Creatures of the Land, Sea and Heavens: Ancient Beliefs in Animal Counterparts

Creatures of the Land, Sea and Heavens: Ancient Beliefs in Animal Counterparts

Until the Age of Enlightenment, it was widely believed that every land creature had its counterpart in the sea (and perhaps even in the heavens). The classic example of this belief is the horse, which in the sea is a seahorse and in the heavens is Pegasus. This debate was waged by some of history’s intellectual heavy weights including Pliny the Elder, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and Sir Thomas Brown. There are even said to be allusions to the issue in the Biblical Book of Job. The belief in marine counterparts on land transcended the religious divisions and was shared by pagans, Christians, and Muslims alike. Unfortunately, such unity of thought was proven to be quite wrong upon a careful examination of the world’s animal and marine life.

The belief that land animals had counterparts in the sea has long been common among the laity. The first person to really articulate the logic of this notion was Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD) in his encyclopedic Natural History, written in 77 AD. In Book IX (out of 37) Pliny discusses the Natural History of Fishes. In the opening chapter he writes:

“These seeds and first principles of being are so utterly conglomerated and so involved, the one with the other, from being whirled to and fro, now by the action of the winds and now by the waves. Hence it is that the vulgar notion may very possibly be true, that whatever is produced in any other department of Nature, is to be found in the sea as well; while, at the same time, many other productions are there to be found which nowhere else exist. That there are to be found in the sea the forms, not only of terrestrial animals, but of inanimate objects even, is easily to be understood by all who will take the trouble to examine the grape-fish, the sword-fish, the sawfish, and the cucumber-fish, which last so strongly resembles the real cucumber both in color and in smell. We shall find the less reason than to be surprised to find that in so small an object as a shell-fish the head of the horse is to be seen protruding from the shell.”

Pliny the Elder, as imagined by a 19th-century artist.

Pliny the Elder, as imagined by a 19th-century artist. ( Public Domain )

Pliny’s writings doubtless inspired the unknown author of Physiologus, a didactic Christian text written in 2nd century AD Alexandria. This beautifully illustrated book was one of the most copied manuscripts in Medieval Europe. In it, the author describes various animals, birds, and fish and also gives the moral function of each. Some, such as the Phoenix and Pelican, are good and represent Jesus.

Others, such as the Fox and the Whale, are evil and represent the devil. The allegories for the Fox and the Whale are as follows:

“The fox represents the devil, who pretends to be dead to those who retain their worldly ways, and only reveals himself when he has them in his jaws. To those with perfect faith, the devil is truly dead.” (The Medieval Bestiary, 2011)

Illustration of a fox

Illustration of a fox ( Public Domain )

“The whale who deceives sailors and drags them down to their deaths signifies the devil, who deceives those he drags down to hell. Those of weak faith who give in to the sweet odor of worldly desires will be swallowed up by the devil. (The Medieval Bestiary, 2011)
These descriptions contributed to the popular science of bestiary in the Middle Ages. The trend supported the superstition that animals on land and sea were paired. If anyone needed further proof, they would be directed to this passage from the Book of Job, which was believed to reveal God’s divine will in designing symmetry among his creations:
But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” (Job 12:7-10)

Pearls fishers, Bern Physiologus (IX century)

Pearls fishers, Bern Physiologus (IX century) ( Public Domain )

The idea that marine animals had counterparts on land remained credible science until the Age of Enlightenment.

Sir Thomas Browne, a British naturalist writing in the 17th century, put an end to the matter in the short but scathing Chapter 24 of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, also known simply as Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors. Browne writes:

“That all Animals of the Land, are in their kind in the Sea, although received as a principle, is a tenet very questionable, and will admit of restraint. For some in the Sea are not to be matched by any enquiry at Land, and hold those shapes which terrestrial forms approach not; as may be observed in the Moon fish, or Orthragoriscus, the several sorts of Rays, Torpedos, Oysters, and many more, and some there are in the Land which were never maintained to be in the Sea, as Panthers, Hyenas, Camels, Sheep, Molls, and others … And therefore, although it be not denied that some in the water do carry a justifiable resemblance to some at Land, yet are the major part which bear their names unlike; nor do they otherwise resemble the creatures on earth, then they on earth the constellations which pass under animal names in heaven: nor the Dog-fish at Sea much more make out the Dog of the Land, then that his cognominal or name-sake in the heavens.” (Browne, 1672)

Title-page of 1658 4th edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

Title-page of 1658 4th edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Today, there is little doubt that land and sea animals are distinct. This reflects the progress the natural sciences have made over the last 2000 years.

Top image: Secrets de l'histoire naturelle ( Public Domain )

By Kerry Sullivan


Browne, Thomas. "Browne's Vulgar Errors III.xxiv: Animals, Land and Sea." Browne's Vulgar Errors. James Eason at the University of Chicago, 1672. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.

Job. New Oxford Annotated Bible. 2nd Vers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

The Medieval Bestiary. "Medieval Bestiary: Fox." Medieval Bestiary: Fox. The Medieval Bestiary, 2016. Web.

The Medieval Bestiary. "Medieval Bestiary: Whale." Medieval Bestiary: Whale. The Medieval Bestiary, 2016. Web.

Pliny the Elder. "BOOK IX. THE NATURAL HISTORY OF FISHES." Perseus Under Philologic: Plin.+Nat.+9. Latin Texts & Translations, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.

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