Variations: Ziph, Ziphio, Ziphij, Xiphia, Xiphias, Zyffwal


The Ziphius is a huge and horrifying sea monster, reportedly found in northern seas and near the Scandinavian coast. It resembles a whale in shape and size, but with a viciously sharp beak and terrifying bulging eyes. The beak and bristly hair around the head and neck combine to give it an owlish appearance. The ziphius also has a pointed dorsal fin, paw-like flippers, and horizontal stripes down its length. It is a carnivore, feeding on seals and sailors alike.

The Ortus Sanitatis gives it four fully-formed legs and tail, making it look more like a beaked lion or even a hedgehog. Olaus Magnus describes its hideous, beaked head, comparing it to an owl (or a toad in the French translation). It has a deep maw, horrid large eyes, and a knife-like dorsal fin used to tear holes in ships. Gessner compared it to the physeterus. Munster showed it swallowing a sea calf, and emphasizes the fact that it is horrible.

Today Ziphius refers to the harmless and rarely seen Cuvier’s beaked whale. Killer whales probably were a more significant contribution to the image of the ziphius, as were swordfishes – ziphius is derived from xiphias, or sword.

De Montfort interpreted the ziphius differently. As it had a hooked beak and blazing eyes, he believed that it must have been a distortion of the giant squid or kraken.


van Duzer, C. (2013) Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps. The British Library, London.

Gessner, C. (1560) Nomenclator aquatilium animantium. Christoph Froschoverus.

Magnus, O. (1555) Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. Giovanni M. Viotto, Rome.

Magnus, O. (1561) Histoire des pays septentrionaus. Christophle Plantin, Antwerp.

de Montfort, P. D. (1801) Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particuliere des Mollusques, Tome Second. F. Dufart, Paris.

Munster, S. (1552) La Cosmographie Universelle. Henry Pierre.

Unknown. (1538) Ortus Sanitatis. Joannes de Cereto de Tridino.