Are Sealions The Only Pinnipeds In Medieval Heraldry? I don’t believe they are…


May 5, 2016 by Rua Lupa

As I’ve been looking through Medieval Heraldry books to find 3 Individually Attested Patterns in order to submit my heraldic device in the SCA, I’ve found a lot of interesting creatures. The beaver depictions are actually what started this blog off. Not only do I now have more of them, I believe I’ve found evidence of pinnipeds – “Flipper-footed” Marine Mammals. What most people would recognize as Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses.

From Left to Right: Elephant Seal, Sea Lion, Walrus. Image from The Marine Mammal Center

From Left to Right: Elephant Seal, Sea Lion, Walrus. Image from The Marine Mammal Center

Out of all the pinnipeds only Sea Lions are traditionally recognized in Medieval Heraldry – depicted as a Demi-lion (upper half of lion) with a tail of a fish (see image, follow image link to learn more).


Sea-lion (Period). Image Source: Mistholme

Here is an example of a medieval heraldic depiction of a sea-lion.
All the other pinnipeds, Seals and Walruses, are essentially non-existent. Or are they?

Before I show you what I believe to be these remaining pinnipeds, I’ll show the various depictions of beavers to give you an idea of how beasts can be depicted in heraldry.

This is the most anatomically accurate medieval heraldic depiction of a beaver I found thus far.

Wappenbuch der Arlberg-Bruderschaft_pg10

This is one of the second best depictions – with a more traditional heraldic stance.
Wappenbuch der Arlberg-Bruderschaft_pg458

And this is the other second best depiction – maintaining the body shape of an actual beaver, but its “two big teeth” being inaccurate.


From there it gets a little stranger – taking on the tusks and more of the traditional heraldic stance.
Wappenbuch_BSB_Cod-icon-_392_d_pg207vAnd this one goes, essentially, completely medieval in style and in interpretation.

Armorial of the Holy Roman Empire_pg355_Beaver

With this as a backgrounder for how things can be oddly depicted for such a basic and fairly common creature, you can see how other creatures who are less common can become interpreted in a skewed way.

Dolphins and Whales for example are very fish like in depictions.


Medieval Depiction of a Dolphin. Image from Mistholme


Medieval Depiction of a Whale. Image from Mistholme

Notice The blow holes for the whale? They obviously knew about that feature, but didn’t know how to depict it, and their tails are oriented the correct way. With this you’ll see that aquatic creatures are generally seen as fishy with fish appendages.


Using this feature analysis, and the aquatic = fishy association, I’m going to make an argument with the feature of Walrus tusks being the key feature, while it remaining quite fishy in depiction.

Here are my following references, do you think there is something to it?










With there being so many of these “tusked fish” I figured that there has to be something to it, and noting that walrus tusks would be considered highly valuable trade item, that would be the feature that people would recognize when being so far removed from where it came from. And would add to the understanding of having it depicted for your heraldry.

Now here are a few other depictions that are less fishy, but could very well be an attempt at a more accurate version of Walruses, while maintaining a fishy tail.



Now with these two and when looking back at the depictions of beavers I began to wonder if it was another inaccurate depiction of a beaver, or the medieval understanding of an aquatic mammal looked like. For me, the fish tail for swimming and the tusks make it lean more toward an attempt at a walrus, and perhaps it was the walrus depictions that had influenced the depictions of beavers having tusks in the first place?

Here are two more I found after this consideration:

When considering what written material there is on walruses at the time there is even further evidence that both the legged and the fish version are one and the same.

Olaus Magnus (Olaf Mansson before his name was Latinized) published his book “Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus” (A Description of the Northern Peoples) in 1555 that had the following description and image,
“The Norway Coast, toward the more Northern parts, hath huge great Fish as big as Elephants, which are called Morsi, or Rosmari, may be they are so from their sharp biting; for if they see any man on the Sea-shore, and can catch him, they come suddenly upon him, and rend him with their Teeth, that they will kill him in a trice . . . They will raise themselves with their Teeth, as by Ladders to the very tops of Rocks, that they may feed on the Dewie Grasse, or fresh Water, and role themselves in it, and then go to the Sea again . . .”

