Variations: Muirgris (erroneously); Sínach, Sinech; Píast Uiscide (“Water Beast”); Úath (“Horror”)


Fergus mac Léti, the King of Ulster, was an inveterate swimmer. Captured while sleeping by water-spirits, the lúchorpáin or “small bodies” (actually the first appearance of leprechauns), he was awoken by the cold water they tried to carry him into. This allowed him to turn the tables on his would-be captors, and he seized three of the lúchorpáin. Fergus demanded that the sprites grant him three wishes: the ability to breathe underwater in seas, pools, and lakes.

The sprites granted him his wish, in the form of enchanted earplugs and a tunic to wear around his head. But like all wishes granted by the Fair Folk, it came with a caveat. Fergus was not to use his gifts at Loch Rudraige (Dundrum Bay) in his own land of Ulster.

Of course, Fergus arrogantly disregards the rule and swims underwater at Loch Rudraige anyway. There he encounters the Muirdris, the “Sea Bramble” or “Sea Briar”, a huge, mysterious, undefined horror that inflates and deflates, expands and contracts like a bellows. It has features of a thorn-bush, with branches and stings, and its appearance alone is deadly.

Fergus does not take well to his encounter with the muirdris, and he is horribly disfigured after seeing it, with his mouth moving to the back of his head. His courtiers are dismayed, as a man with a blemish cannot be king, but they somehow keep this defacement a secret from Fergus for seven years. They prevent him from accessing mirrors, and surround him only with people who will protect the king’s deformity. He finds out only after Dorn, a highborn slave, taunts him about it after he strikes her with a whip. She is bisected for her troubles, and Fergus goes to face his nemesis alone.

The battle between Fergus and the muirdris lasts a day and a night, during which the water of the loch bubbles like a giant cauldron. Finally Fergus slays the monster with his bare hands, and emerges from the loch holding its head in triumph – only to collapse and die from the ordeal.

A thirteenth-century retelling of Fergus’ tribulations renames the monster sínach or sinech. In this version, it is the king’s wife who reveals his secret after an argument.

The muirdris is a monster, but is it rooted in fact? Surely the expansion and contraction, the comparison to a thornbush, and the disfiguring stings strongly suggest a large jellyfish, perhaps the lion’s mane jellyfish.


Borsje, J. (1996) From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts. Brepols Publishers, Turnhout.

MacKillop, J. (2005) Myths and Legends of the Celts. Penguin Books, London.


Variations: Sverdhvalur, Sword-whale, Swordwhale; Sverðfiskur, Sverðfiskar, Sverðfiskr (Sword-fish); Sverðurinn (Sworder); Brúnfiskur, Brún-fiskur (Brown-fish); Sveifarfiskur (Crank-fish); Slambakur (Slap-whale); Staurhvalur (Stump-whale); Einbægslingur (One-fin); Haskerðingur (High-Fin; potentially the basking shark or the swordwhale); Killer Whale, Orca, Swordfish


The Sverðhvalur (“Swordwhale”) or Sverðfiskur (“Swordfish”) is one of the illhveli, or “evil whales” that lurk off the coast of Iceland. Like the other evil whales, it is unfit for eating, and the steypireyður or blue whale is its mortal enemy.

The sverðhvalur’s most distinctive feature is the sharp bony fin growing out of its back. This fin is 3-12 cubits (1.5-6 meters) tall. The sverðhvalur is about the size of a sperm whale at the largest, and its spouting is short and heavy. Its face is owlish in appearance, with a pointed snout and a large mouth set with vicious teeth. If the brúnfiskur (“brown-fish”) is one of its many aliases, it can be assumed to be brown in color, but another account describes it as grey.

The sverðhvalur is a fast swimmer, and beats the water on either side of it with its fin when agitated. It is often accompanied by a smaller whale – perhaps its offspring – that swims under its pectoral fin and feeds on its scraps. The bladed dorsal fin is used as a weapon, and a sverðhvalur will swim underneath good whales to cut their bellies open with crisscross slashes. Whales will beach themselves rather than suffer a sverðhvalur’s attack. Sverðhvalurs are also wasteful eaters, choosing to eat only the tongue of cetacean prey and leaving the rest to rot. Boats are treated in the same way as whales are, with the dorsal fin punching holes through hulls or slicing cleanly through smaller boats and sailors alike.

