Impossible Creatures

Lately there has been some talk of sea monsters.  Twice in one week their bodies have been discovered: either billowing in the shallows like abandoned sails or stretched across the beach, their silver flesh melting in the sun.  Pulled from the primitive dark, dying in the light, they have the shape of serpents:  their anger silenced, their fires no longer kindling.

Science, however, has tempted these creatures from the realm of mythology.  Zoologists have taken this curious orphan and given it a family, Regalecidae, placing it amongst the terraces of names they have arranged like a subtle garden.  It has been given a Latin alias, Regalecus glesne, that ripples with its mysterious, gleaming origins.  Imagination, upon seeing its compressed and extensive silhouette, has given it a common name:  Oarfish.

But centuries ago, imaginations saw the same animal and spoke – once more – of sea monsters.  Medieval mariners, dehydrated and feverish, glimpsed silver ribbons in the ocean and knew that they had reached the edge of the world and that here were indeed monsters.  They perceived the waves, mottled with sunlight, as saw burning scales that stretched into the horizon.  They felt the muscles coiling beneath bow and stern and waited to be pulled to the reptilian grottos where the water boiled and the currents were wreathed in smoke.

Maps from those eras were populated with these visions, born out of fact and hallucination.  Vague recollections of animals that glowed through the green water, the eerie lights and ghostly shapes, colonized the frightening latitudes.  Distracted storytellers, enthralled by the menagerie that gamboled throughout the waves, were the sources of monstrous memories.  The Mappa Mundis, Carta Marinas…all recorded these initiations into an entirely new world of animals.

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And hidden within these aquatic bestiaries was a serpent.  Blood-red, devouring ships, it wrapped around long ship and galley alike, splintering wood and plucking sailors from decks like grapes off a vine.

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But these charts not only illustrated nautical horrors; they also exposed a mariner’s fear.  The fear of what the unknown was capable of doing, of staring into a black sea and wondering what shivered and grimaced across the darkling sands.

Many of these creatures are vaguely recognizable – seals, whales, manta rays, lobsters.  Ignorance and trepidation added satanic details:  spines, teeth, scales, mouths that grinned and roared.  And an oarfish which was probably floating on the water’s surface – a deceased, decomposing ribbon – suddenly had the capacity to crush ships in its voracious grasp.

A thousand years later, these lonely, pelagic fish are still misunderstood.  Yet they no longer inspire dread or terrified speculation.  We take pictures, we study, we try to learn when the sea is generous enough to give to us one of her strange children.

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Yet, there is still a longing.  A longing for a time of almost seductive naiveté,  when anything was possible:  when imagination and fact intertwined to create impossible creatures.

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13 responses to “Impossible Creatures

  1. You weaver of words that cast a spell over the reader! Your words create a sense of awesome mystery, and leave me at a loss for the words to describe how reading this affects me. Thank you.

  2. I liked the theory by one Japanese seismologist, who thinks the reason why we’re seeing so many oarfish lately is because they’re being disturbed by deep undersea tremors. It may indicate that California is due for another big one soon, though I hope he’s wrong!

    http://www.salon.com/2013/10/25/did_californias_oarfish_just_predict_an_earthquake/

    And yes, I think for all our marvelous GPS and smartphone technology and the ability of contemporary science to answer more questions than we can even think of, we all yearn for some mystery in the world. Granted, some people take it too far by proclaiming it’s the End of Times, or ascribing every odd phenomenon to some supernatural cause—ghosts, aliens, Big Eye in the Sky—but to give everything a hyper-rational explanation sucks all the child-like thrill we get from seeing things like oarfish and falling stars and foxfire.

  3. The post from Hangaku was interesting and possibly entirely accurate. Maybe, though, they died from the activities reported of unidentified underwater vessels. There is a different name for them but I have forgotten it, living in a desert and all. Or maybe our subs are disturbing them. It is sad, whatever is happening.

  4. I love how these impossible creatures are depicted on the old maps. Beautiful illustrations of seduction and fear conjured up in the imagination. And of course in Scotland our own Nessie – The Loch Ness Monster – continues to be searched for, imagined and subject to an occasional sighting. Thanks for another wonderful post Aubrey.

  5. I think that the oarfish are *still* wonderful and very strange – as are many other creatures. I’m not at all sure that science “take the magic out of” them, really…

  6. Beth – thank you! We owe it to ourselves to keep all mysteries awesome!

    Hangaku – I remember the thrill I used to get whenever I went fishing: when I caught something, and brought it up, the first flash of white and silver – when you didn’t know what was on the end of the line – was magnificent. But when the fish was at my feet, gasping for air…all of that thrill was over. There is that same battle of wonder vs. reality.

    Steven – of course I had to look it up: USO (unidentified submersible object). I’ve heard that theory as well; there have been quite a few arguments, both pro and con. Whatever the reason, I hope they cease disrupting the wildlife far below: although it would mean we would see less of them coming to the surface.

    fatcat/Lauri – Ha! VOX lives!

    fifepsychogeography – thank you; and what is your theory of the loch’s ‘lady of the lake’? I love the illustrations as well; it took me especially long to research these maps: they were so lovely and tempting, I was content merely to look rather than write!

    e2thec – oh, there is an artistry to science, make no doubt. Even now, you can’t look at these photographs without a feeling of awe. But since the age of reason, theories of dragons floating to the surface have quite vanished!

    • I dunno, aubrey – the oceans are vast, and we don’t know all that much about most of the creatures that live there.

      I think there’s still room for sea monsters – and hey, I’ve seen things (like clouds of shimmering fireflies in the summer) that might as well have been supernatural, because their beauty was so unexpected and – to me, at least – pretty uncanny. Nothing about the actual facts behind their appearance (mating, etc.) diminished that one iota.

    • or, put another way – I don’t think science and a sense of awe and wonder are incompatible. The lives of other creatures are largely a mystery to us. Where I live (in the mountains), there’s *so* much territory that’s wild, not a place where humans live. So there are many, many creatures living out their lives with minimal human interference – and we aren’t really privy to what they do and how they interact with one another.

      To me, that’s “magic.” (Especially because we don’t know how their thought processes work, and I think we ascribe too little intelligence to other creatures, in order to try and make ourselves feel secure as Top Mammals.)

      • You’re right – science and awe are certainly not incompatible. One could say that one was born out of the other. The magic we see around us, the beauty, the how-could-that-be wondering, the depthless oceans and skies has always existed, and will continue to do so. I think we welcome these visions now, seek them out. There was a time, when the unknown, unfortunately, could be seen as downright devilish.

        And I agree with you completely: there is still room for sea monsters!

  7. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a large eel while snorkeling. It wasn’t supposed to be there. We’d been promised nothing more than pretty parrotfish and sergeant majors, with an occasional angelfish to spice things up. But a sudden, courageous free dive and there we were, eye to eye. Never have I had such a clear impression of having intruded into a world I didn’t belong – he might as well have been flame red, with the power to pull me down forever.

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