Trussst in me: the Flathead Lake monster

I love old maps. Maps used to be full of monster drawings, especially pre-17th century ones created for the upper class. Cartographers weren’t just trying to dazzle people–they were trying to educate them, and illustrated creatures based on real sailors’ reports. Why is it, then, that so many include a beast like this?

sea monster
You know, the one with the humps?

This full moon, let’s take a look at a specific example of one of these serpentine horrors: a Loch Nessian-style monster right here in the U.S.

Flathead Lake sits in northwestern Montana, and is the largest lake in the contiguous U.S. west of the Mississippi. It’s nearly 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, and can get up to 370 feet deep (over 34 stories). In short, it’s a lot of water. 75 million years ago, Flathead Lake was actually an inland sea, one full of sharks and the aquatic reptiles of the dinosaur era. Some people–lots of people: lawyers, doctors, policemen, engineers, biologists; locals and non-locals alike–say that not all of those monstrous species have left.

Take Julia and Jim Manley, who had considered themselves skeptics of the strange sightings. One beautiful, breezeless summer day in 2005, they went out on it in their boat to enjoy the water. When they tried to go home, their engine wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. They were stranded out in the open lake, with not a single other soul in sight.

Anxious, they called their daughter, hoping that she could come rescue them. She said she was on her way. But as the Manleys settled in for their wait, they heard a loud, heavy slap against the water. They heard the sound again–it was close, worryingly close. Then they looked over the side of their boat and saw it.

Per Julia: “The first feeling I had seeing it was just shock. I knew I was seeing it, but it’s so unbelievable to think about it–”

sea_serpent_cape_ann_1639
Like this, maybe, only the monster’s head wasn’t showing and also it was 2005.

There were black, sinuous humps slithering through the waves–a giant chain at least as long as their 24-foot boat. As they stood in horrified silence, they saw something else coming at them over the horizon: their daughter’s boat. The monster slipped away into the water before she could see it, and the Manleys realized that now they were the ones who would have to convince those skeptical of the monster of Flathead Lake.

Consider this combined with with the accounts people have shared of schools of fish jumping out of the water, as if fleeing a massive predator.  Or the account of a man’s fishing nets having enormous, unexplainable holes in them. The account of the fisherman whose boat was violently rocked by a “monstrous shadowy shape.”  The account of the 3-year old that fell in the lake, and when asked how he survived, said “the Flathead monster lifted me up.”

Flathead lake Monster
Legit.

The first Flathead monster sighting recorded in writing was in 1889, when 100 steamboat passengers saw the beast and someone freaked out and shot at her. Before that, there was a Kutenai legend that involves a giant monster breaking through the lake ice and drowning half the tribe. All accounts are surprisingly consistent, in spite of people not knowing each other and outsiders not knowing what might be in the lake. “Flessie” (as the locals call her, a play on the very similar “Nessie” of Loch Ness) is between 20 and 40 feet long, eel-like, with dark brown or blue-black skin and dark eyes. Sighting reports roll in at a rate of about 1 to 2 per year, with 92% occurring between April and September.

The only time this varied was in 1993, when there were a whopping 13 sightings, some within 20 minutes of each other. With how big the lake is, that temporal proximity leaves us with a few possibilities: a) someone is lying, b) someone saw a log, or c) there might not be one Flathead Lake monster, but two.

Some reports say that nearly all people local to Flathead Lake have seen Flessie at some point; others say that there are fisherman that have been out on the water for decades without catching so much as a ripple. Regardless, the monster has been around for a long time, and doesn’t seem to be going away. Skeptics blame sightings on everything from a dead monkey to an escaped buffalo, but belief persists. Many who come forward to share their stories have been reluctant to do so, not wanting to seem crazy, but needing to share their story with someone. Perhaps it is to all of our benefit that they do.

You never know when it might be important to know where there’s a monster on the map.

 

What’s your favorite water-based cryptid? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

 

All images are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. See map image here; old-timey illustration here, and glow-in-the-dark eyeballs here.

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Charmed, I’m sure: the Encantado

The rapidly disappearing wonderland of the Amazon holds many surprises–both ones that might help humanity (see: a concentrated host of plants with anti-cancer properties), and others that might drive it insane (see: the black caiman, green anaconda, and vampire fish). As usual, we’re going to focus on something from the latter category.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember my post on the Scottish Finfolk back in 2016. I came across the encantado then, but its legend was so similar to that of the Finfolk that I didn’t want to post about them back to back.

