; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Mysterious Sea Monk

The Sea Monk was a sea monster found off the coast of Denmark, most notably in 1546. It was said to be a "fish" that looked superficially like a monk (Historian William M. Johnson has noted that the sea monk bears a striking resemblance to Saint Francis of Assisi).

According to Conrad Gesner, a sea monk was caught off Norway in a troubled sea, and one was found in the Firth of Fourth. In Stow's 'Annales', he describes the capture of one such creature: "A.D. 1187. Neere unto Orforde in Suffolke, certaine Fishers of the sea tooke in their nettes a Fish having the shape of a man in all pointes, which Fish was kept by Barlemew de Glanville, Custos of the castle of Orforde, in the same castle, by the space of six monthes, and more, for a wonder: He spake not a word. All manner of meates he gladly did eate, but more greedilie raw fishe, after he had crushed out all the moisture. Oftentimes he was brought to the Church where he showed no tokens of adoration. At length, when he was not well looked to, he stale away to the sea and never after appeared."

Two naturalists, Rondelet and Pierre Belon, produced descriptions of animals they termed the Sea Monk, or monk-fish. Centuries later, a very talented naturalist, Japetus Steenstrup, gave a presentation in which he compared Rondelet's illustration and Belon's illustration to the likeness of a squid captured in 1853. He also took into consideration a 16th-century description of the sea monk by Conrad Gesner. Steenstrup made an amazing deduction: "Could we, given these bits of information of how the Monk was conceived at that time, come so near to it that we could recognize to which of nature's creatures it should most probably be assigned? The Sea Monk is firstly a cephalopod." - www.strangescience.net

Rondelet's illustration (on the left) and Belon's illustration (on the right)

In his epic poem 'La Sepmaine; ou, Creation du monde', the poet Guillaume du Bartas referenced the 16th century sea monk sightings as part of a poetic observation that all things on land and in the air had an equivalent in the sea:

"Seas have (as well as skies) Sun, Moon, and Stars;
(As well as ayre) Swallows, and Rooks, and Stares;
(As well as earth) Vines, Roses, Nettles, Millions,
Pinks, Gilliflowers, Mushrooms, and many millions
of other Plants lants (more rare and strange than these)
As very fishes living in the Seas.
And also Rams, Calfs, Horses, Hares, and Hogs,
Wolves, Lions, Urchins, Elephants and Dogs,
Yea, Men and Mayds; and (which I more admire)
The mytred Bishop and the cowled Fryer;
Whereof, examples, (but a few years since)
Were shew'n the Norways, and Polonian Prince."

Sometime during the period 1545–1550, the Danish king, Christian III, sent to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (then in Spain) drawings of a strange animal that had been caught in the Øresund, the strait between the island of Sjælland (Denmark) and Sweden. Described as a sea monk, this strange creature aroused the interest of the whole of Europe. Indeed such was its appeal to the Emperor that one chronicler claimed “as a result...King Christian was included in an alliance formed in the year 1550 between the Emperor and the Scots”.

Architeuthis dux, Giant Squid

The animal had “a human head and face, resembling in appearance the men with shorn heads, whom we call monks because of their solitary life; but the appearance of its lower parts, bearing a coating of scales, barely indicated the torn and severed limbs and joints of the human body. At the order of the king this abominable creature was immediately buried in the ground, in order that it should not, as the new and unusual generally does, provide a fertile subject for offensive talk.”

The Sea Bishop or bishop-fish was another type of sea monster reported in the 16th century. According to legend, it was taken to the King of Poland, who wished to keep it. It was also shown to a group of Catholic bishops, to whom the bishop-fish gestured, appealing to be released. They granted its wish, at which point it made the sign of the cross and disappeared into the sea. It was also described and pictured in Conrad Gesner's 'Historiae animalium'.

In 1855, Steenstrup, who had previously described the stranding of giant squid along the shores of the northern Atlantic, suggested the Øresund sea monk was a giant squid. So convinced was he of his argument, that he gave his unknown squid the binomial name Architeuthis monachus. The validity of this species designation is however open to question as a giant squid was never formally described under this name.

Steenstrup’s arguments for Architeuthis as the sea monk were as follows:

1. The general body form of the sea monk was similar to a squid with the rear of the mantle as the head, the fins representing the chasuble, the entrance to the mantle cavity representing the lower edge of the vestment and with the circle of arms representing the tail fin of the sea monk. The arms of the monk are the tentacles of the squid wrapped underneath the body with just the clubs visible in just the right position to be taken as human arms.

2. The black coloration of the head was caused by the presence of ink sacs underneath the skin.

3. The monkfish had red and black spots as does a squid.

4. The animal was scaleless (although this in fact contradicts at least two of the written accounts and all of the illustrations). The scales were, in Steenstrup’s view, misinterpretations of the coloration of the animal. The basis for this argument was Rondelet’s contention that the animal was scaleless. Most squid (including Architeuthis) are scaleless although one family Lepidoteuthidae is scaled.

5. The sea monk lived for three days. Steenstrup felt this was perfectly in keeping with squid which on “a moist beach or in moist air...could well live outside the water for such a period”.

6. The monk produced no sounds except deep expirations or sighs.

Thus the sea monk was explained as a giant squid, an explanation that has been generally accepted. That Steenstrup was right to believe giant squid were the explanation for certain monsters that were washed up on the coast of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries cannot be doubted, but he may have been a little overenthusiastic in implicating Architeuthis as the prime suspect for the sea monk.

Large North Sea Monkfish

The giant squid theory was popularized by writer Richard Ellis in 'The Search for the Giant Squid'. Cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans believed the report was based on the discovery of an errant walrus. More recently, it has been suggested that it was an angel shark Squatina squatina, which is commonly called monkfish in English or munk in Norwegian. Other suggested suspects for the sea monk include a grey seal, a hooded seal or a monk seal.

Squatina squatina, Angel Shark

Ellis, Richard - 'The Search for the Giant Squid' - 1998
Paxton, C.G.M. & Holland, R. - 'Was Steenstrup right? A new interpretation of the 16th century sea monk of the Øresund' - 2005
Ellis, R. - 'The Search for the Giant Squid' - 1998