Decoding the morse: the history of sixteenth-century narcoleptic walruses

Cross-posted from the Public Domain Review

“To the far north, on the coast of Norway, there lives a mighty creature, as big as an elephant, called the walrus or ‘morse’, perhaps so named for its sharp bite; for if it glimpses a man on the seashore and can catch him, it jumps on him swiftly, rends him with its teeth, and kills him in an instant”

A woodcut of a four-footed, boar-tusked, thickly-whiskered creature clinging to a cliff-face accompanied this description of the rosmaro or morse in Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A History of the Northern Peoples, 1555). The Swedish Ecclesiast had never himself seen such a fearsome beast, but as part of an exercise in the marketing of marvels, the accounts of other respected scholars were, it anything, of rather more value. They certainly allowed Magnus to create a more fantastical product, which could only suit his aims better

Magnus Rosmaro
De Rosmaro’ woodcut from Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (Rome, 1555) by Olaus Magnus.

The de Gentibus built on Magnus’ lavish Carta Marina (1539), one of the first and most spectacular maps of the north to be published. Across the land masses are depicted the strange peoples, unusual creatures and odd land formations Magnus described in his text: hunters spearing bear-like seals on the ice floes and women milking reindeer, whilst fires belch from the cavernous pits of ‘Islandia’ and fierce tribes war with each other across the ice. The seas are filled with ferocious sea beasts disporting themselves, sending great water-spouts into the air, writhing around ships, and playfully mauling one another.

Carta_Marina olaus magnus
The Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus (2nd ed., 1572)

These images were largely the fantastical products of generations of scholarly minds. Magnus wanted to present the North as an impenetrable region of wonders and marvels — flesh-eating Scricfinns, magicians, vast whirlpools, and flaming volcanoes — at the very edge of the known world. Importantly, he wanted to portray wonders that were resonant to an audience in Catholic Southern Europe. He needed support from the church against the threat of Protestantism that encroached from vocal Protestant clerics. Bringing his neglected corner of the world to the attention of the Catholic powers in the South was Magnus’ way of demonstrating that it was a part of God’s realm worth protecting. To do so, he used practical, local information, but, ironically, also based much of his description on classical scholarship and Southern European perceptions of the north. He was re-igniting images of the “septentrional lands” rather than generating them: selling mythologies back to the traditions that had created them.

The morse was one such arctic wonder. Magnus went on to relate how:

“Using their tusks, these animals clamber right up to the cliff-tops, as if they were going up a ladder, in order to crop the sweet, dew-moistened grass, and then roll back down into the sea again, unless, in the meantime, they have been overcome with a heavy drowsiness and fall asleep as they cling to the rocks.”

Hunters would sneak up on the napping behemoths, tie ropes around their tails, and, from a safe distance, wake the animals with a hail of stones. The startled morses, flinging themselves into the ocean to escape, were stripped of their valuable skins, and, weakened by loss of blood, became easy prey for the hunters.

Magnus acquired this image from a long lineage of cliff-top snoozers. The Catholic Bishop, Albertus Magnus had described in his De Animalibus (1250), “hairy whales” with “the longest tusks” by which they “hang from the rocks of cliffs when they sleep”. In order to catch them:

“…a fisherman, coming close, separates as much of its skin as he can from the blubber near its tail. He passes a strong rope through the part he has loosened and he then ties the ropes to rings fixed into a mountain or to very strong stakes or trees. Aroused, the fish, as it tries to escape, draws off its skin from its tail down along its back and head and leaves it behind… it is captured in a weakened state, either swimming bloodless in the water or lying half-alive on the shore…”

In the early sixteenth century, a Polish diplomat, Maciej z Miechowa, had described the “mors” that climbed cliffs with its long teeth and the Scottish historian Hector Boece had described ‘an grete fische’ in the “Orknays” that was bound by the tail while asleep, and died from its wounds while struggling to free itself.

