I remember it vividly from my youth, although the reference is an obscure one: a strange, manlike beast said to inhabit the waters of mythic seas, called the “sahag.”
This monster, however, came from no ship captain’s log, nor any ancient tract on the order of beasts that populate our oceans. This creature instead had been among the bestiary of the very earliest installments of the popular fantasy role playing series Final Fantasy.
Supposing that the creature had been borrowed from much earlier myths, I searched for sources that might explain the true origins of the creature, combing through books, and scanning over websites to see where the creature’s name might appear, apart from references held in relation to the aforementioned fantasy gaming series.
As it turns out, the man-fish called the “sahag” had been borrowed from a source that only preceded it by a few years, with the creation of the Dungeons and Dragons game, that which literally put fantasy role playing on the map, as well as in many mother’s basements around the globe.
The name “sahag” was derived from Sahuagin, the name given to a group of intelligent, but dangerous and aggressive fishlike people by creator Steve Marsh, who had purportedly been inspired by a character seen in an animated series based on the DC Comics Justice League. They were first introduced into the Dungeons & Dragon mythos in 1975. Hence, the myth of the sahag (or Sahuagin, as it turns out), had its roots in much more recent mythologies.
While even the direct inspiration for these fantasy characters had their underpinnings in popular culture, the myth of the fish-man has long been with us. Ancient Babylonian gods such as the Oannes, as well as Enki, depicted men with fishlike characteristics; so did the semitic god Dagon, and the Nommo of Western African folklore. Perhaps to become the best remembered of all the ancient mermen, however, had been Triton, son of the Greek god Poseidon, who oversaw oceanic affairs the world over.
These ancient gods of earliest times were by no means the last of the mermen to appear from the depths. Legends of mermen and mermaids have persisted, and of course, beyond the realm of pure myth, strange specimens have been brought into question as possible proof of strange, manlike “fishes” in our oceans.
Among the most notable of these had been a peculiar animal that was recovered in around 1546, reportedly found near the island of Zealand, off Denmark’s eastern mainland. This specimen purportedly bore the likeness of a monk draped in his loose robe, though was undoubtedly a fish, according to those who discovered the creature. Conrad Gesner, in his Historia Animalium, later chronicled the animal, noting that it had not been the only discovery of such a mer-monk; philosopher Anicius Boethius had reported the discovery of a remarkably similar animal, and Gesner also recounted a sighting of an animal off the coast of Poland seen in 1531, though perhaps this sighting, taken at a distance, may be considered with less consequence. This hadn’t kept the latter report from being immortalized in Guillaume du Bartas’s La Sepmaine; ou, Creation du monde, where the poet wrote of “very fishes living in the Seas… The mytred Bishop and the cowled Fryer; Whereof, examples, (but a few years since) Were shew'n the Norways, and Polonian Prince."
The question has remained as to what the monkfish actually was; had there been a real creature that had the characteristic appearance of a robed monk, or might there be a species known to us in modern times that fits that earlier description?
By the middle of the nineteenth century, a greater degree of scientific scrutiny was applied to the notion of sea life of the more mythic variety. Sir Richard Owen, acclaimed paleontologist and skeptic, had questioned the credibility of reports of purported “sea monsters” reported by the likes of nonetheless credible sources; among them had been Captain Peter M 'Quahe, who, along with many members of his crew, observed a large marine reptile swimming in the South Atlantic from aboard the sailing vessel Daedalus in the summer of 1848. In a similar spirit of skeptical inquiry, Danish zoologist Japetus Steenstrup had proposed a novel theory about the so-called seamonk: that this creature, and earlier tales of the mythical kraken, might have a common lineage in misrepresented retellings of giant squid encounters. In modern times, Bernard Heuvelmans had suggested the seamonk might have been a walrus, mirroring Richard Owen’s earlier suppositions about an errant walrus cast adrift on ice, which might have been mistaken for a slithering beast by M’Quahe and his crew. Other theories have returned again to the squid hypothesis, having been given fair attention by writer Richard Ellis.
Perhaps most promising among the alternatives, however, is the literal usage of the name “monkfish” and similar derivatives in parts of Scandinavia, which has been attributed to the angel shark. It is a species that, despite its name, is actually more akin to a skate. (Note here that the name “monkfish” is also used for a fish found in the North Sea areas, which is a variety of anglerfish of the genus Lophius; though also referred to as “monkfish”, their flattened heads and otherwise ominous appearance have also inspired names such as “frogfish” and “sea devil”).
The theory of the angel shark bears unusual promise, as we know that the protuberance of the skate’s nostrils, especially in relation to the less prominent appearance of the eyes, may have first inspired sailors to trim away parts of a skate in order to create the appearance of a more anthropomorphic creature, dubbed the “Jenny Hanivers.” Fishermen who dried them carved the humanlike traits into the remains, and then preserved them in a varnish so that they might be sold as souvenirs. It was Gesner, in fact, who as far back as 1558 noted these “creatures” were in fact merely skates, and not the dragons they were so often promoted as being.
In truth, it seems that in the long history of purported sightings of mystery beasts of our oceans, it becomes hard to tell whether misconceptions and misattributions might constitute the larger majority of supposed “sightings.” Some of the reports are indeed more promising, like that of M’Quahe’s Daedalus serpent, whereas some, like the monkfish, were in all likelihood something else entirely. Like the eerie little Jenny Hanivers that still haunt many a crowded Antwerp pier, the humanlike characteristics have been up-played with these fabled beasts—even beyond their innately superficial appearance—with the help of “improvements” through what amount to grotesque mutilations.
Which, in turn, brings to mind the notion that perhaps the “monsters” that fascinate us are, in many cases, far less monstrous than those who pursue them.
Micah Hanks is a writer, researcher, lecturer, and radio personality whose work addresses a variety of scientific concepts and unexplained phenomena. Over the last decade, his research has examined a variety of approaches to studying the unexplained, cultural phenomena, human history, and the prospects of our technological future as a species as influenced by science.