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Gods, Creatures, and Monsters of the Seas - Norman A. Rubin

(From the beginning of history the sea has been considered not only as a force of nature, but also as a challenge to mankind and a route for travel and commerce. It is a source of religious and artistic inspiration, and varied civilizations emphasized the role of the sea as an expression of the power of the gods over the universe and over human destiny.)
The seas, endless in motion, are to many cultures of various ages, the source of life, the unfathomable, the Great Mother. "The household altar is this world and the enclosing stones are the waters." (Hindu altar inscription). There are two seas according to Semitic lore; one sweet and fresh, the other salt and bitter. All life arose from the sweet water: From the salt water are the blind forces of chaos, and within contain the creatures of the sea - the marine life, gods of mystery and the monsters of the deep.
"But in the sea, a great many actual monstrosities are found, the seeds and first principles intertwining and interfolding with each other now in one way and now in another, now by the action of the wind and now by that of the waves, so ratifying the common opinion that everything born in any department of nature exists only in the sea, as well as number of things never found elsewhere..." (Pliny, Natural History, IX:2)
The traditions of many widely separated peoples include legends of the 'Monsters of the Deep', and their terrible powers. From ancient history onwards there are elaborate descriptions of the various divinities, heroes, and fabulous creatures which personify the diverse and strange aspects of the sea. The metamorphic mingling of these divinities, humans, and marine creatures embodies the demons and hazards of the sea in classic tradition.
"Scylla infests the right hand coast, unresting Charybdis the
left. The one sucks down and vomits forth again the ships she
has caught, the other's uncanny waist is girt with ravening
dogs. She has a virgin's face, and if all the poets are not
false, she was herself once a virgin."
(Ovid, Metamorphis, 13, 730-734) (1)

Long, long ago near the sea around the Straits of Messina off the coast of Sicily, there were two cliffs that guarded the entrance to these waters. One harbored a creature called SCYLLA, a nasty monster with six heads, 18 rows of teeth, 12 feet, and a voice like the yelping of dogs (2). In her terrible jaws she captured and devoured dolphins, seals and other living creatures. SCYLLA (one who rends - Greek), the once beautiful daughter of Hecate, a minor goddess in Greek mythology, had been changed into a dog-like monster because Posiedon had seduced her. This was done through the magic of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, after a quarrel over the love of Posiedon
On the other cliff lived CHARYBDIS, (the sucker down - Greek), called the daughter of Poseidon and the Earth, and it was because she had stolen the oxen of Hercules that Zeus struck her with a thunderbolt, turning her into a whirlpool whose vortex swallowed up ships.
These monsters were greatly feared by all sailors. CHARYBDIS would caused thrice-daily storms sucking boats into whirlpools and then spitting out the wreckage: SCYLLA would capture the sailors thrown from their crafts and devour them in her massive jaws, cracking and sucking their bones in fiendish delight.
The Greek poet Homer describes the horrors experienced by navigators in his epic, 'The Voyages of Odysseus': "Odysseus steered a trifle too near SCYLLA who, leaning over the gunwhales, snatched six of his ablest sailors off the deck, one in each mouth, and whisked them away to the rocks, where she devoured them at leisure. They screamed and stretched out their hands to Odysseus, but he dared not attempt a rescue, and sailed on."
Odysseus still had to face the fury of CHARYBDIS....."But a southerly gale sprang up, and he found himself sucked towards CHARYBDIS's whirlpool. Clutching at the bole of a wild fig tree which grew from the cliffs above, he hung on grimly till the mast and keel had been swallowed and regurgitated...."
The names of these destructive Sea-goddesses have been attached to rock and currents on either side of the Straits of Messina. But must be understood in a larger sense. According to Robert Graves in his book on Greek myths, "Since the Cretan Sea-goddess was also represented as an octopus and SCYLLA (a number of names of gods from Greek mythology occur in Cretan lore.), it may be that the Cretans who traded with India knew of large tropical storms, unknown in the Mediterranean Sea, which are credited with this dangerous habit".
The ancient Israelites labelled the monster of the ocean and chaos, a LEVIATHAN, a serpent and power of the deep. "By thy power Thou didst cleave the sea-monster in two and break the sea-serpent's heads above the waters; Thou didst crush the LEVIATHAN's many heads and throw him to the sharks for food." (Psalm 74:13-14)
To the ancient Hebrews, the sea is the conscious being that represents the hostility to the living God, "For thy breach is great like the sea." (Lamentations of Jeremiah). In popular Semitic thought, the sea threatened the sovereignty of the gods and was only overcome after a great combat.
The gods of the sea were aplenty during the Biblical era. The Babylonians revered OR ENKI, the god of the water, EA who overcame the sweet water and ASPU who is often depicted in human form with waves above his shoulders (3). Egyptian mythology relates that the life of man was a pilgrimage or a sea journey; the sinful world was the sea, the religion was ISIS, herself, the mast and sail. Summerian mythology tells of the POTOMIDS of the rivers, "He filled the Tigris with clear water, the water he produced was clear water."
"From the depths of the waters, the sea creatures danced at his
passing by. " (Iliad)

