“Sponges grow in the ocean. That just kills me. I wonder how much deeper the ocean would be if that didn’t happen.” – Stephen Wright
Renaissance computers were notoriously unreliable (rumored to still be running Windows Vista) and the closest thing to DARPA was Leonardo Da Vinci, otherwise Martin Luther would have blogged his Ninety-Five Theses that ushered in the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648 A.D.). Unfortunately, he had to satisfy himself with tacking them up on a church door. This of course resulted in roughly 124 years of religious war between Protestants and Catholics throughout Western and Northern Europe, the biggest and messiest schism in the Catholic Church since the 11th Century A.D. separation of the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church. People keep breaking up with the Pope. Maybe he should consider the common denominator and be a little more selective about who he dates (or spend some “alone time” re-evaluating his relationships). But it was the Renaissance (generally thought of us the 14-17th Centuries) after all, and while Catholics and Protestants were largely busy bludgeoning each other, there was also a resurgence in interest in classical literatures, and a flowering of intellectual pursuits that had profound effects on philosophy, art, music, politics, and science. Humanism was the name of the game, resurrecting a wide-ranging spirit of inquiry from the graveyard of medieval Scholasticism. And one group of scholars that had a field day were the naturalists, able to give free reign to their insatiable curiosity about the animals, minerals, and vegetables of our world. And those Renaissance naturalists did love themselves a good monster. “From the late 14th century onward, there was a heightened desire to study nature and the wondrous, due to ever increasing contact with distant countries. By the sixteenth century, monsters and human oddities were everywhere. As Jean Céard pointed out in his study of monsters in the Renaissance, most classic treatises and compendia in that period devoted a chapter to monsters. Scientists discussed them and their significance, naturalists catalogued them and depicted in exquisitely illustrated books and theologians oftentimes turned them into religious propaganda” (Czarnecka-Anastassiades, 2008, p4). Which brings us to the 16th Century reports of a puzzling monster called Episcopus marinus (“The Bishop Fish”), a prime example of the Renaissance revival of the ancient Hermetic philosophy of “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing” (familiar to your garden variety occultists as “as above, so below”).
Hermeticism, an intellectualized synthesis of older pagan traditions appeared in the Hellenistic world at about the same time as early Christianity, Gnosticism, and Neoplatonism, and was represented by a body of literature (most pseudepigraphically attributed to the fabled Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus, who we know next to nothing about, but who is first mentioned by Plutarch in the 1st Century A.D.) from the 3-7th Century A.D., largely concerned with emphasizing the unity of the cosmos and the interconnectedness of all things. This is of course what has made it an enduringly popular element of alchemy, astrology, and various occultisms. Then Rome fell and along came the Dark Ages. Most of Europe spent the time between the 6-13th Centuries A.D. refusing to read or write. This was primarily because they were trying to find something to eat and avoid winding up on the business end of a pointy stick. This may of course be a gross oversimplification of seven centuries of European history, but I assure you, there’s a reason that “the Happy, Literate Ages” was never in the running for the name of the era. The few who could read were usually part of the Catholic Church, and they tended to look askance at most of the pagan classics. So everybody forgot about Hermeticism, except in the Eastern Roman Empire, where it was still a subject for discussion. In 1460 A.D., Leonardo Alberti de Candia, an agent of Florentine tough guy Cosimo de’ Medici, was sent off to Constantinople to track down a copy of the Hermetic classic Corpus Hermeticum, and successfully found one for translation, reintroducing the Hermetic philosophy to the western world just as the Renaissance got underway (as well as marketing strategies for modern Renaissance Festivals). And at the same time our friends the naturalists got to work cataloging all the things that existed, doing fieldwork and unearthing ancients texts on the bizarre and monstrous critters with which we were presumed to share the earth. Medieval bestiaries tended to be remarkably similar, as they were more or less cribbing notes from the same limited range of available ancient texts like the 2nd Century A.D. Greek Physiologus, and were written mostly as illustrations of moral lessons. Renaissance bestiaries got a little more encyclopedic, yet frequently mixed the factual with fabulous. And seemingly from nowhere, reports of the odd “sea bishop” and “sea monk” begin to appear, not coincidentally smack dab in the middle of the Protestant Reformation, and drawing solidly on the Hermetic notion that what exists above will exist below (in this case the above being the earth, and below being the oceans).
