Monsters of Ice and Fire: The Sea


There are many sea monsters referenced in A Song of Ice and Fire, from mermaids to sea dragons and beyond. What are they, and where do they come from?

The World of Ice and Fire is full of wonders, including all manner of fantastical beasts. In the Monsters of Ice and Fire series, we take a close look at these creatures and their history, both in Martin’s imagined world and our own.

In the first two installments of this series, I focused on one specific monster (Robert Strong) and a group of three specific monsters (Dany’s dragons). This time, let’s examine a more diverse group of monsters, a group whose members are connected only by their habitat and their elusive nature: aquatic monsters.

If you have only ever watched the Game of Thrones, or even if you have only read the Song of Ice and Fire novels once , there’s a chance you may have missed the mentions of aquatic monsters altogether. Martin’s aquatic monsters don’t hog center stage, especially in comparison with the dragons. But in a way, that makes them more interesting. They’ve maintained a sense of mystery. And who knows? Some may emerge from the shadows before the story is over.

Where Are My (Sea) Dragons?!

Let’s start with the most high-profile aquatic monster from the novels: Nagga the sea dragon. She feels somewhat more real and closer to the story proper than most of the other monsters we’ll look at. There are two reasons for this. First, there is tangible evidence that Nagga actually existed: Nagga’s Bones. They’re still on the Iron Islands, and we visit them during the Kingsmoot in A Feast for Crows. The second reason is that Nagga, as a sea dragon, shares a possible kinship with the other dragons in our story. At the beginning of the story, dragons are extinct, but we see them reborn into the world. Could sea dragons follow suit? Are they even extinct to begin with?

Concept art for the Kingsmoot in Game of Thrones season 6
Concept art for the Kingsmoot in Game of Thrones season 6 /

Now’s a good time for us to apply a lesson from our real world to the world of Ice and Fire. At least until the beginning of the early modern period (around 1500), sea monsters were a staple of natural science…with a couple of caveats. For one, natural science didn’t properly exist back then. It would be more precise to talk about natural history. And the natural history of the time arguably valued exhaustiveness and compatibility with tradition higher than plausibility, verisimilitude, and plain old truth. When natural science (particularly zoology) developed as a discipline of its own, things began to change. Old books and sailor’s yarns didn’t cut it anymore. For a couple of hundred years afterward, tales of sea monsters from old books and maps and sailor’s stories were considered fantasy. However, we got a surprise in the year 2000.

May I introduce you to architheutis dux and mesonychotheutis hamiltoni?i Judging from recent finds, architheutis dux, the giant squid, reaches about 12 meters in total length. Mesonychotheutis hamiltoni, the colossal squid, is said to be able to reach 15 meters. Both, however, have been rumored to get as long as 30 meters, which is probably an error due to the flexibility of the tentacles of the specimens found. If that is indeed the case, though, both species might still very well grow larger than that. Even a squid of 20 or 30 meters would be tiny in comparison with the vast expanse of the oceans in whose depths it could hide from humanity.

If these two species could stay hidden from humanity right up until the 21st century, could Martin’s sea dragons remain hidden from everyone on Westeros? It would be absurd to rule out their (continued) existence, even if Nagga herself has been dead for thousands of years.

The only sea dragon we know by name, Nagga is part of what I have come to think of as the Ironborn society’s founding myth. Nagga is described as the first sea dragon, and so huge and strong that she could basically tear off islands and pull them under. In Ironborn legend, she does not seem to be a creature of the Drowned God. Instead, the Drowned God, according to myth, helped the Grey King, the grim and mythic founding father of the Ironborn, slay her. Instead, the Ironborn connect Nagga to the Storm God, the Drowned God’s eternal nemesis.

Nagga’s bones – if we indeed believe that those are her actual bones on Nagga’s hill – are an important ritualistic site for the Ironborn. Now, her bones — probably ribs — jut out of the earth like pillars or beams. But it’s said that on that spot once stood the Grey King’s hall, which came complete with a throne built from Nagga’s jaws and “warmed by her living fire.” But deep in that mythic past, the Storm God took away the throne, the living fire and probably also the crown after the death of the Grey King.

Monsters Have Meaning

We can read the story of Nagga and the Grey King as the tale of the domestication of the islands and the seas itself, a narrative some of the First Men might have come up with when they decided to leave the green lands behind and settle on the Iron Islands. I think we can see in it the fears of a population that had only known life on dry land before. Most of them had probably never learned to swim. Experiencing the sea first-hand for the first time would leave quite an impression, particularly in a society that had no way of experiencing the sea other than seeing and feeling it. This is a story that aims to build trust in several ways: The sea is depicted as good, the storm is depicted as bad, but inferior, and drowning is made out to be the best way to die there is, a direct way to the Drowned God’s wet Valhalla.