The walrus was a relatively unfamiliar creature in sixteenth-century Europe, despite the fact that walrus parts had been circulating for hundreds of years through trade with Greenland, Iceland, and Russia. The medieval Lewis chessmen, featuring shocked-looking bishops and terrified pawn soldiers gnawing at their shields, were made from walrus tusk during the twelfth century. This trade was reflected in the European names for the walrus. The name, morse, was borrowed from the Russian and Lapp name morsz, whilst the Scandinavians and Dutch used Rosmarus and Walrusch, probably derived from the Old Norse hvalross (hairy whale).

Lewis Chessmen
Four of the Lewis Chessmen, carved out of walrus tusk in the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides (c. AD 1150-1200) (source:

One illustrious piece of walrus to make its way south in the sixteenth century was a head sent to Pope Leo X in 1521 by Bishop Walkendorf of Trondheim. On its journey, it was painted by an artist in an effigy on the wall of Strasbourg town hall, accompanied by a poem:

In Norway they call me “walrus”,

But I am “cetus dentatus”.

My wife is called Balaena.

I am well known in the Eastern Sea

I make mighty thunder in the sea…

To battle and fight is nothing to me,

One finds many thousands of my comrades…

…Had I lived my life to the full

I would not have devoted it to whales.

The bishop of Nidrosia had me stabbed on the shore

The Pope Leo had my head sent

To Rome where many men saw me

This doleful lament from a slain whale-husband, is a rare personification of an animal about which few people in Europe were very certain. In the same year, perhaps this very same walrus head was subject of a sketch by Albrecht Dürer, who was travelling around the Netherlands at the time, making and selling prints and drawings.

Durer Walrus
Head of a Walrus (1521, brown pen and ink), by Albrecht Dürer. (Source: British Museum online)

Tusked amphibious beasts, that may or may not have been based on walruses, existed in various sixteenth-century scholarly works. Some of these harked back to classical authorities: Pliny had described a “sea-elephant”, with which the Arctic beast sometimes became identified. Disentangling circumstantial similarity and actual representation is not easy. The elephant-like “morsus” represented on the world map of Martin Walderseemüller (1516), was most probably the result of such confusing names and a mainland trade of mammoth teeth through Russia.


Waldseemuller Morsus 1516
‘Morsus’, detail from the Carta Marina (1516) by Martin Waldseemüller. [Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress]
Once Europeans began hunting walruses in the Arctic themselves in the late sixteenth century, however, undeniably walrus-like creatures began to appear in natural histories. This wasn’t a simple process of “discovery” of walruses. Nobody except the hunters who killed walruses on the Arctic ice saw living walruses: carcasses were immediately channeled through the marketplaces of Northern European shores, into apothecary shops, curiosity cabinets and natural histories. Walrus hides were carted off to the tanners, the ivory and bone sent for carving into combs and knife handles, or ground up. The blubber was rendered into soaps, lamp fuel, or cooking oil. Tusks and penis-bones were sometimes gilded, carved, and polished for luxury sales to curiosity collectors.

Apothecaries placed ground-up walrus tusk for sale alongside other exotic and costly medicinal substances: walrus ivory was often billed as possessing similar qualities to “unicorn horn”, a traditional panacea against all poisons. “Unicorn horn” could itself, in reality, be any of a number of powdered, osseous things, from narwhal or walrus tusks to elephant bone. As long as the apothecary was of good repute, nobody would be any the wiser. They certainly weren’t going to be protected from poison, whatever species the powder contained.

Walruses were physically and metaphorically dismantled and reassembled; cut up into transportable parts by hunters and put back together in various guises by scholars, who constructed their very own walrus-creatures from walrus artifacts and older textual accounts. These quasi-mythical images had lives of their own. Magnus’ image of narcoleptic cliff-hangers was particularly long-lived. Parts of walrus images were also broken up and scattered into other depictions. Imposing, walrus-like tusks or bristly manes were featured by many cartographic denizens of treacherous oceans. Elements of the morse were used in depictions of monstrous sea-beasts such as the “sea-pig”, “sea-boar”, “sea-wolf” and “sea-lion” in various books of monstrosity.

