During the Renaissance Era, Sailors Thought Monsters Stalked the Seas

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Vote up the strangest, most imaginative ocean dwellers Renaissance sailors worried they might meet on the high seas.

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. 

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  • 1
    104 VOTES

    The 200-Foot Long Sea Serpent That Could Crush Ships

    The 200-Foot Long Sea Serpent That Could Crush Ships
    Photo: Olaus Magnus / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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.”

  • 2
    112 VOTES

    The Prister, An Enormous, Angry Whale With Two Blowholes

    The Prister, An Enormous, Angry Whale With Two Blowholes
    Photo: Olaus Magnus / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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.

  • 3
    70 VOTES

    The Giant Lobster That Loved To Crush Men In Its Claws

    The Giant Lobster That Loved To Crush Men In Its Claws
    Photo: Olaus Magnus / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    This Polypus, a giant lobster-like creature, is known for grabbing sailors right off the decks of their ships. In this picture, the creature gleefully hoists a terrified victim in its claws. The name polypus, which meant “many-footed,” was used to describe several different animals, including lobsters, octopuses, and centipedes. According to legend, this enormous sea monster pulls men into underwater holes and skins them alive.

  • 4
    61 VOTES

    The Whale So Big That Sailors Accidentally Thought It Was An Island

    The Whale So Big That Sailors Accidentally Thought It Was An Island
    Photo: Olaus Magnus / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Olaus Magnus believed that whales were much larger than even the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale, which can grow to nearly 100 feet. In the sixteenth century, whales were big enough to be confused with islands. In this image, two sailors accidentally drop anchor on an island and light a fire before they realize they are actually on a whale. Magnus warns, “seamen who anchor on the backs of the monsters in belief that they are islands often expose themselves to mortal danger.” As soon as the whale notices the hop-ons, it will plunge back into the water, drowning the men.