What makes a good sea story? From childhood, through school and into adulthood we see countless examples of nautical fiction. Nautical fiction, also known as naval, sea and maritime fiction, is defined as a genre of literature with a setting on or near the sea. But can that be it? Would stories ranging from Moby Dick to Jaws have been the same if they were set on land? So, the question arises, what is it that makes nautical tales so popular?
The sea has been the stage for some of the most compelling and outrageous stories in history. The ocean is a constantly shifting, all-powerful force, out of our control. We have moved rivers, obliterated mountains, gone to the moon, yet the sea still remains unconquerable to man and his creations. However, it is often not the sea itself that piques the interest, it is what lurks beneath.
Some people will say that sea monsters are the stuff of myth and legend, metaphorical representations of the depth of our souls. I’d wager that’s what Martin Brody and Ishmael believed right up until they were face-to-face with their respective nautical nemeses.
From the Egyptian Gods to the Avengers, for as long as we’ve been around mankind has been quick to fill the gaps in our collective knowledge with the likes of folklore, fairy tales or literature. Over the years, if you had believed the accusations, the forests were teeming with witches, the mountains; half man-beasts and space by intergalactic bounty hunters and acid-leaking genetically engineered killers. Maybe.
But the mystery of the unconquerable sea remains. How little we know about the sea probably contributes to the number of mysterious tales we hear. No-one has been, and likely never will be able to disprove them entirely. From countless cultures throughout history we are regaled with accounts of some form of sea beast. The origins of these stories vary. Some are passed down through word-of-mouth from generation to generation. Some are immortalized in text, preserved for generations to come. Some may even be a boastful story that has snowballed into legend. And while there are multiple variations in the stories, many of them bear similarities, possibly contributing to the credence of their existence. Add that to the very real existence of colossal squids, giant whales and enormous sharks, and the fact that around 70% of our oceans remain unexplored and it’s a stark example of convergent evolution in myth form, or the perfect storm for a plausible horror story.
So below are my top sea monsters that I wouldn’t want to run into:
Probably the most well-known and widely recognized myth is the Kraken. Originating in Scandinavian folklore, the Kraken is usually depicted as an aggressive cephalopod-like creature capable of rending entire ships asunder and dragging its sailors to the murky depths below.
Similar creatures appear in stories from other cultures, in ancient Greece, Aristotle wrote about Teuthos. Homer about The Scylla. Similar myths hail, notably, from the Caribbean, Japan and New Zealand.
Many experts believe that the reason for the popularity of the Kraken myth stems, not only from it’s frequency, but also from our fear of the unknown, how different they are to us (and really any other organisms that we know of) and that they resemble actual creatures that have been found washed up on shores around the North Atlantic.
The Leviathan has its origins in pre-biblical Mesopotamian myth. Particularly in the myth of Baal. It also makes an appearance in the old testament.
Usually taking the form of a giant sea serpent, Leviathan has been used to symbolize a goddess, a demon and, simply put, food. The creature appears in numerous different cultures under many different names, including Tiamat, Yamm, Nu and Bahamut.
Sirens appear in Greek mythology. Said to resemble mer-people and lure sailors with their enchanting voices, causing them to wreck on the shores of their island. There were three classifications of Siren; the celestial, the generative and the cathartic. Each falling under the control of one of the divine fraternities of Zeus, Hades or Posiedon.
Most significantly, they appear in Homer’s epic where Odysseus, desiring to hear their song but not wanting to fall under their spell, orders his crew to tie him to the mast of the ship, while filling their own ears with beeswax and giving them strict instructions to ignore his pleas for release.
They also appear in myths with the likes of Hera and Demeter, in the latter, helping in the search for her daughter Persephone.
If you’ve ever found yourself on a sailboat during a storm then you’ve heard the gale scream through the rigging, and also what is most likely the origin of this particular myth.
Sea monsters have been a staple of cinema for decades. But sea monsters in movies are often a far leap from those of myth and legend. Starting in the 1950’s with the likes of Godzilla and Creature from the Black Lagoon. We started seeing a new breed of sea monster. Some were variations on old tales and myths from all over the world. Some were, like the Kraken, giant versions of existing beasts, and some were something entirely new. Thanks to the vast unknown setting of the deep sea, all of them were terrifying.