An Omros Marus depicted in "Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus"

An Omros Marus depicted in “Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus”

Medieval Naturalist Conrad Gesner (sometimes Konrad, sometimes Gessner) in 1558 published in his book “De Piscium & Aquatilium Animantum Natura” his findings on walruses. Relying on a small salary in a landlocked country, Gesner wouldn’t be able to see these sea creatures for himself, and so, had to rely on the observation of others including Olaus Magnus’s book. His views of Magnus’s sea creatures was that “It seems that he depicted many according to seafarers’ tales rather than from life.”

Gesner still published this picture of a walrus stating his reservation about how “Fish don’t have feet.” He admitted that fins can resemble feet in large fish skeletons, but thought the artist took too many liberties with this image.

De Piscium & Awuatilium Animantum Natura
It is important remember that at the time naturalists weren’t just trying to figure out unusual animals, but were also trying to find methods of classifying them. At the time anything aquatic was, to them, a type of fish.

Interestingly it appears he depicts another walrus in the same book but in a different way and calling it by a different name, “boar whale.”

Elephant Seals?

There is a fairly clear understanding of the primary features of elephants to the people of medieval Europe – the tusks and and ears. Which remain consistent in the imagery I’ve found, as follows:
So when I came across a fish with a trunk I began to wonder if this was supposed to be an elephant seal. I had shown this to other heralds and it was generally seen as simply an exaggerated form of a dolphin. Well, I ended up finding a lot more where that came from and became increasingly convinced that these were definitely elephant seals, because why else would so many fish creatures have trunks?

Wappenbuch der Konrad Grünenberg_pg35Wappenbuch der Konrad Grünenberg_pg68Wappenbuch der Konrad Grünenberg_pg98Wappenbuch der Konrad Grünenberg_pg116Wappenbuch der Konrad Grünenberg_pg146Wappenbuch_BSB_Cod-icon-_392_d_pg50

Were There Seals in Heraldry All Along?

Yet, perhaps the most interesting pinniped evidence has been right under our nose the entire time.

When looking under the topic of sea monsters at Mistholme you find three medieval period sea monsters represented:


Sea Monster – Griffin. Image from Mistholme


Sea Monster – Sea Wolf. Image from Mistholme


Sea Monster – Sea Dog. Image from Mistholme

And do you know what the German word for seal is? Seehund, literally “sea-dog”

6 thoughts on “Are Sealions The Only Pinnipeds In Medieval Heraldry? I don’t believe they are…

  1. Very, very interesting…. I think the walruses are convincing, but it might be worth it to make sure the former couldn’t be sturgeons with their weird barbels.

    The elephant seals I’m skeptical of because they don’t live anywhere near Europe. I think you’d need to make a case that they don’t start showing up in heraldry until after the maritime explorers returned from the southern tips of South America or Africa. The drawings you’ve found are obviously fishy elephant things, but without proof otherwise, there’s always the possibility that European explorers had a thing they called a sea-elephant or some such (real or fake) back home, then later found a thing that looked sort of like it on foreign shores and called it the same. We know that happened with penguins (auks used to be called penguins, then they saw the animals *we* call penguins and called them that, then the name of the former got changed at some point). Consider Hooded Seals, which live in European waters. Check out videos of them inflating the bladders on their heads.

    For sea lions, what I couldsee as a very real possibility is that seals used to be called sea lions in English, then a similar name switcharoo happened when Europeans encountered what we now call sea lions (which are also well outside the range of all Europeans except maritime explorers). Which would make all these sea-lions and sea-dogs the same clade—seals.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rua Lupa says:

      Yes, I was thinking much the same things, “could those ‘teeth’ just be barbels?”, “could those sea lions be a different name for what we today call seals?”. The other thing is that mariner stories can travel much farther than the one who port in Europe, and species ranges could have been very different then too. For example, Walruses and Polar bears were once reported to have been as far south as Nova Scotia. Something that we wouldn’t even consider being possible today, but there you have it.

