Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Creatures of the Deep: Sea Serpents: Part One

The sea serpent is a mythological and legendary marine animal which most often resembles a giant snake and is widespread in the beliefs of ancient people.  Today we're going to learn about some of the different sea serpents of mythology and legend within different cultures.

The Leviathan
The Leviathan is probably one of the oldest sea serpents in existence.  It can be found in Babylonian and Phoenician mythology.  Its name means 'Coiled'.  In Canaanite mythology, leviathan is referred to as Lotan, the sea dragon or crooked serpent with seven heads.

Leviathan by Vyrilien
When you (Baal) smote Lotan the ancient dragon,
Destroyed the crooked serpent,
Shilyat with the seven heads,
Then the heavens withered and drooped
Like the hoops of your garment.

The Hebrew Old Testament, or Tanakh written between around 1200BC and 165BC, makes several mentions of the leviathan.  Here Leviathan is the chaos dragon created on the fifth day, referred to by Isaiah as the 'crooked serpent' and said to be three hundred miles long with the capability to eat a whale a day.

Leviathan by ourlak
Job 41, however, gives us a description rich in details.  We are told that Leviathan is strong and graceful, with 'rows of shields, tightly sealed together' on its back.  It is said to be so strong that 'the mighty are terrified'.  It has a 'chest as hard as rock' and 'makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron'.  Leviathan breathes fire, much like a dragon.  'Flames stream from its mouth, sparks of fire shoot out.  Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.  Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth.'  Human made weapons seem no match for Leviathan: 'Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood.  Arrows do not make it flee, slingstones are like chaff to it.  A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance.'  Overall, according to this description, Leviathan has no equal, it is 'a creature without fear.'

 Apocalyptic writings, such as the Book of Epoch, also make mention of Leviathan as well as the Behemoth, with the Leviathan being female and the Behemoth being male.  'And on that day were two monsters parted, a female monster named Leviathan, to dwell in the 8 abysses of the ocean over the fountains of the waters.  But the male is named Behemoth, who occupied with his breast a waste wilderness named Duidain, on the east of the garden where the elect and righteous dwell...'  Leviathan's jaws are sometimes regarded as the gates of hell, especially within demonology.

Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent of Norse mythology, was the offspring of Loki, the fire-giant.  'Loki had yet more children.  A giantess in Jotunheim, hight Angerboda.  With her he begat three children.  The first was the Fenris-wold, the second, Jörmungandr, that is, the Midgard-serpent, and the third Hel.  When the gods knew that these three children were being fostered in Jotunheim, and were aware of the prophecies that much woe and misfortune would thence come to them,... Alfather sent some of the gods to take the children and bring them to him.  When they came to him he threw the serpent into the deep sea which surrounds all lands.  There waxed the serpent so that he lies in the midst of the ocean, surrounds all the earth, and bites his own tail.' 
The world serpent by SigbjornPedersen
We are later told of Thor's first meeting with the Midgard Serpent when he is on a mission to retrieve a cauldron from the giant Hymir.

   '...Thor took the ox-head on board, sat down in the stern and rowed.  Hymir thought they made rapid progress from his rowing.  Hymir sat in the bow, and together they rowed until they came to the place where Hymir was accustomed to sit and catch flat fish.  Thor said he wanted to row much farther out, and they had another bout of fast rowing.  Then Hymir said that they had come so far out that it would be dangerous to sit there on account of the Midgard Serpent. 
   Thor, however, declared his intention of rowing for a bit yet, and di so, and Hymir was not at all pleased at that.  When Thor shipped his oars, he made ready a very strong line and a large hook.  He baited the hook with the ox-head and flung it overboard.
   The Midgard Serpent snapped at the ox-head, and the hook stuck fast in the roof of its mouth.  It jerked away so hard that both Thor's fists knocked against the gunwale.  Then Thor grew angry and, exerting all his divine strength, dug in his heels so hard that both legs went through the boat until he was digging his heels in on the sea bottom.
   He drew the serpent up on board, staring straight at it.  The serpent glared back, belching poison.  The giant Hymir turned pale with fear when he saw the serpent and the sea tembling in and out of the vessel too.  At the very moment that Thor gripped his hammer and raised it aloft, the giant fumbled for his bait knife and cut Thor's line off at the gunwale.
   The serpent sank back into the sea.  Thor flung his hammer after it and people say that this struck its head off in the waves; but the truth is that the Midgard Serpent is still alive and lying in the ocean.

The rise of Jormungander by VampirePrincess007
We next encounter the Midgard Serpent in the prophecy of Ragnarok or Fate of the Gods.  Here Thor battles against the Midgard Serpent, eventually defeating it.  However, the prophecy also states that this too will be the end of Thor.

Ragnarok by MoshYong
'The shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent.  Then shall Fenris-Wolf get loos; then the sea shall gush forth upon the land, because the Midgard Serpent stirs in giant wrath and advances up onto the land...  The Midgard Serpent shall blow venom so that he shall sprinkle all the air and water, and he is very terrible, and shall be on one side of the Wolf...  Thor shall put to death the Midgard Serpent, and shall stride away nine paces from that spot; then shall he fall dead to the earth, because of the venom which the Snake has blown at him.'

