Sea Monsters of the Public Domain

Strange creatures have risen from their 16th century ocean depths and are swimming freely in the Public Domain! We released the kraken, and it is thrilled to be out!

“Yippee ki-yay! I’m free of copyright!!!”
Kraken from Conrad Gessner, Historia animalium (1558)

These sea monster illustrations are all courtesy of Historia animalium (1551-1558). Spanning five volumes and 4500 pages, it is the first modern zoological work that attempts to describe ALL known animals, and it is also the first bibliography of texts of natural history. It was written by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), the city physician of Zürich. As city physician, Gessner was responsible for the health of the city’s populace, and for the sanitary conditions within the city (and during a time of the plague!). Somehow he also found time to study, collect and write. He’s remembered today as the father of scientific bibliography, zoology and botany.

Sea Boar from Conrad Gessner, Historia animalium (1558)
Sea Devil from Conrad Gessner, Historia animalium (1558)

Gessner believed in scholarly consensus. If information was repeated across credible literary sources it was more likely be reliable. Historia animalium is an encyclopedia of creatures previously described by other authors. The majority of the illustrations are recognizable as real animals, although a few are clearly illustrated by description and not visual observation.

Su of Patagonia from Edward Topsell The history of four-footed beasts and serpents (1658)

Strange and mythical creatures appear in the texts as well. Some of the creatures might simply be natural oddities, and a number of the mythical beasts (hydras, unicorns, and satyrs) may have been included out of a prudence toward completeness. It has also been speculated that publishers added some imaginary creatures in order to boost sales, without the permission of the author. This is at least partly correct, as a posthumous 1603 Frankfurt edition is said to include an added ‘Su of Patagonia’ or Succarath, the rather demonic (and maternal?) looking creature shown above. We found this version in Edward Topsell’s The history of four-footed beasts and serpents (1658), which reprinted many of the illustrations from Historia animalium.

Sea Bishop from Conrad Gessner, Historia animalium (1558)

The legend of the Sea Bishop is an interesting fish tale. The creature was caught in 1531 in the Baltic Sea, and presented to the King of Poland, Sigismund I (1467-1548), and a group of Catholic bishops. The Sea Bishop gestured that it wished to return to the sea, and perhaps in a show of comradery to their sea-based evangelical brethren, the bishops obliged its wish. The sea bishop made the sign of the cross and disappeared into the waters, never to be seen again. This tale first appears in the writing of French anatomist and naturalist Guillaume Rondelet (1507-1566) in 1554. He hadn’t seen the fish himself, but had heard this story from a friend, doctor Gilbertus Germanus, who oddly doesn’t seem to exist in any historical records. Hmm, how about that?

Anyway, Rondelet made sure to distance himself from the the story. He wrote that he omitted many preposterous details about the creature, and that he could not confirm or refute the creatures existence. “It sure is a mystery. Thanks for buying my book with the crazy sea monster” – Rondelet, probably. Gessner copied Rondelet’s Sea Bishop illustration in 1558, and repeats Rondelet’s description, with a new detail: the Sea Bishop was huge.

Sea Monk from Conrad Gessner, Historia animalium (1558)

The Sea Monk is more likely to have been a real animal, with a description embellished in retellings. The creature was claimed to have been spotted in 1546 in the Øresund, the strait between Denmark and Sweden. Gessner describes the Sea Monk as having a black face, which suggests it may have been a giant squid. It has also been speculated that it may have been an angelshark, a seal, a walrus, or even a hoax like a Jenny Haniver (a fantasy creature created from a dried ray or skate).

Sea Pig from Conrad Gessner, Historia animalium (1558)

This Sea Pig is one of our favorite images from Historia animalium, but it first appeared much earlier, in 1539. Swedish writer and cartographer Olaus Magnus created a similar illustration of the creature as part of his detailed map of the Nordic countries, the Carta Marina. Magnus was a devote Catholic, and exiled from Sweden because of his religious ties, and many of his sea monsters have overtly symbolic characteristics. Years later Magnus would write:

It had a pig’s head with a crescent moon at the back, four dragon’s feet, a pair of eyes in its loins at each side, and a third on its belly towards the navel; at the end was the bifurcated tail of a normal fish. In the city of Rome at that time an interpretation was printed and published, explaining the significance of the beast’s individual parts, which showed how heretics generally pursue a swinish existence. By the moon behind the head is meant distortion of the truth, since it grows not on the pig’s forehead but at the nape of its neck. The eyes in its loins and belly are full of temptation, and for this reason they must be cut out. Lastly, the four dragon’s feet signify the grossly evil desires and acts of mankind, bursting in viciously from the four corners of the earth, and appearing in the fish very much as though it were some prying ruffian.

Olaus Magnus (1555) Historia De Gentibus Septentrionalibus
Rubus from Conrad Gessner, Conradi Gesneri medici Tigurini Historiae animalium (1604)

The Rubus is a strange creature supposedly spotted in 1562 between Antibes and Nice. “The Rubus is a fish of the Greek sea & of the seas of Italy. They are round like a ring, & have many red spots & are full of sharp fins & spikes. He is a slow swimmer because he is so big. He goes to the ground, & waits there for prey, & whatever fish he gets he buries in the sand. It is very delicious fish to eat.” 

We cleaned up all of these images and removed them from their backgrounds. We had some fun digitally painting them too, and both these colored versions and the original uncolored images are available on TofuJoe.

“I sure love the Public Domain images on TofuJoe!”
Fish with human face from Conrad Gessner, Historia animalium (1558)

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