Sea Serpent of Norway

The Sea Serpent of Norway

Image of the sea serpent of Norway in Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Rome, 1555), p. 771.

They who in Works of Navigation, on the Coasts of Norway, employ themselves in fishing or Merchandise, to all agree in this strange story, that there is a Serpent there which is of a vast magnitude, namely 200 foot long, and more over 20 foot thick; and is wont to live in Rocks and Caves toward the Sea-cost about Berge: which will go alone from his holes in a clear night, in Summer, and devour Calves, Lambs, and Hogs, or else he goes into the Sea to feed on Polypus, Locusts, and all sorts of Sea-Crabs. He had commonly hair hanging from his neck a Cubit long, and sharp Scales, and is black, and he hath flaming shining eys. This Snake disquiets the Shippers, and he puts up his head on high like a pillar, and catcheth away men, and he devours them; and this hapneth not, but it signifies some wonderful changes of the Kingdom near at hand; namely that the Princes shall die, or be banished; or some Tumultous Wars shall presently follow.[1]

This extract, from a 1658 translation of Worth’s copy of Olaus Magnus’ Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Rome, 1555), is one of the first descriptions of the Norwegian Sea Serpent. It was composed by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), Roman Catholic archbishop of Uppsala and Primate of Sweden during his sojourn in Rome, and was printed there just two years before his death. Olaus Magnus had succeeded his brother Johannes Magnus (1588-1644), as archbishop but in reality he and his brother had had little power since the Lutheran reformation in Sweden had taken hold only a few years after the appointment of former as archbishop. Olaus therefore had more time to spend on research and his principal project was the compilation of a work on the history and folktales of Sweden. This story is from that work.

Image of the Sea Serpent of Norway in Conrad Gessner, Historiae Animalium (Frankfurt, 1620), iv, p. 866.

Olaus’ text proved to a publishing success. Heavily illustrated with fascinating tales, it was soon used as a source book for other writers of the period. Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), in his Historiae Animalium, printed in 1558, used the same image and was heavily dependent on Olaus Magnus for his discussion of sea creatures, thus further popularising Olaus’ strange account of the Norwegian serpent.[2] Gessner’s image proved to the basis for Joannes Jonstonus (1603-1675), who included ‘Serpens Marinus Mari Norvegico familiaris Aldr.’ in his book on serpents. As the following image demonstrates, Jonstonus’ Norwegian Sea Serpent was the mirror image of that of Gessner, minus the ship being attacked.

Image of the sea serpent of Norway in Joannes Jonstonus, Historiae naturalis: De serpentibus (Amsterdam, 1657), Tab. IX.

But exactly what was Olaus describing? The answer to this question has been much disputed and lies at the root of late nineteenth-century works such as Antoon Cornelis Oudemans’ The Great Sea Serpent (1882), and Henry Lee’s Sea Monsters Unmasked (London, 1883). Oudemans discounted the relations of the sea serpent eating ‘Calves, Lambs, and Hogs’ and thought it unlikely that it was capable of plucking a man from a ship.[3] He suggested that these elements of the story had been borrowed from tales told about the Kraken, an octopus-like monster. However, unlike Lee, who identified the creature as a huge calamary, Oudemans was adamant that Olaus and his draughtsman had sought to represent a large snake, scales and all.[4]

But for Olaus Magnus the sea serpent’s true meaning lay elsewhere for this wasn’t the only sighting of a sea serpent in Norwegian waters. In 1522, a tumultuous year in Scandinavian history, another monster was sighted. Olaus gives us the following information:

There is also another Serpent of an incredible magnitude in a Town, called Moos, or the Diocese of Hammer; which, as a Comet portends a change in all the World, so, that portends a change in the Kingdom of Norway, as it was seen, Anno 1522, that lifts himself high above the Waters, and rouls himself round like a sphere. This Serpent was thought to be fifty Cubits long by conjecture, by sight afar off: there followed this the banishment of King Christiernus, and a great persecution of the Bishops; and it shew’d also the destruction of the Countrey.[5]

Was this another appearance of the Norwegian Sea Serpent or an entirely separate entity? Aldrovandi, who relies heavily on both Olaus and Gessner in his account, concludes that it was one and the same and Jonstonus, following all three earlier authorities, agrees. For Olaus Magnus, the appearance of the Moos sea serpent in 1522 was obviously a portent of the terrifying political events of that year. Christian II (1481-1559), King of Denmark and Norway, had sought to extend his rule over Sweden under the Kalmar Union, leading to a war with Sweden lasting from 1518 to 1520. Though initially victorious, his subsequent massacre of leading Swedish nobles at the Stockholm Bloodbath (in November of 1520), led to unrest and by 1521 Sweden was in open revolt. By 1523 Christian II had been forced into exile. Perhaps the creature was meant to be read as a metaphorical representation of Christian II, King of Denmark and Norway and putative ruler of Sweden.


Constantino, Grace, ‘Five ‘Real’ Sea Monsters Brought to Life by Early Naturalists’. The 27 October 2014.

Jonstonus, Joannes, Historiae Naturalis. De serpentibus (Amsterdam, 1657).

Kusukawa, Sachiko, ‘The sources of Gessner’s pictures for the Historia animalium’, Annals of Science, 67: 3 (2010), 303-328.

Lee, Henry, Sea Monsters Unmasked (London, 1883).

Magnus, Olaus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Rome, 1555).

Magnus, Olaus, A Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes, & Vandals and Other Northern Nations (London, 1658).

Nigg, Joseph ‘Olaus Magnus’ Sea Serpent’ in The Public Domain Review.

Oudemans, Antoon Cornelis, The Great Sea Serpent (Leiden and London, 1892).

Van Duzer, Chet, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London, 2013).

Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

[1] Olaus Magnus, A Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes, & Vandals and Other Northern Nations (London, 1658), p. 235. This translation is not in the Worth Library,

[2] Sachiko Kusukawa, ‘The sources of Gessner’s pictures for the Historia animalium’, Annals of Science, 67:  3 (2010), 303-328.

[3] Antoon Cornelis Oudemans, The Great Sea Serpent (Leiden and London, 1892), p. 91.

[4] Henry Lee, Sea Monsters Unmasked (London, 1883), p. 59.

[5] Olaus Magnus, A Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes, & Vandals and Other Northern Nations (London, 1658), p. 235.