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During the Renaissance Era, Sailors Thought Monsters Stalked the Seas

Updated January 24, 2019 500 votes 104 voters 5.1k views14 items

List RulesVote 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. 

  • 1

    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.

    Would this terrify you?
  • 2

    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.”

    Would this terrify you?
  • 3

    The Sea Pig, The Ocean’s Answer To Pork

    Photo: Olaus Magnus / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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.”

    Would this terrify you?
  • 4

    The Kraken, A Colossal Sea Monster With A 20-Food Wide Eye

    Photo: Olaus Magnus / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Kraken was a terrifying sea monster with a “burning gaze.” Magnus claims that the circumference of its eye is 16 to 20 feet. And its eyes are not only huge—they’re also crazy. This strange walrus-octopus hybrid has tentacles surrounding its head and odd razor-sharp whiskers. Its body is a confusing seal-fish amalgamation. The myth of the Kraken comes from a Norwegian tale about a giant fish that loved to belch, but the mythical Kraken later became a squid. Here, Magnus captures the creature in the middle of transitioning from fish to squid.

    Would this terrify you?