Spouting, snorting and snapping, the giant sea creatures we call leviathans have fascinated landlubbers since the biblical whale swallowed Jonah, and the myth-making Greeks gave them starring roles. They terrify us and in some cases beguile us, but we can’t get enough. No one worries too much about Homer’s Scylla and Charybdis these days; instead we set our sights on Nessie, great white sharks and a bona fide sea monster, the giant squid.
Moby-Dick hasn’t been the same since Steven Spielberg. It’s almost impossible to read this novel, one of the greats of American literature, without thinking of the riveting adventure film Jaws. Both stories carry all sorts of archetypal meaning, but the whiff of a blood-and-guts battle against scary sea creatures is what really compels us. Herman Melville’s protagonist Captain Ahab is obsessed with getting revenge on the giant white whale that chomped off his leg. He is reborn in Jaws as Quint (Robert Shaw), a grizzled sea dog and survivor of a World War II–era shark feeding frenzy. At the end [spoiler alert] of Moby-Dick Ahab becomes entangled in his harpoon line and, lashed to the back of his leviathan nemesis, is whisked to the briny depths. Quint meets his maker when he slides down the sloping deck of a sinking boat into the gaping maw of a great white shark.
So influential is Moby-Dick that scientists who, in 2008, discovered fossilized remains of a 58-foot predatory, carnivorous whale from 13 million years ago—with a skull nearly 10 feet long and teeth more than a foot in length—named the specimen Leviathan melvillei.
Jaws, like Moby-Dick, is a boys’ club, the story of three mismatched mates who set out to battle against nature and tame their inner demons. Even the sharp-toothed antagonist is one of the boys, referred to as “this guy” and a “son of a bitch.”
Although not generally giants, mermaids bring big female wiles and sex appeal to the high seas. They’re usually sensuous creatures, with the comely visage, flowing locks and curvaceous torso of great beauties. Hans Christian Andersen put a chaste spin on the species in “The Little Mermaid,” but most mermaids are dangerous femmes fatales. In Greek legend, the Sirens lure sailors to their death in rocky shoals. Thessalonike, half-sister of Alexander the Great, was said to swim the seas as a mermaid after her brother’s death and ask passing sailors, “Is Alexander the king alive?” Any negative answer turned the beauty into a serpent-headed, ship-sinking gorgon. In German folklore, a maiden called the Lorelei basks on the rocks alongside a treacherous stretch of the Rhine River and distracts passing boatmen, while Slavic rusalki, zombie-like fish-women, dance in riverside meadows to entice handsome men into deadly waters. For such lethal maidens, beauty is only scale deep.
Vampires and supernatural creatures are all the rage today, so it’s little wonder millions watched Animal Planet’s Mermaids: The Body Found in 2012. And many gullible viewers fell for the hoax, as alleged scientists presented faked videos and other evidence “proving” mermaids exist. The creatures in the footage look like the result of a union between E.T. and a Na’vi from Avatar, so it’s comforting to know they won’t be swimming up alongside us anytime soon.
Fact is often much less alluring than fiction. A number of “sea monsters” have turned out to be nothing more fanciful than shark corpses or the blubber of decomposing sperm whales. One genuine leviathan capable of stirring the imagination, however, is the giant squid; some specimens have measured 43 feet long. They were most likely models for the legendary Norse kraken—a huge sea monster that sinks ships—and for the epic beast that terrorizes the submarine Nautilus in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, not to mention the Watcher in the Water in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy The Fellowship of the Ring. Real-life footage of these elusive monsters, taken by Japanese scientists in recent years, is as captivating as any fictional account.
Herman Melville’s leviathan is a sperm whale, the world’s largest toothed creature, which can measure as long as 85 feet and weigh up to 57 tons. The climactic encounter between Moby Dick and the Pequod at the center of Melville’s novel is based on fact: the 1820 sinking of the Massachusetts whaling ship Essex by a sperm whale.
