The Oceans: The Origin, the Mystery, the Myths

It was meteorology at its simplest. When this planet was very, very young, with life only a twinkle in Earth's eye, the cooling of the globe forced its shroud of water vapor to condense and fill all available basins. As global temperatures stabilized, permitting water to exist in all three of its states, the cycle of evaporation and precipitation had already begun to mix the inorganic salts of the earth's crust into the largest and deepest of the various water bodies. The resulting oceans provided an ideal medium for the formation of organic molecules, some of which eventually coalesced into animate matter, then living cells.

But is that really the way life began? Perhaps the oceans were seeded with extraterrestrial, well, bacteria for lack of a better descriptor. These bacteria found the moist oceanic environment a far more hospitable dwelling place than the backs of the meteorites on which they wildly rode to the planet's surface. Evolution then took care of the rest. Or perhaps chaos and chance had little to do with it. Perhaps a yet undefined force served as the principal cause of a miraculous effect: the nascence of an entity that was able to maintain a homeostatic internal environment apart from the sea around it and, most incredibly, to recreate itself.

Whether we attribute the origin of life to a proper mixing of the primordial soup, the touch of an extraterrestrial hand or the finger of God, the dense liquid womb of the ocean was a necessary precursor to the life that makes oceanic origins meaningful, mystery conceivable and myths possible. Any serious student of biology will quickly notice that all the world's myriad life forms depend on water, forms that either perish or suspend their vital processes to death-like levels when desiccated. No form of reproduction succeeds without sufficient moisture. Tough-shelled terrestrial eggs, for instance, carry their sea inside them in which the embryos develop, suspended. The creatures that hatch therefrom possess integuments that severely restrict the loss of the sea that was transferred into their feathered, furred or scaly bodies. The same is true for those embryos that incubate within a parent's internal sea, or, still, develop in a pond, lake, stream, river or ocean. The circumstantial evidence is damning. The origin of the oceans is our origin. The mystery of the oceans is our mystery.

This mystery has given rise to numerous myths about the sea and its influence on the human beings who initially either fear it or expend futile efforts to sweep it back. In either case, experience and curiosity work cheek by jowl to convert fear and obstinacy into respect, yet the myths persist. How else can one explain the "romance" of the sea? Why should humankind in various circumstances describe the ocean as mother, lover, friend and beast in the same breath? Supportive, seductive, gentle, brutal, at once cold and impersonal yet benevolent and generous..all apply to virtually any body of water whose opposite shore cannot be seen, but best describe oceans. The mystery of the unknown together with a capricious persona have called forth from the mind of Man needful explanations for the behavior of the ocean and its inhabitants, seen and unseen, real . . . and imagined.

"A myth is all about wonders," wrote Aristotle in his Metaphysics,1 and just as the wonders of the sea appear innumerable, myths about the sea abound. For Western civilization, the Hebrew scriptures and the ancient religions of Greece and Rome provide key material. The Psalms and the Book of Isaiah mention Leviathan, "the dragon who lives in the sea," a creature created by God and invincible but to Him alone; the penultimate chapter of the Book of Job provides a detailed description of the same creature with "rows of shields" for scales, whose "breath kindles coals," a creature whose "heart is as hard as a stone" and who, when aroused, makes the mighty fear.2 Leviathan, the archetype for Melville's white whale,3 becomes an apt metaphor for the ocean and its power. Odysseus found the sea a particularly vicious and sinister environment in The Odyssey,4 one to survive rather than conquer, and that only by divine aid. Heeding the advice of the goddess Circe, Odysseus saved his ship and crew from the irresistible call of the Sirens only to lose a half dozen of his best men while passing betwixt Scylla and Charybdis.

If anthropologist William Howells is correct, moral values are fundamental to a myth's endurance and make myths repositories of cultural philosophy.5 The Odyssey teaches us not so much to avoid Scylla and Charybdis, for the only alternative to those two was a certain death, but to face a challenge with stoic strength, subduing fear and shunning hubris. Like Leviathan, the Odyssean sea is "one made without fear" and "king over all the sons of pride."6 The more recent myth of the Flying Dutchman describes the penalty for those who commit the deadly sin of pride on the high seas: no escape and a poisonous influence on all who come in contact with the Dutchman's moral failure. Those who succumb to fear, like Joseph Conrad's Jim,7 likewise pay their debt in the end to the sea that broke them. The mythical sea is a proving ground, testing human mettle and reluctantly yielding only the fruits that are hard.won by courage and wisdom, if not experience. In this way, the oceans exemplify the obstacle to be overcome in every rite of passage, an obstacle wrapped in mystery to the uninitiate.