In both cases, we have water-based monsters who are able to pass as human. Despite living in magical, utopic kingdoms, neither are satisfied with their lot. They thus come ashore to seduce people or steal them away. Humans often blame them for unwanted pregnancies and disappearances (though some of that may be just be a cover for their own, mortal chicanery).

After that, the two myths diverge. Encantados are more friendly than the sinister Finfolk; they can get humans to like or even love them. They’re also more strange. Instead of coming from the ocean, they come from the silty freshwater of the Amazon. And instead of their natural state being vaguely humanoid, they are large, fleshy, pink dolphins.

Boto dolphin
…ladies.*

Whether you believe in the encantados or not, these dolphins–boto, in the local lexicon–are very real. These intelligent, curious creatures can get to be over 8 feet and 400 pounds. Scars cover their backs, relics from fighting each other. They have long snouts filled with long, slender teeth, and bulbous foreheads used for echolocation.  Buried in all that flesh are eyes are so small that some assume they’re blind. But botos can see quite well. In fact, legend has it that they are so perceptive that looking into their eyes will give you nightmares for the rest of your life.

Since it can be difficult to flirt when you have a giant, tooth-filled snout, encantados disguise themselves as humans when they come ashore (which is not that often, and only at night). They are drawn especially by parties, where their skills at seduction and music can be best appreciated. Humans can be so taken with them that when an encantado goes to leave–hurrying to return to the water before the break of day–a group will chase it, begging it to stay.

Boto dolphin (encantado)
Abduction reenactment.**

That’s how the encantado likes it. But woe betide anyone who gets too close. In addition to kidnapping and/or leaving women with unwanted children, encantados turn married men into babies and implant them in their wives’ wombs. They can enchant humans into doing their bidding, make them horribly sick, drive them insane, kill them, or, most troublingly, turn them into doughy dolphins themselves. They can also control the weather. I’m sure that’s fun during the flooding season.

Once you’ve been targeted by an encantado, only a shaman can save you. Many lay people take the “ounce of prevention” philosophy and never go into the river alone, avoiding it entirely when it’s dark. Even then, no one can be sure of their safety. Stories tell of canoers driven mad by an encantado simply swimming along behind them, doing nothing more than gently bumping their boat.

Perhaps because of these legends, people native to the Amazon have historically treated the boto with great respect. Killing or eating one was on par with killing or eating a human, and might bring you even worse luck. But, as usual, industrialization has come in and messed everything up. The dolphins are under threat by overfishing, pollution, and all the other familiar forces of environmental destruction.

Regardless of supernatural status, the boto are fighting back. One researcher described how in the course of just a few decades, the dolphins went from getting tangled in fishing nets to treating them as a buffet. Maybe they’ll adapt to all the other crap we’re throwing at them, too. And if they’re as scary as the legends say they are, god help us if they do.

boto dolphin (encantado) eye
They’ll be watching.***

 

Want to avoid the encantados’ revenge? The Amazon Conservation Team partners with indigenous peoples to protect the rainforest. They also have great ratings on Charity Navigator. Check them out.

 

 

*Image courtesy of Oceancetaceen [CC BY-SA 2.0], from Wikimedia Commons

**Image courtesy of Christoph2007 17:20, 31. Jul. 2007 (CEST) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

***Image courtesy of Nortondefeis [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Not horsing around: the Nuckelavee

It’s interesting to see how similar monsters crop up again and again across different cultures. Everyone seems to have their version of a bigfoot, of a loch ness monster, of a boogeyman, etc.  It’s touching that we all have so much to share. This month’s monster has a familiar function, but overachieves in appearance and personality and pretty much everything else.

Orkney Islands
One of the islands, courtesy of Colin Park at Wikimedia Commons.

Remember my post on the Finfolk a year and a half ago? If you’ll recall, they hailed from the Orkney Islands, an archipelago situated up in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The islands have few trees, powerful winds, and a lot of prehistoric monuments. They are far enough north to experience those near-endless summer days and crushingly long, dark winter nights. The climate is temperate, the land fertile, and occasionally you can see the Aurora Borealis. It’s the type of place where some truly magical monsters can be born. Such were the Finfolk. And such is the Nuckelavee.

At first blush, the Nuckelavee looks like a just another demi-god scapegoat for bad weather or ill fortune. He was a evil, hate-filled fairy from the Atlantic that would breathe pestilence into crops and epidemics into livestock. Also familiar is his seasonality: the Nuckelavee terrorized humans primarily during winter, when the only entity that could control him–the powerful Mither o’ the Sea–tired from her long summer of keeping things in check. In short, he was the type of thing that folklorists like Walter Traill Dennison (19th century) might have appreciated, but not been terribly surprised by. But the more Dennison dug, the more he realized that there was something more to the story.

