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“Exploring the unknown requires tolerating uncertainty” – Brian Greene


Don’t swim near the giant squid.

On the internet, nobody can hear you scream.  Unless you use “all caps”.  And I’m seeing a lot of errant capitalization these days.  When you spend as much unhealthy time as I do meandering through websites on strange phenomena, both those of wholehearted believers and diehard skeptics, you inevitably come to the conclusion that “social grace” and “intellectual debate” went out of style right about the time Back Street came back, all right?  Pundits putter on about the modern age of the internet intellectual, those creepy critters that can torpedo an argument through the citation of noted experts (found primarily on Wikipedia or in obscure literature that you have not read), detailed analysis of how one might fake an image on Photoshop, and a skepticism that rivals the best the Sophists had to offer.  Except the sophists actually had a classical education.  They kind of defined what a classical education is, so good on them.  Doubt proliferates.  Uninformed doubt proliferates further.  In a moment of moral weakness, I thought to myself, “It must suck to be a scientist right now”.  Any moron can click the comment button and weigh in on any discussion, and the only buffer between them and the rest of society is a stream of ridicule.

Don’t get me wrong.  I approve of streams of ridicule, but when we isolate ourselves in ghettos of like-minded fellow-travelers, we simply reinforce that which we reify.  Fox Mulder was right.  “Trust no one”.  Especially the anonymous troll that has an explanation for everything.  Frankly, don’t trust the named troll who has an explanation for everything either.  He’s still a troll.  Living under a bridge doesn’t inculcate a positive perspective and dealing with those Billy Goats Gruff has to eventually get on your nerves.  Of course, we like to think that everything we do is new.  We’re hip.  We’re happening.  We’re new.  We’re now.  When in fact, all we’ve done is speed up and shorten our bursts of irritable faux “common-sense”.  Back in the Age of Exploration, the snarky commentary just took a little longer.  You had to sail a ship somewhere.  You had to keep notes.  When you returned, historians perusing your notes 100 years later concluded you were an imbecile.  Luckily, you were dead and didn’t have to block them on Facebook.  If the Internet Age has taught us anything, it’s that there is always someone who “knows better” and is willing and able to point out this fact.  Which brings us to Hans Poulsen Egede and his sea monster sighting, which would today be relegated to a stream of heartfelt rejections on Reddit.  Personally, despite being a 18th century priest, my money is on Egede in contrast with “@Deplorable Taco Bowl”.  No judgement.  Just figuring on the presumptive powers of observation extant.

Hans Poulsen Egede (1686-1758) has been called the “Apostle of Greenland”, which might seem like a relatively dubious distinction, but as point of fact he was a pretty rough and tumble dude.  He got his theology degree in 1707 and asked the question that was on a lot of people’s minds.  What the hell happened to the Norse colonies in Greenland?  It had been a few centuries since anybody in Denmark had heard from them, and everybody loves a mystery.  If you’ve ever wondered how the Scooby-gang supported themselves, the answer is simple.  They didn’t.  Solving mysteries is not a lucrative business.  I suspect they sold weed on the side.  It’s really the only explanation I have for the incessant munchies and the talking dog.   Dude, they were really into detail, man.  The rest of us need a financier to justify getting off our ass and figuring out if Colonel Mustard did it in the study with a candlestick (I can include my resume if anyone is interested).   Egede was no exception.

In 1711, Egede started looking for cash to fund an expedition to Greenland.  Since nobody had talked to Greenland in a few hundred years, it was assumed that either (1) they were still Catholic, (2) they’d somehow independently become Protestant after the reformation in Europe, or (3) they had descended into savagery and were busy eating their neighbors, as we tend to do when nobody is looking.  King Frederick IV of Denmark thought that maybe somebody should investigate, given the strong historical ties between Greenland and Denmark.  Of course, it was the 18th Century, and he probably thought that a landmass called “Greenland” might make a good vacation spot.  Sucker.  At any rate, Hans Egede was able to raise some money for a look-see.

Egede established the Bergen Greenland Company with $9,000 from Bergen merchants, $200 from the Danish king, and a $300 annual grant from the Royal Mission College.  The company was granted broad powers to govern, to raise its own army and navy, to collect taxes, and to administer justice; the king and his council, however, refused to grant it monopoly rights to whaling and trade in Greenland out of a fear of antagonizing the Dutch.  Yu don’t want to antagonize the Dutch.  Getting clocked in the head with those wooden shoes really leaves a mark.  I speak from experience (my Dutch leaves something to be desired and I once asked “how much is your daughter?”, rather than the intended “how old is your daughter?”).  Either question might be considered offensive, but some questions are more offensive than others.  But back to Hans.  He managed to procure a ship named the Haabet and sailed from Bergen on May 2, 1721, along with his wife, children, and forty colonists.  On July 3, they reached Nuup Kangerlua, Greenland and established Hope Colony.  They searched high and low for the former Norse colonists, but found only Inuit natives.  As he was a missionary, Egede set about learning the local language and translating the Lord’s Prayer into more culturally appropriate forms (e.g. “Give us this day our daily seal”, since bread was unheard of).  Eventually scurvy decimated the colonists and smallpox raged through the Inuit.  When Egede’s wife Gertrud died of smallpox in 1735, he brought her body back to Denmark for burial, dying himself in Copenhagen in 1758.

