The oceans, filled with all kinds of exotic and intriguing lifeforms —
For as long as history records, these vast bodies of water have captivated human imagination, including the writers of ancient myths and legends. But despite all its wonder, the ocean in mythology takes on a sinister, even demonic aspect.
Of all the great mythological imagery out there, the ocean – also called the Deep, the Sea, the Abyss – is by far my favorite. It is, almost universally, a symbol for chaos, oblivion, and the demonic type of disorder comes over and over again into conflict with the gods who shaped civilization, including the Judeo-Christian God that I myself worship.
Once you understand how mythology uses the ocean, a lot of things from the ancient world become clearer and more meaningful, including many passages from the bible. And along the way, you might just learn something about yourself as well. (I did!)
So come along with me as we dive into this fascinating, unknowable, forbidden realm and come face to face with the demonic forces lurking at the very edges of human existence!
A quick note on translation: Modern English and science distinguish between an Ocean and a Sea. No such distinction existed in the ancient world. Most ancient languages had only one word for a large body of saltwater. When we translate ancient documents, the words "ocean" and "sea" are used more or less interchangeably. Usually, the only criteria is which one sounds better in a particular sentence. So, don't read anything into the use of sea vs. ocean. In ancient documents, both words refer to exactly the same thing.
The Unknowable Realm
In mythology, at its best, the ocean is a giant question mark, a bottomless, unknowable realm at the edge of the world, where humans would fall into nothingness, or the underworld, or something of that terrifying nature if they sailed too far.
At its worst, the ocean came to personify demons or demon-like gods, like the Mesopotamian goddess Tiamat, who attempts to wipe the universe out in its infancy, or the Titans of Greek mythology whose fearsome strength can only be contained by walls and chains at the bottom of the sea.
In addition, there are sea monsters beyond count, sea dragons like the bible’s Leviathan, and like beasts, best-preserved for modern readers in the Greek and Roman myths like Hesiod’s Theogony, Homer’s Odessey, Virgil’s Aeneid.
In more recent days, sailors have told stories of the monstrous Kraken – an octopus of mythological proportions – and the infernal Davy Jones who takes lost sailors to his “locker” (the land of the dead) beneath the sea. These are all updated versions of older mythology, ancient stories of terrifying beasts and spectral figures given charge of the dead.
And there is one more terrifying element to add here.
In many ancient cultures, those who died at sea could not receive a proper burial, because there was no body to be buried or burned. So, often, in the myths, those who die at sea are considered lost for eternity, like the dead crewmate Aeneas meets on the shores of Hades (Aeneid Book 6), doomed to wander aimlessly for all eternity without rest.
It is no wonder that ancient seafarers rarely ventured far beyond the sight of land!
But where did all this chaos come from? Why did ancient humans make this connection between the forces of oblivion and the ocean?
I think that question has a straight forward, simple answer: Personal experience.
Ancient people thought of the ocean as the unknowable realm of monsters and destruction because that was exactly what they experienced the ocean to be.
Several years ago, I was walking along the shore of Lake Michigan when a storm began to form far out over the water.
I watched the sky grow darker and darker, black clouds moving steadily toward me, light beginning the shoot through them. The water below turned grey as the wind picked up, moving the waves, pushing them toward share at the same rate as the moving clouds above. And then the rain, sheets of it, water from the sky pummeling the water below, waves striking shore like hammers.
It was, without doubt, the most awesome thing I have ever seen. It looked like power, compressed into a physical form, nature rising up against humanity, forcing us to take shelter.
It looked, truly, like the wrath of the gods.
Ancient sailors and the rage of the gods
Anyone fortunate enough to have spent time on the shores of Lake Michigan knows it’s not all that hard to mistake this lake for the ocean. (And yes, I say that as someone who has stood on the shores of both oceans and the Mediterranean sea.)
But still, Lake Michigan is not the ocean. Far from it.
I can only imagine what that storm would have looked like had it been given the time and violence allowed to gather over a much larger body of water.
Just imagine this:
You are out in the middle of the sea in a shallow boat made of wood and reeds and held together by tar, nothing but water on all sides, weighed down by merchandise and food and drinking water.
Above you, the clouds turn grey, billowing under the weight of rain and lightning. Then, the sky is black, and so is the sea around you. The rain falls and the water beneath you swells to meet the clouds, throwing your tiny boat over into a bottomless hell filled with strange creatures far larger and more dangerous than yourself.
If, by some miracle, you make it out of this nightmare alive, what do you then make of what happened?
You already believe that the stars are gods, that the forces of nature have minds and wills, that demons cause disease and injury and premature death, that every stone and storm and gust of wind is, more or less, in some way, alive.