It’s an interesting twist that Nagga, being a sea dragon, is not associated with the sea deity, the Drowned God, but with the Storm God. The Storm God and Drowned God are not part of mainstream First Men mythology, but there are a sea god and a wind goddess who are understood to be husband and wife. It is reasonable to assume that it was the Ironborn who deviated from the norm and changed their beliefs to adjust to their new situation.

Durran’s Little Mermaid

Speaking of the sea god and the wind goddess of the First Men, this essay could never be complete without mentioning their daughter Elenei. While there is no textual evidence for this, Elenei has been depicted as a mermaid (or merwife, later on) in official imagery, not to mention boatloads of fan art. And indeed, “merlings” have been mentioned in A Song of Ice and Fire, so we know it’s part of Westerosi myth, even if the books don’t explore it overmuch. There’s even a theory that Varys the eunuch is secretly a merman…but we wouldn’t think too hard about that one.

Melusina as depicted by Julius Hübner, here with a rather fish-like tail.
Melusina as depicted by Julius Hübner, here with a rather fish-like tail. /

During the Middle Ages and the early modern period, people did not necessarily think of mermaids (or merfolk) in the same way we do today. There are two dominating traditions at play here, although it’s unclear if they’re related. The first comes from Greece: the siren, who was initially thought of as a half-woman, half-bird creature. The second tradition is that of Melusina, a half-woman, half-dragon creature who looks like a perfectly normal human being for six out of seven days of the week, and only takes her dragon form while bathing on Saturdays. You might know her from the Starbucks logo.

In her story, Melusina marries a nobleman, and the both of them are very successful in their endeavors. They become the founders of the House of Lusignan, before her husband breaks his vow not to disturb her on Saturdays and sees her with her dragon tail. Once she knows that the vow is broken, she has to leave her home and family and flies away as a dragon.ii

What’s in a Name?

Both traditions brush up against the concept of the nymph, more specifically the Naiad. An especially elaborate example can be found in Paracelsus’ Liber de nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus, which is often simply called the Liber de nymphis. Paracelsus was an alchemist and highly controversial figure who lived in the 16th century. You probably know him as the guy who said, “The dose makes the poison.”iii

“A Naiad” or “Hylas with a Nymph” by John WiIlliams Waterhouse showing a naiad with actual legs.
“A Naiad” or “Hylas with a Nymph” by John WiIlliams Waterhouse showing a naiad with actual legs. /

Paracelsus considers nymphs to be elemental spirits of water, and says about them (and the other elemental spirits),

"[Sie sind] gleich den Geistern in Geschwindigkeit / gleich dem Menschen in Geberung / Gestalt und Essen: und also seind sie Leut / die Geist art an ihn haben / dorbey auch Menschen art / und ist ein Ding[.][They are equal to the spirits in quickness, equal to the human in terms of their creation, their form and their food and they are therefore people who are of the nature of spirits and of the nature of humans and both are the same thing.]iv"

He does not really find the name “nymphs” appropriate, and instead says,

"Die im Wasser sind Nymphen. […] Nun aber / daß sie recht Nammen haben / das ist nicht / sondern solch Nammen / so ich do fürhalt / dieselbigen Nammen sind geben worden von denen / die sie nicht erkennt haben. Dieweil sie aber die ding bedeutten / so laß ichs dobey auch bleiben. Wiewol von Wasserleuten “Undina” der Namm auch ist.[Those in the water are nymphs. […] It is not that those were their real names, though, In my opinion. Those names were given them by people who did not get to know them properly. Because those names at least make clear what is meant though, I will not change them. That said, another name for the merfolk is “Undina”.]v"

You must excuse my rather loose translation there. It is nearly impossible to translate Paracelsus in an intelligible way without deviating too far from his actual words. I hope my words are able to at least transport some of the flavor of the original German text. In any case, one thing has hopefully become clear: How much nymphs came to be thought of as creatures of water who closely resemble Martin’s merfolk.

“Das Spiel der Najaden” by Arnold Böcklin depicting rather typical merfolk.
“Das Spiel der Najaden” by Arnold Böcklin depicting rather typical merfolk. /

For Paracelsus, Melusina is not your prototypical nymph or mermaid, but has made a pact with the devil, which pact is the real reason for the dragon tail she grows on Saturdays, and for her subsequent complete transformation into a dragon. This means that she does not naturally have any kind of non-human lower body, according to Paracelsus. There really is nothing to differentiate her from a normal human being in terms of appearance, which I suppose would have to be equally true if we were to buy into the theory that Varys is a merling. Although I don’t, because who would?

