What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?
Cryptid researchers say that modern reports of Bigfoot-Sasquatch, lake monster, sea serpents, giant flying animals, and elusive land creatures are supported by the stories of native people, legends or myths and sagas. Are these stories evidence? Can we reach back in time to use old tales to reinforce and help explain modern sightings of cryptids?
I’m not well-versed in folkloric studies just with a few pop culture college electives to my credit and casual observation for many years. But I heard from respected others that a modern interpretation and application of ancient cultural tales to the cryptozoology field was problematic. I wondered exactly why. The frequently cited source for understanding this aspect of cryptozoology is Michel Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis which I obtained.
There is much to digest in this book, translated from French. I do note that the translation does make it difficult sometimes to decode the meaning but it’s not incomprehensible.
I intend to write a series of posts exploring the author’s treatment of this material and his recommendations of how we should consider it for cryptozoological research.
The preface and introduction alone gave a jolt to my thinking. A review of what it contained was perhaps worth sharing for those who have not been introduced to these ideas. It’s obvious that the work still applies to today’s modern TV and internet-based cryptozoologists.
There is something in particular that renders me an outsider in classic Fortean discussions – I hesitate to take eyewitness accounts at face value. As an analytical thinker (sometimes to extremes), I wish to be clear that what was said happened really happened as described. Knowing how perception and memory can fail us on a regular basis, I have a healthy doubt of so-called “honest to God true stories”.
In a recent discussion on a Fortean-themed Facebook group, I questioned why people were sharing “news” stories from dubious sources like Before It’s News and the Daily Mail and other tabloid press. The stories were sensationalized possibly to the point of being purely FAKED. What was the value in considering them as “data” at all?
Reliance on such information as data or facts is fundamentally problematic. This is a main premise of Michel Meurger’s 1988 Lake Monster Traditions (LMT). Should we be using folklore, traditional native tales, and historical texts as “evidence” of, in this case, the existence of lake monsters? I would add, should we be using today’s modern media accounts (instant folklore) in the same vein?
No, we shouldn’t. That’s the short answer. But it’s more complicated than that.
Another question to ask is “Do folklore stories translate to real animals?” Again, the answer is, “not exactly”. They may translate into no animal, a known animal, several animals, or an imaginary animal. We should not count on or seek an all-encompassing “total solution”. It’s going to be wrong.
By the time I got through the short preface and introductory chapter of LMT, I realized I must sort out the author’s major premises and give them some thought as well as claims made about the origin of lake and sea monster tales.
This book is concerned with the discourse of monsters – not so much their zoological or occult significance. Meurger refutes the scientists who explain away every sighting as a log, wave, big fish, or, in a recent trend, otters. Skeptics believe the sightings are misinterpreted nature. Occultists posit that the explanation is beyond nature. The animals are spiritual and the experiences perhaps shamanistic and transcendent. Cryptozoologists pull a bit from both. The intended scientific root of cryptozoology was that there is hidden nature – there are real zoological finds that are behind these monsters. Meurger takes an even different path – he takes the stories of monsters in all their cultural glory and complexity for what they are. He uses the term wonder literature.
If we interpret the tales of sea and lake monsters simply as anomaly zoology, cherry-picking just the naturalistic sounding bits to support ideas for real animals, we miss a huge part of the value of the story. This is an area where I can be schooled in the Fortean sense. The stories themselves are the value. However, when the story is taken at face value to suggest there is something hidden and mysterious in the world, the Fortean approach fails to account for the multiple cultural factors that are in play.
LMT begins by using Scandinavian sea serpents as an illustration. This serves as an examination of origins, motifs, symbolism, documentation, cultural evolution, priming of witnesses and highlights problems with cryptozoology utilizing folklore as fact.
The author’s claim is that the iconic horse-headed, maned serpent is a product of Scandinavia. But it is not a real animal. This assertion bodes ill for Nessie, Champ, Caddie, Ogopogo, and dozens of other legendary denizens of the lakes around the world. The rest of the book examines specific locations so I’ll have to pick this thread up later.