Lemean Hydra

Hydra by brianvadell
In Greek mythology we find the Lernean Hydra, which forms the second labour of Hercules.  The Lernean Hydra is described as 'a water-snake with nine heads, of which one was immortal, and therefore could not possibly be killed.  It was so very poisonous that even the air from the marshes which it haunted often killed people.'  This water-snake was the offspring of Echidna and Typhon and was later trained by Hera to kill Hercules.  It was said to live near the Fountain of Amymone, preventing the pheasants from using the water in the fountain.  In the Second Labour of Hercules we are told of the battle between Hercules and the Lernean Hydra, in which Hera sends a crab to help defeat Hercules. 

'After a long, dusty walk over the country roads, Hercules  and Iolatus reached the Fountain of Amymone; and there, the first thing that they saw, was the hydra, stretching its nine heads out of its den, and hissing an angry warning with every head.
-Hydra- by arvalis
   A few arrows sent buzzing against it brought the snake out into the marsh, and then Hercules set to work cutting off its heads with his sword.  But for every head he cut off, two new ones grew, and the new heads began hissing and biting even more fiercely than the heads that had been cut off.  Then, while the fight was going on, a crab came out and seized Hercules by the heel.  This was altogether too much to contend with.  Hercules saw that he must try a different plan.  So he called to Iolatus to set fire to a grove of young trees that grew near the swamp, and to keep him supplied with burning brands.  Iolatus did so.
   Then Hercules, as he cut off a head, burned it up, until only one was left.  This one, being the immortal head, would not burn.  Hercules had cut it off, but as it lay in the grass, it spit venom more fiercely than ever.  So Hercules rolled a huge rock over it, and thus prevented it from doing any more harm.
Stoor worm as portrayed by Maud Hunt Squire
Mester Stoorworm
According to Scandinavian and Celtic legend, Mester Stoorworm was the first and largest of all sea serpents, with a length that stretched halfway across the globe.  His breath was so poisonous it could kill every living creature and wither every single plant.  It was said to resemble a huge mountain, with eyes that glowed like fire and a forked tongue thousands of miles long with which it could sweep entire towns, forests, and hills into the ocean.  It was said that, as he died, his teeth became the Faroes, Orkneys, and Shetland Islands; his tongest entangled itself on the moon; and his body hardened to become Iceland.

The Legend of Master Stoorworm
   Master Stoorworm was a giant sea serpent who resided in the sea near a coastal town.  Master Stoorworm had a great appetite, and each morning he would yawn seven times.  With each great yawn his mouth would open wider and wider.  On the seventh yawn, his mouth would open widest and his long, snake-like tongue would roll out and pull in seven things for him to eat: cattle, chickens, cows, men, women, children, dogs, cats, and so on.  It mattered not to Master Stoorworm.
   King Harald finally got fed up with the sea serpent's marauding ways, and he called a meeting to decide what should be done.  The consensus was to appease the beast by offering him seven maidens on a certain schedule, in the hopes that he would leave them along for the rest of the time and hunt for himself in the seas.  But King Harald did not want to sacrifice his people to the beast.  He wanted the dragon dead, and so he promised his daughter's hand in marriage to the one who slew Master Stoorworm.  Many answered the call, but most were scared away by the serpent's vile breath.  After many failures and with the dragon still on the rampage, the King ordered a boat to be made so that he could go to battle for himself, for he would rather do that than force the sacrifice of his subjects.
   In this town was a young boy who was small, yet exceedingly courageous.  After all the warriors who had come to the king's challenge were either scared away or dead, the boy planned to venture out and try his luck against the beast.  During the night he snuck out carrying an iron pot full of peat.  He made his way to the docks and there stole the King's boat, rowing out to sea to wait for Master Stoorworm to awaken.  With the sea serpent's first great yawn, the boat was swept down his gullet.     The boy paddled down into the beast's body until he reached the liver.  There he used his peat pot to set the liver on fire.  As the dragon writhed in agony, the boy travelled back up the body and out the mouth.
   Master Stoorworm struggled and writhed.  As he flailed about, his teeth started falling out.  These dragon teeth eventually formed Orkney, Shetland, and Faroe Islands.  After Stoorworm died, his carcass shrivelled up and floated away to later become Iceland.

Assipattle and the Sea-Serpent
That's all for today.  Next time we will look at the historical accounts and sightings of sea serpents around the world.

Useful Resources
Encyclopedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures by Theresa Bane
The Book of Epoch
The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth by Neil Forsyth
Satanism Today by James R. Lewis
Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel by Frank Moore
The Younger Edda
The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlason
Ancient Greek Beliefs by Perry L. Westmoreland
Favourite Greek Myths by Lilian Stoughton Hyde
Dragonlore: From the Archives of the Grey School of Wizardry by Ash Dekirk and Oberon Zell-Ravenheart

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