Up From The Depths
1 January, 2008
The largest animal ever known to have lived is the Blue Whale. Bigger than any dinosaur, Blue Whales can grow as long as a Boeing 737. While today these mammals are rare, in the past they thrived in the oceans. Meeting one of these creatures would surely be an amazing sight for the crews of early sailing vessels. Perhaps these creatures, amongst many other odd sea creatures, gave rise to the plethora of Sea Monster myths which seem to show up in just about every culture.
In Babylonian myth, Tiamat the Sea Dragon warred against the gods. Angered at the gods attacks on her husband she summoned hordes of sea serpents, scorpion men, and storm demons. The gods were afraid and looked upon their impending doom. Marduk, son of one of the great gods, was not afraid and volunteered to face Tiamat and her armies in exchange for becoming King of the Gods. The rest of the gods agreed and sent Marduk into battle. They were nice to him, they gave him some magical weapons and of course a net (he was going fishing after all). Being the hero of the story Marduk managed to slay Tiamat and used her carcass to form the Heavens and the Earth. From then on, Marduk ruled over the other gods and his chosen city, Babylon, ruled over the lands of Mesopotamia.
Some remnant of the Marduk myth seeps into the Hebrew bible. Yahweh is the one who slays the sea monsters (mentioned in Isiah, Job and Proverbs). Was Yahweh originally one of the seventy sons of El who became King of the Gods (El-Elyon) when he slew the sea serpent as Marduk had?
Skipping ahead to the Saxons of the Dark Ages – the hero Beowulf faced many sea monsters. Recounting a swimming contest which lasted many days, Beowulf points out that he had to stop halfway through in order to fight a number of vicious sea creatures. Not content with getting a medal for swimming more than 100 metres, Beowulf had to show off by holding his breath for hours, exerting himself under water (these mighty fish required sword fighting to kill!), and still managing to finish the race. Later on Beowulf successfully hunts down the mother of one of his earlier kills, and she too turns out to be a Sea Demon. In short, if you had a problem with fishy monsters it was time to call in Beowulf.
Going right to the end of time and there are still sea monsters to be found! In Norse myth it is the Twilight of the Gods and Ragnarok has begun. The Giants are being led by Loki to fight against Odin and the other gods. In amongst the heroics and final clashes the mighty Thunderer god Thor faces off against Jormungandr, the Midgard Serpent. This sea monster is so large that he encircles the world. Being a cheeky sort of god though, Thor reckons he can take on this serpent once and for all. One mighty battle later and it’s clear that Thor was the hero of this tale for Jormungandr lies dead. But alas, it’s Ragnarok, and as a great tragedy the good guys end up dying too. The serpent manages to poison Thor in its death throes. Fighting Giants all around, Thor is slowly overcome.
The end times of christian myth don’t escape sea monsters either. From Revelation 13: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” No matter where we go, whether it’s the beginning of time, the end of the universe, or fun hero myths in between – the Sea Monsters are always with us.