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What ‘Really’ Happened

Monday, 26 May, 2014

Words by Jakob von der Lippe
Illustration by Camilla Eustance

I’m going to start this one with a disclaimer. I don’t like anything that scuttles around or has tentacles or pincers. They’re god-awful abominations that crawled out of the primal nightmare that is the ocean, and you just know that when you look into the cold, dead eyes of a lobster, you’re seeing a creature with just enough mental capacity to hate. There’s something inherently arrogant and just generally wankerish about a sea creature that feels the need to walk on land, and the basic idea behind a tentacle is that it’s going to have all the function of a normal appendage, but be creepy as fuck about it. On that note, we’re dealing with the mother of all things aquatic and abhorrent: sea monsters and, honestly, they’re all massive watery fucks from my own personal nightmares.

Accounts of sea monsters exist in just about every culture that ever laid eyes on the ocean, which isn’t that surprising considering the ocean is, as stated above, a nightmare. The idea that just about anything could lurk beneath the waves is so ingrained in narrative and mythological tradition that the trope of the sea monster is as old and as widely circulated as ‘your mum’ jokes. However, the vastness of the ocean doesn’t explain why so many cultures share similar descriptions of sea monsters. Giant octopus and squids certainly do exist in nature, but the ones that wash ashore are frankly piss weak compared to the absolute behemoths referred to in Mediterranean and Scandinavian mythology. The Kraken, a creation of Scandinavian folklore, is described in myriad of different ways, ranging from island-sized fish to fuck-up-your-whole-afternoon sized octopus. The thing is, all of these monstrous forms are myths told by other cultures as well, with the biblical Leviathan essentially being a big fish, and the Akkorokamui and Umibozu of Japanese tradition resembling gigantic, capsizing tentacle beasts. These are just a few; there’s quite seriously a monstrous version of every single sea creature available in somebody’s mythology. Shout out to the Hindu Rainbow Fish, though, for doing it with style.

The weird part though comes when you look at where these stories come from on a map. Coastal Scandinavia and the North Sea are a gigantic hotspot for sea monster activity, as is the Mediterranean Sea, and that bit of water that contains Japan and the coastline of India. This concentration either suggests that the cultures of these areas shared stories and myths with each other, or throughout the classical and medieval era, being a sailor somehow sucked even more. I highly doubt, however, that tenth century Japan and Iceland were on talking terms, since Björk hadn’t even released her first album yet. The fact of the matter is, coincidence or not, the similarities in sea monsters literally half a world apart reflect something that is at least mildly unexplainable, like how nobody can explain why there are always so many birds at airports. Bonus side theory: aeroplanes are bird gods.

Every so often, stories of sea monster attacks are supported by the actual disappearance of a vessel or supposed sightings of a mysterious creature. Accounts of this occurring in antiquity are hard to separate out from the usual mythological and folkloric cloud that surrounds sea monstrosities. However, I don’t think anyone would call an 1839 account of a giant tentacle creature assaulting a trade ship off the coast of Angola an antique account, and it’s these more modern examples that really muddy the water. Just to make things even weirder, in 1997 an awesomely loud, low frequency noise was picked up by US oceanic monitoring stations. While the official story is that’s it’s the sound of ice scraping together, it also sounds a hell of a lot like an animal, something like a demonic whale trying to win an argument when it’s drunk. One the size of, like, two MCGs.

Basically, I don’t know for sure, but eating seafood still feels like a sort of primal victory over the briny, gross denizens of the deep.

Lobster: Living proof that the more evil something is, the better it tastes.