The Sea Monster Literary Canon

This week I continue my quest to establish a literary canon for each and every monster in the gothic tradition. So far, I’ve done three of the most prominent types of monsters in horror fiction: vampires, zombies, and demons. But now it’s time to venture into uncharted waters and see what I can do for monsters with a less clearly defined canon. And where better to start than with one of the oldest and most pervasive of monsters: the sea monster?

  1. Ancient works of mythology

Enuma Elish, Babylonian epicThis may seem like a cop-out answer, but I felt it was important to point out that sea monsters are present in some of the earliest written works of literature that we have. They feature in legends across cultures, dating back thousands of years. One of my favorite of these ancient sea monsters is Tiamat, a Babylonian goddess of the sea who is said to represent primordial chaos. Though sometimes depicted as a beautiful woman, she is also portrayed as a monstrous serpent or dragon. The Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation epic dating back to the Bronze Age, tells the story of how the sea monster Tiamat is slain by the storm god Marduk, and her body is used to create the heavens and the earth. The Hebrew Bible mentions a sea monster, the Leviathan, that may have been influenced by this Babylonian legend. Isaiah 27:1 describes how God will kill the Leviathan at the end of days, much as Marduk killed Tiamat. But sea monsters were not limited to the Ancient Near East. The Norse Vikings told of Jörmungandr, the world serpent, who encircles Midgard. Jörmungandr is one of Loki’s children, and was tossed out into the great sea surrounding the human realm by Odin. During Ragnarok, it is prophesied that Thor will ultimately kill the world serpent, before dropping dead from its poison. References to Jörmungandr can be found in the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, both thirteenth-century works of Old Norse literature. And then you have the Greeks, who are full of stories of heroes killing dragons and sea serpents. Which brings us to our next entry in the canon….

  1. The Odyssey by Homer (ca. 8th century BCE)

Odyssey coverThe Odyssey is a Greek epic poem passed down from the oral tradition, and is one of the oldest existing works of Western literature. It follows the tale of the war hero Odysseus as he tries to make his way back home. Over the course of his sea voyage, Odysseus encounters a number of different marine monsters. Some of the most memorable of these are the sirens, who sing an entrancing song that lures sailors to crash their ships into the rocks. Odysseus commands his crew to plug their ears while he stays tied to the mast so that he can listen to the beautiful siren song without causing any damage. Then, in one of the most harrowing scenes of the epic, Odysseus and his crew must face two different sea monsters at once, passing through a narrow strip of water between them. One of these is Charybdis, a mysterious monster responsible for creating huge whirlpools. Odysseus gave Charybdis a wide berth and instead came under attack from Scylla, a six-headed creature who snatches up one of Odysseus’s crewmen with each of its heads. Unlike in any of the legends previously mentioned, the hero does not slay any of these sea monsters, just endures their torments until he makes it safely past them.

  1. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)

twenty thousand leagues coverThis early sci-fi novel by French author Jules Verne helped to popularize the image of the many-tentacled sea monster. The plot begins with marine biologist Pierre Annorax chasing after rumors of a mysterious giant sea creature. He joins a crew determined to hunt the beast, but instead of a monster they find a strange futuristic submarine commanded by Captain Nemo. Annorax, Nemo, and the rest of the crew roam throughout the seas going on a number of adventures, until they eventually do come across some monsters. The submarine is attacked by a pod of giant squid–fictionalized versions of the real creatures that have influenced sea monster legends for centuries. The adventurers valiantly fight the squids with axes and harpoons but the creatures make off with one of the crew members, and the rest are left to mourn his loss.

  1. “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft (1928)

Call of Cthulhu coverSpeaking of tentacles, we can’t possibly talk about sea monsters without bringing up the Old One that lies sleeping in R’lyeh! H. P. Lovecraft is often regarded as the father of modern horror, and is best known for his Cthulhu Mythos—a pantheon of alien-gods that appear in many of his stories, beginning with “The Call of Cthulhu.” In this story, a young man reads his grand-uncle’s notes and slowly puzzles out the existence of a powerful creature called Cthulhu that has been awakened on his hidden island. Cthulhu is described as combining the features of an octopus, a dragon, and a human. He has tentacles surrounding his mouth, great dragon wings, a scaly body with large claws. Lovecraft’s body of work features a number of other terrifying sea creatures as well, from the frog-men of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” to the sea god in “Dagon.”

  1. Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)

jaws coverThe thing about sea monsters is that they are often based off of real creatures. Giant squids really do exist, though they are not quite the ruthless killers depicted in Jules Verne’s novel. And the genuine great white shark is featured in Peter Benchley’s book, which inspired the famous film directed by Steven Spielberg. While great white sharks are known for their occasional attacks on humans, Benchley presents an exaggerated picture. The story is set in the seaside resort town of Amity, where Police Chief Martin Brody tries to have the beaches shut down after a young tourist is brutally torn apart by a shark. The mayor refuses to risk the tourist trade by closing the beaches, and the body count continues to rise. Eventually, Brody sets out with a marine biologist and a professional shark hunter to try to take down the killer. After some harrowing incidents with an ineffectual shark cage and multiple harpoons, the shark finally dies and Brody, alone, makes it home alive. The film adaptation, with its menacing soundtrack, continues to be a source of nightmares for young children who visit the ocean.

I’d also like to give an honorable mention to Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1830 poem “The Kraken,” which shares characteristics with both the Bible’s eschatological predictions regarding the Leviathan and Lovecraft’s ruminations on the sleeping Cthulhu:

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

What other works would you include in the sea monster canon? Did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comments!

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