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Thursday, 11 August 2011

Long-Necked Sea Serpents In The Viking Age

Long-Necked (and Maned) Sea Serpents In The Viking Age

In his 1555 work History of the Northern Peoples, Olaus Magnus gives the premier description of the Norwegian sea serpent:

Those who sail up along the coast of Norway to trade or to fish, all tell the remarkable story of how a serpent of fearsome size, 200 feet long and 20 feet wide, resides in rifts and caves outside Bergen. On bright summer nights this serpent leaves the caves to eat calves, lambs and pigs, or it fares out to the sea and feeds on lobsters, crabs cuttlefish and similar marine animals. It has hair an ell-long hanging from its neck, sharp black scales and flaming red eyes. It attacks vessels, grabs and swallows people, as it lifts itself up like a column from the water

The Viking-Age Sea Serpent was known as Drekei (Sea Dragon) and the biggest and most powerful of the Viking longships were meant to resemble them. These ships were known as Drekar and although records of them survive, archaeologists are not certain they have discovered any good examples of ships of the type from their diggings. They have been reconstructed in more recent times from the remaining records. The biggest ships of this type were much over a hundred feet wide and some were twenty feet wide. It is possible that Olaus Magnus was giving the dimensions of a ship misremembered as the size of the Sea-Serpent. One thing for certain was that the high bow of the ship was a figurehead ment to represent the Sea-serpent or Sea-dragon that "lifts itself up like a column from the water"

Since the bow end of a Viking Longship commonly stood up 15 to 20 feet and could rise 25 feet or more above the surface of the water, we have a fair idea of the size range of the creatures intended to be represented. Modern reports of Longnecked (and maned) Sea-serpents can commonly specify a "Periscope" stance at ten to twenty feet out of the water and occasionally as high as twenty-five or even (exceptionally) thirty feet high. The higher end of estimates is doubtless exaggerated.

"Deconstructing" the original Dragon sighting the figureheads were based on, by using the idea that the bows of the ships were intended as being the approximate size and shape of the originals, gives us this type of an original "Periscope" sighting as the inspiration. This is very like more modern sightings of Longnecked Sea-serpents in the "Periscope" position.

The measurements of this model would be in the vicinity of head-2 feet long, neck-1 foot thick, forepart of the neck 10 feet long (more slender foreward part) and together with the thicker hinder part of the neck is 15feet long. Base of the neck is a yard thick. All of these figures can be adjusted upward a small degree due to variations in the different figureheads. The measurements are about the averages reported for the type, larger range would be the males.

This is an engraving of a famous Dragonship, the Ormen longe or the Long Sea-Serpent, as reproduced from Wikipedia. The ship was an item of contention between rival kings of Norway.

A pair of the Dragon-headed designs made to close the doorway of a tent The dragons are most often shown with a wide-open mouth and a long tongue coming out. Unlike the usual kinds of snakes, the Sea-serpent (Sea dragon) had an unforked tongue.

Recent modern plesiosaur design for a line of toy replicas. The makers saw nothing wrong in making the model in the "Periscope" position but some critics blast the notion soundly. The studies quoted by L. Sprague DeCamp and quoted on this blog earlier do allow that the neck of a Plesiosaurus could bend to this degree, and the neck of an Elasmosaurus bend approximately twice this much.

Actually the argument was not supposed to be whether the Plesiosaurus could bend its neck into "Nessie" poses, the argument was that it could not assume S-curves as in the older reconstructions. And indeed they could not have. The curve in this neck is approximately HALF as flexible as one of those swanlike S-curves. There is a difference in the degree of curvature.

Viking chief Herald, later King Harald Hardrade, killing a dragon in Miklagaid (Bysans).

Many of the Northern, Germandic-Speaking-countries had a specifically Plesiosaurian sort of Dragon as their "Standard" type.

L. Sprague DeCamp says elsewhere in the same book (The Day of the Dinosaur) that some authors have suggested the depictions of dragons by Kircher, Gesner and others were based on findings of Plesiosaur skeletons in areas where Plesiosaur fossiols were found later and documented (Such as Solnhofen). DeCamp says the theory is not proven when we have no documentation suggesting any such discoveries were made in midieval times.

