Thevet tells of a West Indian fish called the Tebuch, Thébuch, or Pontarof, which means “robber fish” or “evil fish”.
A pontarof is the size of a porpoise or bigger, but not as long. Its round head is human in appearance except for the ears, which are four fingers longer than human ears. They are permanently extended from the head. The fins of the pontarof are the largest fins Thevet had seen.
The pontarof earned its name from its cruel behavior. A pontarof will wait in the water until a child enters the river to bathe, whereupon the fish immediately seizes them. It doesn’t eat the child, but toys with them like a cat with a mouse, wrapping its fins around them, tossing them into the air, holding them with its tail… Eventually this grisly game drowns the child, and the pontarof bores and releases it. For this reason, the natives of the land despise pontarofs and will hunt and kill them wherever they are seen. Pontarof meat is not eaten.
De Montfort believed the pontarof to be some kind of octopus. It seems more likely that it was a manta ray. The human-like face, “ears”, and huge fins are all reminiscent of mantas, which have long had a bad reputation.
de Montfort, P. D. (1801) Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particuliere des Mollusques, Tome Second. F. Dufart, Paris.
Thevet, A. (1575) La Cosmographie Universelle. Guillaume Chaudiere, Paris.
The Nykur or Nennir is the water-horse of Iceland. It is found across the island in association with pools, lakes, ponds, rivers, and the sea, and accounts of its misdeeds date as far back as the Book of Settlements. Its name follows the naming tradition of water-creatures across northern Europe, including the Baltic Nixa, the Germanic Nixy, and the Netherlandish Nikker. Suggested etymologies for this naming group include Nick (as in Old Nick, the devil), an Indo-Germanic root meaning “black” or “dark” (compare Latin niger, for instance), or nihhus, an Old High German word for crocodile.
A nykur is a horse, usually grey in color, with reversed hooves. Coat variations include dapple grey and black, but pink, white, yellow, and grey with a dark streak on the back have been reported. Red cheeks are possible, as is a blaze that gives the impression of a single eye. The mane may be of a different color. The neck is short. The hooves are uncloven, and the tufts on the pasterns also point backwards. It will not allow anyone to inspect its hooves. A nykur can change shape at will, although shapeshifting is not a major part of its myth. It has been said to also appear as a wild, unmilkable cow with reversed hooves, or as a giant salmon or other fish. In the Elenarljóð ballad, the nykur takes on the form of a handsome young man to woo the heroine in hopes of drowning her. More monstrous appearances include twelve-legged forms, or massive, stout beasts with dragging bellies, protruding heads, and skin hanging in heavy folds.
Nykurs are malicious and cruel creatures. They present themselves as tame, friendly horses, but anyone who mounts them will find themselves sticking to the nykur’s back, as if held fast by glue. The nykur then gallops wildly off into the sea, plunging its rider into the water and drowning them. Nykurs will also break the ice on lakes to drown people ice-fishing. The booming sound of breaking ice is said to be the neighing of the nykur.
Nykurs beget foals with normal mares, but only if they are in the water. Horses descended from nykurs will lie down and roll over whenever ridden or led through water as high as their bellies.
As long as there is no water within sight, it is safe to ride a nykur. If a nykur is detected in the vicinity of a body of water, it should be scared off to prevent potential disaster. Nykurs hate fire, and keeping a fire burning nearby for a whole day will make it move elsewhere. They also avoid holy water.
With the right approach, a nykur can be caught, tamed, and forced to work. There is a swelling under a nykur’s left shoulder. If the swelling is punctured, the nykur becomes safe to ride, and loses its harmful nature, but the lump may return with time.
Nykurs hate to hear their name. If they hear the word nykur or nennir – or indeed, any word similar to it – they buck and shy and gallop away into the water. They also dread hearing the names of God and the Devil, and the sound of church bells; making the sign of the cross also repels them. A shepherd girl who prepared to mount a nykur exclaimed “Eg nenni ekki á bak!” (“I don’t feel like getting on its back!” Hearing the word nenni, the nennir galloped away and vanished into a lake. In another tale, a group of children mounted a nykur, but the oldest and wisest child held back, saying “I don’t feel like getting on its back”. The nykur ran off with its riders and drowned them, leaving the eldest to tell the sad tale. The heroine of the Elenarljóð ballad has a similar stroke of homophonic luck.