They’d Eat You Raw

There’s one more group of sea creatures rumored to exist in Westeros we need to discuss: the squishers. What we know about the squishers we know from “Nimble” Dick Crabb, who journeys with Brienne and Podrick in A Feast for Crows. The squishers are supposed to have larger heads than humans, scales instead of hair, webbing between their fingers and toes and green, needle-like teeth.

From Creature from the Black Lagoon
From Creature from the Black Lagoon /

The squishers sound far less beautiful than the merlings, and far more malicious. Nonetheless, there are similarities. It’s possible that stories about squishers and stories about merlings are actually about the same thing, just twisted one way or another over the centuries, or even millennia. According to Nimble Dick, most people think the First Men killed all of them long ago.

Three Traditions

There are three traditions at work here, each of them based on different human fears that exist in our world as well as the world or Ice and Fire. Sea monsters like the sea dragons represent a fear of the vast unknown that is the sea. More than any other space on Earth (or “Planetos”), the sea has managed to stay mysterious. It’s the one place on the planet where things might lurk that we haven’t discovered yet. Even today, if you’re out on the high seas, the thought of what might be far below your feet might make you uneasy. That fear would have been much stronger for people in medieval times, people who often could not swim or had never seen so much water in one place.

Melusina, the modern pop culture-concept of the nymph, Disney-style mermaids and Durran Godsgrief’s wife Elenei are a completely different story. It seems no accident that this variety of merfolk is predominantly female. These creatures are manifestations of the female Other. We see this in Durran Godsgrief’s story, in the different versions of the Melusina story, and in other stories like the tale of Ritter Peter von Stauffenberg und die Meerfeye.

Marrying and bedding the meerfayn (a late medieval German term roughly equivalent to “sea fairy”) is enticing but also very dangerous. Melusina brings her husband prosperity and many strong sons, but those sons are tainted, their bodies slightly deformed in some cases and their minds changed as well. And there is always the possibility of the beautiful wife turning into a terrifying dragon and vanishing should her secret become known. These stories are a manifestation of male uneasiness and unfamiliarity with the female body, and with women in general. Elenei is the daughter of a god and a goddess, a position that comes with many blessings, but it also comes with the wrath of her divine parents. The god and goddess kill all of Durran’s family and all his guests at his wedding to Elenei, and in turn destroy his castle. Durran, however, builds anew; the tales say he builds seven castles, but that’s probably a more recent wrinkle added as the Faith of the Seven rose to prominence. The final castle he built, no matter how many he built before it, still stands in Westeros. We know it as Storm’s End.

The third tradition, represented by the squishers, doesn’t play as big a role in Westeros or European history, and ropes in other creatures not related to water or fish (or dragons or snakes). This category is about transgressing the border between humans and animals. While Elenei and Melusina also look half human and half animal, they do not behave like animals. From the little we know about the squishers, they are different. The squishers, like werewolves, both look and behave like animals, specifically the way predatory animals are expected to behave according to the medieval collective imagination. They seem vaguely like humans, but cold-blooded and brutal, representing the wild, bestial side of humanity. The transgression of the border between humans and animals often also comes with sexual connotations, animals being associated with a lack of inhibition and shame. It can probably be considered a blessing that this aspect seems underdeveloped in the squishers.

When we compare the world of Ice and Fire with our real world, we should remember two things: 1) In our world today, we are relatively sure what is real and what is imaginary (although we can still be surprised, as with the giant squid discussed above); and 2) those two worlds are not equal; one is the product of the imagination of the other. This means that some of the creatures we’ve discussed could be imaginary in both worlds, while others are imaginary to us but very real to people in Westeros, like the dragons and the Others. I would argue that the first kind of creatures are more interesting, because they are shaped by the imaginations of two very different cultures: one modern and one pre-modern. We might be able to learn something about Westeros and the wider world of Ice and Fire by looking at their imaginary monsters, and at the differences between them and the ones we ourselves imagine. And we might learn even more about our own world, too.

Nagga. /


There are two side notes I want to make before we leave the aquatic monsters behind. I’m putting these at the end because we have even less information about these creatures than we do the squishers. First, there are the Deep Ones, who may or may not not be the same thing as the merlings. Then, there are the “dead things in the water” Cotter Pyke writes about from Hardhome. Swimming wights? Undead Krakens? We will probably find out soon, but we will also have a chance to talk about that again when we finally tackle wights and other zombies.


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New York Yankees Game Of Thrones Direwolf Bobblehead /

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iCf. Amanda Reid: Cephalopods of Australia and Sub-Antarctic Territories.

iiCf. Thüring von Ringoltingen: Melusine; Hans Sachs: Melusina; Couldrette: Le Roman de Parthenay.

iiiParacelsus: Works II, p. 170.

ivParacelsus: Liber de nymphis, p. 18.

vParacelsus: Liber de nymphis, p. 23-25.