The version of the Russian merman-depicting lubok that was sent to me by Robert Schneck (public domain)
On 18 August 2015, Facebook friend Robert Schneck kindly brought to my attention on my FB timeline a fascinating illustration that I had never seen before, and which opens this current ShukerNature blog article. As far as I am aware, it has not previously attracted any notable cryptozoological attention, so I've been conducting some investigations into it, whose findings I am now presenting here as follows.
The illustration is a Russian lubok, which, to quote from the Wikipedia entry for such images, is:
"…a Russian popular print, characterized by simple graphics and narratives derived from literature, religious stories and popular tales. Lubki prints were used as decoration in houses and inns. Early examples from the late 17th and early 18th centuries were woodcuts, then engravings or etchings were typical, and from the mid-19th century lithography…Folklorist Dmitri Rovinsky is known for his work with categorizing lubok. His system is very detailed and extensive, and his main categories are as follows: "icons and Gospel illustrations; the virtues and evils of women; teaching, alphabets, and numbers; calendars and almanacs; light reading; novels, folktales, and hero legends; stories of the Passion of Christ, the Last Judgement, and sufferings of the martyrs; popular recreation including Maslenitsa festivities, puppet comedies, drunkenness, music, dancing, and theatricals; jokes and satires related to Ivan the Terrible and Peter I; satires adopted from foreign sources; folk prayers; and government sponsored pictorial information sheets, including proclamations and news items". Jewish examples exist as well, mostly from Ukraine. Many luboks can be classified into multiple categories."
The lubok under discussion here shows what appears to be some form of merman-like entity (though with hind limbs instead of a single fish-tail) that had been netted at sea, but no doubt some details concerning this case were contained in the Cyrillic-script text included above the lubok's image. Seeking a translation of this text online, I came upon a very extensive one on professional artist Aeron Alfrey's Monster Brains blog (click here).
It stated that the merman lubok's text did indeed describe a strange aquatic humanoid, one which had been caught in Spain, and that the image had been created by an anonymous folk artist in 1739. What was particularly interesting, however, was that this blog then provided not just a translation of the text, but also a version of the merman lubok that contained additional Cyrillic text underneath the image – text that was not present in the version that Robert had found and sent to me – thus explaining why the translation was so lengthy. So here is this more detailed version of the merman lubok:
Incidentally, the source of both the lubok with additional text and the translation of it as presented on Monster Brains was given by this latter blog as http://www.rollins.edu/Foreign_Lang/Russian/Lubok/lubnews.html– but this page can no longer be found online. Meanwhile, here is the translation of the full text as provided by the Monster Brains blog:
"A copy [of the news] from the Spanish town of Vigo from the 6th of April. The fishermen of the village of Fustin (Enfesta?) caught a sea monster or the so-called water man and with great difficulty dragged him by force in the net ashore. This amazing and rarely seen monstrum or sea wonder is from head to foot about 6 feet tall. Its head resembles a stake and is so smooth that it does not have even one hair on the top, only at the bottom it has a beard with long strands. The skin on its head and on the whole body is black and in some places covered with thin hair. The neck of this water old man is extremely long and the body unusually long and thick but in many respects it resembles the human body. The forearms and arms are very short, the palms are quite short, while the fingers are very long and up to the first joint, like a goose's feet, they are grown together and from there they go like human fingers. Its extraordinarily long nails resemble animals' and even though this monstrosity has low hanging breasts, it is, by all indications, of masculine gender. Its loins are short and grown together to the knees, and the shins are not very long either, but they are separated. Even though its feet are quite similar to human, the large toes hang quite close to each other like duck's feet. On its heels it has fish's scales, and on the skin of its back at the very bottom a bone has grown. A fin sticking out from it is just like a woman's fan, about 12 inches long, and when it opens it reaches even more than 12 inches. This was excerpted from the printed St. Petersburg News, received on the 20th of May of this, 1739, year, and the above news were reported in the No. 41."
I subsequently found this same translation and version of the merman lubok on another site, The Hermitage (click here), which is artist Rina Staines's Tumblr blog. She credits the translation to the same no-longer-available page source as Aeron's Monster Brains did, but additionally names the translator himself as one Alexander Boguslawski, and dates his translation as being from the year 1999. (Incidentally, call me paranoid, but in view of the highly mysterious nature of the entity depicted in this particular lubok, I do wish that the translator's surname had not included 'Bogus' in it!)