Other authosr thinking along those lines have suggested that the wings in such depictions represent the flippers (the actual limbs) of the Plesiosaurian original and that the puny legs were added on later by other artists that could not imagine such a creature without them, and the "Insubstantial" legs should be disregarded.

Here are a couple of modifications of Gesner's dragons to demonstrate the idea. It should be noted that there are other drawings of dragons that are even more Plesiosaurian (with longer snaky necks and more "insubstantial" legs) which could be produced to better illustrate the concept.

Viking-Age Silver Dragon Jewelry, Reproductions

Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus skull for comparison to depiced dragon's heads. Note that the Traditional dragons have such features as the eyes and nostrils in the right place, a "Third Eye" (The dragonstone?) and the Euryapsid openings behind the eye. Some depictions hint at a "Peak" in the back of the head like a Plesiosaur's skull and the "Dragon" form of Plesiosaur could have had a shout that turned up a lttle on the end (indicated in many depictions) rather than the more pointed snout of this Plesiosaurus specimen.

"Dragon's Heads" from the ends of carved wooden poles, taken from a Viking Archaeology site.

And here is a modern replica Viking Longship from Wikipedia, The Hugn, on display at Ramsgate in the UK, where several Viking longships have been disinterred.

Normans were naturalised and French-speaking Northmen, but they too tended to show Dragons on much the same sort of design on Norman churches, on shields and so on.


  1. I suppose I should have specified that while Olaus Magnus spoke of a Sea-serpent 200 feet long (evidently based on a vague meaure for a very large type of ship) the type of creatures to correspond to the figureheads would not be nearly so long. Sea-Serpents with necks 15 to 25 feet long would range from 40 to 60 feet long and the average of such a "Merhorse" creature should match the reported dimensuions of the Daedalus Sea-serpent as reported in an earlier blog.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  2. Here are some links to some articles on stupiddinosaurlies. com which should show how tales of dragons and monsters such as the seemingly plesiosaur-like dragons in Norse mythology (and other mythologies) were likely inspired by sightings of fossils (or are imaginary combinations of known animals.)
    The pseudo-dragons of genesis park part 5 (
    ICR's extreme Harry potter dragon stupidity (

  3. As usual the information could very well be PARTLY true but fails to account for all of the evidence. Fossil finds would not account for such features as are stated in actual reports such as manes or fins down the back, or a row of humps down the back. When you have features such as those commonly insisted upon it sounds more likely the depictions are based on real sightings and hence, real creatures. However I shall be the first to grant you that many sightings are actually based on swimming moose and that goes for historical and legendary sightings as well as the sightings which are ongoing in the present day. And the fact remains in any discussion that anything between 75% and 95% of all sightings are mistakes or are invalid, and that worldwide at all locations, the term "Sea- Serpent" (or Water Monster, or whatever) can be best understood as a reference to a standing wave phenomenon.

  4. Reports of features which are like Plesiosaurs could be based on direct observations of Plesiosaur fossils in areas where such fossils naturally occur. However over MOST of Europe, that is not the case, and the frequency of such reports by location in no way agrees with the distribution of Plesiosaur fossils. The hypothesis fails the practical test of reliability and it would seem to predict results which are at variance with what we do find.

  5. I'm slightly confused as to why the Plesiosaurus replica produced by papo was used in a comparison to depictions of longnecked sea serpents from the viking age; the Papo toy company almost always fails when it comes to producing anatomically correct replicas of prehistoric animals. (Check out the review for their plesiosaurus figure on to see what I mean.)
    I'm assuming that Papo's plesiosaurus was only used in this article to demonstrate that a stretched "S" neck posture was possible (and I also agree was possible) in the real thing and does not mean to say that this model is anatomically accurate overall?

  6. That assumption is absolutely correct. Jay Cooney and I were just discussing the problem we have in that good reference photos of Plesiosaurs and Plesiosaurian Sea-serpents are hard to come by when you are running a series of stories on a blog and you like a little variety in your illustrations. You COULD do all of your own illustrations or you COULD only keep running one or a few drawings or models that you know to be accurate, but that tends to get really monotonous really fast.

  7. Basically we just make do with what is on hand, and that's about as much as we can get by on.


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