Friday, September 28, 2018

An evolving legend?

“The Water Horses of Loch Ness” is a book by Roland Watson, a crypto-zoologist researching the Loch Ness monster and similar beings. Watson is brave enough to investigate all reports about unknown creatures in or around the world famous Scottish lake, including the strangest ones. In “When Monsters Come Ashore” he investigated claims that the Loch Ness monster has been observed *on land*. In this book, he takes a closer look at the old Highland legends about Water Horses, Kelpies and Water Bulls. The Water Horse in particular was associated with Loch Ness long before the famous 1933 sighting of a dinosaur-like creature that triggered the current monster craze. Watson seems to think that older observations of mysterious creatures at Loch Ness somehow prove that something really is down there. After reading the book, I beg to differ. In fact, this work made me more skeptical to the whole idea of lake-monsters, especially if read together with “Lake Monster Traditions” by Michel Meurger and Claude Gagnon. Rather than proving the existence of a cryptid, the historical perspective points towards an evolving legend.

The original “Loch Ness monster” was *very* different from the dinosaur-plesiosaur-reptilian habitually observed today. The Water Horse is a supernatural being, a kind of demon, which frequently moves around on land in the form of a saddled and bridled horse. It somehow lures travelers or children to mount it, perhaps by hypnosis, and then runs down into the water, drowning the unlucky riders. In some stories, the Water Horse can even speak! (There is a similar legend in Sweden, but here the “the brook horse” is explicitly said to be the equine form of the Neck, an evil merman of humanoid countenance.) There is no way the Water Horse could possibly be a real flesh-and-blood animal, and the same goes for its more jovial cousin the Water Bull (unless you think an unknown breed of hippopotami lived in Scottish lochs until a few centuries ago).

So where did the dinosaur stereotype come from? Well, it seems it did emerge out of nowhere (or out of pop culture) in 1933. Yes, there are older observations of a dinosaur-like creature at Loch Ness, *but most of them didn´t come to light until after the iconic 1933 observation*, when people around the loch suddenly “remembered” seeing dinosaur-like creatures 50 or 60 years earlier. Thus, these observations are clearly contaminated by the 1930´s dino craze. Indeed, it seems the monster of the late 19th century is a transitional form between the Water Horse and the dinosaur, having both a long neck, a small head and a huge mane! Also, how come nobody today sees any Water Horses or Water Bulls? Did they suddenly go extinct or what (maybe the Nessie-saur ate them)? It´s also intriguing to note that Aleister Crowley, who lived at Loch Ness shortly before the Nessie craze, had heard nothing about dinosaur-like creatures supposedly living in the loch…

The only way to salvage the idea that a monster lives at Loch Ness is to assume that it´s some kind of supernatural creature, which for reasons all its own shape-shifts according to the cultural expectations of the viewer (and doesn´t like Crowley!). Or perhaps several supernatural creatures? Watson is brave enough to discuss the speculations of Tony “Doc” Shiels and the late Ted Holiday, and he was a personal friend of the latter. In fact, I think Watson once subscribed to the paranormal theory himself. Thus, he isn´t overtly hostile to it, but nevertheless tries to argue for a flesh-and-blood solution to the mystery. In the end, he decides to be undecided on the exact identity of the Loch Ness monster. Perhaps we´re dealing with several different unknown animals. Perhaps it´s a creature so strange that it has zero resemblance to any other form, living or extinct.

Personally, I´m even more convinced after reading “The Water Horses of Loch Ness” that Nessie, whatever else it might be, can´t be a flesh-and-blood cryptid. Spirit or hallucination? That is the question.

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