Written by Vonda N. McIntyre   

01-octopusandseachildren_s.jpg The Natural History & Extinction
of the People of the Sea

A Book View Café Bonus.

The faux-encyclopedia article that inspired the Nebula-award winning novel The Moon and the Sun. Also available in the Book View Cafe anthology, Dragon Lords and Warrior Women, edited by Phyllis Irene Radford.


In the distant past, a branch of the human species adapted to the sea. Over millennia, the people lived and changed, returning to the ocean. Their shape transformed, allowing them to swim sleek and swift beneath the waves. Their lungs grew more efficient, and one lobe evolved a rudimentary ability to extract oxygen from the water. The oxygen extraction organ allowed them to pass into languor and live for long periods without breathing. In times of danger or times of storm, the sea people could sink deep underwater, wait for safety, and survive.

They lived their lives far from shore. Rarely did they even approach the shallows of the continental shelf.

Every year, at the summer solstice, communities of sea people congregated in the centers of the world's oceans. They met, hundreds upon thousands of them, to introduce new children to friends and relatives, to tell stories, to fast. They sang songs, showing each other their adventures in a musical language that created images out of sound. The children played; the youths tended their younger sisters and brothers. The adults gathered to mate in great splashing crowds, to surrender themselves to the mating haze.

The sea people said that when they dived together to make love in the dark blue depths, they created the sea's whirlpools.

When the annual congregation ended, extended families dispersed to their secret homes. Families seldom encountered one another until the next summer's mating. In the spring, one sea woman of a family might bring a child into the world. Sea people lived long and reproduced slowly. They did not know their fathers.

Though the sea people renounced the mainlands, each one did leave the water a few times: Always for birth, sometimes for death.

Some families claimed islands, created of volcanoes, enlarged by coral polyps: tiny mid-ocean places, uninhabited by land creatures. Other families preferred the great mats of seaweed that formed and floated in eddies of the ocean's currents.

In these places, their own birth islands, sea women bore their children. Their families accompanied them, mother and grandmother, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, so the birth of a new being should not occur unaccompanied. On land the sea people were dreadfully vulnerable, but no predators roamed on the land they chose.

06-seamotherandchild_s.jpgLike a child of land humans, a baby of the sea people came into the world helpless. It could neither swim nor extract oxygen from the water. Thus endangered by drowning, it spent its first few weeks on land, suckling and growing and gaining strength. Its mother and cousins, its uncles and aunts played with it in the shallow waters of the atolls, or in sun-warmed ponds atop the dense seaweed mats. The sea people taught the baby to swim, to hold its breath, to know when to surface for air. As the baby's extraction organ developed, the baby also learned to slip into languor and drift beneath the water. As soon as the child was safe from drowning, its mother and its family carried it back into the sea.

In the usual course of time, sea people anticipated and accepted approaching death, and set out on a final passage toward their birthplace. During the journey, or in warm shallows, or at the edge of the shore, in peace, they died.

On rare, rare occasions, a dead sea woman or sea man washed up on a mainland beach, victim of shark or accident, their bodies mutilated beyond identification. Scavengers tore away their flesh, and nipped off their long flowing hair for nest material, and scattered their bones.

The men of land saw the rare remains on their beaches, marveled at their strangeness, wondered about their origin, and invented stories of sea gods. For millennia, the men of land never encountered any living people of the sea.

Then the men of land learned to build ships.

The Minoans, great seafarers, great diplomats, glimpsed living sea people from afar. Encountering a small family of sea folk on an atoll in the Azores, the Minoans approached them as they approached all other civilizations, offering friendship and trade.

Neither sea people nor land humans had reason to fear the other. They marveled at each other's amusing ugliness. The sea family learned a few words of Minoan and taught the Minoans a few phrases of their strange and complex multi-dimensional language.

09-seamanstaring-mixed_s.jpgThe Minoans were traders of art and song and story. They loved the sea. They loved the stories and songs the sea people told about the deepest and farthest ocean regions. They learned to see the images created by the language of the people of the sea.