Nobody has really figured out what happened to the original Norse colonies in Greenland, and numerous explanations have been offered, ranging from soil erosion due to overgrazing, clashes with the Inuit, climate changes, the Black Death, or a decline in the demand for walrus ivory, but they were long gone when Egede arrived.  Egede thought he might at least spot a few mythological monstrosities, and bemoaned the fact that he never spied a mermaid or merman (as previously reported by Tormoder’s History of Greenland).  On the other hand, he did record an encounter with a sea monster.  Most folks described Egede as “a truthful, pious, and single-minded man, possessing considerable powers of observation, and a genuine love of natural history; his statements are modest, accurate, and free from exaggeration (Oudemans, 1892, p113), so obviously he saw something that he regarded as worthy of note fall into a category of sea-life that he was familiar with, or had ever heard of.

Hans Egede, the celebrated missionary, who went to Greenland in 1734, in the prosecution of his noble work, kept an account of his travels. With childlike simplicity he regrets that he saw no mermaids or other monsters, such as he evidently thought he had a right to expect. “None of these sea-monsters have been seen by us, nor by any of our time that I could hear, save that most dreadful monster which showed itself on the surface of the water off our colony, in 64° N. latitude. This monster was of so huge a size that, coming out of the water, its head reached as high as the mainmast; its body was as bulky as the ship, and three or four times as long. It had a long, pointed snout, and spouted like a whale-fish; it had great broad paws; the body seemed covered with shell-work, and the skin was very ragged and uneven. The under part of its body was shaped like an enormous huge serpent; and when it dived again, under water, it plunged backwards into the sea, and so raised its tail aloft, which seemed a whole ship’s length distant from the bulkiest part of its body.” This history is illustrated by a sketch made by another missionary, named Bing. The animal is a sort of a compound of the conventional dolphin of ancient sculptors, the snake, and the seal. Or perhaps it might be likened to a very elongated dolphin, the tail being rounded, like that of the snake, and not flat and bifurcated, after the fashion of the dolphin. Its distinctly delphinian head is raised high out of the water upon its snake-like neck. The muzzle is pointing directly upwards, and from the throat issues a fountain-like column of water, falling in thick spray. From the shoulders proceed two very short fore-limbs, terminated by broadly webbed paws. The body is covered with scales (which, by the way, could not have been distinguished at such a distance), and there is no mane on the neck, though the dripping water might readily have been mistaken for a mane. This sketch was not made at the time, but from memory; the notable points being the peculiar attitude of the head and neck and the position of the fore-limbs (Wood, 1884, p801-802).

Given that Egede was recognized as a pretty honest dude, later historians bent over backwards to take his account (the illustrations done by others notwithstanding) and lay a veneer of mistaken identity over it.  Egede himself never outright called it a sea monster, just gave his description.  Efforts were made by later writers to equate Egede’s sighting with something more familiar.

Egede’s sea-monster was one of the great calamaries which have since been occasionally met with, but which have only been believed in and recognised within the last few years. That which Mr. Egede believed to be the creature’s head was the tail part of the cuttle, which goes in advance as the animal swims, and the two side appendages represent very efficiently the two lobes of the caudal fin. In propelling itself to the surface the squid raised this portion of its body out of the water to a considerable height, an occurrence which I have often witnessed, and which I have elsewhere described. The supposed tail, which was turned up at some distance from the other visible portion of the body, after the latter had sunk back into the sea, was one of the shorter arms of the cuttle, and the suckers on its underside are clearly and conspicuously marked. Egede was, of course, in error in making the “spout” of water to issue from the mouth of his monster. The out-pouring jet, which he, no doubt, saw, came from the locomotor tube (Lee, 1883, p67-68).

In short, since sea monsters don’t officially exist, Egede is credited with mistaking a giant squid for a sea serpent.  A really giant squid.  A freaking huge squid.  A squid of unusual size.  An anomalously gigantic squid, behaving very oddly.  But don’t worry.  It was a squid. In Egede’s own record of his Greenland expedition, he provided a description of the strange serpent, immediately followed by a discussion of Halibut.  He was a cool cucumber.

A professor once told me, the most intelligent questions he ever received from students were phrased, “huh?”  The idea being that the savvy student had noticed a logical inconsistency and was asking for clarification.  Somehow, in the ubiquity of information we have forgotten to admit that sometimes we just don’t understand.  Incertitude is a sin.  We are uncomfortable with the mystery, the aberration, and the anomalous.  We long to know the nature of our universe, but we keep running up against the strange and the inexplicable.  We must make our sea monsters into squid, since all else leads us down a dark path of improbability and danger.  Yet the attraction is there, or as that angry Prussian Carl von Clausewitz said, “Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating”.  Don’t default to the simple explanation.  Occam was a prick.  Take a toke and go with the Scooby Gang, or if cartoons from the seventies unnerve you, follow philosopher Blaise Pascal who said, “We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end”.

Lee, Henry. Sea Monsters Unmasked. London: W. Clowes and Sons, Ltd., 1883.
Oudemans, Anthonie Cornelis, 1831-1895. The Great Sea-serpent: An Historical and Critical Treatise. With the Reports of 187 Appearances … the Suppositions and Suggestions of Scientific And Non-scientific Persons, And the Author’s Conclusions. With 82 Illustrations. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1892.
Wood, J. G. 1827-1889. The Trail of the Sea-serpent, 1884.