For aeons, puny humans have looked into the Earth’s oceans and rivers and imagined fantastical beasts waiting to terrorise them. Guillermo del Toro is the latest to carry the torch: his 2017 film, The Shape of Water, is the first sea monster flick we’ve seen in a long time, and the first to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. With scaly creatures suddenly back in the spotlight, let’s take a quick look at six of the weirdest water-based monsters from folklore, from island-sized turtles to evil, sexy horses.
The Aztec emperor Ahuizotl was arguably pre-Columbian Mesoamerica’s scariest badass. Between 1486 and 1502, he conquered 45 neighbouring territories, doubling his empire’s size. He also coldly ordered 20,000 people to be sacrificed during renovations to the capital city, Tenochtitlán. So of course this guy would name himself after Aztec mythology’s squickiest monster.
With a name meaning ‘thorny aquatic one’, the ahuizotl looks like a small dog with rubbery black fur that stands up in clumpy spikes, and grabby little hands like those of a monkey or raccoon. According to folklore, it lures you to the water’s edge by imitating a crying baby, then uses the extra hand on its flexible tail to drag you to its underwater cave home. There, the ahuizotl feasts on your teeth, eyes and fingernails. The rest of your body floats to the surface in a few days, otherwise untouched.
In a 1503 letter home to Spain, Christopher Columbus described a vicious creature that attacked a wild boar with its hands and prehensile tail. Was the ahuizotl real? Researchers suggest one possible candidate: the otter. It has oily fur, dexterous paws, and sometimes scavenges the soft meat from drowned bodies. But ‘Emperor Otter’ doesn’t sound quite so intimidating.
Back when monks ran the publishing industry, the line between real and mythological creatures could get pretty blurry. Christian bestiaries were illustrated books that described animals to teach moral lessons from the Bible. One of the earliest, the 2nd-century Physiologus, describes the aspidochelone: a turtle or whale so gigantic that unwitting sailors mistake it for an island and try to camp on it.
To catch its prey, the massive beast employs some clever camouflage: trees grow on its rocky back, which is fringed by sandy beaches. When the mariners moor their boats and start fires to cook a meal, the aspidochelone senses the heat and rapidly submerges, drowning them. Sound familiar? Scholars believe the aspidochelone is an allegory for Satan. He, too, is tricky and deceptive, and if you attach your hopes to him, he’ll drag you to hell.
The aspidochelone has other names, too. In the Irish legend of
St Brendan, the voyaging saint celebrates Easter on the living island of Jasconius. Arabic writers tell of a vast sea-turtle named Zaratan, whom Sinbad the Sailor encounters in the Arabian Nights tales. And to the Inuit of Greenland, a shallow patch meant Imap Umassoursa lurked below, ready to spill sailors to their icy deaths in freezing water.
Mermaids have long been mythologised as aquatic beauties, but the fishtailed males of folklore aren’t nearly as alluring. There’s Triton, son of the Greek ocean god Poseidon. There’s Derek Zoolander’s reminder that moisture is the essence of wetness. And then there’s the adaro from the Solomon Islands: a mean, freaky-looking ghost merman.
In this part of Melanesia, a person’s spirit is said to be divided into aunga (good) and adaro (evil). When someone dies, so does their aunga... but the adaro survives as a merman with gills behind his ears, fins for feet, a horn like a shark’s dorsal fin, and a swordfish-like spear growing out of his head. This looks pretty hectic on the Solomon Islands 10-cent coin.
Adaro live in the sun and travel to earth in rainbows, sunshowers and waterspouts. They hate humans and will shoot passers-by in the neck with poisonous flying fish. Their chief, named Ngorieru, lives off the coast of Makira island, so if you’re passing in a canoe, make sure to dip your paddles very quietly and keep your voice down. Still, there’s a chance the adaro regret their bad behaviour: they’ll also visit your dreams to teach you new songs and dances.
Japan’s rich sea-monster folklore reflects the nation’s precarious position on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Superstitious Japanese mariners dread calm nights the most, for that’s when the giant, black-skinned umibozu emerges to wreck their ships. Umibozu means ‘sea-monk’, because its bulbous head resembles a Buddhist monk’s shaven pate. Some legends even suggest umibozu are the ghosts of drowned priests. But when you sight one, praying will do you no good.
The umibozu is so huge that it creates a sudden storm when it breaches the surface. It’s only ever seen from the shoulders up – its body disappears into shadow. Sometimes, only its face is visible, featureless except for large, round eyes. It looks a lot like a giant octopus.
Sometimes the umibozu brutally destroys the ship, shouting “Kuya! Kuya!” as it staves in the hull in a single blow, or yanks down the ship’s mast. But when it’s feeling whimsical, it demands the crew
give it a barrel, which it then repeatedly fills with water to flood the ship. Clever sailors don’t meekly hand over their own murder weapon, however – they trick the umibozu with a bottomless barrel, so it will scoop away uselessly while they flee.
Lurking in the seas, rivers, lakes and waterfalls of northern Europe are an unholy saddle club of shapeshifting horse-monsters. These include the Welsh Ceffyl Dŵr and the Swedish bäckahäst; but the most bloodthirsty and dangerous water-horse of all is the each-uisge (pronounced ‘ech-ooshkya’) of the Scottish Highlands.
Like its cousin the river kelpie, the each-uisge masquerades as a magnificent, sleek horse standing tamely on the beach or beside a loch. But once you climb on its back, its skin becomes so adhesive you can’t dismount, and it drags you into the water, devouring you with demonic gusto – except your liver, which floats to the surface. Every loch and isle has a resident each-uisge; the silky grey horse of Loch Eigheach (which means ‘Horse Loch’) was said to scream triumphantly as it plunged its prey into the water.
But the each-uisge is a lover as well as a feaster. It likes to impregnate local mares, siring unusually high-spirited foals. And it often lures women by appearing as a studly, charming man – though the water weeds and sand in his hair might give the game away. The moral: if a handsome stranger invites you in for a dip, say neigh.
Tempted to take a nocturnal swim in an Eastern European river? Don’t. You may become the next trophy – or trophy wife – of the vodyanoy, a Slavic slimeball who terrorises the waters, but is completely powerless on land. This flabby frog-man has long greasy green hair, a greenish beard, webbed hands and feet, a fish’s tail and glowing red eyes. The vodyanoy disguises himself as a beautiful riverbank flower or a floating bouquet to lure unsuspecting young women, whom he then drags into the water to become his brides. He also drowns and enslaves anyone foolish enough to bathe after dark, on a holy day, or without first making a sign of the cross.
His Slovenian, Czech and Slovak cousin, the vodnik, is more sophisticated. He looks human – except for the gills and green skin – and he traps the souls of the drowned in cups with porcelain lids, which he proudly displays as a vodnik status symbol. Along with miscellaneous monster business such as drowning people, causing devastating floods and ripping holes in fishermen’s nets, the vodnik likes to play cards, ride catfish and smoke his pipe. Indeed, fishermen seek his help with their catch by sprinkling tobacco in the water.