In the sixteenth century, everyone told stories about Renaissance sea monsters, the terrifying creatures that attacked sailors. In 1539, a Swede named Olaus Magnus tried to explain the mysterious creatures of the North Sea to a group of Italians in a detailed map called the Carta Marina. Magnus filled the water with strange and imaginative creatures people believed in during the Renaissance.
From the sea pig to the enormous sea serpent, Magnus’s sea monsters were terrifying to sailors. On the map, they smash ships and crush sailors. But some of Magnus’s sea monsters, like the “sea rhinoceros,” definitely qualify among the most inaccurate historical drawings of animals. And other sea monsters were clearly made up sea creatures people really believed in, like the sea cow, which looks more like a drowning ox.
Sea monsters can be horrifying, but they can also seem pretty silly, like the sailors who mistook a whale for an island and lit a fire on his back. Here are the most terrifying, strangest sea creatures that Olaus Magnus promised lived in the ocean.
The Prister was a kind of whale, according to Olaus Magnus, and it was also known as a Whirlpool. That’s because the Prister could sink a ship simply by emerging from the water. The Prister’s favorite hobby is rearing out of the water so he can smash ships with his body, drowning everyone on board. Pristers are at least 300 feet long, and the blasts of water from its two blowholes can sink ships. Magnus described the Prister as “very cruel” and very angry.
From one angle, this looks like a heartwarming scene of a mother and baby whale frolicking in the sea. But the frolicking is interrupted by an orca whale attack. According to Olaus Magnus, whales and orcas (which he saw as different creatures) were mortal enemies. The whale was often tormented by “his deadly enemy,” the orca. Magnus described the orca as “a ship turned upside down” with “awfully sharp teeth.” It loved to slice at the whale’s belly and stab it with its dorsal fin.
This red sea serpent was 200 feet long and 20 feet wide, according to Olaus Magnus. He also described the serpent as having “hair hanging from his neck” a foot and a half long—apparently this particular sea serpent just shaved. In the image, the sea serpent wraps itself around a doomed ship, ready to crush a sailor in its sharp teeth. Not only is the sea serpent completely terrifying, Magnus claimed its appearance was a sign that something bad is about to happen: “the Princes shall die, or be banished; or some Tumultuous Wars shall presently follow.”
In the sixteenth century, it was common to believe that every animal on earth had a counterpart in the sea. That’s how the sea lion got its name, after all. Here is Olaus Magnus’s version of the pig, which he creatively calls the sea pig, or sea swine. The biggest difference between land pigs and the horrifying sea pig? Sea pigs have a lot more eyes. In addition to the usual pair on his face, sea pigs have “two eyes on both sides of his loins and a third in his belly inkling toward his naval.”