An ambassadorial excursion invited the family of sea people to the mother island of Crete. The sea people accepted. The Minoans received them in Knossos, and feted them, carrying them from the harbor at Herakleon in a golden basin pulled by a brace of long-horned bulls.

That was the summer of the great volcano. Thera erupted. Knossos disintegrated during the earthquake. Many Minoans died. The sea family perished as well.

In the resulting chaos, the Minoan civilization weakened and died. Invading Mycenaeans took over its culture and wiped out its language. Until the recent translation of Linear A, history lost access to all the tales inscribed in the Minoan hieroglyphics.

In the ancient world of men, all that remained of the sea people was legend and the memory of cataclysm.

The Greeks worshipped Poseidon and told tales of the Nereids. Remembering the beauty of the sea people's songs, they warned sailors of the Sirens. They did not trade with the sea people, or seek them out as allies. The Greeks seldom passed beyond the Pillars of Hercules. The sea people had seldom ventured into the confines of the Mediterranean. After Thera, they avoided the Mediterranean entirely.

In the memory of the West, Knossos became Atlantis, and the people of the sea become sirens and sea monsters.

03-oldseawomanandseal_s.jpgIn the Far East, the Chinese explored the Pacific, the Sea of Sunrise. They returned with sightings of the sea folk. Then, abruptly, the Chinese withdrew to their own land. Judging that their civilization provided all their requirements, they had no desire for foreign contamination. The Emperor forbade long sea voyages and exploration. Again the sea people became myths in the world of the men of land.

Beyond the equator, other land dwellers explored the Sea of Sunrise, in magnificent sea-going canoes. They explored the ocean, venturing far offshore. They long had known of the sea people: they glimpsed them from afar, chasing them, at times, for sport. The voyagers found the rare remains, but never caught living sea people. The sea people could dive and wait in languor until the hunters counted them lost.

The voyagers chased great whales and killed them for food. Tasting the blood of whales in the water, the sea people feared becoming prey. When the voyagers reached the Land of the Long White Clouds, and settled there, the sea people feared the hunters would also invade the desolate volcanic birth islands, where they sea people were so exposed. The sea people left the great warm waters of the Land of Long White Clouds, fleeing to deeper, distant, colder waters. They left behind nothing but the stories of the taniwha, the guardian sea monster.

Toward the end of the Dark Ages, Europeans once more ventured into the Atlantic. The Vikings chanced upon birth islands of the people of the sea. The Vikings captured sea women, used them against their will, and threw them, dead or dying, back into the ocean. Again, the sea people fled farther from shore.

After the time of the Vikings, the French and the Spanish, the Dutch and the Italians and the British and the Portuguese, began their conquest of the seaways.

At the beginning of the age of mariners, the sea people were seldom and distantly observed. But in later years, as the men of land extended their domination, the sea people could no longer escape.

The Europeans sent no delegations to treat with their cousins in the ocean. Instead, they captured a few individuals and brought them back to land. Their uncomely faces and similarities to human beings were much remarked upon, when they were exhibited next to monkeys and baboons. The faces of the gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals came to resemble the sea people, who look grotesque to the men of land.

An alchemist, overcoming his revulsion for the ugliness of the sea people, studied and described them. He noted, in particular, their webbed hands, their sharp claws, the thickened, scale-like skin on their legs. Church authorities, reading his notes, judged sea men and sea women to be the result of fornication between human women and diabolical spirits.

For years thereafter—it was the time of the Inquisition—the Church condemned any poor woman who birthed a deformed child. The Inquisitors invented a suitable way of punishing these dangerous heretics. They broke both mother and child upon the wheel, took them far out to sea, and threw them overboard as an example to their devilish kin.