The sea bishop was a sea monster that we hear nothing about prior to the 16th century, essentially a sort of merman that apart from various appendages considered useful for a marine animal, reportedly looked just like a Catholic bishop, with an organic bishop’s mitre on its head, and a solid understanding of ecclesiastical nuance. Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) noted in his Historiae Animalium, that a Bishop Fish was first captured in the Baltic Sea and delivered unto the King of Poland, followed by a second found off the coast of Germany in 1531. Hijinks ensue. 19th Century commentators dismissed the reports as mistaken identification of seals and giant squid, which seems a bit of a stretch given the general incuriousity of sea life regarding Christianity, let alone awareness of doctrinal and ritual protocols. The sea bishop is taken as factual by many and we can find reasonably contemporary notes suggesting that the “Sea Bishop, proper to the Norway Seas” (Josselyn, 1672, p23), was a well-known entity.
Not only the outlying and unexplored regions of the earth, but the sea also was prolific of wonders, the most remarkable of which was the so-called bishop-fish (Episcopus marinus) or sea-bishop (Meer-bischof), a specimen of which is said to have been caught in the Baltic in 1433. It had a mitre on its head, a crosier in its hand, and wore a dalmatica. The king of Poland wished to confine it in a tower, but it stubbornly resisted this attempt on its freedom, and by mute gestures entreated its fellow-prelates, the bishops of the realm, to whom it showed special reverence, to let it return to its native element. This request was finally granted, and, in token of joy and gratitude, it made the sign of the cross, and gave the episcopal benediction with its fin, as it disappeared under the waves. Engravings of this marine marvel were published in Gessner’s Fischbiich in 1575, in Schott’s Physica Curiosa, and in other works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1531, according to Dutch chroniclers, another bishop-fish was taken in the German Ocean, and sent to the king of Poland, but it obstinately refused to eat anything, and died on the third day of its captivity. Gessner describes also the merman (Homus marinus) and the mermonk (Monachus vtafinus), said to have been taken in the Baltic, the British Channel, in the Red Sea, and on the coast of Dalmatia. Evidently we have here to do with some of the numerous species of seals seen through the magnifying and distorting medium of religious superstition. The Jesuit Gaspar Schott, in the above-mentioned work, a volume of nearly fourteen hundred pages, discusses all sorts of monsters and marvels real and imaginary, demons, spooks, deformed men, energumens, birds, abnormities of land and sea, and portents of earth and sky, showing the material, efficient, and final causes of such phenomena. All these strange forms were supposed to be special creations or manifestations having a profound spiritual significance, and bearing peculiar relations to the Church (Evans, 1896, p198-199).
Why do I associate the sea bishop with Hermeticism? It seems that Renaissance scholars and intellectuals were at great pains to make that connection themselves. The Protestant Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas cited the sea bishop and sea monk in a 1601 A.D. epic poem suggesting the hermetically influenced notion that whatever we find crawling about on the earth or moving in the skies is likely to have an analogous cousin beneath the oceans.
“Seas have (as well as skies) Sun, Moon, and Stars;
(As well as ayre) Swallows, and Rooks, and Stares;
(As well as earth) Vines, Roses, Nettles, Millions,
Pinks, Gilliflowers, Mushrooms, and many millions
Of other Plants (more rare and strange than these)
As very fishes living in the Seas.
And also Rams, Calfs, Horses, Hares, and Hogs,
Wolves, Lions, Urchins, Elephants and Dogs,
Yea, Men and Mayds; and (which I more admire)
The m’ytred Bishop, and the cowled Fryer;
Whereof, examples, (but a few years since)
Were shew’n the Norways, and Polonian Prince.”
(“La Sepmaine; ou, Creation du monde”, Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, 1601)
Likewise, the cousin of the sea bishop, the sea monk was reputed to inhabit the Baltic, the Firth of Forth (an estuary in Scotland) and oddly was also noted in the Red Sea, but unlike the relatively benign sea bishop with his gracious manners and pleas for justice, the sea monk was reputed to be a rather nasty fellow.
On the opposite side of the North Sea, in the Firth of Forth, as well as in the Baltic and the Red Sea, sea-monks were at one time quite common, if we may believe a Scotch historian. Like their land brothers, they had a shaven spot on their heads, and wore robes and cowls; but instead of trying to help those who needed it, in one way or another, as land monks were supposed to do, they ate up everybody that came within reach. After this it is a comfort to think that a pair of shoes made from the skin of the sea-monk would last fifteen years! Having once invented sea-monks, it was easy to go on and invent a sea- bishop, and pictures of him may still be seen in early books of travels with a crozier in his hand and a mitre on his head, and splendid vestments over his shoulders. He must have been a beautiful prize to catch, but he was very rare, and did not flourish out of the water. One was sent to the King of Poland as a present, but he pined away, and at length, finding himself in the presence of some bishops dressed like himself, he implored them by signs to release him from captivity. Overcome with pity for their brother in distress, they prevailed on the King to grant him his freedom, and when he heard the joyful news the sea-bishop at once made the sign of the Cross by way of thanks. The bishops escorted their brother solemnly to the sea-coast, and as he plunged beneath the waves he turned and raised two fingers, in the true form of episcopal blessing, and has never been seen on earth again, as far as we know! (Lang, 1899, p18-19).