There were, in fact, a number of first-hand accounts from hunters published in this period describing the slaying of hundreds of “see-horses” on the Arctic ice, heroic battles with enraged and red-eyed creatures in the waters, followed by the heavy work of flensing (skinning) and dismantling the slain creatures. But very few scholars seemed interested in these kinds of images of what a walrus was, preferring the monsters depicted in more authoritative, erudite accounts. One of the most important was by the prolific Swiss naturalist, Conrad Gessner, in his Historiae Animalium (Vol.IV, 1558). Gessner worked to weave all the material he could find on anything remotely walrusy to construct the most complete account of this creature, including Magnus’ description.

Rosmarus’ woodcut after the Strasbourg Town Hall image, from De Piscium et Aquatilium animatium natura (1558) by Conrad Gessner

Gessner cast a skeptical eye over his sources: he was less than certain of the accuracy of Magnus’ fantastical account, while the finned and four-limbed image from the Strasbourg town hall image was clearly an extrapolation, having been produced from a severed head. The walrus existed only as a scattered set of body parts and imagery, insufficient material for Gessner to determine the creature’s nature, even had he wanted to. Which he probably didn’t. Just like Magnus’ northern wonders, monsters that retained an air of intangible mystery sold rather well to the markets of curious punters. Gessner’s account was exhaustive, but did not provide a definitive “walrus”.

It was only in 1612 that a whole, living walrus was brought to mainland Europe. A walrus pup arrived in Amsterdam, along with the stuffed skin of its mother on a Dutch hunting ship. It was described by Dr Everhard Vorstius of Leiden University, as a “sea-beast…much like a seal” with holes for ears and a bristly beard. This small animal “roared like a boar” and was placed in a barrel of water to relax. He was fed porridge oats, at which he sucked slowly and grunted as he ate. Vorstius finished with the ominous mention that the walrus’ fat was rather “toothsome”.

This porridge-slurping pup was co opted into the roster of morse images in later descriptions, but sat awkwardly with the fierce-toothed behemoths. It certainly did not replace them: they were far too powerful and too resonant with traditional preconceptions of what the Arctic must be like. The walrus remained a nebulous beast from an intangible and wonder-filled north, long after Magnus purported to reveal its secrets.


Walrus, anoniem, 1560 - 1585
‘Walrus’, anon., c.1560-85.

Links to public domain works

Historia de Gentibus septentrionalibus by Olaus Manus (1555). Bk.21, ch.28, pp.757-8.

Historia de Gentibus septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus (1557). Bk.21, ch.19, pp.491-2.

(For a full English translation, see: Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, by Olaus Magnus. edited and translated by P. Fisher, P. Foote, J. Granlund and H. Higgens (London: Hakluyt Society, 1998))

Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis, Asiana et Europiana, et de contentis in eis by Mathias De Miechow (1517). Bk.2, tr.2, p.194.

Heir Beginnis the Hystory and Croniklis of Scotland by Hector Boece (1540). Ch.15, pp.50-1.

Historiae Animalium, vol. 4, De Piscium et Aquatilium animatium natura by Conrad Gessner (1604). Bk.4, pp.210-2.


Further Reading

The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium: An Essay in Natural History. (2017, Harvard University Press) by Juan Pimentel

Raising Lazarus: the exoticism of extinction

The promise of the ‘resurrection’ of the mammoth has been causing a stir in recent media. A group of Harvard scientists estimate that in a few years, ‘mammophant’ embryos will be produced, using the genomes of Asian elephants into which sections of mammoth DNA have been spliced. Most commentary has questioned the timeline and moral viability of these projects, rather than why we want to bring extinct animals back or why this one in particular? And why not start with something a bit more manageable, like an extinct amphibian or fish?


We already know how to play jiggsaw with genomes, roll out herds of clones, or store the biosphere’s blueprints in gene banks. What makes the possibility of a living mammoth, or mammoth-elephant chimaera, so intriguing? The Harvard group suggest they might give the Asian elephant a genetic segue in the face of climate change and reinstate a cornerstone of the Tundra ecosystem. But these two reasons seem more fantasy of a regenerated Ice-Age Utopia than practical conservation endeavours.

De-extiction and the rediscovery of creatures thought lost undoubtedly capture our imaginations. Recently-extinct animals, such as the dodo or tasmanian tiger (thylacine) seem to hold a special allure, even over equally-strange, extant creatures. Many people have never heard of a pangolin, despite their bizarre, prehistoric appearances and widespread over-exploitation. Yet everyone would recognise a dodo, a flightless bird that lived on a distant Indian Ocean Island several hundred years ago, extinct just 80 years after it was first encountered.

