“My sons, do not be afraid. God
has revealed to me during the night in a vision the secret of this affair.
Where we were was not an island, but a fish—the foremost of all that swim in
the ocean. He is always trying to bring his tail to meet his head, but he
cannot because of his length. His name is Jasconius.”
Voyage of St. Brendan (9th century)13
The Island Beast
One of the most fascinating monsters of
mariner’s lore is the great “Island-Beast” or “Devil Whale”—a sea monster of
such vast immensity that when it is basking on the surface, sailors mistake its
back for an island, and land on it. When they build a fire, however, the living
“island” plunges into the depths, dragging the ship and crew to a watery doom. Various tales describe it as a titanic
turtle, a prodigious whale, or even a colossal cephalopod—such as the Kraken. Often
depicted on maps among other fabulous sea monsters, it is invariably shown with
a ship anchored to it, and a landing party building a fire on its back.
European sailors told many tales of its existence and sightings.
times, the Island-Beast was called Aspidochelone (Latin, “shield
turtle”). This name became corrupted in later medieval bestiaries to Aspidodelone or Aspidoicholon (“asp turtle”).The Physiologus,dating from the 2nd century bce, refers to this monster asFastitocalon(“floater on ocean streams”). It is described as a stony-skinned
Sea-Monster the size of a whale, resembling a small rocky island fringed with
sand and seaweed. It was said to be very dangerous, luring ships’ crews to
disembark for shore leave, then plunging with them into the depths to devour
them. In the absence of any potential human victims, it emitted a sweet perfume
from its mouth that lured shoals of fishes within, swallowing them by the
Fig. 2. Fastitocalon
writers called the Island-Beast the Zaratan, describing it as a gigantic
turtle, andadding the detail that its vast back
is festooned with rocks and crevices overgrown with trees, grass and shrubbery.
As recounted in Scheherazade’s 1,001 Arabian Nights, Sinbad the Sailor
encountered this monster on the first of his seven legendary voyages.
Fig. 3. Zaratan
a great sea-monster was said to have been encountered by the Irish monk St.
Brendan (484-578 ce) during his legendary seven-year
voyage to the Promised Land of the Saints. Disembarking onto a stony island to
celebrate Easter mass, the monks were stoking a fire to boil a pot, when the
island began to move under them like a wave. As they all rushed back to their
boat, the “island” swam away. Then Brendan told them (somewhat belatedly, it
seems!) that God had revealed to him in a dream that the supposed island was in
reality a monstrous fish: “the foremost
of all that swim in the ocean. He is always trying to bring his tail to meet
his head, but he cannot because of his length. His name is Jasconius” (Latinized Irish, “Fish”).12
The Inuit natives of Greenland tell of an
island-monster calledImap Umassoursa.It would rise up
underneath boats and capsize them into the frigid waters.
Fig. 5. Jonah
and the Great Fish
The Island Beast is also linked to the Biblical
account of Jonah and the Great Fish, which finds an echo in the story of
Pinocchio, the runaway marionette, being swallowed by Monstro the Whale. A
particularly spectacular version of this beast is found in the fabulous
adventures of Baron Munchausen (1720-1797), first collected and published by an
anonymous author in 1781, and made into several extravagant movies in the 20th
century. In Munchausen’s tale, the monster is so enormous that entire ships and
their crews repose within its cavernous belly, swallowed but undigested.
Fig. 6. Inside the giant fish, from The
Fabulous Baron Munchausen
Many cultures throughout history have thought of the land as
being carried on the back of a giant fish or turtle swimming through an
infinite sea. This is why North America is sometimes referred to as “Great
Turtle Island” by its native peoples. In the Hindu mythology of India, the disc
of the Earth was thought to be supported on the backs of four, eight, or 16 colossal elephants, and they, in
turn, stood on the shell of a gigantic cosmic turtle named
swimming eternally through space.
Fig. 7. Akupara, the Hindu world-turtle
Fantasy author and parody master Terry
Pratchett has written dozens of delightful satirical novels set on such a
world, called the “Discworld.” These books are favorites among magickal people
(they feature some memorable Wizards and Witches), and several have already
been made into movies. In these stories, the great world-turtle is named Atuan,
and she is seeking a place to lay her eggs.
