May 25, 2018

Odd Fish

        Let’s be honest, there are some seriously weird fish in the world’s waters, and anything you could possibly think up while trying to be all fantastical is probably tame compared with something that really exists.  That said, I came across a few fishy illustrations in some of the early natural history works, that leave me exclaiming, “What the heck?”
        So what do we have here?  First, a sea serpent with a  ribbon-like crest with which it is “booping” a bemused seal.  Despite the rather amusing look of the protuberance squishing down over the seal’s head like a turban, the sea serpent definitely has an evil look in its eye.  If I were the sea turtle, I wouldn’t be treading water and watching; I’d get away from there before I was booped next!
        The next monster has most excellent flippers, the head of a boar, three eyes on its side, and a pair of crescent horns at its shoulders.  Is it mammal or fish?  As far as I can make out the Latin of Gessner’s description (which is, admittedly, NOT very well) he seems to have found this monster in Olaus Magnus, and confesses that he’s dubious about the pig snout and the extra eyes.  But I’m not dubious at all - surely such things are swimming in northern waters even now?
        Our next odd fish has a human face - is it a sort of proto-mermaid?  And how about a fish with an armada of galleys on its flanks?  Are they camouflage for swimming among fleets?  Or are we seeing an x-ray view of all the ships this monster has swallowed?  Again with my attempts at Latin (with the questionable help of Google translate), is this a decorative artwork in which galleys have been carved on fish-leather?  Who knows.
But now a creature which doesn’t look much like a fish at all, except for the scales.  Is it perhaps a reptile, instead?  The bald head and human face remind me of a professional wrestler or something!
        Adorable pufferfish, perhaps?  Fish building a nest up in a tree?  Musical swimming recorder-fish?  All very odd, indeed.
        And then we end with a final What the…???  Twelve arms with clawed paws, a tail with a fishy fin, an eye and an ear at each point of the compass, and a vicious little tusked mouth to the west…  I can't tell you what it is, but I can tell you that this thing is big, and that it was sighted between Antibes and Nice, so you may want to avoid swimming there!  
        Wondrous and strange as these aquatic monsters are, it is equally wondrous and strange that many of them are genuine scientific attempts to depict real creatures of the world’s waters.  So let’s take another look at these terrifying oddities.  Our sea serpent with the aggressive plume?  Believe it or not, that’s meant to be a remora.  Think of it this way: a long skinny fish that has a sticky thing on the top of its head which it uses to grab onto large aquatic creatures such as sea turtles…  When you put it like that, this picture kind of starts to make sense.
        I can’t explain the pig-nosed, eye-spotted monster any more than Gessner could.  He calls it a sea hyena, but I don’t know what real animal that might correspond with.  The boat-marked fish is a tuna, but that still doesn’t explain the picture, so we’ll pass on to the proto-mermaid, which is actually a koi.  I certainly don’t think of koi as having human-like faces, but at any rate, they do have flatter faces and more of cheeks than most fish.  As for this scaly feline… sea lion, anyone?  The puffer-fish are not actually pufferfish, but rather sea stars.  The nest-building fish are trout, and the aquatic musical instruments?  Apparently they’re supposed to be some sort of sponge, but nothing in the description of the creatures explains why in the world they should be depicted like this.  Of course with fifteenth-century books you never know - maybe they just messed up, and this wasn’t the picture that was supposed to be printed here at all.
        The final mish-mash-monster remains a mystery.  I could maybe guess a starfish, with many arms with little grabby claws, but that certainly doesn’t explain what’s with the four elfin ears.  Who says it has to be an ordinary creature, anyway?

[Pictures: Remora, wood block print from De piscibus libri V by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1613;
De hyaena cetacea, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Conrad Gessner, 1604;
Cyprinis Rariset monstrosis, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604;
Tuna, wood block print from De piscibus by Aldrovandi, 1613 (Images from AMS Historica);
De monstro leonino, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604;
Stella, Tructa, and Sfungia , wood block prints from Ortus Sanitatis published by Jacob Meydenbach, 1491 (Images from Internet Archive);
Magnus et admirabilis bellua, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604;
Little bonus fish, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604 (Images from Internet Archive).]

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