Butter-lake Heath, in the east of Iceland, got its name from a nykur-related incident. A servant girl left a farm to sell butter in the village of Vopnafjörthur. Along the way she grew tired, and was grateful to find a tame grey horse standing unattended. She mounted the horse and continued along her way, but the moment the horse saw the nearest lake, it dashed into it, drowning the girl. Thus the lake earned the name of Butter Lake, and the surrounding heath became Butter-lake Heath.
The nykur of Svarfathardale, near to the northern town of Akureyri, was known to live in deep pools by the river. The inhabitants of the village chased it off by building fires around the pools and throwing burning coals into the river all day. The nykur was scared off, and there have been no drownings since.
In Grimsey it was said that a nykur lived in the sea and neighed every time the islanders returned to the mainland for a cow. The neigh of the nykur drove the cows mad, causing them to jump into the sea and drown. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the people of Grimsey dared keep cows on the island.
There are places all over Iceland named for the nykur, from Nykurborg to Nykurvatn.
Árnason, J.; Powell, G. E. J. and Magnússon, E. trans. (1864) Icelandic Legends. Richard Bentley, London.
Benwell, G. and Waugh, A. (1961) Sea Enchantress: The Tale of the Mermaid and her Kin. Hutchinson, London.
van Hageland, A. (1973) La Mer Magique. Marabout, Paris.
Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.
Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.
Simpson, J. (1972) Icelandic Folktales and Legends. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
Stefánsson, V. (1906) Icelandic Beast and Bird Lore. The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 19, no. 75, pp. 300-308.
The Sazae-oni was first formally described by Toriyama Sekien in his first volume on “The Illustrated Horde of Haunted Housewares”. He gives it a philosophical origin, stating that if sparrows become shells and moles become quails, surely it was possible for a sazae – a horned turban shell – to become an oni. So he dreamed.
Reference is made to the 72 Seasons, namely a mid-October season where “sparrows become clams” and a mid-April season where “moles emerge as quails”. The former is based on an old wives’ tale that sparrows become clams to hibernate in winter, while the latter is a poetic description of animals coming out of hibernation.
Sekien’s illustration shows a sinuous sluglike creature with humanoid arms emerging from a large horned turban shell. The head is a spiky shell with protruding eyeballs, and seaweed is draped around the neck.
Sekien, T.; Alt, M. and Yoda, H. eds. (2017) Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien. Dover Publications, New York.
Variations: Ro, Bete-Rô, Bete-Ro, Bete Rô, Bete Ro (Rô Beast)
The Rô Beast lived in a cavern at the Pointe de Roux, off Aytré near La Rochelle. A hideous dragon with a winged body and a long scaly tail, Rô was also armed with a malign, near-human intelligence. It used its cunning to lay traps for humans and devour them. It was feared across the coastline, and none could stand against it.
But the reign of Rô was ended by seven pagan heroes that arrived on a boat by high tide. They had come to judge Rô. Panicking, the dragon retreated to the Pont de la Pierre, keeping its eyes on its tormentors. There, the heroes loosed seven arrows: two closed its eyes, two pierced its ears, two sealed its nostrils, and one pinned its horrid mouth shut. Roaring and thrashing in agony, Rô was cast into a deep pit, where it will remain until the end of time. The seven pagan heroes took their places as guardians around the pit where Rô thrashed impotently.
Rô still lives, screaming its rage from its prison. When it howls to the north, the gulf of Chevarache in the Breton Pertuis is agitated with waves; when it howls to the south, it’s Maumusson that stirs. The old folk say that it’s a good thing it doesn’t turn to the west, for the islands would turn to dust.
The legend of the Rô beast seems to have grown around the local landscape. The Pont de la Pierre was a ruined cromlech. Seven granite stones (now gone) around a deep pit were said to have been the heroes’ seats of justice. The image of Rô was recognized in the arch of the principal portal of the Church of Talmont, although it may just as well be the lion of Ezekiel.
Who were the pagan heroes? The image of warriors from the sea evokes Vikings, but it may be a relic of an older Gaulish legend of gods arriving from the sea. As for the name Rô, Dontenville saw in it a corruption of an older pagan deity.
Dontenville, H. (1966) La France Mythologique. Tchou, Paris.
