Friday, June 23, 2017

The Sea Serpent by William J Fox 1869

The Sea Serpent by William J Fox 1869

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A familiar passage in Virgil's Aeneid gives a vivid account of two monstrous sea serpents that strangled the priest Laocoon and his two sons during the seige of Troy. This description illustrates the antiquity of the belief in sea-serpents, a tradition which has extended down to the present day, and which is by no means confined to the ignorant or superstitious. Eminent scientists and men of letters have been prone to believe in the existence of such creatures, not only in the past but as late as the nineteenth century. The famous naturalist Philip Henry Gosse firmly believed in the existence of a marine monster still unknown to naturalists, and related to the extinct Enaliosauria, gigantic reptilian animals inhabiting the oceans long before the advent of man, and whose remains occur as evidence in the mesozoic series.

The sea-serpent is pretty fully discussed pro and con in Gosse's "Romance of Natural History," where will be found a reprint ot Sir Richard Owen's controversion, he arguing that if the so-called sea-serpents were saurian in their analogies as claimed, they must be air-breathers, would float when dead, and therefore if such creatures exist their remains would surely be discovered cast up on beaches. But such remains have never been found. And the learned author points out that the coasts of Norway, in which country the belief in the sea-serpent is almost a dogma, have been under scientific research for years, and yet not a single bone assignable to such an animal has ever been found there.

It must not be inferred that no snakes abide in the sea. There are numerous species of ophidians whose home is the boundless ocean, but none approaches the sea-serpent of old in size and fantasy. The true sea-snakes are frequently handsome creatures, variegated with colors, but are very poisonous. The Indian ocean tenants most of the known species, and, it is said, they sometimes congregate in immense numbers. In form they are peculiar by their flattened, broad, oar-like tails, adapted for swimming. Like most aquatic snakes they sometimes leave the sea for land, and there is on record the capture of a specimen in Java at a distance from the sea equalling a day's march.

Pontoppidan gives us the first extended account of the sea-serpent, which is to be found in his Natural History of Norway, of which an English edition appeared in London in 1755. The author was a bishop and should not therefore be guilty of exaggeration. This worthy man himself doubted the reality of the monster until weighty affirmative evidence was produced by Norwegian sailors, fishermen etc., so that the incredulity of Pontoppidan was so overcome that he calls skeptics "enemies of credulity." In his work are the sworn statements of persons who had seen the monster which he calls the Serpens marinus magnus.

That the serpent sheds its skin like other ophidians is affirmed by Pontoppidan, as the skin of one found served as a table cover at Kopperwiig, but as even Pontoppidan doubted the truth of such a statement he made inquiries concerning it but could get no definite information. It was learned, however, that a sea-snake had lain a whole week in a creek nearby, which on its departure, left behind it a skin which his informant declared he saw and handled.

Hans Egede in his natural history of Greenland (Das Alten Gronlandes Neue Perlustration, oder Naturell-Historie, etc., 1742) tells of a wonderful creature observed in Davis Strait in 1742. "It was such an exceedingly large animal, that when it raised itself out of the water its head reached as high as a mast, and the body was throughout as thick as a ship, compared with which it was easily three or four times as long. It had a long pointed muzzle, and spouted like a whale. On the upper part [Oberteil] of the body were two great broad feet or fins, and the very uneven skin seemed armed with scales. Otherwise it had the form of a snake, especially in regard to its posterior part, and when it again went under the water, it threw itself backwards, and stuck its tail out of the water at a height equal to a ships length." Such was the sea-serpent of Hans Egede, and on this description is evidently based the monster figured in the lower portion of the illustration by Pontoppidan. It is likely that Egede in stating the positions of the fins meant anterior instead of upper, for in the illustration the fins are not on the upper part of the body, which would be a curious anomaly. Probably Pontoppidan's figure is simply a reproduction of that of Egede, whose original work, in Danish, contained a picture of the animal described.

Pontoppidan concluded that there are various species of sea-serpents, and indeed, judging from the diversity of the descriptions given us, such a conclusion is unavoidable, unless one is skeptical to all that concerns the creatures. Disregarding size, which as a rule is not a specific characteristic, sea-serpents of various colors have been observed; some possessed a long shaggy mane, which in others is wanting. Observations nearly all coincide in that the creature moves with the head projecting from the water, but usually differ as to mode of locomotion, some simply gliding along, while one observer "distinctly made out three convolutions, which drew themselves slowly through the water."

Of the many explanations suggested by those who believe the sea-serpent to be the fancy of disordered brains or the invention of skippers and seamen who require new material for their stock of yarns, the most amusing and interesting are the reports of the captains of the ships Brazilian and Pekin, who, but not simultaneously, thought they had met with the terrible monster, and with great bravery went to the attack with boat and harpoon, when lo, what was discovered but a huge mass of sea-weed, torn from its fastenings by the roots, the latter as the mass floated along, projecting from the water, in one instance, a distance of sixteen feet, and was first believed by the skipper to be head of the monster, whose neck appeared "surmounted with a huge crest in the shape of a saw."

Ever since the first record of the sea-serpent it has turned-up periodically in one place or another. There are still many who are non-commital on the subject and who would take the side of Goldsmith, who said: To believe all that has been said of the sea-serpent, or kraken, would be credulity; to reject the possibility of their existence would be presumption.

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