The legend of the Sea monk

Storm raiser in monk’s robes…

Sailors as far apart as the Orient and Scandinavia once told stories of a bizarre beast which could raise storms. They called it the sea monk.

Despite being innocuous, the sea monk of Norway was said to have a frightening appearance.

It got its name from its monk’s cowl and tonsured head. It was described as 2.5 metres long and had fins for arms, and a human face, although of a crude kind. Its clothes were made of scales in the style of a cloak that a monk would wear. The lower torso ended in a broad tail. The Far Eastern variety is often referred to as the sea bonze – a bonze is a Buddhist monk.

Sailors feared the creature, believing that it would cause storms and capsize their junks.

Subsequently the sea monk was popularised in Guillaume du Bartas’s epic poem La Sepmaine; ou, Creation du monde, where he speaks of correspondences between land and sea, mentioning both the “mytred Bishop” and the “cowled Fryer”:

“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.”

Stories of the beast’s noteriety were so widespread that every junk had at least one deckhand who was specially trained to ward off the threatening creature by performing a ritual dance by waving a stick decked in red streamers.

Over the years, several suggestions have been made regarding the true identity of this creature. It has been speculated that the sea monk was conjured up by imaginative seamen who had glimpsed skates or rays. The underside of the ray, with its strangely shaped gills and mouth, bears a faint resemblance to a disfigured human face.

EXPLANATIONS

In the early 1850s, Danish zoologist Japetus Steenstrup proposed that the sea monk could have been a giant squid, a theory recently popularised by writer Richard Ellis. Cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans believed the report was based on discovery of an errant walrus.

Steenstrup’s comparison of a squid with two drawings of the sea monk from the 16th century

In recent years, it has been suggested that the sea monk was an angelshark (Squatina squatina) which is commonly called “monkfish” in English or munk in Danish and Norwegian.

Other suggested suspects include a grey seal, a hooded seal, a monk seal or a hoax such as a Jenny Haniver.

Jenny Haniver is the carcass of a ray or a skate that has been modified and subsequently dried, resulting in a grotesque preserved specimen.

 

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