Breton sailors (off the coast of France), were also said to be aware of the sea bishop and the sea monk, and both were considered figures of fear.
Then came the Middle Age, and with its finger dipped in blood and ink, drew upon the pages myriads of spectres and demons; and called its work, on all the charts of the time, the Sea of Darkness. On this sea over which hung perpetual twilight, fading into darkness towards the West, wandered, swam, circled, or glided all the monstrous children of Fear. The immense nautilus with membranous sails, which with one blow from its living oar could have capsized the Santa-Maria; the sea-serpent with crest of cock, fifty leagues in length: Homer’s sirens, constantly pursued by the cruel water-monk (moine-marin) in whom the Breton sailors still believe; and the fearful sea-bishop, with his phosphorescent mitre (Belloy, 1878, p73).
Of course, we’ve always imagined vaguely humanoid sea monsters lurking about the oceans, and some have suggested that the prototype for the sea bishop was the ancient Greek “Old Man of the Sea”.
The literature of mythology is full of references to aquatic monsters, usually part human and part fish, and nearly all primitive peoples have believed or still believe in some of these marine creatures of the imagination. They have often been worshipped as deities but more often feared as demons or as omens of storm or plague. Perhaps the earliest known was the fish-headed god Cannes, or Hea, of the ancient Chaldeans, but the Greeks and Romans and various other peoples on down through the Middle Ages believed in tritons, nereids, mermaids, sea-satyrs, etc. Even the early natural history of Aldrovanus, Gesner and others was not free from such supposititious animals which were figured in some of these works. Africa, the land of so many mysteries, has yielded up the original of another fabulous monster. Anyone familiar with the Arabian Nights will easilv recognize from our illustrations “The Old Man of the Sea.” It might also be the original of the “Sea Bishop” of Gesner, Sluper and others, but from the fact that this aquatic member of the clergy was “seen off the coast of Poland” and there is no mention of a South African marine diocese (Bigelow, 1911, p280-281).
Sometimes the explanation of self-proclaimed luminaries stretch credulity, even more so than the notion of a particular monster itself. For an academic to presume to cast aspersions at a fisherman for lack of knowledge about sea-going life, and point out that while there are species of seals possessed of a vague physiognomic correspondence to certain features of land-going bishops and monks, that the poor peasants are obviously deluded, requires a fairly high level of arrogance. Unfortunately, this tradition of armchair analysis continues to be how anomalies are typically regarded and derided among the official scholarly set. While I’m sure a 16th Century Baltic fisherman could mistakenly identify a sea creature, I suspect his interpretation is more evidentially and experientially based that your average PhD, particularly when it comes to any subject that doesn’t involve the study of college undergraduates and the path to tenure. This is not necessarily a blanket condemnation of academia. Oh screw it. It is. The academic guild system really hasn’t changed that much since the Middle Ages, and five to seven years of modern attention to minutia does not necessarily confer generalized expertise on every subject outside of the narrow scope which the academic researcher is forced to focus on in order to obtain that cherished doctorate. In short, if I want to know how to tell the difference between a sea bishop and a seal, I’ll rely on the Baltic fisherman, rather than the Oxford professor. Nonetheless, pepper a paragraph with Latin and you sound pretty authoritative in your dismissal 300 years after the fact, as below.
His derivation is wrong, the monk in question being the hooded seal or bove marino (Leptonyx monachus), an amiable monster which used to haunt the caverns of the Tyrrhenian but will soon be extinct. Strange tales are told of this beast. The sailors hate it on account of its damage to their nets and fish, and so do the peasants who firmly believe that it climbs up into the vineyards at night to steal the grapes. I have spoken to persons who claim to have witnessed this. The resemblance to a monk is not wholly fanciful and a large mediaeval literature grew up on the subject of the sea-monk or monstrum marinum monachi forma, for which see Aldrovandus, Bellonius, Gessner, Rondeletius, Olaus Magnus and the rest of them. There was even captured, in 1531, a sea bishop, vir marinus episcopi forma: — he was presented to King Sigismund. Wherever the word Monaco, or ivlonacone, occurs on these shores, it refers to this seal which in severe storms sometimes takes refuge among the rocks, emerging with half its body above the water — the face and cowl-markings are deceptive enough. Cucullus non facit monachum. There used to be two pairs hereabouts, one at the Punta Campanella and the other at Capri where they lived chiefly at the Grotta Eossa. Fishermen declare that these pairs were blood-relations and paid each other periodical visits after human fashion. One was shot in 1888 at Capri. About 1890 a small one, iust born, was captured at the Piccola Marina by a man who heard it crying; it soon succumbed to injudicious dieting (bread and beans). On the 3rd of June 1904 a female was shot near the Palazzo a Mare; it was a normal specimen, 2 metres in length, and contained a foetus which was sent to Naples (Norman, 1907, p227).
