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.
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).
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.
This is one of the second best depictions – with a more traditional heraldic stance.
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.
And this one goes, essentially, completely medieval in style and in interpretation.
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.
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 . . .”
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.
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.”
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?
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:
And do you know what the German word for seal is? Seehund, literally “sea-dog”