Why is this? Such animals existed alongside humans, interacted with them, were hunted, eaten, marvelled at – sometimes within living memory- but have vanished. Some took on symbolic roles: in the West, for example, the dodo has become a symbol for greed, lethargy, as well as anthropogenic extinction. Just as important is the fact that rare natural things have always been valuable, whether useful or not. Things that are so rare that they are just out of reach – familiar but now lost – even more so. We often don’t value something until it is gone: footage of the last living Thylacine, ‘Benjamin’, in Beaumaris zoo, gives a haunting glimpse of an animal many would now give anything to encounter. In 1933, however, Benjamin was of so little value that he was left to die in the cold by his keepers, and the body was simply thrown in the dump. The recent stir about potential sightings of thylacines in Australia shows just how much our attitues have changed.

‘Benjamin’, 1933

The biologies of extinct creatures have to be assembled by researchers. Physical remnants, photographs, DNA, recordings, and textual descriptions are all used to build up composite, chimerical images. Self-styled ‘dodologists’, for example, scour historical sources and physical remants to try and piece together the bird’s living reality. Similarly, recent scan analysis of the thylacine brain demonstrated specialised hunting adaptations, adding another layer to the picture formed from the other materials we have about these strange marsupial carnivores.

Resurrection or de-extinction would be the ultimate reconstruction. Such projects may have practical scientific and conservation value, but, arguably, most enticing would be the possibility of direct experience of infinitely rare creatures. This would not be a true resurrection: most extinct genomes are lost for good. But, perhaps the prospect of seeing living, breathing mammoth-alikes is enough. Jurassic Park-style menageries of extinct exotica might be spectacles worth the effort and investment in de-extinction. A ‘mammophant’ would definitely draw enough ecotourists to the Tundra Mammoth Park to merit a gift shop and cafe at the very least.

This might serve a more profound psychological need for us than sheer time-machine voyeurism. Many of the creatures that would be at the top of most people’s ‘de-extinction’ lists were lost because of humans. We have always been catastrophic neighbours for other large beasts: Arctic Stellar’s sea cows, New Zealand Moa, herds of North American bison, to name but a few. The mammoth was probably amongst these victims of human ingenuity. These are spectacular beasts, but perhaps we also feel an obligation reinstate these natural wonders, even if only as tokens.


Europeans voyaging to unknown regions East and West in the sixteenth century hoped to rediscover a lost terrestrial paradise or Eden in exotic locales. Is there something of a similar quest behind de-extinction projects? Are we attempting to save a Fallen global biosphere, decimated and adulterated by human activities, perversely, through the use of human technologies. The illusory control of genetic machinery, the preservation of genetic data, and the potential ability to ‘de-extinct’ lost species might give us hope that the devastation we are causing is not permanent. Do attempts towards the restoration of an anthropogenically-destroyed Eden through resurrection and rewilding offer us the possibility of redemption for what we have done, and continue to do to the planet?

Whether or not we ‘should’ do this is a moot point: the genetic landscape is an amoral one. Reduced to manipulable sequences of letters, genomes can no longer be viewed as pristine ‘natural’ creations. Selective breeding has long allowed humans to ‘play God’ with other species. But, what is at stake is our sense of jeopardy. This sense of loss needs to be directed to where it is most needed: to what is and will be destroyed if we don’t improve our efforts to conserve the globe’s biodiversity.





Disembodied birds: crafting the dodo and the birds of paradise in 17thC natural history

The Exoticorum libri decem (Ten books of exotics) (1605) was one of the first natural history works published in Europe dealing exclusively with novel exotic plants and animals. It was published by the scholar and naturalist Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), professor of botany at Leiden University, who’s extensive network of merchants, scholars, collectors and apothecaries helped him to source wonderful natural objects and information from around the globe.

