The ocean is the life force of our planet. It provides necessary rain for our crops to grow and produces more than 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. However, the ocean also contains endless mysteries in its watery depths. It cost many a sailor their lives. This is why even though the ocean provides and protects us, we still traverse its domain warily. In celebration of World Oceans Day, let us talk about humans’ classic fear of the sea in stories and literature.
Why do we fear the ocean?
Thalassophobia, or the fear of large bodies of water such as the ocean, comes from the same primordial origins as many other common fears. Evolution caused the fear of the dark, the fear of spiders, and the fear of heights for humans because of a simple reason: our brain is trying to keep us alive.
Especially in the cases of the dark or the ocean, we do not have enough information to process outcomes. Our brains constantly feed data into algorithms, testing all possible results to find the safest way forward. But what can it do if it does not have enough data? The fear of the ocean is mainly the fear of the unknown. We fear the ocean because we cannot see what is below us. Even if we could, odds are we might not know what the creature is, what with approximately 80% of the ocean being unexplored.
Further, we cannot anticipate how the water will act because it is not solid like the earth. Waves and storms are erratic, which creates another layer of anxiety. In short, we fear the ocean because we perceive it as unruly and adventitious. To the animalistic subconscious, this means danger.
Tales as old as time
So we understand this fear is innate but when did it enter the world of storytelling? Probably when we began to tell stories. The earliest records of thalassophobia present in literature date back to ancient civilization.
Ancient Greece in particular churned out hundreds of tales regarding the deep blue. This should be unsurprising, considering they built their city-states around the water and utilized boats as their primary form of transportation. These maritime people possessed extensive imaginations which led to a plethora of sea monsters inhabiting their stories. The Greeks personified natural occurrences in the water such as sinkholes, storms, or unknown fish. These feats of Mother Nature became characters such as Charybdis, sirens, Cetus, and many more.
The Greeks were not the only ancient group creating nautical monstrosities. Scandinavians developed the famous myth of the giant squid, the Kraken. In Celtic lore, we have selkies. In the Book of Job, there is the Leviathan. As you can see, the fear and the stories, about the ocean have been around as long as humans have existed.
Classics drowned in thalassophobia
Even turning the pages of the classics you will face this never-ending watery terror. With the beginning of the enlightenment period, science slowly started to solve the ocean’s mysteries; that, before, we could only explain through religion and folktales. Still, sometimes the truth is scarier than fiction. Literature evolved to find the truth just as frightening as the monsters.
Perhaps this is because we never fully eradicated our perception of the evil below the surface. Moby Dick by Herman Melville still utilized a sea creature of incredible mass as the antagonist. Only, he added in the scientific side of thalassophobia through what we term ocean madness.
Indeed, this sickness caused by dehydration and isolation is every sailor’s worst nightmare. Ocean madness causes weakness in the muscles, confusion, and hallucinations. This disease is to blame for the earlier “sightings” of monsters at sea. However, the discovery of the perpetrator did not quell anyone’s worry. The only thing worse than losing control of your ship is losing control of your own mind and body.
Then, there are the more realistic fears of being on a ship, such as becoming stranded after a bad storm or running out of food. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway shows how cruel the ocean can be simply for not having necessary equipment. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allen Poe takes this a step forward, threatening ocean-goers with consequences of mutiny and cannibalism.
Just because science disproved the myths does not mean it disproved the fears and that is evident in our classic novels.
Surely we have outgrown this silly preoccupation with the ocean, right? Not quite. Now that we no longer worry about storms capsizing our tiny fishing boats or pirates slaughtering our crew, the fear has only evolved again with society.
Thalassophobia turned into a sci-fi goldmine due to the ever-present question: “What is down there where humans cannot go?” Giant shark movies make their rounds at theaters everywhere, starting with Jaws and most recently adding The Meg. “The Call of Cthulu” by H.P. Lovecraft revisits the giant squids of old, adding in the finishing touch of psychological terror.
We still see the unease regarding ship breaks in movies like the Titanic and ocean madness in Cast Away. Truly, thalassophobia might never leave the minds of writers for the entire period humanity dwells on this earth.
However, we know these are all stories. The ocean represents the unknown and yes, it can be dangerous. But without our oceans, humanity will not survive. So while reading the spooky tales of sailors, remember to contribute to World Oceans Day. This World Oceans Day, consider being a part of the movement to revitalize the seas and keep our waters clean.
Read more about what you can do for World Oceans Day on the United Nation’s Website. If you are interested in other green causes, don’t forget to read our article recommending environmentalist-themed YA novels.