Other encounters, especially with larger vessels, are more harmful for the whale. A trading ship sailing from eastern Iceland to Copenhagen came to a stop in the middle of a large pod of whales, and suddenly felt a strong tug coming from below. When the ship moored in Copenhagen, a large fish’s tusk was found sticking out of the hull.

Another sverðfiskur followed a boat off Eyjafjörður, and gave up the chase only after a gun was fired into its gaping mouth.

The term sverðfiskur or sverðfiskr (“sword-fish”) has been used to refer to the swordfish, the sawfish, and the killer whale. The basking shark and the killer whale have also been accused of slicing through ships and eviscerating whales with their fins, and it is the killer whale or “swordwhale” that appears to be the sverðhvalur’s ancestor.


Anderson, P. (1955) Bibliography of Scandinavian Philology XXIV. Acta Philologica Scandinavica, Ejnar Munksgaard, Copenhagen.

Árnason, J.; Powell, G. E. J. and Magnússon, E. trans. (1866) Icelandic Legends, Second Series. Longmans, Green, and Co., London.

Davidsson, O. (1900) The Folk-lore of Icelandic Fishes. The Scottish Review, October, pp. 312-332.

Hermansson, H. (1924) Jon Gudmundsson and his Natural History of Iceland. Islandica, Cornell University Library, Ithaca.

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.

Davy Jones

Variations: David Jones

Davy Jones final

Where there is the sea, there will be Davy Jones. He is the demon of the ocean, the proprietor of Davy Jones’ Locker where all drowned sailors go. Originally from British tales, he has since been expanding his influence across the ocean; as long as sailors fear the deep, this “blackguard hell’s baby” will continue to exist.

There is no limit to the shapes Davy Jones can appear in. He is the whale, the shark, the whirlpool, the giant squid, the hurricane, all the fears of sailors. He has been described with huge saucer eyes, triple rows of teeth, a tail, and horns, with blue smoke pouring from his nostrils. When the sailors of the Cachalot landed an enormous, barnacle-crusted bull sperm whale with a twisted lower jaw, some of them declared they had killed Davy Jones himself.

Davy Jones rules over the lesser demons and spirits of the sea, and they do his bidding. He can be seen in various forms on the rigging of doomed ships, gleefully announcing their impending destruction. All who die at sea and sink to the bottom of the ocean – Davy Jones’ Locker – are his.

The first literary appearance of Davy Jones was in Defoe’s Four Years Voyages, as a passing remark. The origin of the name is unknown. One unlikely possibility is a corruption of Duffy Jonah, the ghost (Duppy) of the Biblical Jonah associated with storms at sea. Another possibility is that he was based on a real person. There was a sailor, mutineer, and eventual pirate by the name of David Jones in the early 1600s, and the Locker may have been expression he was fond of. Unfortunately there is no fully convincing explanation for the origin and etymology of Davy Jones.


Bullen, F. T. (1906) The Cruise of the Cachalot. MacMillan and Co., London.

Defoe, D. (1726) The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts. A. Bettesworth, London.

Smith, A. The Perils of the Sea: Fish, Flesh, and Fiend. In Davidson, H. E. and Chaudhri, A. (2001) Supernatural Enemies. Carolina Academic Press, Durham.

Smollett, T. (1882) The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle. George Routledge and Sons, London.


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.


Variations: Arragousset, Sarregouset, Sarragouset

Arragouset 2

Jean Letocq, a shepherd on the west coast of Guernsey, woke up one morning to see hundreds of little people streaming out of the Creux des Fées (Fairies’ Hollow). They were armed to the teeth, carrying weapons made of sharpened shells. They told the man to bear their message: they wished to take human wives, and would be strongly displeased if women were not turned over to them. This ultimatum was refused, and so the fairies slaughtered every last man they encountered, dying the sea red with blood. The only survivors, a man and a boy of St. Andrew’s parish, hid in an abandoned oven for years.