As can be readily seen, both the verbal description and the visual depiction of this entity reveal an exceedingly bizarre being – one so bizarre, in fact, that it is difficult to know how to assess it. Could it be some grossly-deformed human, perhaps? Or might it be a sea creature of known species but whose form has been distorted out of all recognition by some woefully-inaccurate verbal description spawned by the Chinese whispers syndrome from source to documentation, and illustrated by someone who did not see the creature itself but was instead entirely reliant upon the mutilated verbal account resulting from the Chinese whispers syndrome? Or is it possible that it truly was some extraordinary entity of a type still unknown to science – a veritable merbeing?
Regarding the option of this alleged merman being a severely deformed human: its cone-shaped head might have been an indication of microcephaly, as exhibited by certain individuals on record who have been dubbed 'pinheads'; its scaly skin may have been a possible allusion to ichthyosis; and its conjoined loins to the knees is a trait of sirenomelia, the so-called mermaid syndrome. However, it would surely be very unlikely (as well as exceedingly unlucky and unfortunate) for any one person to exhibit all of these very different, congenitally unrelated, and morphologically extreme conditions.
In any case, the single most outstanding morphological feature described for this entity is without doubt its apparent tail fin, depicted as a very large, multi-coloured, fan-like structure and described in similar vein too. If that feature is genuine, and could indeed open and close as claimed in the description, then we can evidently eliminate a teratological human from further consideration, because I cannot envisage how any congenital condition, however extreme, could create a structure even vaguely reminiscent of this fin.
Another scaly merman-like entity with hind limbs, as documented in The Animal Book, written by famous Italian humanist and Renaissance author Pietro Candido Decembrio (1399-1477), commissioned by Ludovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, and published in 1460, with its illustrations added during the next century – click here for more anomalous entities featured in this book (public domain)
Could the lubok have resulted from a much-distorted description of some known (but possibly not overly familiar?) sea beast? There is no doubt that the medieval and Renaissance bestiaries are full of grotesque illustrations of beasts known to modern-day science but not so familiar to layman observers back then. Yet even if so, it would surely require a truly massive stretch of the imagination and all but entirely unrestrained, unlimited powers of mis-description to yield a bipedal humanoid being with a conical cranium, four limbs, and a huge caudal tail fin from anything as zoologically mundane as a pinniped, cetacean, sirenian, or shark, for instance.
As for it constituting a bona fide merman: I have documented elsewhere on ShukerNature (click here) some very intriguing cases of mysterious carcases that have been put forward at one time or another as evidence for the reality of merfolk, and which, if the descriptions of such carcases were accurate (none of them, tragically, was retained or scientifically examined), cannot be readily identified with any known marine life-forms. Consequently, although I freely admit that the reality of such entities is very remote, I am loathe to discount entirely the possible existence of some kind of specialised sea-dwelling mammal that bears a superficial resemblance to the fabled mermaids and mermen of classical legend.
Of course, there is also a fourth possible explanation, and which may well be the most plausible – namely, that the entire report was a journalistic hoax, or at the very least merely a relocated rehash of some earlier account from the annals of early natural history. In relation to this latter prospect, when he sent me the abridged version of the merman lubok Robert mentioned that the entity's pointed head reminded him of the sea bishop.
Lovers of bestiaries will be very familiar with this latter creature and its scaly-skinned image, which, in the tradition of bestiary and proto-encyclopaedia compilers for many centuries, has been reproduced with minor variations in numerous works dating from the mid-1500s onwards.
As far as I can tell, the sea bishop's earliest documentation was in French naturalist French Belon's work De Aquatilibus (1553), followed a year later by French marine biological researcher Guillaume Rondelet in his own tome Libri de Piscibus Marinis (1554), where he recorded a sighting of it from 1531 in the Baltic Sea off Poland by physician Gisbertus Germanus. Rondelet's work also contained an illustration of this sea bishop, but perhaps the most famous depiction of it appeared in 1558, as an engraving in the fourth volume of Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner's monumental multi-volume, 4500-page Historia Animalium (1553-1558):
This extraordinary sea monster was portrayed as a highly anthropomorphic humanoid-fish composite, and its sighting in 1531 was during Gesner's own lifetime (1516-1565). However, there is some confusion as to the creature's subsequent fate (not documented by Gesner).