Few dared mention the Nuckelavee by name. When they did, no one wanted to talk about it in detail. Dennison got bits and pieces of description–the Nuckelavee had a protruding mouth like a pig; it had one red, glowing eye–but could not pull together the full picture. He needed a first-hand encounter. What he found was Tammas.

Tammas was considered foolhardy, but was not so foolhardy as go blabbing about his experience willy nilly. It took much “higgling and persuasion” to get him to tell his story, but when he did, the Nuckelavee solidified in the nightmares of generations to come. Tammas described his experience thus:

 

***

Night beach
A little mood-setting image that sort of directly contradicts the first line of description of the story but that’s okay–AMBIANCE.

One moonless, starry night, Tammas was walking home along the beach when a hulking figure came out of the darkness ahead. Frightened but determined, Tammas said a prayer and vowed that he would not show the figure his back.

As the they drew closer to one another, it became harder and harder to stick to that vow. At first Tammas thought the figure might be a rider on a horse, but it very soon became apparent that the horse and rider were fused together in one terrible, fleshy mass. It was a giant thing, entirely skinless, with red glistening muscles and veins that shuddered with black blood. Its mouth was mad and wide, its single eye glowing red. The “rider”’s arms were long enough to drag almost down to the ground, and his enormous, bulging head lolled heavily backwards as his horse parts trotted forward.

Tammas knew immediately that it was the Nuckelavee, and that he would probably not make it back alive. But, foolhardy as he was, he kept walking forward, hoping perhaps the thing wouldn’t notice him. He kept on the left side of the road, close to the fresh water of an adjacent loch. He knew the Nuckelavee hated fresh water. One step closer, and then another, and then the Nuckelavee noticed him.

The Nuckelavee roared with hate. Tammas shrieked and splashed into the water of the loch –afraid to wade too deep (for fear of yet more monsters), but trying to stay out of the Nuckelavee’s reach. His frantic movements splashed water up on the Nuckelavee’s forelegs. The monster bellowed in pain, and Tammas abandoned his wading and made a run for it.

There was a rivulet of water crossing the road up ahead, where the loch emptied out toward the sea. If Tammas could cross it, he knew he would be safe. But though he ran with every ounce of his strength–lungs raw, muscles screaming, chest about to burst–the Nuckelavee caught up fast. Tammas could feel its breath sear the back of his neck, and then felt its long, unnatural fingers brush the top of his hat. With one last effort, he threw himself across the tiny stream of freshwater, just as the Nuckelavee made its snatch.

Tammas landed roughly on the opposite side, knees giving out beneath him, consciousness not far behind. The Nuckelavee drew up before the water, his hat clutched in its terrible, glistening fingers, and roared as Tammas blacked out.

The Nuckelavee
A lovely illustration of the Nuckelavee, courtesy of contemporary James Torrance at Wikimedia Commons.

***

 

Yes, Dennison found that the Nuckelavee was a special kind of terror, and not only in appearance. It was an unusual creature in that it had no use for humans whatsoever–not as food, not as playthings, not even as macabre decoration. It operated out of pure hatred, and wanted everyone dead. As Dennison wrote: “Nuckelavee was a monster of unmixed malignity, never willingly resting from doing evil to mankind.”

But perhaps the Nuckelavee can’t be blamed for his animosity. Some said his ire stemmed from the 18th and 18th century Orcadian habit of burning seaweed. The resulting kelp could be used for a variety of commercial purposes, but the process stank so bad that some said it drove away even the fish. If that was indeed the Nuckevalee’s complaint, I say: fair enough.  Indeed, once the burning fell out of practice in the early 1900’s, Nuckelavee visits subsided.

Nowadays, people aren’t afraid to speak his name like they used to be. Why should we be? With all our modern lights and cellphones and near-ubiquitous wifi connectivity, who needs to be worried about a skinless horse-man hybrid with long arms and longer grudges?

Amirite?

 

Happy holidays to all! Did not do a themed post this year, unless you want me to relate skinless monsters to your skinless holiday turkey breast. Share your thoughts on parallels between the Nuckelavee and this festive time of year in the comments below.

It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Fishmen: The Finfolk

Growing up, my bedtime stories were the works of H.P. Lovecraft (as well as Edgar Allen Poe, and Doctor Seuss. This may explain a bit about me). The Shadow Over Innsmouth particularly came to life for me; it left such an impression that I enjoy ocean-centered nightmares to this day. Imagine my delight, then, on discovering a blog post about the Orkney Finfolk, a group of gloomy fish-people who like to steal humans and live in an ancient city at the bottom of the sea (*ahem* Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. I should mention that I’m not the first one to make a connection to the Cthulhu mythos, either). These Finfolk have a lot in common with the fishy villagers of Innsmouth, but are–perhaps literally–several centuries older.

