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.
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.
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.
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.