Just as children experience life on a much smaller scale, the child's respect for the sea does not and even cannot go beyond the terror of breakers or toe.pinching crabs in the surf. In like manner, Man to this day is handicapped by a limited vision of the ocean and its true significance. He remains uninitiated in spite of his increasing skill at surviving and subduing Leviathan, for, though Man has largely overcome his fear, his damnable pride remains. The oceans are not merely significant for size alone, nor even for the edible and useful products they harbor. We know this because we have spanned the seas and now strip them, heedless of the consequences, of their wealth. The awe one feels when one first sees an ocean echoes a far deeper element that is often demoted to the inferior concepts of physical dimension and available resources. Since these do no justice to the awe, what does? The ocean as wilderness, a place "in which a person feels stripped of guidance, lost, and perplexed,"8 offers a strong clue. It exposes us to what Rachel Carson describes as "an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp," the pursuit of which brings us to the threshold of "the ultimate mystery of Life itself"9 It is this mystery that we rebuff when we refuse to grapple with the true nature of our awe.

Isaac Newton once described himself and his accomplishments as if he were merely a boy picking up and admiring pretty shells and pebbles on the shore of the ocean of knowledge. Thanks to Darwin, Einstein and their successors, we have begun to wade into the shallows, but what have we found there that is qualitatively different from what has washed ashore? I speak of Aristotle's ultimate cause, "that for the sake of which something else is.''10 It is not enough simply to collect and identify what remains unknown, nor even to determine how the unknown works. What is unknown works just as what is known works, whether from the tide pools or the abyss, but the ultimate cause is quite another matter. If Carson speaks truly that the universal truth that can touch us lies beyond our ken, then we are doomed, as doomed as the Flying Dutchman. If we are capable of understanding Life's ultimate mystery, then we still face the Sirens and our own fearful Scylla and Charybdis. To fear those monsters is understandable, but if Man does not risk passage, he will die without ever knowing why he lived.

By the time Circe offered her advice to him, Odysseus, having just returned from a voyage to Hades, had long forsaken pride and gave heed to something beyond himself.11 Like Odysseus, humankind has foreseen its demise. We must not delude ourselves; there is no safety in our numbers. No one is immune to the Sirens' call but those who cannot hear it or ensure that they do not heed it. The self-discipline that will conduct the human race safely beyond that risk of hedonistic self.destruction to where Scylla and Charybdis await will not then suffice, but will remain necessary. Scylla, despite her many monstrous heads, is to be feared less than Charybdis, the whirlpool of oblivion. Charybdis represents our egalitarian fate should we fail to answer the question of our existence. If we succeed, we still pay Scylla's price, but if we succeed, it will be because we have realized we are not self.sufficient.

I believe we can answer the question. We are capable of understanding the meaning of our existence, and the question is not a logical absurdity. If the question exists, so does the answer. If passage proved possible to Odysseus, then his return home was also possible, though fraught with impending loss and delay, not a given. Odysseus endured, as we must, but first things first. We must begin by reconciling the sea within us with the sea without, for, though greatly separated by time, they are one. If we will coexist with Leviathan, rejecting Ahab's self.destructive obsession to consummate human passion,12 we will find ourselves safely past the Sirens. Then we will face our true rite of passage, supported by the oceans of our mysterious origin.


1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. J. H. MacMahon, in On Man In The Universe, ed. L. R. Loomis (Walter J. Black, Inc., 1943), p. 9.
2. Psalm 104:26, Isaiah 27:1, Job 41, in New American Standard Bible (Cambridge University Press, 1977).
3. Herman Melville, Moby.Dick; or The White Whale (first published in 1851).
4. Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Samuel Butler, ed. L. R. Loomis (Walter J. Black, Inc., 1944), pp. 147.153.
5. William Howells, Back of History, Revised ed. (Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1963), p. 238.
6. Job 41:33.34, NASB.
7. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (first published in 1900).
8. Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, Revised ed. (Yale University Press, 1976), p. 3.
9. Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1955), p. 250.
10. Aristotle, p. 12.
11. Homer, pp. 147-148.
12. Melville, Moby-Dick.