Fig. 8. Atuan and the Discworld (model by OZ)
Kurma is the name of the vast cosmic turtle of Hindu mythology.
Its carapace forms the vault of the heavens, while its plastron is the
foundation of the Earth—particularly the Indian subcontinent. When the Hindu
gods churned the ocean of milk (the Milky Way) to create many things and
beings, they asked Kurma to dive to the bottom to support the mountain they
used for a dash, with the great serpent Sesha-Naga
as a rope.
Fig. 9. Kurma
Father of All Turtlesis an enormous sea-turtle of Sumatran legend, and one of
several varieties of “Sea Serpents”
distinguished by Bernard Heuvalmans (1916-2001), the Father of Cryptozoology.
There have been four recorded sightings of such a creature in different oceans.
An example is the 30-foot-long monster sighted by Captain P. Merlees of the
steamer Hanoi in June of 1908.
Fig. 10. The Hanoi sea-monster, by Capt. Merlees, 1808.
Ikakiis a supernatural tortoise in the mythology of the Kalabari natives of
Nigeria, West Africa. He loved to dance and sing, but each time he lifted one
of his legs, everyone on that side fell down dead—no doubt from his terrible
flatulence! A ritual dance called the “Tortoise Masquerade” is still widely
performed, in which a dancer with a tortoise shell helmet imitates Ikaki’s
movements, which convey powerful magick.
Kappaare river-dwelling Japanese creatures of Shinto mythology. They
are sometimes described as having the body of a tortoise, long scaly limbs, the
head of a monkey, and long hair. They live on blood and cucumbers, and they fly
through the air on enchanted cucumbers with dragonfly wings. If treated with
courtesy, the Kappa is friendly. However, if it is ill-treated, it will eat its
tormentor. (See my June 21, 2012 “Creature of the Month” article on the Kappa)
Fig. 11. Kappa
monstrous turtle in the folklore of the Seneca Indians of the northeastern USA.
It aids the horned serpent Doonongaes in hunting human and animal prey.
Bosco(or Oscar, Beast of ‘Busco)is the affectionate appellation of a gigantic turtle
reported to be dwelling around
Churubusco, Indiana. It has been spotted several times since 1950, when several
swamps were drained in order to create more farmland. Witnesses have described
Bosco as weighing between 100-500 lbs, with a shell 4 feet wide. In 1937,
an enormous Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) was in fact captured at the Neosho River in Kansas. It weighed a
whopping 403 lbs!
Fig. 12. Alligator Snapping Turtle
turtle”) was the largest turtle that has ever lived, inhabiting the Upper
Cretaceous period 65-99 million years ago, when the shallow waters of the
Niobrara Sea covered central North America. The biggestArchelonfossil, found in the Pierre Shale of South
Dakota, measures nearly 14 feet long, and is 16 feet wide from flipper to
flipper! The live weight of anArchelonis estimated to have been more
than 4,500 lbs!
Fig. 13. Archelon skeleton
Another huge prehistoric sea turtle was Protostega(“first
roof”). Reaching 10 feet in length, it is the second-largest turtle that ever
and Prostega were related to present-day leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys
coriacea). At nine feet long, this is the largest living turtle. Like the
modern leatherback, the shells of Archelon and Prostega had no scutes, making
them weaker but also lighter. They probably fed on shellfish and slow-moving
Fig. 14. Leatherback sea
largest land turtle that ever existedwas Testudo atlas (“Atlas
tortoise”), also known as Colossochelys (“colossal
turtle”). 8 feet long and 6 feet high, it probably weighed around 4
tons. Looking much like a modern Galápagos tortoise, this giant chelonian
herbivore lived in the Pleistocene period—1.5-2 million years ago. Like its
modern relatives, T. atlas could probably retract its legs and head into
its shell when threatened.18
Fig. 15. Testudo atlas skeleton
Monstrous lizards figure prominently in
the legends of Dragonlore. While no such creatures are known to have existed in
Europe in human times, the discovery of giant 10-foot-long, 300-pound lizards
on the Indonesian island of Komodo in 1910 created a worldwide sensation. They
were immediately dubbed “Komodo Dragons” (Varanus komodoensis), and a
legendary 1926 expedition led by W. Douglas Burden and sponsored by the
American Museum of Natural History brought back two live dragons and 12
preserved bodies. Two of these skins were mounted and can still be seen today
in the museum’s Hall of Amphibians and Reptiles. Burden recounted his adventure
to an island of prehistoric reptiles to movie producer Merian C. Cooper. Inspired,
Cooper changed the subject from a giant lizard to a giant ape, and added a
beautiful heroine to produce the classic 1933 film King Kong.16
Fig. 16. Komodo Dragon
A much larger prehistoric version of the
Komodo dragon was Megalania (Varanus prisca), 15-20 feet long and weighing
1,000-1,300 lbs. Although it is believed to have been extinct for 40,000 years,
sightings of living specimens are occasionally reported from Australia and New
Guinea. In early 1890, residents of Euroa, Australia,
claimed that their village was being terrorized by a 30-foot long,
unidentifiable reptilian monster. A representative of the Melbourne Zoological
Gardens, equipped with a big net, organized a search party of 40 trackers. They
discovered a set of huge footprints, but these unfortunately terminated before
the creature could be found.
