Monsters don’t just lurk in the closet…sometimes they lurk in the water. While your odds of meeting a Kraken-like beast in the bathroom are slim, if you’re ever sailing about in the open water, walking along a river, or dipping into watering hole for a summer cool-off, odds are that you’ll run into one of these fantastic mythological water creatures.
Take a look at these 13 mythological sea beasts, sprites, and other beings.
1: The Kraken
The Kraken is an enormous octopus that lives off the coast of Greenland and Scandinavia. Coming from Viking lore, its appearance may be based on that of giant squids. The Kraken is the terror of sailors making passage across the Atlantic—at any moment it could emerge from the depths, wrap its huge tentacles around the ship, and snap it in half…before devouring sailors in its terrible beaked mouth.
2: The Leviathan
The Leviathan is an enormous fish described in the Bible. It is described as one of the oldest beings in creation, living deep under the sea. In several places throughout the prophetic writings and the Book of Job, this massive fish is used as a metaphor to describe a powerful enemy. Literary critics and folklorists have drawn parallels between the Leviathan and the world-circling serpent of Norse mythology. The fish that swallows the hapless protagonist in the Book of Jonah—dragging him down into the depths before spitting him out on dry land—may or may not be the Leviathan.
3: The Umibozu
The Umibozu is a sea-spirit that dwells in the waters around the Land of the Rising Sun. Its modus operandi is to suddenly break out of calm seas and demand a bottomless bucket of water. Their appearance varies, but in the main they are black creatures whose lower halves are shrouded in mystery beneath the waves. Some accounts describe them as a cross between a dog and a sea-serpent, with wide-open eyes. One theory of their origin is that the Umibozu are the restless spirits of dead priests who have been murdered by villagers and tossed into the sea.
The Qalupalik is like a terrifying cross between Dracula and a mermaid. Featured in the lore of the Inuit people, the Qalupalik haunts the frigid northern waters with its green skin, long hair, and long fingernails. It wears a pouch called a amautik, for carrying away naughty children. Inuit parents will tell their children not to wander off alone, lest the Qalupalik takes them away and keeps them underwater forever. Because of its unique humming noise, this underwater monsters can be heard before it’s seen—and before it’s too late to run.
5: The Aspidochelone
The Aspidochelone is certainly a mouthful to say, but despite its unique and multi-syllabic name, you’ve probably run into it in at least one story you’ve read. This sea monster is a massive whale or turtle that is often mistaken for an island. Though the name comes from ancient Greek words meaning “shield” and “turtle,” this monster has appeared in sources as disparate as The Arabian Nights, The Talmud, and allegorical Christian writings. Sailors often mistake its back for a safe resting spot, only to have it submerge and leave them stranded in the open water—either far away from their ship, or having lost it entirely to the massive pull of the beast as it submerges.
Mermaids are one of the most popular mythological sea-creatures of all time. Half human and half fish, they appear in tales around the world, usually as enticing spirits of beauty that may be malignant or benign. Sometimes they are associated with drowning, shipwrecks, and adverse weather, while other times they may give gifts or fall in love with humans (for example, in H.C. Anderson’s famous tale, “The Little Mermaid”). Mermaids were first written of by the Assyrians, who believed their goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for killing her human lover.
7: The Sirens
The Sirens were similar to mermaids, but may not have shared their fish-like properties. In the main, they were responsible for luring sailors to their death by singing alluring music that drew them too close to their rocky island—where their ships would crash and the sailors would drown. Odysseus, the hero of the Trojan War, came up with a ruse to hear their music and live. He had his entire crew plug their ears, so they could row by the island of the sirens without being enticed. Meanwhile, he had himself tied to the mast, ears unplugged. When Odysseus and his crew sailed by unscathed, the Sirens leapt to their death in accordance with an ancient dictum that they would die if anyone escaped them.
Jörmungandr sounds like a high-class liquor, but it’s actually the name of Norse sea-serpent that encircled Midgard—the plane of reality inhabited by man. It keeps its own tail in its mouth, but once that tail is released, the epic final battle of Ragnarok will begin. In the course of this battle, Jörmungandr will join forces with the giant wolf Fenrir, and the two of them will go on a cataclysmic rampage. Thor, the Norse god of thunder, will fight with Jörmungandr, but that epic battle will prevent him from helping everyone else out. Though he will defeat the serpent, he will receive a fatal bite that kills him, heralding the end of this epoch and the renewal of life on Earth.
Cthulhu is a tentacled beast created by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose view of the universe is populated by malignant space creatures who either eke their influence from the blackness of space or the murky depths of the ocean. His tentacled monsters first appeared in “The Call of Cthulhu,” a story about a series of unfortunate global event that coincides with the rise of an ancient metropolis out of the ocean. Lovecraft was intrigued by ancient sea-deities, such as the fish-headed Phonecian deity Dagon, and these oceanic terrors inspired other tales such as “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” wherein the protagonist visits a disturbing city populated by obscene fish-headed creatures…only to learn that (okay, we won’t give it away).
10: Charybdis and Scylla
Charybdis and Scylla were a pair of sea monsters in the Strait of Messina, a treacherous aquatic pass between Italy and the island of Sicily. These beasts were said to swallow large quantities of water every day, before burping it out again. Its digestive process was said to create massive whirlpools that could pull ships down into the depths. Charybdis was the daughter of Poseidon, and joined with him in a fight against Zeus. In retribution, Zeus transformed her into a monstrous bladder that was doomed to a lifetime of drinking and burping. Facing Scylla, who was once a beautiful nymph, the two of them created a situation that gave rise to the ancient Greek version of our expression “between a rock and a hard place.”
Grendel is a marsh-beast from the epic poetic masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon literature, Beouwolf. This gremlin-like creature was poetically described as a descendant of the Biblically accursed Cain, condemned to wander the earth and live in opposition to mankind. Its main activity was breaking into longhouses and snapping limbs and head off of sleeping warriors and eating them. Beowulf is the hero of the poem, who rips off Grendel’s arm in battle. The beast slinks back to his marsh home to die. Unfortunately, Grendel’s mother also turns out to be quite a formidable foe, so Geowolf follows her into an underwater lair, and snatching a magic sword off the fireplace, he kills her. Returning to the longhouse, he encounters Grendel’s corpse and lops off the head as a trophy…but the body of the beast is so foul and poisonous, it melts the sword.
Kappa is a turtle-like demon in Japanese mythology, who frequents streams, rivers, and ponds. If encountered, your best bet is to bow—as the Kappa returns your social nicety, water will spill from the bowl in the top of his head, making him freeze, or at least become severely weakened. You can either run from its webbed hands and feet, or fight it…but be warned that the Kappa will try to pull a vestigial and probably mythological organ from out of your anus, called the shirikodama. This ball-plug is what prevents the Kappa from reaching your liver, which is what it really wants. Kappa’s also enjoy cucumbers and sumo wrestling, in case you’d like to strike up a conversation. Some conjecture that they may serve as the inspiration for the urban-dwelling brothers we know as the Ninja Turtles.
13: Moby Dick
Moby Dick has become a proverbial phrase for anything that seems unbeatable, while drawing inordinate amounts of time and energy into its pursuit. Moby Dick was actually the name of the massive white whale from Herman Melville’s epic American novel of the same name. The great white whale was relentlessly pursued by the one-legged captain Ahab, who turned the enormous sea-beast into his obsessive raison d’être. For many readers, finishing Moby Dick is somewhat of a…Moby Dick. The book itself is quite a monstrous 585 pages of dense writing, interspersed with very technical descriptions of sailing and whaling.