This book included entries on two very different birds: the dodo, a rotund and flightless bird from the island of Mauritius, and the birds of paradise, spectacularly plumed creatures from the forests of Papua New Guinea. Despite how dissimilar these birds were, they were also both exotic wonders from distant places. Clusius crafted them into just the type of monsters that sold books, adding material even as the book was being published.

Skins and bones

The dodo and birds of paradise had very different physical histories. The birds of paradise reached Spain in 1522 as dried skins prepared by hunters in Papua New Guinea, often without legs or wings. They had been traded across South East Asia for hundreds of years. The beautiful but strange appearance of these plumed skins contributed to the idea in Europe that the birds never landed, but floated perpetually as dew-drinking, angelic entities. They were called Manucodiata in Europe, derived from the Islamic Malay name, Mamuco diuata (birds of God) and became valuable collectors’ items.

Birds of paradise, att. to Conrad Aicher, 1567.

In contrast, the dodo was from a hitherto uninhabited island and therefore not part of any pre-existing trade network. It was rarely brought to Europe as a physical specimen, much less a live animal, but used as a source of provisioning for Dutch ships heading to the Indies in the early seventeenth century. Some feet, skins or heads were found in curiosity collections, while a very few birds might have lived in menageries.

At the time that Clusius wrote about them, the dodo was relatively unknown, first described in a travelogue by first Dutch fleet to land at Mauritius in 1598. The sailors had described many ‘foules twice as bigge as swans, which they called Walghstocks, being very good meat,’ although soon they found they ‘lothsome’ and inedible. There were no scholarly descriptions to speak of, so Clusius could assemble his own.

de Bry the dutch on mauritius

Since their first arrival as legless skins aboard the ships returning to Portugal from Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the globe in 1522, the birds of paradise had been the subject of considerable scholarly discussion. The first accounts of them came from Malay tales told to the first European sailors, of the birds’ origins in Paradise and their heavenly nature, which sparked heated debates between scholars.

Sources for absent birds

Clusius had limited access to actual specimens of these birds, so despite his intention to gather first-hand information, he had to overcome the challenge of creating authoritative ‘histories’ of largely absent birds.

Clusius’s task with the birds of paradise was to reconstruct a familiar exotic, to make it his own. The living birds of paradise were unknown outside of New Guinea, and specimens were hard to access. He was frustrated in his attempts to see some new, legged specimens that arrived at Amsterdam in 1601, as they were rapidly sold to a wealthy collector. He was forced to describe the legless specimens owned by his friends. Clusius did, however obtain a letter from the vendor of the Amsterdam specimens describing their ‘unseemly and ugly’ feet.

In contrast, the dodo was largely unknown in Europe until Clusius described it. Clusius was not only staking a claim over this bird, but undertaking its textual genesis. There were very few whole dodo specimens in Europe, and Clusius certainly never saw a whole bird, but used his network of correspondents to secure experience of partial specimens. His colleague owned a ‘leg cut off as far as the knee’ and another collector owned ‘certain stones’ from the dodo’s stomach. Clusius made painstaking descriptions of these objects and used an image based on the journals from the first Dutch landing on Mauritius.

Clusius_dodo copy

Shaping saleable images

Clusius made a standardised ‘type’ of each animal, virtual commodities that had far greater value than the actual specimens of the animals they represented, part of a cache of wonders that fuelled the sales of books and paintings.

Both of these birds had great symbolic value, generated by their construction in natural histories like the Exoticorum. The dodo’s physical form and ‘greedy’ behavior represented the moral ills of gluttony, a resonance shared with other large flightless birds such as the ostrich. It became linked to the imagery of the consumptive Dutch East India enterprise in later natural history works.

The association of the birds of paradise with a heavenly existence in an Eastern Paradise persisted long after Clusius’s publication. The newly terrestrialised birds also gained other symbolic associations: with the increasingly bloody cost of the Dutch monopoly over spice trade came a shift in European perceptions of the East Indies through the sixteenth century. The ‘fabled Southland’ became an ‘infernal Southland.’ The newly legged and sharp-taloned birds of Clusius’s work reflected this shift in perception, as the aerial dew-drinkers became fierce carnivores.

Originally published in another form on Commodity Histories

Clusius kingbird image
King Bird, from the Exoticorum, p.362

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