I admit surprise to find out that the maned serpent is so old a concept. (And now I wonder if my mjølnir, from Norway, depicts maned serpents instead of horses, which would make it EVEN COOLER. See picture below.) Meuger says the origin of today’s sea serpent concept is a product of the Enlightenment drawn from Nordic stories of giant snakes. This brings us around to the lindorm, or Nordic dragon. It’s also a snake. (There are native snakes in Norway and Sweden.) LMT describes the lindorm as sometimes growing so large that it takes to the lakes. Thus we get serpentine lake monster legends. When the beast grows too big for the lake, it heads to the sea – a more difficult transition because of the salt water, we concede. But remember, it’s not a real animal. Scandinavians don’t consider the lindorm as a zoological animal just as we don’t consider a dragon as a zoological animal.
The lindorm was traditionally associated with supernatural aspects like ghosts and the devil (which I’ll get to later), but also with the idea of loops, arcs and circles. Recall the Midgard Serpent, Jörmungandr, so large it encircles the world. I expect that I’ll come back to discussion of Ouroboros and the hoop snake later in the book. But LMT connects the arcing movement of the sea serpents and lake monsters to the traditional thinking about the arcing, looping lindorm.
A huge discussion could be had just on the lindorm all on its own, but I wish to focus on the LMT concepts. One characteristic of the lindorm mentioned that is present in many non-zoological, monstrous cryptids is red eyes. Few animals have naturally red eye color. The glowing red eyes occurs when the tapetum lucidum inside the eyes act as reflectors. This may give us a clue to the inspiration behind other red eyed creatures such as Mothman, Lizard Man, Jersey Devil, Owl Man, Black Shuck (hell hounds), Chupacabra, Monkey Man, various hairy hominoids, and pig-faced demons. Red eyes are perceived as scary and threatening, monstrous and evil. They are a motif (and a trope).
A motif is a distinguishing or dominant feature. The maned serpent motif moved from Scandinavia to everywhere the Vikings colonized. LMT notes that the maned serpent tales were noted in the Shetland Island (British). Then they continued in British Columbia brought by the immigrants. Caddy (the “Cadborosaurus”) is a well-known cryptid from Cadboro Bay, B.C. It’s a horse-headed, maned serpent. How about that!
The ancient waters are muddied by the insertion of the water-horse, horse-fish, and Nøkken (merbeings/sirens) concepts. I’m unclear how the folklore stories of bækhesten (brook horse or kelpie [Scottish]) influenced the motif of the horse head and mane of lake and sea monsters but that seems reasonable. Even the traditional descriptions of such beings seem variable so the melting pot of features led to creative creatures.
We thank two Scandinavian chroniclers for much cryptozoological fodder – Olaus Magnus and Bishop Erik Pontoppidan.
Magnus of Sweden produced the famous map Carta Marina (1539). His commentary on the great Sea Orm depicted was the first written account of the beast and it remains of public interest to this day. (Earlier maps showed sea monsters but without commentary.) Magnus particularly referred to a 200 ft long monster that lived off the coast of Bergen, Norway. LMT refers to this [I’ll never be your] Beast of Bergen as a lindorm that moved to the sea.
Pontoppidan, from Bergen, wrote the Natural History of Norway and described many sea serpents. Pontoppidan (and other chroniclers of this time) was not a journalist, there is much rhetorical intent in the works. Even though he treated them as real animals, their basis was in folklore and seaman’s tales. But, the Bishop of Bergen was so important to the sea monster lore, cites Meuger, that he should probably be the owner of the title “Father of Cryptozoology” not Bernard Heuvelmans.
Speaking of Heuvelmans, he is already looking bad in this book and I’m only through the introduction. Heuvelmans can be quite annoying to scientists but cryptozoologists think he’s saintly. Meurger accuses him of being selective with the folklore to support only his zoological interpretations, of the scientification of folklore, and of misunderstanding the nature and value of myths. Heuvelmans is known for stressing the value of eyewitness reports as the basis for cryptozoology. He thought of these “condemned beasts” similarly to Fort’s “damned data”. Heuvelmans believed Pontoppidan’s colorful descriptions. Yet, he conveniently ignores aspects of eyewitness reports that don’t fit with a zoological interpretation. As an example, LMT states that there were plenty of credible eyewitness testimony that merbeings are real creatures in their own right, but Heuvelmans dismisses that conclusion. I have to look into this more. I’m pretty sure there is plenty to be found and more is in the works from skeptical cryptozoologists.