Some sources state that it was captured alive and taken to the King of Poland, who wished to keep it, and was also shown to a group of Catholic bishops, to whom it gestured, appealing to be released, whereupon the bishops granted its wish and the creature in return made the sign of the Cross before disappearing back into the sea. (If nothing else, this is an interesting example not merely of ecclesiastical solidarity but also of the popular belief dating back as far as the time of Plato, 428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC, that everything on land has a counterpart in the sea.) Other sources, conversely, document a sadder, less familiar end for the sea bishop, claiming it was actually caught off Germany, not Poland, and died in captivity three days later after refusing to eat (but I wonder if this story's differing location may originate from some confusion involving the name of its eyewitness, Gisbertus Germanus?).
Another well known version of the classic sea bishop illustration appeared in Johann Zahn's Specula Physico-Mathematico-Historica Notabilium ac Mirabilium Sciendorum (1696):
There is no doubt that the Spanish merman portrayed in the Russian lubok is reminiscent of the Baltic sea bishop, especially if the latter's billowing fin-like cloak is equated with the merman's fan-like caudal fin:
So if the sea bishop may provide a precedent of sorts, or possibly even a direct source or inspiration, for the Spanish merman, what might the sea bishop itself have been?
In his magnum opus, Gesner had also included an engraving and description of another mysterious 'human fish', the so-called sea monk. Again, this had been previously documented by Rondelet in his Libri de Piscibus Marinis, and by Belon in De Aquatilibus, but it was Gesner's coverage of it that first brought this creature to widespread attention. Here is Gesner's engraving:
This marine monster had allegedly been caught off Norway according to Gesner (or in the Øresund, the strait separating Sweden from the eastern coast of the large Danish island of Zealand, according to some other sources) in 1546, once again during Gesner's own lifetime, but its carcase was not retained; instead it was swiftly buried as an abomination on the orders of the Danish king, Christian IIII. In subsequent centuries, however, it has attracted (and still attracts today) considerable interest and controversy as to what it may have been.
Japetus Steenstrup's comparison of two versions of the sea monk engraving with, at centre, a giant squid (public domain)
Identities that have been proffered by various researchers include a giant squid (by 19th-Century Danish zoologist Japetus Steenstrup and more recently by giant squid chronicler Richard Ellis), an angel shark Squatina squatina (a large, dorsoventrally flattened species commonly dubbed a monkfish after its superficially monk-like form, proposed in 2005 by St Andrews University ecologist/mathematician Dr Charles Paxton and co-researcher Dr Robert Holland from the Freshwater Biological Association), a walrus (by veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans), and various species of phocid seal.
Yet whereas I can see points in favour for each of the above creatures as identity contenders for the sea monk, I can see none for any of them as identity contenders for the sea bishop.
The angel shark or monkfish Squatina squatina, vintage illustration from 1877 (public domain)
As with the sea monk, I have encountered various attempts to reconcile the sea bishop with some form of squid. Yet even if we equate the sea bishop's markedly pointed head with the pointed rear portion of a squid's body, its two hefty-thighed legs are a poor substitute for the ten long slender arms and tentacles of a squid – unless we can envisage a squid whose eight shorter arms are united and obscured within some form of web-like interconnecting membrane, thereby explaining the bishop's cloak, with the latter's two legs being the longer prey-capturing tentacles of the squid?
Alternatively, bearing in mind that it was meant to be a sea bishop, might this creature's very pointed head have simply been an exaggerated (or even a completely fabricated) description, in order to provide it with an equivalent of sorts to a real bishop's mitre? It's all very tenuous, to say the least, and offers even less likelihood as a reasonable explanation for the Spanish merman with its caudal fanned fin.
In an interesting Folklore journal paper from 1975, W.M.S. Russell and F.S. Russell proposed that the sea bishop may actually have been a skilfully executed gaff along the lines of the Jenny Haniver. In their paper, they revealed how they had actually created a couple of Jenny Hanivers in the form of sea bishops, using two small alcohol-preserved specimens of the thornback skate Raja clavata.
A much-reproduced engraving of a Jenny Haniver, from Ulisee Aldrovandi's tome Monstrorum Historia (1642) (public domain)
For now, however, in the absence of any tangible evidence for their identities, both the sea bishop engraving and the Russian lubok's Spanish merman remain pictorial enigmas, which may bear little if any resemblance to the original creature(s) that they depict – always assuming of course that any such creature ever existed to begin with!
I plan to pursue the Spanish merman now via a different route, investigating whether other, preferably Spanish reports of its alleged capture exist – any discoveries will be included here as updates.
My sincere thanks to Robert Schneck for kindly bringing the Russsian merman lubok to my attention.