So what then of this storm out over the sea? What of the monsters in its depths? What do you tell the people back home?
What conclusion can you reach except that the ocean is an angry and volatile god?
Tiamat & the chaos demons of the deep
Two stories from two ancient cultures illustrate the place of the ocean in mythology.
The older story comes from Babylon, telling of Tiamat and Apsu, the first things in all of creation. Apsu is the freshwater, Tiamat is saltwater – or the ocean. When they come together, Tiamat gives birth to the younger gods.
Eventually, the younger generations of the gods kill Apsu, and in retaliation, Tiamat, the ocean, goes to war with them.
With chaotic furry, she attacks, leading an army of sea serpents. No one can stand against her, until Marduk, the young storm god, takes up the challenge, harnesses the power of the winds to hold the ocean captive, kills her, and creates the universe as we know it from her corpse.
There are a few noteworthy details here.
- Tiamat, the ocean, represents an old, primordial power, which must be defeated before civilization and order can come into existence.
- The gods of order (Marduk and co.) are younger than the gods of chaos, and also powerless against that chaos, until one supreme hero emerges.
- The ocean is the home of monsters.
- The world as we know it is created out of the ocean, which existed before all else; however, (human) life cannot exist in the ocean itself. Rather, the ocean must be defeated before the world as we know it can come into being.
These same details come into play over and over again in various myths from across the world. Giving life to these details, Tiamat’s character is one of the most interesting and complex in all human storytelling.
She is a goddess of chaos and destruction, but also the first fertility goddess.
She is the would-be destroyer of the gods and of all life, but she was first the mother of those very gods, the one who literally gave birth to those gods, and the corpse that becomes an entire universe.
She perfectly represents the strangeness and contradictions of the ocean itself.
The deep waters team with diversity and life. Modern science tells us that life originated here, in the abyss. And yet, it is a realm where humans cannot survive, and therefore a place that we will always find beautiful, but hostile.
Centuries later, when the greatness of Babylon began to fade, the Greeks would tell another story about the gods of civilization and order going to war against the primordial forces of chaos.
They called their chaos monsters Titans, the gods who reigned before the gods. As in Babylon, a young hero finally rose to challenge and defeat chaos. A hero named Zeus.
When Zeus defeats the Titans, he and his brothers chain them up at the bottom of the ocean. This is Tartarus, as close to an “original” hell as we can get in mythology.
To further contain the Titans, Poseidon the ruler of the sea builds a wall at the bottom of the ocean, cutting Tartarus off from the sea, the world, and the land of human dead.
Because that’s right. In mythology, the land of the dead is usually connected to water somehow. Often, like the more modern Davy Jones’ Locker, it is located at the bottom of the ocean.
The meaning of the Ocean in mythology
The above stories represent many others, some that we still have copies of, but most of which have been lost.
Most of the sea monster stories we encounter today in the West come to us from our Greek and Roman roots. But all of those legends are certainly older than Greek civilization. Their own roots run deep into the shadows of human prehistory.
When You examine ancient mythology as a whole, one consistent image emerges.
The ocean is a terrible, terrifying place filled with magical monsters leftover from the lawless beginnings of the world.
They are chaotic because they come from a time before order even existed. Only the power of the gods stands a chance against them. And they are devastating to any human unfortunate enough to cross their paths.
But why does this matter?
First, it’s just fascinating, and there are worse reasons to study something
Second, it shows the relationship between mythology and experience.
I say more about what myths mean and the role they play in shaping human societies here.
For now, notice what happens. Real people take their real experiences with the ocean, and craft that experience into a symbol, for death, for chaos, for oblivion.
Then, those storytellers take the symbol, and use it to teach abstract truths. That order conquers chaos. That life comes from death.
That good will always defeat evil.
What the ocean symbolizes in mythology matters, because its message will never grow old. It is something that every generation needs to hear.
But if you do not understand the symbolism, you won’t hear the ancient voices who have been saying it all along.
In the next post, I dive into what is most important to me: How all of this applies to the bible and to Christianity. Because yes, there are large parts of the bible that make a lot more sense, and have a lot more meaning, once you understand the mythological significance of the ocean.
And there is another reason it matters.
Whatever your religious affiliations, the fact is that all of the world’s great religions are based on texts written in another place and time. The bible, sacred to two world religions, is one such ancient text.
Believe me, we Christians fight a lot about the meaning of the bible, both with others, and amongst ourselves. But in order to even begin to understand the bible, we have to start thinking the way the people who wrote the bible thought, which means taking their symbolism seriously.
And in order to do that, we have to know the symbols exist in the first place.
So join me here