This is the third in a series of posts examining cryptids (“hidden” animals said to exist based on local testimony), namely lake monsters, in terms of the folklore, tradition, and native tales of these creatures.
The first part is here: Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports
The second part is here: Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 2: Lake Monster Tropes
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?
This chapter of LMT (Lake Monster Traditions by Meurger) begins with musings on the water-horse of European folklore. It’s complicated. I’m currently not able to keep track of the many and various forms of water horses mentioned which would require me to dig into the many references. Some are very horse-like, only revealed as insidious by the algae in their mane, a stereotypical sign of danger if you are quick enough to recognize it before they leap into the water. Others are described more like horse-fish or merbeings. Shapeshifters are impossible to describe. The body of tales of the water horse, even in a specific region, are not consistent. Therefore, they don’t approach the rank of testimony making them problematic to consider as a basis for real animals.
The notion of the water-horse spans the spectrum of today’s cryptozoology. The kelpie, for example, isn’t considered to be a “real” animal. But the cadborosaurus is. Both have the water-horse features. Incidentally, the lovely but creepy water-horse concept was cheapened by The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (2007) that portrayed a childhood Loch Ness Monster tale.
It’s difficult to ignore the clearly fantastic element in these myths of lake creatures. They serve as watchers or omens. They demand a sacrifice, whether that means claiming the drowned, deliberately taking those that venture into the water, or coming out on land to grab a victim for themselves. This connects to another trope – the lake not giving up its dead. The myth also discourages divers from exploring the depths, lest they become the next sacrifice. And it discourages locals from attempting to retrieve the dead because they serve an ultimate purpose, to appease the monster. It’s considered taboo for the residents of some locations to even talk of the monster. As Meurger says, it is not that the locals he visited didn’t want to talk or didn’t know about the beast, they were AFRAID to talk about it. This is magical thinking, which is not comparable to the ethno-known concept of modern cryptozoology.
Other fantastic elements include the concept of the watcher who is protecting sacred places. This gives the creature not only a purpose but sentience.
Continuing with the “tropes” theme of the last time, I have found few more to mention:
Dark water, cold water
All haunted lakes are dark and cold, it seems. The water is full of sediment or, as with the Lochs, peat and other vegetation. The cold water itself is dangerous leading to quicker death by drowning.
Lake does not give up the dead
As described above, the idea that lake is collecting sacrifices means either the lake is “alive” or is inhabited by some beast that claims the victims forever. The real reason that some water bodies do not relinquish bodies is that large cold lakes have less bacterial action. Organic content will sink and remain sunk because the coldness inhibits the gas-creating bacteria allowing the body to float. Yep, science.
Whirlpools as monsters
From the great Charybdis that swallowed a huge amount of water and ships, whirlpools were personified as alive, great sea monsters. Strong currents in some large lakes are attributed to the monster down below.
The sighting of the creature, often referred to as the “big fish”, means that someone will die. So, the creature acts as an omen of bad luck. This concept is expanded in the shamanistic framework that comes up in a later part of the book.
Any natural event that is deemed threatening is readily attributed to the monster of the lake. Thus, the myth is enhanced by any accident, mystery, or misfortune. It does not take much to reinforce a myth. No facts are needed to support the existence of a myth as with the existence of a physical creature.
The trope of connections between lakes, as I discuss as a basic impossibility in the last post, is made even more absurd by the European-based claims of connections between lakes separated by huge distances or with seas in between. This most often appears by taking Loch Ness as the source of lake monsters that are transported via ridiculous means to lakes in Ireland, even America! Total nonsense. Instead, we can attribute this to transportation of belief, not a physical transportation of the beast. However, unfortunately, some find these supernatural explanations to be satisfying, easy, and convenient without recognizing their absurdity, especially children who haven’t the foundation to know otherwise. It makes a great story.
Another interesting characteristic about historic lake monsters is that several myths describe the lake creatures as biding their time until Judgment Day when it will reveal itself to all once again. For example, the Midgard serpent will poison the sky and do in all the gods in the end. The piasts of Ireland (a ‘pest’ or ‘beast’ not unlike a “pestilence” leading to death) hide from St. Patrick’s spell until judgment day. Skrimsl, also a name for the Icelandic Lagarfljót monster, is said to be bound by the power of Bishop Gudmund to not return and kill until the end times. The mouth of hell itself is depicted as a monster, so a dragon from the abyss returning on the final days of humanity is a natural ending to embrace. The theme of a dragon, even the Biblical Leviathan as the monster of the sea, is ubiquitous in mythology so of course he appears in the end to gobble things up as well.
There is no problem with this until we detach the myths from their traditional framework. Meurger cites a 1468 report from a lake in Lucerne, Switzerland that described a “dragon-worm” in a factual tone instead of a folkloric tone. This, he says, is the beginning of the transition to naturalizing myths.
Since we are on the path to naturalization of lake monsters, an obvious route takes me to eels – fish that can grow very large, are serpentine in shape, AND can travel across land to another water body on a damp night. Sounds like a monster story in the raw! How many large eels have been labeled “dragons” or lake monsters? The zoological explanation for many lake monsters is large eels. When eels are trapped in their freshwater environments, they keep growing. Rarely do they ever get beyond 4 or 5 feet or so, though it’s common to exaggerate the size as with “fish tales”. If they are moving, it is hard to judge length. Perhaps in past eels grew to enormous sizes, but it’s not documented that freshwater eels get 10, 20 or 30 feet today. Eels have a much harder time surviving in the modern age. The largest eels of today are ocean-dwelling, 10 ft long conger eels.
As I continue through LMT, the chapters or sections do not blend into each other and there is not a thread throughout, just lots of observations and analysis. There is repetition of themes in other locations. As I remarked before, the translation may not be the best.
The next section will be “Indian America”, or more accurately, Native American myths of lake monsters. Stay tuned.