Whowhieis a monstrous lizard in the legends of
the Aboriginal people of Australia’s Murray River area. It terrorized the
region, devouring many people—especially children. After a particularly
devastating raid on a village, the people tracked the monster to his
lair in a cave, where he was sleeping off his meal. They burned brushwood at
the entrance, fanning smoke into the cave for seven days, until Whowhie finally
emerged, coughing and blinded—whereupon the people rushed him, clubbing and
spearing him until he was dead. This tale suggests an actual encounter with the
gigantic Pleistocene Megalania.
Fig. 17. Megalania
Kurreawas a monstrous swamp-dwelling reptile of the Australian Aborigine
Dreamtime, with a voracious appetite. It threatened to eat everyone, so the
hero Toola was sent to kill it. But his spears just bounced off its armored
back, and it then turned to pursue him, burrowing through earth and rocks as
easily as water. As it closed on him, Toola led it to his mother-in-law, Bumble
Tree. Kurrea took one look at her, screamed in terror, and dove into the earth,
leaving a great hole. It never returned to bother humans again. Could this
story possibly reflect another memory of Megalania?
The Tanihwaare gigantic guardian reptiles in the traditions of the Maori natives of
New Zealand. They are said to live in deep pools of rivers, dark caves, or the
ocean—especially where there are dangerous currents or breakers. Some can
tunnel through the earth, causing landslides and uprooting trees in the
process. Others are said to have created harbors by carving out channels to the
sea. In the ocean, they usually resemble a large shark or whale, but in inland
waters, they look like a giant Tuatara (Sphenodon), with a row of spines
down their back. They are protectors of their respective tribespeople,
attacking any others upon sight.
The Taniwha Horomatangi,a gigantic aquatic
lizard, doesn’t prey on people, and sometimes even helps them. But he often
attacks canoes, and especially modern powerboats. He created the great Karapiti
on the other hand, hunted and devoured people, and it was so strong and fast
that none could escape it. Eventually it was killed by a party of hunters who
laid a net across the entrance to its cave, then taunted it to come running out
into the snare, where it was speared until dead. If an Ihu-Mataotao is killed and its belly cut open, its
victims will emerge undigested. AndParata sucks in and spews
out the waters of the oceans with its cavernous mouth, accounting for the
tides.Scientists have named an enormous fossil Mosasaur Taniwhasaurus
oweni in honour of the Taniwha. It is estimated
to have exceeded 40 feet in length.
Fig. 19. Mosasaur by
Charles R. Knight
Gurangatchis an immense lizard-fish water monster from the Dreamtime lore of the
Aborigines of New South Wales, Australia. It can tunnel through solid rock from
pool to pool, causing rivers to overflow their banks.