Some years later, a bishop accused the alchemist himself of communicating with the devil. The alchemist's unfortunate apprentice was put to the Question. As the torture device crushed his bones, the apprentice claimed he had seen the alchemist in a bath of the blood of sea devils, testing it for the qualities of the Elixir of Youth. Rumor said that the bishop, who was an elderly man, wished to find the Elixir of Youth as desperately as did the alchemist. When the alchemist failed in his search, the bishop condemned the alchemist and the sea devils as well.

Disappointed in his quest for immortality, the bishop lived till spring, then followed the alchemist and the sea devils into death. But he died quietly, in his bed; he was never tortured, or burned, or drowned. He was never kept captive in a tiny pen and speared to death in water frothing pink with the struggles and the blood of his parents, his sister, his brothers, the children of his family.

02-seamanupsidedown_s.jpg A rare contemporary report, formerly mistaken for a fairy tale, describes sea devils singing an eerie song before they died. Perhaps it was the rhapsody of death alluded to in a fragmentary text translated from Linear A.

In the summer following the death of the bishop, a hurricane blew a French warship terribly off course. When the storm ended, and the skies cleared, the sailors beheld the yearly gathering of the Atlantic sea people.

It is hard to conceive, in our modern age, how the sight of ten thousand devils fornicating in he ocean must have affected the sailors and their officers.

They must have believed the storm had brought them straight to the gates of Hell.

Without hesitation, without question, and without mercy, the captain ordered his men to sail through the orgy, pumping Greek fire into the mating congregation of the sea devils.

Greek fire ignites on contact with sea water. Perhaps half of the sea people's Atlantic population perished on that single day. The sea people had been used to safety and privacy, out in the center of the ocean. Leaving the young children in the care of the youths, the adults surrendered themselves to the haze. Thus they panicked during the attack, if they came to themselves at all. Many fled—to their doom—instead of diving into the secure depths. And many more never knew of the assault; they died in the rapture of the mating haze.

When the ship made its way back to port, with bloody trophies of its devil-hunt, Louis IX of France, St. Louis as he was called, presented the captain and the crew with rich rewards. In the name of God, he declared war on the sea devils. This began a hunt of the sea people that lasted more than a century and extended over the globe.

During the Renaissance, educated men began to question the existence of earthly devils. The Church inquired again into the nature of the people of the sea. After examining a captive group, the Pope absolved them of diabolical connections.

In doing so, he placed them in even more peril. Far from elevating them to the status of human beings, he reduced them to the level of beasts. The erudite and devout Christian judged them animals, sea monsters, placed upon Earth for the use of men.

The weather was harsh that year. Crops failed and livestock starved. The Pope had the captive sea monsters slaughtered. He feasted on their flesh.

He pronounced them excellent meat. He gave the scraps of their carcasses to the poor.

Hunting sea monsters became good sport and good business. Ships could sail longer and more difficult routes when the captain knew a source of good meat in mid-ocean. Explorers mapped out the birth islands of sea monsters and kept the locations secret, or sold the maps to other explorers.

The sea monsters' rich diet of fish and squid, garnished with shellfish and seaweed, resulted in flesh as succulent as the finest and most tender game, irresistible to men starved for fresh food. The creatures were simply animals, sea monsters, and if the sailors wished to slaughter and waste them and devastate their birth islands, no one cared to complain.

A fashion sprang up in continental Europe for sea monster flesh. The Pope declared the monsters to be fish; devout Catholics could eat their flesh on Fridays and on fast days. The fashion intensified; the price of sea monster meat rose precipitously. Fleets set out to scour the birth islands, capture and kill any sea monsters they could find, and preserve their carcasses in barrels of salt. Fishing ships took to carrying mortars so they could stun or kill any sea monster they came across, even one who dived too deep for nets or spears.

As the population of sea monsters declined, the worth of each individual increased. In France, Louis XIII claimed ownership of sea monsters for the Kings of France, just as the rulers of England claimed black swans. He decreed that sea monsters be captured alive and delivered to him. He suppressed the trade in salted sea monster meat, enforcing his rule with strict poaching laws on the one hand, a large bounty on the other.