Lamontellerie, A. (1995) Mythologie de Charente-Maritime. Le Croit Vif, Collection Documentaires.
Sébillot, P. (1905) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Deuxième: La Mer et les Eaux Douces. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.
Variations: Moha, Great Barrier Sea-serpent, Great Barrier Reef Sea-serpent, Chelosauria lovelli
The Moha-Moha was seen on a beach on Great Sandy Island by schoolteacher Selina Lovell and a small group of accompanying people on June 8, 1890. It was, however, familiar to the natives of the region by the name moha-moha, “dangerous turtle”. It was known to attack coastal camps and catch people by the leg. By January 3, 1891, details of the encounter were published in Land and Water. This in turn resulted in a more formal description by William Saville-Kent, who requested further details from Lovell and gave the creature the name of Chelosauria lovelli.
A “monster turtle fish”, the moha-moha was 30 feet long, with an enormous dome-shaped body, a long neck, and a twelve-foot-long tail. It allowed Lovell to observe it for half an hour while standing five feet away from it. Then it turned towards the sea, raising its body and tail above the water and tossing a number of fish into the air before dashing off into deeper water.
The moha-moha had a saurian face, with teeth or serrated jaw-bones. The skin was glossy and smooth as satin. It had its mouth open and visible above the water, and no visible nostrils, leading Lovell to conclude that it breathed through its mouth. The rounded jaws were 18 inches long. The head and neck were a greenish white with white spots on the neck and a white band around a very black eye.
The dome-shaped carapace, about 8 feet across by 5 feet high, was slate-grey in color and smooth. The long tail was silver shading to white with thumb-nail sized scales and a chocolate-brown fin. The scales lay perpendicular to the tail, like the tiles of a roof. The head and tail were very different from each other, looking like they had come from two different animals. Lovell was unable to see the feet, but she was told that the moha-moha had feet like an alligator.
Whatever it was that Lovell saw, she was immediately treated with condescension. Buckland, editor of Land and Water, believed the moha-moha to have been a Carettochelys, “a monster turtle” from the Fly River (despite the fact that Carettochelys does not exceed 30 inches in length). He added that “the fair observer must have been mistaken on this very important point”. Lovell responded indignantly, but the editor stood by his statement, making it clear that the moha-moha combined fish and tortoise and thus was scientifically impossible.
To Saville-Kent, Lovell sent a confirming document signed by her and all the witnesses present. But Saville-Kent’s description of the moha-moha takes on a mocking tone, recommending using it as “the chief ingredient… of a new and alderman-enthralling brand of turtle soup”. It won’t be long before moha-moha is on restaurant menus, and the “Queensland brand-new, soup-potential species should possess “a local habitation and a name” that shall separate it decisively from the common herd of sea-serpents that have already had their day”.
Heuvelmans took a very negative view of the moha-moha, which all the more remarkable considering his unquestioning acceptance of far more ambiguous sightings. He refers to the “innocence and ineptitude” of the parties involved, and states that “with all due respect to her sex, [Lovell] can only be an arrant liar, and a bad liar at that”, accusing her of “psychotic behavior” and “mythomania”. He proceeds to discredit her account, pointing out that no animal has scales like the moha-moha. “One pities her poor pupils, for her own style is often so confused as to be incomprehensible”, he adds snidely. He compares its shelled, fish-like appearance to both armored Devonian fishes and the Indian makara. “I find it hard to believe that Miss Lovell was not a dotty old maid who had picked up, but not digested, a smattering of palaeontology and Brahmin legend. Exit Chelosauria lovelli.”
What, then, did Lovell see on that beach in 1890? Most telling is the remark that the head and tail do not seem to belong on the same animal. France suggests a turtle entangled in a fishing net, with the mesh and its contents – broken floats, brown seaweed, and other debris – giving the impression of a long tail. Unfamiliarity and the unreliability of recollection did the rest. Native accounts of moha-moha attacks and ferocity may refer to other animals, perhaps seals.
France, R. L. (2016) Historicity of sea turtles misidentified as sea monsters: a case for the early entanglement of marine chelonians in pre-plastic fishing nets and maritime debris. Coriolis, 6(2), pp. 1-25.
France, R. L. (2017) Imaginary sea monsters and real environmental threats: reconsidering the famous Osborne, ‘Moha-Moha’, Valhalla, and ‘Soay Beast’ sightings of unidentified marine objects. International Review of Environmental History, 3(1), pp. 63-100.
