“…the Mer-maid, the great sea snake, of several hundred feet long, and the Kraken whose uncommon size seems to exceed belief”. The Right Rev. Erich Pontoppidan’s unbeleivable natural history of Norway : 1755.
The Danish-Norwegian, Right Rev.d, Erich Pontoppidan (1698 – 1764), was Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Copenhagen as well as an author & a Lutheran Bishop of the Church of Norway in Bergen. He was also a historian and an antiquarian. His legacy to the planet is thought be his Catechism of the Church of Denmark which heavily influenced Danish and Norwegian religious thought and practice for two centuries after its publication in 1737.
If you like the idea of a brisk, natural history hike around Norway in 1755, Erich’s Natural History of Norway, (“Containing a particular and accurate account of the temperature of the air,the different soils, waters, vegetables, metals, minerals, stones, beasts, birds, and fishes : together with the dispositions, customs, and manner of living of the inhabitants : interspersed with physiological notes from eminent writers, and transactions of academics : in two parts.”), makes this almost possible if more than mildly unbelievable.
Before Pontoppidan wrote his Natural History of Norway the sea serpent was a firmly established folk belief in Scandinavia. Pontoppidan changed that. In the book he wrote of “the Mer-maid, the great sea snake, of several hundred feet long, and the Krake(n) whose uncommon size seems to exceed belief.” His avocacy of for these creatures caught the popular imagination of the world. Erich’s sea serpent in particular, really took off as a global mystery & lit the fuse of a cryptozoological debate that would rage on through the 18th and 19th centuries and continue on into the 20th & 21st.
Many Norwegians totally bought into the reality of Pontoppidan’s sea serpent. “I have hardly spoke with any intelligent person” he would say, “who was not happy to give strong assurances of the existence of this Fish.”.
Pontoppidan built his case f or the sea serpentby citing the sheer number of reported sightings of it by “creditable and experienced fishermen, and sailors, in Norway, of which there are hundreds, who can testify that they have actually seen” the sea serpents he created.
He was particularly convinced with eyewitness accounts which he noted “agree very well in the general description,” and, added that “others, who acknowledge that they only know it by report, or by what their neigbors have told them, still realise the same particulars.” In this way Pontoppidan was able to morph old cultural folklore into a solid confirmation of eyewitness.
The Bishop of Bergen was a sucker for his own hype. Some of the more spectacular sightings led him to believe the sea serpents grew up to 600 feet long and had, on their necks “a kind of mane, which looks like a parcel of sea-weeds hanging down to the water.
Pontoppidan hunted down his “evidence” first person accounts of the serpent. He read voraciously, wrote letters and haunted the dockyards, asking questions. “Last Winter,” he wrote “I fell by chance in conversation on this subject with captain Lawrence de Ferry who said he doubted a great while, wheter there was any such creature, til he had the opportunity of being fully convinced, by ocular demonstration, in the year 1746. Though I had nothing material to object, still he was pleased, as a further confirmation of what he advanced, to bring before the magistrates, at a late sessions in the city of Bergen, two sea faring men, who were with him in the boat when he shot one of these monsters.” Ferry wrote a statement and his men swore before the magistrates what they’d “seen”. It had been a calm day at sea said Ferry, when his eight rowers shouted to him that “there was a Sea-snake before us”. His recollection was that he’d ordered his men to row closer to the snake, then “took my gun, that was ready charged, and fired at it.” The animanl dived leaving bloody foam in it’s wake. “The head of this Snake,” Ferry told the magistrates on oath, “which it held more than two feet above the surface of the water, resembled a horse. It had a long white mane that hung down from the neck to the surface of the water. Beside the head and neck, we saw we saw seven or eight folds or coils of this Snake, which was very thick. There was about (six feet) distance between each fold.”