Thursday, 15 March 2012

Beasties of the Deep: Mythological Creatures of the Sea - Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of Mythological Creatures of the Sea. If you missed Part 1 you can find it here. Previous posts i the mythical creatures series can be found here (on dragons, fantastical horses, and mythical creatures of the sky). Today we’re dealing with other beasts of the deep!

Hippocampus depiction in ancient art
Hippocampus – Still no hippos....

Common to Phoenician and Greek mythology, the hippocampus is typically depicted as the front half of a horse with a fish’s tail. 

Poseidon, god of the sea, but also of horses and earthquakes (talented chap!), was described by Homer as drawn by "brazen-hoofed" horses over the sea's surface, whereas Neptune (the Roman name for Poseidon) has a sea chariot drawn by hippocampi, gicing the god slightly different depictions in each culture. 

Neptune's horses do appear as hippocampi in the Trevi Fountain in Rome. I’ve seen this fountain in the flesh…er, stone… and didn’t realise the horses were more than just horses! In my defence, it was a little crowded at the time. And I had sore feet. 

You don’t see this one much in fantasy, I’m afraid. So if you’re looking for something a little unusual… consider the poor, forgotten hippocampus!
The Trevi Fountain in Rome

Kraken - Oh, giant octopus!

OK, that’s some octopus. The kraken, of truly giant proportions, probably had more than 8 arms and was reputed to live off the coasts of Norway and Iceland.

One tale goes that the Kraken was sometimes mistaken for an island, and the real danger to sailors is the whirlpool left in its wake. Other tales more commonly have the kraken wrapping its tentacles around hapless ships and dragging them to a watery grave. It was said if the kraken were to seize hold of the largest man-of-war, it could be pulled to the very bottom of the sea. 

The myth may have grown from sightings of the giant squid, estimated to grow to 13–15 m (40–50 ft) in length (including tentacles). Although giant squid usually lives at great depths, they are sometimes sighted at the surface and may even have attacked ships.

The kraken makes an appearance in The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The monster that drives the Fellowship of the Ring into the mines of Moria may also have been a kraken or kraken type creature. 

Man o' War


Each Uisge - Beautiful Horse!

 Pronounced Ach (rhymes with Bach, the composer; the "ch" is a gutteral sound, caught in the throat, almost as if you are choking – if you’ve ever heard a Scot say ‘Och!’ you know what I mean) ishkeh (like "shish kabob", without the first "sh" and "bob" at the end). Yes, as far as I can see, there is no logical connection between the spelling of these words and their pronunciation!

Considered a relative of the Scottish kelpie, or waterhorse (which is not a Loch Ness Monster type-creature - we'll cover waterhorses ina  future post), the Each Uisge of the Scottish Highlands is reputedly the most dangerous water-dwelling creature in the British Isles. 

Unlike the kelpie, the Each Uisge lives in the sea, sea lochs and fresh water lochs and is far more vicious. It often appears as a beautiful horse or an incredibly handsome man. In human form, the Each Uisge can be recognised only by the water weeds in his hair. Highlanders tended to be wary of lone animals or people near the edges of lochs for fear it was the Each Uisge. 

If a man or woman mounts the Each Uisge while in horse-form, they are safe so long as they remain out of sight or scent of water – although this may be difficult in Scotland! For if the Each Uisge scents water, his back becomes sticky, preventing the rider from dismounting. The Each Uisge then drags his rider to a watery doom, diving to the very deepest part of the loch. After the rider has drowned, the Each Uisge devours his victim, except for the liver which floats to the surface. Presumably the poor soul has unstuck from the Each Uisge’s back at this point....

One tale of the Each Uisge recounts a blacksmith from Raasay who lost his daughter to the Each Uisge. In revenge, the blacksmith and his son made a set of large hooks, then roasted a sheep and heated the hooks until they were red hot. A mist appeared from the water and the Each Uisge rose from the depths of the loch, seizing the sheep, and the blacksmith and his son rammed the hooks into its flesh, killing it. Nothing remained in the morning except a jelly like substance.