For the Greeks, mythos meant 'fable', 'tale', 'talk', and ‘speech’, but finally came to denote 'what cannot really exist'. The myth to the Ancient Greeks were a most precious treasure because it is sacred, exemplary and significant. POSEIDON ruled the seas: His spouse was the Aegean goddess AMPHITRITE, "The Tritoness surrounding the shore". Their son was TRITON, a minor Greek sea-god, who is represented with a dolphin's tail and blowing a conch. Much later, the Romans identified POSIEDON with their own sea-god NEPTUNE, also ascribing all the legends of the Greek counterpart. The Aegean Sea, in Homer's time, was ruled by the 'Old Man of the Sea', identified with NEURUS, the 'watery one', and sometimes with PROTEUS, 'the Primordial One'.
The humble fisherman GLAUCUS is another example of a marine diety: His legend relates that when his catch of fish leapt back into the sea he, GLAUCUS jumped into the ocean after them. There his hair turned blue-green (glaukos) and his feet turned into a tail of a fish. (His colour is credited to the dark greenish-blue, which the seas assume when the winds begin to rise.)
Mythical creatures flowed abundantly in the seas.. The NEREIDS, nymphs of the Mediterranean Sea, as opposed to the OCEANIDES, who were nymphs of the ocean: Sometimes they were depicted in the form of a mermaid, half-woman, half-fish, a divinity of the waters. The NAIADS, who were the nymphs of the lakes, rivers, and fountains. Of course, there were the SIRENS: They first appear in the Odyssey (book 12) as beautiful females, who sit in a meadow by the sea, enchanting passing sailors with their song so that they swim ashore and perish miserably. The seas brought forth a HALCYON, a fabulous bird, supposed to breed at midwinter in a nest which floats on the water; the wind and waves remain calm for seven days to make this possible. (Alkyon - Greek word for kingfisher)
"Thor in his youth had resolved to slay the great serpent of
Midgard whose inumerable coils caused such violent tempers in
the ocean which surrounded the earth..."
Teutonic Mythology

Various peoples throughout the world tell of monsters, demons and other creatures dwelling in the depth of the seas. Indian lore tells of KALA-MAKARA, a sea monster ridden by VARUNA the god of the deep.
In Slavonic mythology when a nonbelieving maiden drowned in the water of the rivers and the lakes she became a 'RUSSALKA'; they were transformed into wicked girls, who retained some of their maidenly charms. They bewitched passer-bys with sweet voices, luring them to death by drowning in the flowing waters. Their bodies were wan and and cadeverous, like the bodies of the drowned, and their eyes shown with an evil green fire. (4)
The Norwegian fishermen were on the watch for the KRAKEN (5), an enormous creature, whose descent into the sea churned the waters into a whirlpool and drew everything into its depths.
The sea to the Polynesian peoples is of divine origin - it was the result of the heavenly god TA'AROA's sweat in his effort of creation. (6) To the ancient Japanese the sea had several gods (7) - the greatest is O-WATA-TSU-MI, also known as the Old Man of the Tides. Fish and all the sea creatures were ruled by the Sea god HOHODEMI, and his messenger is the sea-monster WANI.
Maps and engravings from the Age of Discovery reflect varying attitudes towards the hybrid creatures of the oceans. Some of them attempt to depict or classify strange phenonema of the sea. Still others are drawn from classical mythology. Nonetheless, most of these monsters are phantasma-gorical, depicted in an illustrative, and occasionally even in humourous fashion.
The continuing line of myths and legends on the sea and its creatures, as related by various peoples, is carried to this very day; For example - 'The Bermuda Triangle', a mystery of the sea partially solved, and to this day fishermen speak of "Halcyon Days" referring to the days in winter when the sea is calm, peaceful and tranquil; time for the kingfisher to build her nest on the waves, as she did according to ancient legend...."A time of peace and happiness" (Greek lore)
1) Ovid is rarely mistaken in his mythology. He identifies Scylla with a namesake whom Aphrodite turned into a dog-monster because Poseidon had seduced her and says she harbored wild dogs in her womb and loins...
2) The description of Scylla's yelp is of greater mythological importance than first appears; it identifies her with the white, red-eared death hounds, the Spectral Pack, or Gabriel Ratches of British legend, which pursue the souls of the damned....
3) The Babylonian creation myth begins with a description of the origin of the universal dieties Anum and Ea from a chain of beings descended from the primeval Tiamat and Aspu, the cosmic ocean and sweet waters.
4) In Slavonic mythology there is another manaevolent dangerous, divinity of the deep waters, the 'VODYANOI' water spirits. The 'VODYANOI' were ugly creatures with big toes, long horns, a tail and eyes like burning coals; they were covered with green hair and a beard. These creatures didn't like the sight of man or woman, and when one was caught bathing in the waters of lakes, he (she) would be seized and turned into their slaves (The 'VODYANOI', according to myth, lived in large crystal palaces at the bottom of the waters.). The superstitious folk of the lake regions believe in this myth and took care when approaching a lake for bathing or for drinking; and when there was a drowning, these water spirits were blamed.
5) It seems likely that the KRAKEN was a kind of giant polyp or cuttle-fish, perhaps a survivor of some almost extinct prehistoric sea creature.
6) The Samoans believed that the forming of the ocean was the breaking of the ink sac of the primeval octopus. Another legend is that was a bit of salt water stored in small earthenware jar, but when it was lifted the water flowed out and caused a flood.
7) Each province in Japan had their sea gods - god of the sea bottom; god of the middle waters; god of the surface of the water. Some gods were of Buddhist origin; others were of Shinto or Tao belief. Some gods had dual, even triple roles, which added to the complexity and size of their domain.

1) Exhibition and catalogue "Mysteries of the Seas (Gods, Creatures and Monsters)", National Maritime Museum, Haifa, Israel, Dorit Cohen, curator.
2) Encyclopedia of World Mythology - fowarded by Rex Warner
3) Ovid, The Art of Love - Metamorphis
4) The Greek Myths - Robert Graves, Penguin Classics, England
5) An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols -J.C. Cooper
6) Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Prometheus Press, New York

Norman A. Rubin

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