Waterhouse, John William, 1849-1917; A Mermaid
Something like a Finwife, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Superficially, the Finfolk seem kin to mermaids or selkies, but you’d be a fool to mistake them as such. They come in two genders. Finmen at first appear like any other man, but a closer look reveals that their “clothes” are actually artfully folded fins arranged specifically to fool humans. Their faces are dark and gloomy, their eyes black. Finwives, on the other hand, look more or less like mermaids (unless they look like old hags, but we’ll get to that in the moment). Topless in the freezing North Sea waves, they dust themselves with crushed pearls and cry out at fisherman. These are the Finfolks’ natural forms, but really they might appear in any form, as they are accomplished sorcerers and shapeshifters. They might show up as driftwood, as a tree, as someone close to you…

Nothing stops the Finfolk from crossing from sea to land: unlike selkies, they come and go as they please (several sites describe them as “amphibious”). Their motivations for venturing into human territory are two-fold: 1) to cheat or otherwise obtain silver, which they are obsessed with, and 2) to steal humans, whom they will drag away screaming and then force into permanent matrimonial servitude.

Obviously, this latter threat is what the people of the Orkney islands were most concerned with. They told stories all the way up through the 19th century of women disappearing off beaches and men out of boats; spouses abducted onto crafts that flew across the waves with unnatural speed; floating plants bursting to life to snatch a passerby into the cold, grey water. Depending on the season, the kidnapped’s destination was either the magical, vanishing island of Hildaland or the fearful Finfolkaheem, an opulent kingdom at the bottom of the sea. Both are described as Finfolk utopias, though for the human captives, they would be more like hell.

ilya_repin_-_sadko_-_google_art_project_levels_adjustment_2
Underwater Kingdom painting, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First there is the particular torture of the places themselves. Hildaland is guarded by monstrous whales and hideous tusked Finmen, so good luck getting rescued out of there, never mind escaping it. It’s surrounded by mist; mortal boats might pass straight through it without realizing that it’s there (if they’re lucky). Finfolkaheem is even worse, though it would certainly be interesting to see. Full of massive crystal halls, multicolored seaweed, tiny phosphorescent creatures, and curtains fashioned after the aurora borealis, the Finfolk raise sea-cattle, ride sea-horses, herd whales, and train sea lions within the city’s borders. For humans, it’s a prison of the worst sort: there’s no escaping from the bottom of the ocean alive (no word on how the Finfolk keep them there to begin with. Sorcery?). That deep, the pressure and darkness alone would be enough to drive you insane.

Worse than the supernatural prisons are the Finfolk spouses themselves. Finmen are notoriously cruel and territorial, even to people they’re not married to (for example, they’ll stab secret holes in the fishing boats that cross them, enjoying the panic of fishermen that realize, too late, that the ocean is swallowing them alive). One of the reasons Finfolk prefer to marry humans (as opposed to each other) is because Finwives age much faster when coupled with their own species; I can only guess that this is because Finmen are moody pains in the a** and beat them mercilessly if they don’t bring home enough silver. The ladies aren’t blameless, though…Finwives pummel their human spouses just as cruelly, and for the same reason. Human spouses of either gender are worked to death, helpless in the face of monsters as old as the ocean itself.

eynhallow_in_1980
Eynhallow in 1980, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It does look kind of decimated, doesn’t it?

But some people fought back, and that’s why we don’t see much of the Finfolk today. You see, the Finfolk greed for silver can be turned against them: throw a handful of coins away from yourself, and you might outrun your fishy pursuer. The Finfolk also hate pure salt, which one man in particular took advantage of. After a Finman stole his wife, the Goodman of Thorodale  laboriously figured out where Hildaland was, boated out there, out-bluffed the terrifying creatures in the water, landed on the island, took out a bag, and rained salt everywhere. The Finfolk fled screaming into the sea, taking their livestock and prisoners with them. Their fields dried up, and Hildaland ceased to be a magical place. Now it is called Eynhallow; you can visit it today.

The final nail in the coffin for the Finfolk seems to have been the arrival of Christianity. Accounts claim that the Finfolk abhor crosses, and the more that appeared on the islands, the deeper they dove. After the 19th century, there ceased to be much mention of them at all.

That doesn’t mean they can’t still be out there, though. Deep beneath the North Sea waves. Dreaming.

 

How long can you hold your breath underwater? How about in the face of nameless horror? Share your story in the comments below.