticism, it’s not surprising that the tales were accepted. Besides, who doesn’t love a good monster story?

Pristers Attack
Prister gif created by Richard Naples [Smithsonian Libraries], based on Conrad Gessner’s Historia Animalium, 2nd ed., 1604. (Smithsonian Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Follow the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog and #bhlMonstersRreal on Twitter all week to get the scoop on the people, books and animals that inspired some of history’s most legendary monsters—including the full stories behind these five incredible beasts:

Release the Kraken

Aristotle introduced the world to the giant squid (which he called teuthos) in 350 B.C. But giant squids have been seen throughout the world’s oceans, and they are quite common in the seas around Norway and Greenland. Indeed, the word “kraken” comes from the Norwegian “krake,” meaning “fabulous sea monsters.” The late 14th-century Icelandic saga Örvar-Oddr gives an account of the Hafgufa, “the hugest monster in the sea,” that sounds like it might have been a giant squid.

Never missing a chance to tell a good monster tale, Olaus Magnus detailed the kraken as a “monstrous fish” within Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, describing it as having long sharp horns, huge red eyes, and “hairs like goose feathers, thick and long, like a beard hanging down.” He claims that “one of these Sea-Monsters will drown easily many great ships provided with many strong Marriners”—a characteristic reported in the earlier Icelandic work. Magnus' depiction of the beast, as a strange mix of fish and squid, is quite different from those we find later in the literature, suggesting that his monster is likely a confusion of many sightings, including not only the giant squid but perhaps whales and cuttlefish as well.

In his first edition of Systema Naturae (1735), Carolus Linnaeus classified the kraken as a cephalopod with the scientific name Microcosmus marinus. Though it was removed from later editions of Systema, Linnaeus’ 1746 publication, Fauna Suecica, describes the kraken as “a unique monster” inhabiting the seas of Norway. He does, however, include a disclaimer that he has never seen the animal himself. In the mid-1800s, the kraken took an authentic biological form as the giant squid Architeuthis, passing from myth to science. Japetus Steenstrup, a lecturer at Copenhagen University, introduced the giant squid in a paper, which referenced the earliest record of a carcass washing ashore in Thingore Sand, Iceland, in 1639. The paper was read in 1849, and the official scientific name was published in 1857.

The giant squid currently holds the record as the second-largest mollusk and extant invertebrate, exceeded only by the colossal squid. Recent studies have revealed that it feeds on deep-sea fish and other squids, but its hunting methods and reproductive cycle are still unknown. While it was long believed that there were many species within the Architeuthis genus, recent genetic analysis suggests there is only one: Architeuthis dux. Claims of lengths reaching 150 to 200 feet have been reported, even by scientists, without evidence to justify such claims. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History suggests maximum lengths of nearly 60 feet.


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