See Monsters

The Sea Wolf, or Wasgo is described in legend as an enormous sea creature with teeth of a carnivore, long curving body, an alligator like head, and something like a crest or horns on top of it’s head. The Wasgo is said to have hunted and eaten Orcas (a verified real sea monster, virtually indistiguishable from killer whales in mythical tradition and modern biology). Some stories say it ate larger whales and had the power to control weather. It’s four legs sound suspiciously un-flipper-like. Some stories describe arms, claws, fingers, or feet. Three or more dorsal fins are a component of most sea-wolf depictions. The head is always very long and toothy, completely unlike the realistic depictions of known sea animals we see in other North West Coastal Native Art. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this beast is that native storytellers define it as different from spirit-god beings (like the Thunderbird), but also describe it as currently extinct. Dates for the extinction of this creature are universally agreed to be “a long time ago” by native historians.

It differs from the Sisiutyl in the fact that it is only an incredidible monster, and not an impossible spirit being with a round human face and sea-serpents for arms. There is something intrigueingly realistic about this sea monster. I was very busy with projects I wished to avoid, so I did a lot of research into this.

Peculiarities of NW Coastal Art and biological history brought up some startling possibilities. The crest or horns are suspect, because some animals in this kind of art have crests that seem out of place to white people. The crests as they are depicted on eagles may be symbols of power that would have been added to any sea monster, wether the description had a crest or not. We could make similar assumptions about the large sharp teeth, horns, and flopping tongue: They may be actual parts of a real animal, or added to a real animal with artistic lisence. Biological history actually has many Wasgo-like creatures. There were once many species of marine mammals that were large enough and carnivorous enough to kill a killer whale. Basilosaurs, and other Archaeoceti seem to fit the descriptions very well, except for the fact that no living creature of this kind co-existed with humans. Giant sea-crocs once existed, as well as aquatic dinosaurs like icthyosaurs, but neither fits the description as well as primitive “pre-whales” like Archaeoceti do.

If it was customary in Haida and Tlingut tradition to tell stories about fantastic creatures like the Sisiutyl, and scientifically improbable events like the Raven putting the Sun in a box, then why would the Sea-Wolf be described as a flesh and blood creature that lived around the NW coast “a long time ago”? Why would that distinction be important? I haven’t found seals, orcas, or otters described as “currently living corporeal animals” anywhere. The idea that Sisiutyl and Thunderbird were actual creatures would have been in question to some people hearing the stories, but the existance of seals, orcas, and otters would have been beyond questioning.

After doing a little interesting research, I keep coming back to the idea that Native Americans must have found remains of ancient creatures and speculated about them, just as we do today. If you look at the skull of the Basilosaurus cetoides, it is hard not to come up with legends of it’s ferocity. If you look at the back of it’s skull, it is easy to see how even a person experienced at butchering sea mammals might imagine something on top of the monster’s head. Did they find complete skeletons in ancient times? That is very hard to know, but I like the idea. It is nearly as interesting as the idea of corporeal sea monsters currently living.

If you are interested in sea monsters that scientists generally believe in, do some searches on ancient, extinct whale species and aquatic dinosaurs. If you’re into lighter fare, check out National Geo’s kid’s special: Sea Monsters, A Prehistoric Adventure.

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5 comments on “See Monsters”

  1. Year: 1734
    Scientist/artist: Hans Egede
    Originally published in: Full and Particular Relation of my Voyage to Greenland, as a Missionary, in the year 1734
    Now appears in: Dragons, Unicorns, and Sea Serpents by Charles Gould
    Egede wrote, “On the 6th of July 1734, when off the south coast of Greenland, a sea-monster appeared to us, whose head, when raised, was on level with our main-top. Its snout was long and sharp, and it blew water almost like a whale; it has large broad paws; its body was covered with scales; its skin was rough and uneven; in other respects it was as a serpent; and when it dived, its tail, which was raised in the air, appeared to be a whole ship’s length from its body.” (lifted from:http://www.strangescience.net/stsea2.htm#cuttlefish)

  2. Year: 1658
    Scientist: Conrad Gesner
    Originally published in: The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents
    Now appears in: Curious Woodcuts of Fanciful and Real Beasts by Conrad Gesner
    One of the beasts rumored to exist in Gesner’s day was the sea wolf. According to the lore of the time, the sea wolf “liveth both on sea and land.” Whether this woodcut shows the creature on sea or land is not obvious, but perhaps a wolf that could live as easily in the sea as it could on land could also walk on water.

  3. The weird European sightings are probably less accurate than the NWCoastal stories. Here’s a pretty good run-down of the Haida myth: http://www.pathgallery.com/itoolkit.asp?pg=SEA_BEAR_OR_SEA_WOLF

  4. The association with Sisiutyl is common, and way off in my opinion. The Sisiutyl is an altogether different kind of monster, with a huge disk-like human face and sea-serpents for arms. It may be loosely based on a giant cephalopod. Most of the Sea-Wolf stories match extinct sea-mammals closely


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