Image of a mermaid and merman from Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia: cum paralipomenis historiæ omnium animalium. Bartholomæus Ambrosinus … labore, et studio volumen composuit; Marcus Antonius Bernia in lucem edidit (Bologna, 1642), p. 354.
Edward Worth’s library contains images of many different types of sea creatures. As this woodcut from his copy of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum historia (Bologna, 1642) demonstrates, some of these offer us new, unfamiliar, images of ‘familiar’ mythical creatures such as mermaids and mermen. Worth was fascinated by all things scientific and had a wonderful library of natural history books. As might be expected, much of this concentrated on animals of the known world, but writers such as Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), and Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), also included in their monumental works on the natural world discussions of animals which were decidedly more difficult to categorize. Both scholars were fascinated not only by mythical creatures of the ancient world, but were naturally drawn to the strange discoveries of their own time. They thus included both representations and scholarly critiques of the Sea Monk and Sea Bishop.
Worth’s books also include related sea creatures, such as sea serpents (also known as sea dragons). Following Aldrovandi we have placed stories about such sea serpents as the Sea Serpent of Norway in our ‘Dragons’ section, but the Hydra of old may be found in the ‘Ancient World’ section of this exhibition. If dragons might be found in the earth and sky then, to the early modern mind, it was likely that the sea harboured their watery equivalent.
Image of the ‘Devil Whale’ in Conrad Gessner, Historiae Animalium (Frankfurt, 1620), iv, p. 119.
When they drew nigh to the nearest island, the boat stopped ere they reached a landing-place; and the saint ordered the brethren to get out into the sea, and make the vessel fast, stem and stern, until they came to some harbour; there was no grass on the island, very little wood, and no sand on the shore. While the brethren spent the night in prayer outside the vessel, the saint remained in it, for he knew well what manner of island was this; but he wished not to tell the brethren, lest they might be too much afraid. When morning dawned, he bade the priests to celebrate Mass, and after they had done so, and he himself had said Mass in the boat, the brethren took out some un–cooked meat and fish they had brought from the other island, and put a cauldron on a fire to cook them, After they had placed more fuel on the fire, and the cauldron began to boil, the island moved about like a wave; whereupon they all rushed towards the boat, and implored the protection of their father, who, taking each one by the hand, drew them all into the vessel; then relinquishing what they had removed to the island, they cast their boat loose, to sail away, when the island at once sunk into the ocean.
This excerpt, from St Brendan the Navigator’s famous account of his sea journey, was evidently popular in the early modern period. Brendan and his monks had called the creature ‘Jasconius’, but it was later given a more sinister name, the ‘Devil Whale’. An image of the ‘Devil Whale’ is included in Worth’s copy of Gessner’s Historiae animalium, where we see the whale understandably enraged by the sailors trying to cook a meal on its back! It isn’t hard to understand the imaginative leap between a large sea creature such as a sperm whale, and its more mythical variants such as the terrifying ‘Devil Whale’. As this charming map of Ireland from Raffaelo Savonarola’s Universus Terrarum Orbis Scriptorum Calamo Delineatus (Padua, 1713), reminds us, some of these unusual sea creatures were even said to lurk off the coast of Ireland!
Sea creatures in a map of Ireland in Raffaelo Savonarola, Universus Terrarum Orbis Scriptorum Calamo Delineatus (Padua, 1713), i, p. 495.
Aldrovandi, Ulisse, Monstrorum historia: cum paralipomenis historiæ omnium animalium. Bartholomæus Ambrosinus … labore, et studio volumen composuit; Marcus Antonius Bernia in lucem edidit (Bologna, 1642).
Anon, Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis [The Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot], translated by Denis O’Donoughue (1893).
Constantino, Grace, ‘A Whale of a Tale’, Biodiversity Heritage Library Blog, 28 October 2014.
Gessner, Conrad, Historiae Animalium (Frankfurt, 1620).
Savonarola, Raffaelo, Universus Terrarum Orbis Scriptorum Calamo Delineatus (Padua, 1713).
Van Duzer, Chet, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London, 2013).
Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
 Chet Van Duzer, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London, 2013), p. 9.
 Anon, Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis [The Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot], translated by Denis O’Donoughue (1893).