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
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
Like 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,
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
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.
The 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
In the memory of the West, Knossos
became Atlantis, and the people of the sea become sirens and sea monsters.
In 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.
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
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
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
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
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
Though sea women do suckle their young, their breasts are wide
and flat. Sea women are nearly as flat-chested as sea men.
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
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
Observed from the skiff at sunrise
8 April 1812
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.
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
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
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
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.
He 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
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
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.
After 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
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
One possibility remains.
A 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.
Copyright © 2008 by Vonda N. McIntyre
Illustrations Copyright © 2008 by Ursula K. Le Guin