Heuvelmans, B.; Garnett, R. trans. (1968) In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents.
Saville-Kent, W. (1893) The Great Barrier Reef of Australia. W. H. Allen & Co., Waterloo Place, London.
Nakshatra Meenu means “sea star” or “brittle star” in the Kannada language of Karnataka, India.
In the 16th century, an army of giant brittle stars came out of the sea to invade the land. The biggest among them had arms that were 4 meters long; they killed people by coiling an arm around the neck, another arm around the feet, and tearing them in half. The brittle stars could also separate their arms from their main bodies, sending the disembodied arms into human buildings where they strangled anyone they encountered. The detached arms would later regenerate.
They faced the armies of the Vijayanagara Empire, who fought the echinoderm invaders fiercely. The brittle stars were finally sent into retreat in 1514, under a barrage of flaming arrows.
It has been suggested that the gentle Yam Bhaya Akhoot of Chittorgarh is actually the ghost of the leader of the brittle stars.
Bhairav, J. F. and Khanna, R. (2020) Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India. Blaft Publications, Chennai.
The tale of Kusa Kap is told on the islands of Dauan and Mabuiag in the Torres Strait. The primary difference is the setting of the events and the name of the fisherman – Maiwasa in Mabuiag, Kaudab in Dauan. Of the two, the Dauan account is more detailed and is the primary source here.
Kaudab was a successful and handsome young dugong hunter from Dauan. He was recently married to Bakar, a woman so beautiful she was expected to never leave the house. But he had also attracted the attention of Giz. Giz was a dogai, a cunning female spirit with long ears and the ability to shapeshift. Giz would spend long hours desiring the beautiful red-headed man for herself, and she was so jealous that she wouldn’t leave him out of her sight. Giz could not tolerate Bakar’s existence.
One day, as Bakar was looking for octopus, Giz dove into a rockpool and turned herself into an octopus. Bakar had never seen an octopus before, and she leaned over the pool to try to grab it, only for Giz to grab her in her tentacles and pull her underwater. Bakar knew immediately that this was no ordinary octopus, but a dogai in disguise, and screamed to Kaudab for help – but alas, he was too far away to hear her.
This was only the beginning of Giz’s revenge. She pulled Bakar through Apangabia-taian, the tunnel beneath the sea, and took her to the island of Kusar, near New Guinea. There she abandoned the young bride before returning to Kaudab’s home and transforming into Bakar herself. When Kaudab came home, Giz tried to prepare food for him, but she did not know how to do so, burning her fingers on the coals, cackling wildly, and breaking wind crudely with every movement. Thus Kaudab knew his wife had been replaced by a dogai.
Bakar, meanwhile, was alone on a deserted island. There was nothing to eat beside kusa seeds (kapul). She became pregnant as a result, and eventually laid an egg like that of a sea-eagle’s. It hatched into a baby eagle that she cared for with as much love as if it had been a human child. She named the bird Kusa Kap after the kusa seeds that had conceived him.
With Bakar’s care Kusa Kap grew quickly. His first attempts to fly were clumsy, but soon his wings were strong enough to carry him to the tops of trees. In time he was strong enough to fly to Daudai and bring back coal, string, bark, and a bamboo knife, which Bakar used to get a fire going so she could start cooking food.
The next day Kusa Kap saw a dugong for the first time. He seized it in his talons and carried it off for Bakar to cook. In time he was capturing many dugong, sending the surplus to Pösipas.
Finally Bakar told her son to go to Dauan, and gave him directions to find Kaudab’s house. He informed him of Bakar’s plight by responding to his questions with nods, and directed Kaudab to Bakar’s island by alighting on the mast of his canoe and guiding him. Before long Bakar and Kaudab were joyfully reunited again.
The only thing left was Giz, and Kusa Kap swooped onto her and carried her off in his talons. After torturing her at length by dropping and recapturing her, he let go of her far away from Dauan. She plunged into the sea and turned to stone, becoming Dogail Malu, the dogai sea.