Nobles both French and foreign knew they had gained the King's favor if they supped on sea monster at a royal hunt breakfast or state banquet. A few references survive to extravagant dinners of thirty courses, for which the pièce de résistance was a whole roasted sea man wrestling a tangle of boiled giant eels, or a sea woman, carrying a fish in her arms as if it were suckling.

Though sea women do suckle their young, their breasts are wide and flat. Sea women are nearly as flat-chested as sea men.

04-roastseawomanprone_s.jpg One of the few surviving references to the monsters includes a woodcut of one of these lavish banquets. The butchered sea woman has been altered by the talents of the cook. She lies on the platter like a figurehead, her back unnaturally arched, her breasts fantastically swollen with a stuffing of oysters and shrimp, her arms cradling a sturgeon, her eyes open and dead.

The woodcut is an appalling sight to the modern eye, a representation of the nobility, in court dress, at a cannibalistic feast. It is hard to imagine any human attending more than one such dinner—indeed it is hard to imagine anyone staying after the main course appeared. But sensibilities were different, and the Church after all assured the world that the sea folk were mere beasts.

The hunting continued.

The Atlantic population never recovered from the first assault on the mating haze. The pressure of hunting further diminished the numbers of sea people. It made no difference to sea monsters if they were executed as demons or slaughtered as beasts.

The remnants of the Pacific community disappeared into the bellies of sailors on the great trading ships. The Kings of France could not enforce their ownership at such a distance. Few sea monsters survived on shipboard long enough to reach France from the Pacific Ocean. Few Pacific sea monsters reached the King's table, and none was ever thoroughly studied. Thus even less is known about the Pacific population than the Atlantic.

By the approach of the Enlightenment, both populations of sea monsters had nearly vanished. Sightings became rare. The summer mating orgy vanished from its place beneath the midsummer sun.

Some naturalists speculated that the sea monsters had changed the location of their sexual gathering, so as to escape the hunters. The majority of scholars, however, ridiculed that idea, and declared sea monsters extinct.

Observed from the skiff

A damaged seventeenth-century diary, handwritten in cipher, recently discovered and translated, is the only remaining witness to the final encounter between sea monsters and the men of land. It is the diary of a natural philosopher at the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, le roi soleil.

Historians have long been aware of mysterious lacunae in official documents for a few weeks during the reign of Louis XIV. One theory proposed that records were assiduously, deliberately, destroyed in response to some frightful event.

The natural philosopher's diary gives some evidence of the nature of the event.

Acting under a royal command now lost, the philosopher set out on an expedition. It pleased Louis XIV to possess a living sea monster if even a single specimen remained. The philosopher succeeded in capturing one. He brought her, in a golden tub of sea-water, to the court of the Sun King.

05-roastseawomansupine_s.jpg Louis immediately planned a banquet to rival the most elaborate feasts of his father, Louis XIII. His guests included the heads of state of all the countries of Europe with whom France was not at war. It included the Pashas and Sultans and Shahs of the Middle East, the Queen of Nubia, the War Chiefs of the Huron, the Crown Prince of Japan, and Pope Innocent XII. The gathering taxed the abilities of the Introducer of Ambassadors, who determined precedent and etiquette, but for a banquet of sea monster flesh even jealous rulers might forgive errors in their hierarchical position.

While the sea monster languished, force-fed to prevent her wasting away, the natural philosopher examined and studied her. Perhaps she was the last sea monster in existence. The philosopher might be the only naturalist of modern times to describe the creature. His diary records that he hoped her bones would not be damaged when she was cooked and eaten, so he might study them.

He wished, of course, that he had ensnared a male sea monster, so his description would be of the superior specimen, rather than the inferior female.

While testing the captive creature's ability to produce sound, he spoke some words to her in his own language.

She repeated them.