And despite the heartfelt assurances that the sea bishop and sea monk never existed, scholars have collected numerous corresponding stories of the mermen that crawl from the deep and keep presenting themselves to us throughout history.
This belief in sea-monsters of all kinds was naturally not a chance that a man like Aldrovandus could miss. He gives his imagination full scope, or perhaps we should rather say his credulity, as he introduces these creatures to us as things as real as a rabbit; his sea-monk, for instance, with tonsured human head, arms replaced by ﬁns, and legs by ﬁshy tail, being as matter of fact as one’s vicar. It is given by him in all good faith as the true presentment of a sea-bishop, though not at all our notion of a bishop in his see. The right hand, it will be seen, is giving the benediction…The author of the “Speculum Mundi” conﬁrms all these wonders, and adds his quota to the general store. He affirms that, “In the year I526 there was taken in Norway, near to a seaport called Elpoch, a certain ﬁsh resembling a mitred bishop, who was kept alive six days after his taking, and there was, as the author of Du Bartas his summarie reporteth, one Ferdinand Alvares, Secretarie to the store-house of the Indians, who faithfully witnesseth that he had seene not farre off from the Promontorie of the Moon, a young Sea-man coming out of the Waters, who stole ﬁshes from the ﬁshermen and ate them raw. Neither is Olaus Magnus silent on these things, for he also saith there be monsters in the sea, as it were imitating the shape of a man, having a dolefull kinde of sounde or singing. There be also sea-men of an absolute proportion in their whole body; these are sometimes seene to climbe up the ships in the night times, and suddenly to depresse that part upon which they sit; and if they abide long the whole ship sinketh. Yea (saithe he), this I adde from the faithfull assertions of the Norway ﬁshers, that when such are taken, if they be not presently let go again, there ariseth such a ﬁerce tempest, with an horrid noise of those kinde of creatures and other sea-monsters there assembled, that a man would think the verie heaven were falling, and the vaulted roofe of the world running to ruine, insomuch that the ﬁshermen have much ado to escape with their lives (Hulme, 1895, p315-321).
Then again, there is always the profit motive. Books on monsters have always sold well, pretty much since the invention of the printing press, and what would a freak show be if somebody didn’t have the good sense to stitch together a hybrid monstrosity with which to amaze and frighten.
With the growth of Knowledge and the extension of navigation, the Hellenic monstrosities, themselves the reproduction of still more ancient myths, became gradually discredited; but travellers, and those who lived by catering to the human love of the marvellous, were not behindhand in replacing them with others better suited to contemporary taste and sentiment. Among the more impossible monstrosities that the Middle Ages possessed, the sea-bishop, that had a shark’s head, crocodile’s claws, and goat’s legs, deserved all the eminence it attained; while, not far behind it, came the monk-fish, a tolerably good caricature of a friar, constructed by the showmen of the day out of portions of different fish, but nevertheless as thoroughly believed in by the fair-frequenting public as any pig-faced lady of modern times (Robinson, p24).
In the midst of the Reformation, where an embattled Catholic Church found it’s theology under concerted attack, during the Renaissance revival of Hermeticism that assured us that nature was one, and correspondences between earthly, heavenly, and marine forms would invariably exist, and renewed interest in the magic arts that would eventually lead to a robust scientific method, what else could have emerged from the sea except an ecclesiastical fish? Do fish not have spiritual yearnings, particularly when being fried? As Henry David Thoreau said, “Everyone should believe in something; I believe I’ll go fishing”.
Belloy, marquis de 1815-1871. Christopher Columbus And the Discovery of the New World. Philadelphia: Gebbie & Barrie, 1878.
Bigelow, Edward Fuller, 1860-, and Agassiz Association. “The Old Man of the Sea”. The Guide to Nature v4, no.8. Stamford, Conn.: [The Agassiz Association], 1911.
Czarnecka-Anastassiades, B.Z. “Mapping Otherness: Cartographies and other bodies from the Ancient to Early Modern”. 6th Global Conference: Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. 22-25 September 2008, Mansfield College, Oxford
Douglas, Norman, 1868-1952. Some Antiquarian Notes. Napoli: R. Tipografia F. Giannini & Figli, 1907.
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