From Loch Ness to the Essex Serpent, why are humans so eager to invent sea monsters? | Folklore and mythology
As a boy, I believed in the Loch Ness Monster so implicitly that I asked my father to drive us from Southampton to Scotland to see it. The night before, in a dream, I saw his form meandering through the swamps by the lake. I was terrified.
The next day the large gray waters remained untouched by a serpentine neck, but that did nothing to dispel my belief. I filled an empty bottle with Loch Ness water, took it home to put it in the cupboard under the stairs and waited for tiny plesiosaurs to hatch.
Humanity can’t stand much reality, as TS Eliot said, so we’re reimagining the monsters already in our heads. This week sees the screening of the TV series based on the Sarah Perry novel, The Essex Serpent, a Victorian resurrection of the legend of a chimerical aquatic beast believed to emerge from swamps in search of human prey. Perry’s story is based on the idea that something strange could exist in the space between us and infinity – the “thin places” of Celtic myth.
In fact, our notions of residual monsters may have a lot to do with how the Celts were hunted to the far reaches of the British Isles, into bays, lochs and islands, which seemed to retain these beliefs as gestures of defiance. In the 1940s, a BBC radio producer, David Thomson, traveled to Scotland and Ireland in search of selkies, mythical shape-shifting seals. He treated them not as tall tales, but as cultural artifacts, believing that the stories he recorded were “the last remnants of pagan belief, before the nuclear world arose”.
In 1937, a remarkable survey of the schools of Ireland had sought to catalog this folklore. It was a strange version of Mass Observation, an affirmation of a new republican state. “Is there a story told in your district of a snake or some large animal that lives in a certain lake or river there?” the children were asked. “Are we talking about water horses or water bulls? Are there stories of strange animals encountered on the roads at night? One boy said water horses come out of Drumcor Lough at night to feed, then return to the lake and turn into animals like eels. “Customs and beliefs in a conservative country like ours”, concludes the survey, “originate from the Bronze Age as well as from the early Christian period”.
It’s no wonder the first reports of a monster in Loch Ness came from Irish missionary St Columba, who ordered the beast to refrain from attacking a swimmer in 564 AD.
In the 1930s reports of Nessie poured in, spurred by increased tourism and access to the shores of the loch, but also by the Great Depression during which the escape was a reaction to social and economic distress . Even Virginia Woolf was forced to record a visit to the loch in 1938 when she met a lovely couple “who were in contact with the monster. They had seen it. He is like several broken telegraph poles and swims at immense speed. He has no head. He is constantly seen.
He still is. Last week a couple staying in Scotland posted a video showing a 5m long creature with one fin swimming in the loch. This story came as a sort of antidote to the terrible news of the war in Ukraine. In the 1970s, sea monsters, yetis and aliens also appeared in a threatened world, whose wilderness was rapidly shrinking and human lives were overtaken by technology.
In the great extinction, we were left with only the dragons of our unconscious, as Carl Jung said. Perry’s novel has its counterpart in that of Iris Murdoch The sea, the sea from 1978, in which a theater director retires to a rocky shore where he sees, in broad daylight, a sea serpent emerging mischievously from the waves. “I could see the sky through its spirals,” he said, horrified. Dublin-born Murdoch had a fascination with the weird and a mischievous nature, a sensibility evident in folkloric horror films of the time; a psychosexual terror expressed in the juxtaposition of flower-print crinolines and cryptozoological creatures.
The Victorians were obsessed with sea serpents; it was the dark side of their moral certainty. The characters in The Essex Serpent state that the coming of the beast is a punishment for their sins or a symptom of their times, while the main character, Cora Seaborne, believes it to be a surviving dinosaur. Darwin’s theories had raised such uncertainties; and while the poet Matthew Arnold wrote of the “melancholy, long, withdrawn roar” of the Sea of Faith, the newspapers published earnest reports of sea monsters all over the empire. Most famous of all was the creature seen in the South Atlantic in 1848 by the crew of HMS Daedalus. “An enormous snake, with head and shoulders held constantly four feet above the surface of the sea” seen in the presence of officers of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy gave the beast delightful credence.
In our troubled times, the sea retains its power to contain the unknown. Jung saw the sea as the repository of our collective unconscious; Jean-Paul Sartre thought his thin green film was designed to deceive people. Scientists estimate that we have only identified a third of the species in the deep ocean yet.
Whales and basking sharks swimming just below the surface can look like multi-humped beasts, and the monster Daedalus is now thought to have been a sei whale, an almost agonizing mammal, albeit 20 meters long. And in a nod to Freudian phallic symbolism, other sightings of sea serpents have been attributed to whales rolling on their backs and expelling their stupendous penises.
But I refuse to give in entirely to such earthly rationality. A respected whale scientist once told me that his colleague had seen a large, unidentified serpentine animal out at sea, almost the length of the ship he was on. As long as these reports continue to come in, I will keep the faith. This bottle is still under our stairs.
Philip Hoare’s book Albert & the Whale is published in paperback by 4th Estate