Sperm whales feed largely on giant squid. The squid’s only known predator, a whale can dive to depths greater than a mile to capture its prey. Tales of sperm whales entangled in tentacles are mostly apocryphal, though whales are often observed with scars left along their hide, consistent with injuries a squid’s huge suckers could inflict. A giant squid appears in Moby-Dick, but there’s no leviathan death match. The Pequod was sailing on smooth seas when “a great white mass lazily rose…and at last gleamed before our prow like a snow-slide.” In a portent of the ship’s fate, Captain Ahab tells his crew, “Almost rather had I seen Moby Dick and fought him, than to have seen thee, thou white ghost!” Asked for more, Ahab continues, “Few whale-ships ever beheld [it], and returned to their ports to tell of it.”
In the early chapters of Moby-Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, attends a service at the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Father Mapple delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon recounting the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, punctuated by a hymn with these lyrics: “The ribs and terrors in the whale, / Arched over me a dismal gloom, / While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by, / And lift me deepening down to doom.” Here, scripture portends the action to come in Moby-Dick. Yet Jonah’s whale is ultimately beneficent, saving the prophet from drowning and vomiting him up safely on shore, while Moby Dick is bent on destruction.
The whale Ahab pursues is more like the leviathan described in the Book of Job 41 (25–34): “When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid…the arrow cannot make him flee…he laugheth at the shaking of a spear…he maketh the deep to boil like a pot: He maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.” Most notably, he “is a king over all the children of pride,” just as proud Ahab’s obsession with vengeance leads him to his final encounter with Moby Dick.
The story of a man swallowed whole by a whale appears in the Old and New Testaments and the Qur’an. Jonah later entered sailors’ lore to denote a person who brings a ship bad luck, just as the biblical leviathan, once the name of a specific creature, now refers metaphorically to any sea monster or, less poetically, a whale.
Leviathans appear several times in scripture, most frighteningly in the book of Job (40–41). There God introduces the beleaguered Job first to a land-dwelling monster, the behemoth, who “moveth his tail like a cedar,” and then the leviathan, whose “teeth are terrible round about. His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal.… His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.… He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary.” Biblical scholars have hypothesized the leviathan is a crocodile, a sea-dwelling dinosaur, a prehistoric plesiosaur or simply a fanciful creation. In any case, God shows Job these giants he has created to demonstrate divine power: Only God can capture and subdue them. Because humans can never aspire to such feats, they should not question God’s will.
Artists have depicted leviathans since ancient times, when sea monsters appeared on the seafaring Greeks’ vases. The Bible inspired later artists. British Romantic poet and printmaker William Blake created acclaimed engravings and watercolors from the book of Job, including one design of a powerful behemoth and fearsome leviathan. It shows God, looking bored, corralling the two dulled giants into nearly a yin-yang shape of bestial monstrosity. French engraver Gustave Doré took his dramatic Destruction of the Leviathan (1865) from Isaiah 27:1 (“the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan”); the image shows a giant sea serpent writhing on its back, submitting to God, comparatively tiny but safe on a cloud.
Giant squid have also had their moments in the artistic spotlight, wrapping their tentacles around sailing ships in 19th-century American engravings and scrimshaw (whale-ivory) carvings. They are also the most terrifying monsters in illustrations from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). In the novel’s bloodiest underwater battle, crewmembers of the submarine Nautilus attack a school of vicious ink-squirting giants—poulpes, in French—the largest about 25 feet long. The tentacle of one encircles an unfortunate sailor and pulls him to his death.
Ancient literature brings us not only the biblical leviathan but the seven-headed sea serpent of Sumerian myth and the many sea monsters of Homeric legend. In the Odyssey, Scylla and Charybdis reside across from one another in a narrow channel. Scylla has 12 tentacle-like legs, six heads and 18 rows of sharp teeth. Charybdis is a huge bladder with flippers and an enormous maw that sucks in and spits out great quantities of seawater. Odysseus must sail between them, the ancient equivalent of being caught between a rock and a hard place. He steers clear of Charybdis, who would swamp his ship, but when he sails close to Scylla, she devours six of his men.
The most intriguing contemporary leviathan is the more placid Loch Ness monster, infrequently sighted in Scotland’s largest body of water. Some believe “Nessie” belongs to a holdover line of plesiosaurs from the Mesozoic era or perhaps is just an eel or a seal. Some naturalists say present-day beliefs in lake monsters like Nessie arise from legends of the kelpies, water horses from Celtic folklore that can transform into women and lure children into the water to eat them.