They were the Arragousets, or Sarregousets as Hugo called them. We know that they were bellicose fairies of the sea, dwelling underwater and in seaside caves, ruling their own marine kingdom. One of their number once took a human woman for his wife, and her beauty and wit so enamored the other fairies that they had to follow suit.

With the men safely massacred, the Arragousets put down the sword and went native. They married the maidens and the newly-widowed, and lived peacefully on land. They made caring husbands and doting fathers, to the extent that the widows warmed to them, and the maidens were delighted with their fairy lovers.

Then, after years of peace, they disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. The circumstances remain mysterious. Sébillot suggests that they were recalled by their king, while MacCulloch states that their time on land was limited. Whatever the reason, all the Arragousets left the island and were never seen again.

Or rather, they went invisible, as their presence remained on Guernsey. They sired a new generation of boys and girls – intelligent, able sailors of small stature – and they returned regularly to watch over them. They did a hundred little favors in the hopes of finishing the work they had started. Arragousets are always ready to help their descendants, but they are pitiless in dealing with offenders.

Hugo said they can still be seen on stormy days, dancing in the clouds and longing to return to the land.


Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1992) La Grande Encyclopédie des Lutins. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Hugo, V. (1866) Les Travailleurs de la Mer. Librairie Internationale, Paris.

MacCulloch, E. (1903) Guernsey Folk Lore. Elliot Stock, London.

Sébillot, P. (1905) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Deuxième: La Mer et les Eaux Douces. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.


Variations: Caspilli, Neemora (Persian)


The Caspilly is a “marvelously large, and strong” fish from the Indian Ocean, described by Ambroise Paré on the basis of two separate accounts by André Thevet.

Thevet placed it in the Arabian Gulf (which may just as well be the Red Sea as the Persian Gulf), saying that it is known to the Arabs as caspilly, and to the Persians as neemora. The caspilly is almost as wide as it is long, but no more than two feet long. It has no scales, and its skin is spiky and barbed like that of a shark. On its forehead is a lancet-like spine, a foot and a half in length, that it keeps tucked along its nape. When it is hungry, it goes for the first fish it sees, stabbing it in the belly with its horn until its prey bleeds to death. Its teeth are venomous and bites are deadly. Applying a dead caspilly to a bite, on the other hand, will cure it. The horn is of great medicinal value, and caspilly are shot with arrows from a safe distance to retrieve such a prize.

Thevet also reports a nameless fish from the Peruvian sea, with a swordlike horn three feet long. This fish is a specialized whale killer. Upon seeing a whale, the fish will hide underneath before stabbing it in the navel with its horn, leaving the whale to writhe in its death throes and capsize nearby ships. Once the whale is dead, it can be eaten at leisure.

Paré economically combines both accounts, giving the caspilly a four-foot-long horn and making it the terror of the Arabian sea. He adds that the Arabs of the region hunt caspillys with giant hooks baited with camel meat. Any caspilly who greedily takes the bait will tire itself out on the line, eventually slowing down enough to be shot with arrows, brought onto ship, and bludgeoned to death. Caspilly flesh is edible, and caspilly alicorn is just as potent against venom as that of the unicorn.

In all likelihood the Caspilly was born from accounts of swordfish and killer whales, contaminated by lionfish and porcupinefish. The venomous bite may have been derived from the famed toxicity of pufferfish. Aldrovandi cautiously included it with his Herinaceus marinus, the porcupinefish, as Herinaceus arabus, the Arab hedgehog.


Aldrovandi, U. (1642) Monstrorum historia cum Paralipomenis historiae omnium animalium. Bononiae.

Paré, A. (1582) Discours d’Ambroise Paré – De la Licorne. Gabriel Buon, Paris.

Paré, A. (1614) Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré. Nicolas Buon, Paris.

Thevet, A. (1575) La Cosmographie Universelle. Guillaume Chaudiere, Paris.