There is a final twist to the tale of Kusa Kap. In the account of New Guinea given by d’Albertis, he is informed by his traveling companions of a gigantic bird, some 16 to 22 feet in wingspan, whose wings make a noise like a steam engine. It lives around the Mai Kusa river. He adds that the natives have seen it carry dugongs into the air. He rejects the claims and later shoots a red-necked hornbill, which is a large bird that makes a strange noise in flight; he succeeded in convincing two or three of his companions that this was, in fact, the bird in question.
Either way, despite Kusa Kap being described as an eagle, Haddon identifies the red-necked hornbill as the origin of the Kusa Kap legend on the basis of its dugong-snatching activities.
d’Albertis, L. M. (1881) New Guinea: What I Did and What I Saw, v. I. Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, Boston.
d’Albertis, L. M. (1881) New Guinea: What I Did and What I Saw, v. II. Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, Boston.
Haddon, A. C. (1904) Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, v. V: Sociology, Magic, and Religion of the Western Islanders. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Lawrie, M. (1970) Myths and Legends of Torres Strait. University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia.
The Kúbání-kikáva reef in Papua New Guinea is home to Pairío, an enormous catfish. She attacks anyone who dares approach the reef by raising up her back, which is armed with spines that can rip a canoe in half. If people see a spine sticking out of the water, they know to change course as fast as possible. Sometimes Pairío will chase after those canoes, one of her spines pointing at the vessel, and the crew have to paddle for their lives.
Pairío herself was not always a catfish. She was once a malignant female spirit known to the islanders as a dógai-órobo, something like the híwai-abére of mainland Papua New Guinea. Her home was on Márukára Island. One day she was attacked by a cloud of butterflies which she could not shoo away; they settled on her thickly until she was completely covered. In desperation she threw herself into the water, where she transformed into a catfish. The butterflies clinging to her soaked through, their wings became hard and spiny, and they turned into stonefishes and catfishes as brightly colored as any butterfly.
Landtman, G. (1917) The Folk-tales of the Kiwai Papuans. Acta Societatis Scientiarium Fennicae, t. XLVII, Helsingfors.
Landtman, G. (1927) The Kiwai Papuans of British New Guinea. MacMillan and Co. Limited, London.
According to Spencer, the term amixsak refers to any skin covering, such as the covering of an umiak or kayak. A modern Yupik dictionary gives amiq as meaning “skin” and amirkaq as a sealskin ready for use; the latter may be a more correct term.
When hunting a walrus, it is traditional to butcher the carcass on the ice and take as much as possible back home. If any amount of meat and skin has to be abandoned, the carcass must be given fresh water to drink and the skin must be dissected. If the skin is left behind on the ice, it will sink and become an amixsak, a vengeful monster. An amixsak will come up under an umiak, reach its flippers over the gunwales, and pull the boat under.
Removing the skin covering the flippers on a carcass prevents this danger.
Jacobson, S. A. ed. (2012) Yup’ik Eskimo Dictionary, v. I. Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Spencer, R. F. (1959) The North Alaskan Eskimo; a study in ecology and society. United States Government Printing Office, Washington.
The Itqiirpak or Fireball is a creature from Alaskan Yupik folklore, notably from the Scammon Bay area. It appears as a crimson fireball flickering in the West over the sea, or, more alarmingly, as a big hand from the ocean with a mouth on each fingertip and a single large mouth in the palm of the hand.
An itqiirpak is a bad omen. It appears before terrible disasters, or it disposes of troublemakers directly.
A male itqiirpak was said to have burned through the entrance of a qasgiq (men’s house) and killed bad-mannered children there. It caught the children and dragged them out to eat them; all that could be heard was the crunching of their bones as the itqiirpak devoured them. When the men returned they saw the itqiirpak jumping up and down on the ice, looking like a fire. The monster was then slain by the men who left a swinging blade-trap for it. The female-hand remained at large and appeared whenever people were to die.
More modern itqiirpak stories tell of the fireball appearing before tragedies in the community, such as the drowning of two children in the Kun River in 2007. Simon saw the itqiirpak as a metaphor for tragedy and a cultural explanation for inexplicable tragedy.
Jacobson, S. A. ed. (2012) Yup’ik Eskimo Dictionary, v. I. Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Simon, K. A. The Meaning and Use of Narratives in a Central Yup’ik Community: The Scammon Bay ‘Fireball Story’. In Daveluy, M.; Lévesque, F.; and Ferguson, J. (eds.) (2011) Humanizing Security in the Arctic. CCI Press, Edmonton.