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Dredging the Deep

Written By Avra Margariti

Avra Margariti is a queer author and Pushcart-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Strange Horizons, F&SF, The Deadlands, Vastarien, and Reckoning. Avra lives and studies in Athens, Greece. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).

What is the sea but an abyss better left undisturbed? And still, we try to explore the depths of the oceans, fear mingling with fascination as we catalogue and photograph the bioluminescent, spiny creatures that live in pelagic depths where the light doesn’t follow but life, strangely, blooms. Despite bodies of saltwater covering 70% of the planet, only 5% of the seas and oceans have been explored. The Marianas Trench stretches deeper undersea than Mt. Everest is tall.

Is it any wonder such strange myths and legends arise from the drowning deep?

Here are some of them from Greece:

The Yiousouri Tree

According to Greek folklore believed by sailors and fishermen, there is a tree growing from the floor of the sea—though it would be more accurate to call it an animal, since it is a living organism—and that darkwood, fragrant tree of twisting spires and digging roots is capable of providing the cure to all ills. The yiousouri can even change or inhibit the natural process of life and death—but supplicants must catch the tree sleeping, or risk being impaled by its sharp branches when they dive to steal a piece of the miraculous yiousouri wood.

The Cetus

Best known from the myth of Perseus and Andromeda, the Cetus is a giant sea monster (interestingly enough, in modern Greek, the word “ketos” refers to any sort of marina mammal, most commonly the whale) summoned by Poseidon. Andromeda was a young princess meant to be sacrificed to the sea beast after her mother, Queen Cassiopeia, bragged that her daughter was more beautiful than a sea nymph. Perseus slayed the beast and saved Andromeda from the rock she was chained to surrounded by sea water. Another interesting fact: this happened right after Perseus had beheaded Medusa, the mythical hero killing one female figure, and then going on to save another.

Ghosts of the Drowned

Greek islands such as Kalymnos in the Aegean sea used to have a prosperous economy selling sea sponges across the Mediterranean. Before the invention of protective suits and oxygen pumps, divers used the skin-diving method: they fell into the water naked, sunk to the bottom with the help of the skandalopetra (a heavy stone weighing them down), and cut the sponges loose with their knives for as long as they could hold their breaths. The profession was a dangerous one, which led to many accidents underwater. Later, once the diving suit was used, it introduced a newer complication: decompression sickness, also known as diver’s disease, which made the sponge collectors more prone to drowning. Legend has it, their spirits still lie entangled underwater with the sponges and seaweed.

Scylla and Charybdis

Best known from Homer’s Odyssey, each monster occupies one side of a strait, acting as each other’s counterparts. Scylla was said to have once been a beautiful water nymph before she was turned into a monster by bathing in poison. Her counterpart Charybdis inhaled and exhaled large amounts of water, which created whirlpools that drowned passing ships. Scylla and Charybdis have a symbiotic relationship as they hunt together: if a ship moves along the strait to escape Scylla, the vessel comes within range of Charybdis, and the opposite.

“Between Scylla and Charybdis” is a phrase synonymous with “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” which both arise from a marine metaphor, solidifying the historical danger of sea travel faced by both sailors and their vessels.

The Mermaid Madonna

Sailors are a superstitious sort. As a result, the numinous and the esoteric couldn’t be missing from a life touched by the sea. Superstitions of monstrous constellations, patron saints guiding sailors home, and maidens who live in the water and lead ships astray are numerous. A rarer manifestation of a local, niche folk figure is The Mermaid Madonna (η Παναγιά Γοργόνα). There is a tiny chapel in Lesbos, set upon a steep rock facing the sea. Inside, a mural of the Virgin Mary has been painted by an unknown artist centuries ago. That mural depicts Mary as having a scaly mermaid’s tail.

Ichthyocentaurs

Literally: fish centaurs. These mythical creatures had the head and upper torso of a human, the legs of a horse, and the tail of a fish (although sometimes they were also portrayed having the claws of a crab or lobster). The name ichthyocentaur was given to them much later, but the creatures appeared in Classical mosaics and sculptures for centuries without proper classification. The two best known sea centaurs are Aphros and Bythos, which are the personification of sea foam, and of the deep. It’s unclear whether the creatures were considered dangerous sea demons, or apotropaic deities during the creation of their mosaics.

Often, the sea and its mysteries inspire more awe than even the idea of space exploration itself. In that aspect, sea and space are very similar: they remain vast, and every effort to cartograph them is only a single drop in an abyss of possibilities.

So it makes sense for humans to want to populate that abyss with legends of monsters and ghosts, in an effort to understand the impossible, salt-stained and waterlogged.