ByMark Newton, writer at Creators.co
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

The seas have always terrified and beguiled mankind. Their almost endless scale, their tumultuous nature and unfathomable depths have led to countless legends and tales which have been spread around the world by those who were actually brave enough to embark across the inky, black watery abyss.

Whether it's Homeric tales of Charybdis and Scylla picking off Odysseus' men in The Odyssey, the Leviathan of Biblical lore, or modern day supposed sighting of Nessy, we've always thought there might be more going on under the waves than might meet the eye.

Early map-makers such as Abraham Ortelius certainly thought this, as he created one of the most beautiful and intriguing maps of Iceland. Around the island, labeled as 'Islandia,' is a menacing menagerie of bizarre watery beasts of unprecedented scale and ferociousness.

These monsters certainly plagued the fears of 16th century fishermen and sailors, but could there actually be some truth to these creatures? Are they merely real-life sea creatures blown out of proportion? Take a look at the pictures and descriptions and see if you can figure out the real life inspiration for the monsters. Scroll down to find out what creature they really are.

The Nahval

The first beastie on Ortelius' map is the Nahval, a massive fish with a tooth in the front part of his head that stands out seven cubits. Legend has it that anyone who eats the meat of this fish dies instantly, although its horn can be used to as a powerful medicine against poison. It is also known to leap out the water and attack unsuspecting fishermen.

What is the Nahval?

This one is actually rather easy, as the name is incredibly close to its real life inspiration. The narwhal is a mammal (not a fish) which is common around Icelandic and North Atlantic waters. Known as the 'Unicorn of the Sea,' these creatures have a protruding canine tooth which becomes its iconic tusk.

Generally, it is believed legends concerning traditional unicorns were applied to the narwhal - for example, killing hunters and their horns having magical properties. Although we now see them as noble steeds, unicorns were once considered dangerous creatures which attacked hunters in forests. Vikings were known to sell narwhal horns for their weight in gold, due to their supposed healing powers.

The terrifying narwhal!
The terrifying narwhal!

The Hyena or Sea Hog

This weird hybrid first appeared on Olaus Magnus' 1539 map of Scandinavia, but it has since appeared on several other maps in slightly different styles. Most of them, however, show it as a "monstrous fish that resembles a pig," with a boar's head, webbed feet, horns and, oddest of all, three eyes on its side.

What is the Sea Hog?

There isn't a definite consensus on what the sea hog could be based on. A relatively obvious answer is that it is some kind of seal or walrus. This would explain the tusks, pig like face and patches of fur.

However, the sea hog was apparently 'common' in Germanic and North European seas, which is outside the range of walruses. With this in mind, it could simply be a grey seal, although these generally live near to land and would be well known to 16th century sailors. Having said that, if a particularly large one was spotted out at sea in bad conditions, it could be mistaken for one of these. Some have also suggested that wounds on the animal could have been mistaken for eyes.

The dastardly sea hog!
The dastardly sea hog!

The Ziphius

The Ziphius is another horrible sea monster that is known to swallow a black seal in one bite. Magnus wrote that it has horrible eyes, a sharp beak like a sword, and a large upright triangular fin. He also, weirdly, added it has the face of an owl and/or a cherub.

Magnus also claimed the animal was also cunning, and would occasionally steal the prey of whaling and fishing vessels, although overall it was rare. Other cartographers also drew the Ziphius, but also interestingly showed that monster being eaten by another.

What is the Ziphius?

The word Ziphius is actually the name of a genus of beaked whale which is common in the North Atlantic, however it is unclear if this is the inspiration for for the Ziphius of legend. The word Ziphius itself is a derivative of the greek word, xiphos, which means sword. Therefore, the Ziphius could be a swordfish, although these are more commonly seen in tropical waters and not the frigid north.

Some have stipulated that it could be a killer whale (a.k.a. orca), mostly because of the claim it can eat a seal in one whole bite - which an orca certainly can. The large dorsal fin, 'horrible eyes' and cunning intelligence could also refer to a killer whale. Their dramatic hunting behavior of leaping out of the water would have also terrified sailors at the time.

However, these animals have no natural predators, so showing it being eaten is strange. Baby orcas have been known to be targeted by great white sharks, although it is possible the map makers were merely exercising some exciting creative license.

Is this the murderous Ziphius?
Is this the murderous Ziphius?
Or this?
Or this?

