“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.”
--The 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.
Fig. 1. Aspidochelone
In Greco-Roman 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 as Fastitocalon (“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 thousands.
Fig. 2. Fastitocalon
Arabian writers called the Island-Beast the Zaratan, describing it as a gigantic turtle, and adding 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
Such 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
Fig. 4. Jasconius
The Inuit natives of Greenland tell of an island-monster called Imap 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 (1962)
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 Akupara, 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
Other Monstrous Turtles
The Father of All Turtles is 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.
Ikaki is 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.
Kappa are 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
Skahnowa is a 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
Archelon (“old 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 biggest Archelon fossil, 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 an Archelon is 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 existed. Archelon 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 jellyfish.
Fig. 14. Leatherback sea turtleThe largest land turtle that ever existed was 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.
Whowhie is 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
Kurrea was 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 Tanihwa are 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 blowhole. Hotu-Puku, 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. And Parata 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
Gurangatch is 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 Rex.
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 of Lampalugua—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 the Cocodryllus 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 (Crocodylus porosus) 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
Tompondrano is 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
Orobon is 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 Slim is 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.
Monster Movies: Giant Turtles, Fish, Lizards & Crocs
(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 lizard
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) Fastitocalon
Gamera (Japanese-1965) giant turtle monster
One Million Years B.C. (1966) giant turtle (archelon)
The Neverending Story (1984) giant turtle
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) Fastitocalon
Pinocchio (animated-1992) Fastitocalon
The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996) Fastitocalon
Aladdin and the King of Thieves (animated 1996) Zaratan
Wyrd Sisters (animated-BBC TV-1996) world turtle
Soul Music (animated-BBC TV-1997) world turtle
Godzilla (1998) giant lizard
Komodo (TV-1999) Megalania
Lake Placid (1999) gigantic crocodile
Blood Surf a.k.a. Krocodylus (2000) giant crocodile
Hogfather (BBC TV-2006) world turtle
Lake Placid 2 (TV-2007) gigantic crocodile
The Colour of Magic & The Light Fantastic (BBC TV-2008) world turtle
Going Postal (BBC TV-2011) world turtle
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