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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Classical Plesiosaurian Sea-Serpents

The topmost image is a Classical-Age Greek vessel known as The Douris Cup, now housed at the Vatican and portraying what is by now a nonstandard version of the Jason and the Golden Fleece story. In this version it seems the sea-serpent (dragon) Ladon swallows down Jason but coughs him up again, rather as if a re-telling of the story of Jonah and the Whale. The creature is in fact often called a 'whale' or Ketos, which is used mostly in the generic sense of 'Sea Monster'

In this case the creature has a definitive and definite marker of a Plesiosaur, the opening in the skull behind the eye called the Euryapsid skull type and at one time used as the hallmark of that entire division of reptiles (classification is currently disputed and the trait is not seen as anything, which means the various other animals formerly classified together with Plesiosaurs are not now seen as actually close relatives).

Snakes have nothing like this. In fact snake skulls are more nearly a latticework of bony rods and nothing like so solid a skull.

Here is another view of another Ketos from a Roman Marine mosaic. The type of creatures are often shown as strangely long-necked quadrupeds but sometimes only the front limbs are shown. 'Sea horses' are a slight variant and they are sometimes directly called 'sea serpents.' (Of the long-necker variety).

Below is a skeleton of the Plesiosaur Cryptoclidus for comparison. Plesiosaur images are from the invaluable internet resource, Oceans of Kansas.


  1. Had I not read that the image from the Douris Cup was a genuine artifact from Classical Greece (ca. 475 BCE), I would have SWORN it was an Aubrey Beardsley illustration from no more than 120 years ago. An amazing similarity IMO, although my mistake probably has more to do with my sketchy knowledge of art history than any real similarity.

    More to the point, is it simply luck and the imagination of vase-painter Douris which resulted in the serpent-creature resembling a plesiosaur? Maybe a knowledge of fossils helped the artisan, because we know the ancient Greeks' did occasionally find fossils. They thought they were remains of the mythical Titans or some great mythical beasts such as dragons. It would be interesting to know whether Douris had a fossilized plesiosaur for a model for this cup, or whether he relied purely on imagination.

  2. There is a longstanding theory that European dragons were being drawn as reconstructions of Plesiosaurs because of details such as this: this is FAR from an isolated instance. But actually you have the same thing world-wide from various cultures that had no contact with one another and often in places without Plesiosaur fossils. I don't think there are any Plesiosaur fossils to be found anywhere near Greece for example.

    One of the common markers is this exact euryapsid-type skull opening, but another is the depiction of the skeletal structure of a Plesiosaur's flipers. I had made mention of that in an earlier blog for the CFZ in the instance of a depiction in rock art in New Zealand. The matter becomes less a possible chance of reconstruction when it is independantly confirmed many times over world-wide.

    Besides which you also get details in some of the depictions which match modern Water Monster reports, both freshwater and marine in the LongNecker category. The Roman Mosaic in this case shows the "Horns" on the head and many others show a row of "Humps on the back (including some of the possible "Reconstructed Plesiosaur" dragons from Northern Europe.)


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