Heuvelmans was a maverick but still science-minded. Science eschews mystical interpretations. We (I include myself here) attempt to de-mystify and rationalize. So, the cryptids in the water are concluded to be objective phenomena – floating logs, misinterpreted animals, errant waves, etc. Sometimes it is CONFIRMED that cryptid reports really are these things. The interaction between the objective things and the subjective ideologies (legends) allow the cryptids to continue to exist in culture and expand. Describing Nessie as a seiche (standing wave) is still reinforcing the idea of Nessie as an actual thing, whatever it may be. The next “floating log” may be a log or it may be Nessie behaving like a floating log! It’s still fits the phenomenology (study of impressive or extraordinary things). I guess you might say it’s the “null hypothesis” of phenomenology – it’s ordinary.
Three Scandinavian lake monsters highlighted early in LMT provide the reader with comparisons of evolution (of cryptid tales).
Lake Storsjon in Sweden was inhabited by a lake troll. (Nope, I did not know of such things until this.) The runic stone placed on the shore protected people from the troll exiting the lake and attacking them. Today’s Storsjöodjuret is definitely the stereotypical serpentine monster. The legend draws monster seeking tourists. The stone is said to depict the serpent. I’m a bit confused on how it got from troll to serpent, but perhaps that’s to be clarified later.
Lake Mjøsa is in southern Norway. The monster was said to be a “Watcher” of the sacred place. Historical accounts depict the monster with the sound of bells and organs, the coming of ghost armies and other oddities. Those supernatural features were ignored by cryptozoologists who now consider the Mjøsa monster as a plesiosaur-like mystery animal or a seal.
Lake Seljord has Selma or the Seljordsormen, a modern lake monster popularized by cryptozoologist Jan Ove Sundberg. Selma is a mix of a horse-fish and a lindorm. It’s not an ancient tale, appearing much later in the 1750s.
Simply put, lots of lakes in Scandinavia have tales associated with them and many of these tales have now morphed into stereotypical lake monsters. (But the locals don’t make as much of a commercial big deal out of it as do some other places.) In today’s world, there is much syncretism occurring with cultures. To untangle that is well-nigh impossible.
But if anything looks to be emphasized so far in LMT, it’s the mistake of facticity – to confuse folklore, sagas and legendary stories with natural history documentation. The author is clear we should NOT take historical text at face value. I would argue we should be careful about modern media accounts for the same reason: the story comes through personal and cultural filters. The mythological landscape is a culturally-created cluster of motifs. We are primed to interpret events as certain things depending upon our influences. The interpretation of these events may be more cultural than factual.
To conclude this first long review-like ramble about LMT, I wanted to point out that things morph in time but the underlying ideas often remain the same. LMT describes the mission of Gunnar Olaf Hyltén-Cavallius who, beginning in 1883, canvassed Småland, Sweden hunting the lindorm. He collected eyewitness accounts, some of whom would swear and sign their names that they had seen the creature. But no physical evidence was obtained. Hyltén-Cavallius still treated this as a scientific quest. This reminded me SO much of the Finding Bigfoot crew searching year after year finding plenty of stories but no Bigfoot. They are very scientifical about it all which is totally silly. Such projects reflect the power of collective belief; it’s worthless as natural history. The coherence of descriptions is from traditions old and new, not reflective of the reality of a 7-ft tall hairy wood ape out there. Great meaning is derived through cultural transmission. Several suggest that our fascination with Bigfoot is a harkening back to primitivism. Lake monsters and sea serpents remind us that the water hides things, many mysteries. Haven’t we always had “monsters” for many and various reasons? They remain as popular as they ever were.
I expect the rest of this book will be efforts to undo the taming of the dragon. It has already led me to want to look up much more on other topics to understand them better. I’m already convinced that we should enjoy the myths and legends as they are, not use them as a bludgeon against modern science or attempt to distill fantastic creatures into some zoological oddity to be tracked, identified and cataloged. That is a foolish quest.
I will get much out of this literary adventure. More to come.
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Torkel Ødegard for help on this.
Informed commentary is welcome.