The Each Uisge makes an appearance in the Bitterbynde trilogy by Australian author Cecilia Dart-Thornton.

Selkies - Seal People

Selkies, also called silkies or selchies, are also Scottish in origin (also Faroese, Icelandic and Irish folklore). A selkie is a magical seal which can take the form of a human. When in human form, the selkie sheds its seal skin. Without the skin, it cannot return to seal form. 

Unlike many other mythological creatures, the selkies lend themselves to romantic tragedies. A human might take a selkie for a lover, not knowing their lover is not human, and wakes one day to find them gone. In other’s, knowing their lover is a selkie, the mortal takes and hides the selkie’s seal skin, denying them the ability to return to the sea. This is the only way a human can keep a selkie lover, for if the human does not hide the selkie’s skin, the selkie must wait seven years before they may make contact with their human lover again. 

Male selkies are very beautiful and seductive to human women, but prefer dissatisfied women, such as those at home waiting for their fishermen husbands. If a woman wishes to call a selkie, she must go to a beach and shed seven tears into the sea. Then the selkie will come to her. 

If a man steals a selkie’s skin, she is in his power and forced to become his wife. Female selkies supposedly made prized wives, but they often gaze at the sea, missing their home. If she can find her skin, she will return to the sea, even if she has mortal children. Often it is one of her children who unwittingly finds her skin and allows her the opportunity to escape. How sad! Such escaped selkie women usually avoid their mortal husband but may return to visit their children from time to time. 

In the Faroe Islands there is the story of the Seal Wife. A young farmer goes to watch the selkies dance on the beach. Hiding the skin of a selkie maid, he forces her to marry him, and hides her skin in a locked chest to which only he has the key. On the day he forgets the key, she takes back her skin and escapes back to the sea, leaving behind her husband and children. 

Although selkie lore tends to romantic tragedies, not all tales are about faithless lovers. The fisherman, Cagan, married a selkie and sailed against his wife’s wishes into dangerous weather. His selkie wife shifted to seal form and saved him, although this meant she could not return to him or her happy home for seven years. 

I find the selkie folklore very sad. Nothing ever seems to go right for selkies who love mortals or mortals who love selkies. Doomed from the start!

Selkies also appear in the Bitterbynde trilogy by Australian author Cecilia Dart-Thornton.

That’s it for our mythical creatures of the sea. I’ve been asked to cover undines and rusalkas (other types of water creatures, although more typically associated with fresh water) so if you have any special requests, do let me know!

You can find other posts in mythical creatures series here - Dragons, Fantastical Horses, Creatures of the Sky, Mythical Creatures of the Sea - Part 1, and Spirits of Inland Waterways

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Justin Bogdanovitch said...

I like reading about these creatures . . . some I've never come across in reading. In real life? People may remind me of some of them, at times LOL I also liked the movie Ondine which played with the myth of a selkie. 

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 Ironically, ondine is another word for undine, which is a totally different beastie itself! An undine is a water nymph, which I will deal with ina  future post. Glad you enjoy the posts, Justin. This has turned into my most popular series.

Penelopecrowe said...

Very neat post!
I loved the Kraken since I first heard the word years ago.  It sounds like something delicious--but it a gigantic lurking sea beast.  Love the dichotomy. 
And selkies--another wonderful image.
I also like how mermaids have been given a more scary and sinister image in the movies lately.  Fun!
Thanks for this!  :)

Nospam said...

I learned recently that the selkie myth may be based on Inuits (who traditionally wore clothing made of sealskin) getting blown off course in storms and winding up on the eastern part of the north Atlantic. It would explain a bit why they were always homesick and had to be tricked into staying -- although I have also heard more recent stories from the 19th century of Inuit getting stranded this way and integrating into small-town Scottish society.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Mmmm.... Kraken soup! Sounds delicious. I didn't come across selkies until I read the Bitterbynde Trilogy and Cecilia Dart-Thornton does a fabulous job of recreating the beauty and mystery of the myth. Mermaids are reverting back to the original myth, I think, no longer so innocent and sweet

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I read a similar myth, except it referred to Norsemen rather than Inuit!s

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