At first he assumed she mimicked his words, like a parrot or a magpie. Gradually, he became convinced that she could speak, indeed that she could reason. He taught her his language. She tried to teach him, as well, but he was incapable of reproducing the musical language of the people of the sea.

Soon the sea monster conversed with the philosopher, in liquid, simple, comprehensible French. She told him about her people, about their suffering at the hands of the men of land.

The philosopher became convinced that sea monsters—sea people, as he began to call them—despite their gargoyle-like physiognomy and scaled, misshapen legs, were intelligent and self-aware.

07-seagirlinwave-mixed_s.jpgHe became convinced the sea woman was human.

He became convinced she had a soul.

He spoke to the king's confessor. The priest ridiculed his discovery. He denounced the naturalist as a heretic, and threatened him with the Inquisition. Ultimately, he refused to plead with the king for the sea woman's life.

What happened next is unclear. Time and abuse have taken their toll of the diary. No account remains of a papal visit to Versailles. The official records of both Louis XIV and Innocent XII have vanished for that early autumn of 1693.

We may speculate that the Pope did accept Louis' invitation. We may speculate that the philosopher managed to win an audience with Innocent XII. Whether this audience occurred before or after the banquet, we cannot even guess.

If the banquet of sea monster flesh took place, all accounts of it have been eradicated.

It is possible that the banquet never occurred. It is possible that the naturalist persuaded Pope Innocent to examine the sea woman.

It is possible that the naturalist persuaded Innocent that the sea woman was human, a being created in the image of God and possessed of a soul. Innocent differed from many of his predecessors in being truly pious, uninterested in the wealth and honors he could gain by his power. He insisted that his bishops and priests concern themselves with spiritual matters rather than worldly ones.

It is possible that Innocent realized the Church had condemned the sea people to extinction. He may have realized, worse, that the Church had failed to save their souls from their heretical atheism.

It is possible he was overcome with horror.

Was Innocent tempted to deny his realization, to proclaim the sea people, after all, the spawn of the devil? Did he persuade Louis (Louis could not be commanded, only persuaded, even by God's representative on Earth) to cancel the royal banquet and free the sea woman? Or did he attend the banquet, then suppress all reference to the sea folk?

We cannot know. We do know that many documents vanished: ancient parchments, paintings by the masters, contemporary references, and the notes of the court philosopher.

The sea people were extinct or nearly so. If all knowledge of their existence were wiped away, then the Church's error would never be discovered and criticized and used to question proper authority.

What became of the captured sea woman? Again, we will never know. We can hope she was neither butchered nor executed. Perhaps the Pope found it in his heart to persuade the King to release her.

If he did release her, she is the lone individual of her kind to escape from an encounter with the men of land.

11-asleepinthedepths_s.jpgAfter the seventeenth century, sea people vanished. Perhaps the sea woman was the last of her kind. Perhaps she swam to the isle of her birth and died all alone. Perhaps she became infected with a human disease unknown to the people of the sea, perhaps she transmitted it to the others, and perhaps they all died.

But some legends, whispered in taverns in port cities, by sailors drunk on cheap rum, blame the sea people for vanished ships, for ships left sailing but abandoned. The legends say the sea people fled to the Sargasso Sea, there to lure sailing ships to their destruction.

Again, we will never know. The mysterious places of the oceans, the Sargasso Sea, the Bermuda Triangle, have all been explored and debunked. If sea people still lived on the surface of the sea, if they are not extinct, airplanes and satellites would have detected them.

One possibility remains.

10-mating frenzy_s.jpgA few may survive, living in languor at the bottom of the sea, at the dull and quiet pace required by water breathing. They could no longer risk gathering for the longest day of the year, beneath the midsummer sun.

But every fourteen years, when the dark of the moon coincides with midsummer night, the shortest night of the year, they might take the enormous risk of rising to the surface of the sea.

They might lie amidst the waves, whispering songs until the languor passed. They might bathe in the luminescence of plankton. Then, their bodies glowing in the darkness, they might come together and experience the brief bliss of their mating haze.

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