While traveling through Africa’s Kasai valley in 1932, a Swedish
plantation owner named Johnson and his native servant claimed to have witnessed
a gigantic reptile attack and devour a rhinoceros. Johnson described it as a
40-foot-long lizard with a long, thick tail; leonine legs; and long, sharp
teeth in huge jaws. It was dark red, with vertical black stripes like a tiger’s
down its neck, back, and tail. This monstrous lizard has been dubbed Kasai
Fig. 20. Kasai Rex
Fillyloo (also Gowrow, Golligog or Gollygog)
is a giant lizard-monster or dragon in the
Native American legends of the Ozark mountains, which it was reported to
frequent in the 19th century. As described by V. Randolf in 1951, it
was said to be at least 20 feet long, with boar-like tusks. Another lizard-like
monster in the native folklore of the Ozarks is called Moogie.
And the legends
of the Araucanian Indians of Chile tell ofLampalugua—a gigantic
predatory lizard with enormous claws. It devours both
cattle and people.
A large lizard-like creature was sighted
in the early 1960s in the Nith River, which flows through New Hamburg, Ontario,
Canada. Many witnesses described it as about 50-lbs, greenish-brown, with four
legs and a scaly tail. But this relatively small creature was probably just an
alligator that someone released into the river.
Medieval bestiaries include a creature called theCocodryllus or Corkendril Though often bizarrely
depicted, this is just a monstrous 30-foot long version of the crocodile,
colored in vivid crocus or saffron hues. Nile Crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) of Egypt and Estuarine Crocodiles (Crocodylusporosus) of Indonesia and northern Australia can grow to this size,
but they are basically grey in color, with yellowish underbellies. Amusingly,
it seems to have been considered essential to the décor of any proper medieval
Wizard’s sanctum or alchemist’s laboratory to have a stuffed Corkendril hanging
from the ceiling!
Fig. 21. Cocodryllus -- White, p. 242
During the Cretaceous era (141-65 million
years ago), a truly monstrous crocodile called Deinosuchus (“terrible crocodile”)
haunted the world’s shorelines. That giant predator was about 40 feet long; its
head measured six feet, and its teeth four inches! Deinosuchus has often
been described as the largest crocodilian of all time, but some other
crocodyliforms including Purussaurus, Rhamphosuchus, and Sarcosuchus
may have equaled or exceeded it in size.18
A gigantic crocodilian called Mahama
by locals has been reported from the Lake Likouala swamp region of central
Africa’s Republic of the Congo. It is said to reach an impressive 50 feet in
length and devour entire rafts and canoes, along with their occupants. Natives
insist that the animal is a unique species, quite distinct from the familiar
Nile crocodile. Could this possibly be a surviving example of Deinosuchus?
Fig. 22. Deinosuchus attacking T-Rex
Tompondranois a gigantic sea
monster of Madagascar, covered with armored plates like a crocodile. Its
phosphorescent head can be seen under the water, as was reported by some fishermen
in 1926. This is certainly an Estuarine
Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), the largest of all living
reptiles. Normally confined to Indonesia, they are known to reach 30 feet in
length. The reported phosphorescence is created by any disturbance of bioluminescent plankton, which this author
has personally observed at night in the Coral Sea.
Fig. 23. Orobon
Orobonis a ferocious fish-like
predator said by Arabs of Mount Mazovan to inhabit the region of the Red Sea.
It was described in medieval bestiaries as being about 10 feet long with a head
like a catfish; webbed clawed feet, and a hide like that of a crocodile—which
is most likely what it was based upon. However, considering the
description of the head, it may have been a Wels Catfish (Silurus glanis),
which is known to reach ten feet in length and weigh 330 lbs. Perhaps what we
are dealing with is a confusion of two separate animals.
Fig. 24. Wels Catfish
Slimy Slimis the local name for a lake monster inhabiting
the depths of Lake Payette, Idaho. It is said to have a serpentine body at
least 36 feet long, and a head like a crocodile.
(I’m omitting here the “giant
lizards” of cheap dinosaur movies that used ordinary lizards on miniature sets
to represent what were supposed to be dinosaurs. These are called slurpasaurs, and are distained by all true
dino film afficionados!)
Fig. 25. Gamera
Pinocchio (animated-1940) Fastitocalon
The Giant Gila Monster (1959) giant
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) Fastitocalon
Gamera (Japanese-1965) giant turtle
Million Years B.C. (1966) giant
The Neverending Story (1984) giant turtle
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Pinocchio (animated-1992) Fastitocalon
The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996) Fastitocalon
the King of Thieves (animated 1996) Zaratan