In 1974, Steven Spielberg changed cinema forever. Jaws was so popular that it is considered the movie that started the trend of the “summer blockbuster”. It wasn’t just cinema that it changed, though. Its effect was so profound that national news channels reported significantly reduced numbers of beachgoers in the summer of 1975, and cited that they believed it was a direct result of the movie.
A simple premise of a giant shark, with some kind of axe to grind against humans. It genuinely did make people afraid to go back into the water.
How could we talk about sea monsters in movies and not talk about the one that spawned 36 films, video games, books, comics, toys and a slew of other media and merchandising? Godzilla has been emphatically embraced by pop culture since its inception, and holds the record for longest running film franchise in history.
A metaphor for nuclear war and attributed with the characteristics of a nuclear warhead, Godzilla’s origins were political in nature, but that didn’t change the fact that it was a sea monster, capable of surviving a nuclear holocaust and capable of razing cities to the ground.
Released in Japan in 1954, it didn’t see international release until a few years later, heavily edited and minus all the political machinations.
I was conflicted as to whether I should include this entry, as the entity in The Abyss is not a sea monster in the same way as all the others on this list. I decided that it deserved inclusion based on the fact that much of the movie’s tension and suspense is still a direct result of the setting. Again, the sea was used to represent the depths of the unknown. The deeper they got, the less control they had, the less they understood. The Abyss is no conventional sea monster story, in fact, the real danger doesn’t come from the ‘monster’, but from the sea itself.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Written back in 1870, French author Jules Verne helped cement the image of the giant squid-like sea monster legend. A mixture of myth and science fiction, the novel follows marine biologist Pierre Annorax as he searches for the fabled sea monster he has heard so many stories about. He finds a ship and crew that share his desire and sets off to sea. Instead of finding the creatures they come across Commander Nemo and his incredibly advanced submarine. Together, they all set off in search of the mythical creatures, eventually finding a pod of giant squid that they have to defend against with only harpoons and melee weapons. Fighting courageously, they ward off the massive cephalopods, but lose a member of the crew in the process. Annorax, Nemo and the others are left to lament his loss.
The Call of Cthulhu
Similar to the Leviathan, Cthulhu has its roots embedded in ancient mysticisms, but this time it’s the turn of the dark arts. A ‘Demon’ that has been awakened and resides on a hidden island in the middle of the ocean. Cthulhu was said to be a combination of an octopus, a dragon and a human. Created by H.P. Lovecraft in 1978, Cthulhu and the mythos surrounding him went on to become integral to many of Lovecraft’s future works, many of which include other ghastly sea monsters, from frog-men to the God of the sea.
If there were an award for the most famous opening line in literature, Moby Dick’s “call me Ishmael” would certainly be one of the favorites for the title. Ishmael goes on to narrate the story of Captain Ahab, who is out to wreak vengeance on Moby Dick, a humongous sperm whale that had taken the lower half of one of his legs. Ahab was the captain of the whaling ship ‘Pequod’, whose diverse crew were subject to a harrowing and desperate search for a whale that ultimately left only Ishmael alive.
Moby Dick is probably the most realistic and most complex story on this list. Melville had been a sailor, and drew on his own experiences to create a realistic and comprehensive account of life at sea.
The titular aquatic mammal is said to have been based on an infamous and elusive albino whale named Mocha Dick and the Pequod’s fate on the sinking of the Whaling ship The Essex in 1820.
Now, I know that a few of these entries appear in different forms of media. Moby Dick was also a film, and Jaws was also a book, Godzilla has been in literally everything. I tried to use the medium that made the story the most famous, even if it wasn’t its first incarnation.
I also wanted to make an honorable mention for the Loch Ness Monster. A serpent-like creature said to live in Lakes of the Scottish highlands. Sightings of the beast are few and far between and much of the evidence is far from conclusive, but the tone of the legend is very different. Nessie, as the beast is oft affectionately called, hasnt murdered any sailors or sunk any ships. He, or she, is more of a harmless enigma, an underwater Bigfoot, if you will.
Which leads me neatly to my conclusion. All these sea ‘monsters’, and many more besides, represent a plethora of different things. Good and bad. But the stories are often as much about the monster as they are about the sea itself. The ocean is much more than just a backdrop from a story. It plays an active role in it. It is endless, unforgiving and secretive. It’s been here since the beginning and will remain long after all of us are gone. And if all these ‘monsters’ emerge from the sea, could we not call the sea the real monster?