      I just found that these occurrences of consistent imagery was something I couldn’t ignore, and put my theory out there. There may be something to it, there may not. But I’ll never find out if I don’t put it out there now will I?


      • jmc38 says:

        I definitely agree it’s worth putting out there and talking about. 🙂 And thank you for gathering all this. The beasties with entire fish for tails made me laugh.
        So far as I know, sea lions didn’t live in North Atlantic or near-Europe Arctic waters in period. I did think about mariner telephone, but I’m not aware of tales of any animals from as far south in the Old World as the southernmost tip of Africa or as northeastern as the area around Beringia making it back to Europe as stories. If they’d heard of anything from Beringia, it would have been the similarly-shaped non-pinniped Steller’s Sea Cow ’cause they were *huge*. But Europeans didn’t find out about them until 1741. Everything I know of that they knew about is also found much closer to Europe (and was that way in period, too). It’s possible they could have heard about the now-extinct Japanese sea lion since there were connections with Japan, but name-switching with seals seems much more likely considering their abundance and diversity in and near Europe (including the now-extinct Mediterranean Monk Seal) and the known precedent for that with auks and penguins.


        • Rua Lupa says:

          Yes, I tend to agree with the name switching scenario you’ve presented, as why else would the term Sea Lion be present at the time when we now today only have sea lions in the north Pacific and Americas. For Elephant seals, being such large creatures with unique facial features of a trunk I think would make them something that would cause mariners to talk about all the way down the line of trade networks.


  2. Bruce Miller says:

    Hi, Rua. I must say this is an impressive collection. But in my opinion, it doesn’t support your notion that pinnipeds are found in period heraldry.

    Let’s start with the “tusked fish”, which you propose might represent walruses. Certainly, there’s no requirement that medieval artists be naturalists: look at how they misrepresented beavers. But in these cases, the tusked fish appear, for the most part, to be heraldic dolphins. Your first example (BSB 393d:4) gave the bearer’s name as “Delffiny”; and the second example (BSB 393d:34) were the arms of the Dauphin of France (“Monsigor Le Daphin”), whose arms *always* bear a dolphin, no matter how strangely the artist rendered it. (The arms are those of the Dauphinee quartered with the kingdom of France.) The tusks aren’t anatomical features, but a symbol of fierceness: we see tusks on the heraldic whale for the same reason.

    Of the “tusked fish” that aren’t dolphins, I suspect most are barbels: those aren’t tusks, but the “feelers” around the barbel’s mouth, same as with American catfish. I know this to be so in at least one example, BSB392d:69: the fifth quarter are the arms of the Counts of Bar, whose barbels are canting charges.

    As for the elephant-trunked fish, again, those appear to be heraldic dolphins. (Weirdly drawn, to be sure, but dolphins nonetheless.) Again, we see the arms of the Dauphin (with the Dauphinee quartering France Ancient), and therefore no matter how it’s drawn, that fish *must* be an heraldic dolphin. The elephant-trunked depiction of the dolphin appears to have been a passing fad; we don’t see it by the end of our period.

    While it’s still possible that we might find examples of seals or walruses in period armory, these examples aren’t evidence of that. Mostly, they illustrate just how much the depiction of the heraldic dolphin varied in period.

    I’d be very happy to discuss this with you at greater length, if you’re interested. Good luck in all your ventures.

    – Bruce Draconarius, Batonvert.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rua Lupa says:

      Ah, yes, I was wondering if those examples where the same people who are strongly associated with dolphins. I was also wondering if some of these were also not the barbels like how some catfish have. But some are definitely tusks. Are they merely intended to just to convey fierceness, maybe, maybe not. That I certainly don’t have an answer to. My thinking is that it could just as easily be like how the beavers were interpreted with their teeth.

      The only ones I feel more confident about is with the walrus examples with the fish tail and its associated naturalist studies.


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