The Skautuhvalur

The Skautuhvalur is a titanic fish which appears to be covered in bristly bones or wings. It is claimed that when it appears, it seems more like an island, while its large fins can overturn boats and ships. Magnus also claims it can use its tail to pluck sailors off of ships and to their doom.

Despite this, others have described it as placid, and even friendly to humans. Some depictions show the Skautuhvalur actually saving humans from other fish.

What is the Skautuhvalur?

It seems fairly likely the Skautuhvalur is some kind of skate or sting ray. Indeed, the name Skautuhvalur is rather close to skate, while the spiny description would also suit this fish. This element could have been combined with the properties of sting rays, which look very similar to skates. The famously painful stinger of the ray could, for example, explain the horrific stinger of the Skautuhvalur.

However, there are only two types of breeds of skate and ray in Icelandic waters and neither of these are particularly large. So, there might also be a bit of manta ray thrown into the Skautuhvalur for good measure. The huge eagle rays are not native to cold waters, however stories of them could have been passed on from Spanish seafarers. These animals, which often breach like whales, would seem huge and dangerous to small ships.

The enigmatic Skautuhvalur?
The enigmatic Skautuhvalur?

The Rostunger or Rosmar

Similarly to the Sea Hog is the Rostunger, a large tusked, legged monster which silently stalks the bottom of the sea. They are also often seen clinging to rocks and it is claimed no weapon can penetrate their hide. Luckily, they are known to sleep 12 hours a day, which means men have been known to get close and dispatch them.

However, hunters must be careful, as these beasts carry two large teeth which are as long as a broadsword.

What is the Rostunger?

This one is fairly easy, isn't it? Of course, the Rostunger is the walrus, its large tusks and tendency to sleep on rocks being a dead giveaway. It seems men also had a hard time killing walruses.

Their skin was so tough, they reportedly utilized a weird and bizarre way of killing the beasts. Some sources describe hunters sneaking up to sleeping walruses, cutting slits into their skin with sharp specialized knives and running rope through the cuts. The rope was then tied to a tree and the sleeping walrus (who had amazingly not awoken through this) was startled and made to stampede into the sea. The result, is apparently, the walrus running out of its own skin.

The indestructible Rostunger?
The indestructible Rostunger?

The Kraken

Although not appearing on the Islandia map, the Kraken is another beast which was supposed to inhabit the seas around Norway and Greenland. Of course, it has since become one of the most enduring sea-monsters, even appearing in high budget blockbusters such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Clash of the Titans.

The Kraken, also known as the Hafgufa (sea-mist) first appears in the late 13th century Icelandic epic, Örvar-Oddr, along with a massive whale monster known as Lyngbakr (heather-back). Told from the perspective of sailors navigating the Greenland sea, the narrator describes the beast:

Now I will tell you that there are two sea-monsters. One is called the hafgufa (sea-mist), another lyngbakr (heather-back). It (the lyngbakr) is the largest whale in the world, but the hafgufa is the hugest monster in the sea. It is the nature of this creature to swallow men and ships, and even whales and everything else within reach.

Early descriptions of the kraken almost describe it as a massive whale which can be mistaken for an island, however by 1752, National History of Norway described it in it's more squid-like form, claiming, "it is said that if [the creature's arms] were to lay hold of the largest man-of-war, they would pull it down to the bottom." The book also claimed that if its tentacles didn't sink the ship, the whirlpool it left could.

What is the Kraken?

The ship-wrecking Kraken?
The ship-wrecking Kraken?

Nowadays, it is believed the Kraken fairly clearly refers to the giant or colossal squid, two extremely secretive sea creatures which even today are shrouded in mystery. Indeed, it was only recently that an alive giant squid was filmed in the wild.

In modern history, there is certainly no reference of a giant or colossal squid ever attacking a ship, but in 1802 French malacologist Pierre Dénys de Montfort claimed a sailing vessel from Saint-Malo was attacked by a giant octopus off the coast of Angola.

It also believed that common volcanic occurrences off the coast of Iceland could be mistaken for the Kraken. Such activity resulted in bubbling waters, dangerous currents and the appearance of new islets which could be seen as synonymous with the Kraken.

The titanic Lyngbakr.
The titanic Lyngbakr.

The other animal described, the Lyngbakr, seems fairly likely to be a sperm whale - the largest toothed predator in the world, which are very common around Icelandic waters. Indeed, sperm whales are often depicted battling giant squids, although in reality it is less of an equal fight, as sperm whales simply hunt giant squid as prey. Despite this, many still bear the scars of their encounters with the 'Kraken.'

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