Monsters of the Deep

Medici Tigurini Historiae Animalium, Liber III, qui est de Piscium & Aquatiliom NaturaConrad Gesner, C.1558

Historia Aimalium

This illustration is drawn from the pioneering zoological work of the Swiss doctor Conrad Gesner (1516-65). Gesner edited classical texts and translated Greek works into Latin. He was an extremely important figure in scientific development, and this book Historia Aimalium(1551-8) is the most important zoological treatise of its time (Garland, 1986; 294).

Prior to the Renaissance, students of natural history were reliant upon Medieval Bestiaries which were dedicated to demonstrating that each part of creation contained within it a useful lesson, from which sinful humans could well profit (Barber and Riches, 1971; 6).

The sixteenth century brought with it an attempt to disregard these sources and concentrate on classical sources. The Historia Animalium was Gesner's attempt to produce a systematic body of knowledge about the natural world.

However, illustrators were often depicting animals which they had never seen or encountered, and they relied on artists’ portrayals or written and verbal records (Knight, 1977; 14). Indeed, Gesner's work was drawn from the writings of some older contemporaries; notably those of Pierre Belon and Rondelet, and the Scandinavian historian Olaus Magnus (Knight, 1977; 77- 78).

The hydra, of Greek mythology, which is pictured here in Gesner's Historia Animalium, has varying descriptions depending on the source. The most frequent, however, is as seen here; a dog-like body with seven serpentine heads, one of which is immortal. It is said that the hydra's breath is poisonous, and it looks so hideous that it caused most people to die of fear from simply seeing it (Topsell, 1967 [1658]; 735-736; Barber and Riches, 1971; 88-89; Knight, 1977; 15).

The destruction of the hydra was the second of Hercules labours. The hydra lived in Lerna, which is where Hercules found it, next to the springs of Amymone. Each time Hercules cut off one of the heads, several new heads would spring from the root of the old so in order to defeat it, Hercules burnt the remaining stump. When the hydra was eventually killed, Hercules dipped his arrows in the gall of the hydra, and his arrows became deadly poisonous.

In the sixteenth century the sea was, and to an extent still is today, an alien environment, largely incomprehensible and impenetrable to the human eye. Pictorial representations of sea creatures therefore stress visual imaginations. Until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries travellers’ tales were the main source of information about much of the world. In the context of this exhibition, the hydra represents the journey, the myth and the encounter. Without the records of travellers the hydra would exist, in the sixteenth century, only as legend. However, because of those journeying to the far reaches of the earth, the myth was kept alive, the hydra seeming very real in many people's minds. Thus the hydra also represents firstly the excitement of experiencing the unknown; secondly, the fear of encountering such 'devils of the deep blue sea', which must have been at the very heart of early explorers; and finally, the later discovery that such creatures did not exist in physical form.

Sarah Daligan


Barber, R and A. Riches, 1971 A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts Ipswich; The Boydell Press

Knight, D. 1977 Zoological Illustrations; an essay towards a history of printed zoological pictures. Folkestone; Dawson

Garland, M. 1986 The Oxford Companion to German Literature Oxford; OxfordUniversity Press

Gesner, C. 1558 Conradi Gesneri Medici Tigurini historiae Animalium Liber IIII qui est de Piscium & Aquatilium Animantium Natura.

Topsell, E, 1967 (1658) The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects. Volume II. New York; Da Capo Press