A little while ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who is currently teaching a Church History class. I brought up the Bishop Fish, and he was so amazed that he asked me to show him everything I could find about it. So… I ended up researching this. And since it also ties into a bunch of toys, well, it’s worth including!
As far as photos go, the toy photography is near the end. The reproduced artwork is… dun dun dun… historical documentation! Awesome!
The Bishop Fish and the Sea Monk
The Bishop Fish and Sea Monk are two 15th and 16th-Century European cryptids – a cryptid is a legendary monster that has “confirmed” sightings, as opposed to a creature tied to myth. For example, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Mothman are cryptids, whereas the Manticore, the Hydra, and the Phoenix would be considered mythical creatures. The Bishop Fish arises from a segment of Roman Catholic thought surmising that all the creatures and people on land and in the air should logically have counterparts undersea. And thus, it was only logical that the Gospel could spread to the people under the sea, be they fish, mermaids, or whatever else. Thus, the mentality existed of something like an undersea bishop long before one was sighted. An example of the idea comes from Guillaume du Bartas’s poem, La Sepmaine; ou, Creation du monde:
“Seas have (as well as skies) Sun, Moon, and Stars;
(As well as ayre) Swallows, and Rooks, and Stares;
(As well as earth) Vines, Roses, Nettles, Millions,
Pinks, Gilliflowers, Mushrooms, and many millions
of other Plants lants (more rare and strange than these)
As very fishes living in the Seas.
And also Rams, Calfs, Horses, Hares, and Hogs,
Wolves, Lions, Urchins, Elephants and Dogs,
Yea, Men and Mayds; and (which I more admire)
The mytred Bishop and the cowled Fryer;
Whereof, examples, (but a few years since)
Were shew’n the Norways, and Polonian Prince.”
The first Bishop Fish story comes from 1187, and is descrived in Stowe’s Annals as a fish shaped like a man with a bishop’s mitre’d cap. It was kept by Barlemew de Glanville in the castle of Orfode for six months, ate other fish, and escaped into the sea one night when it was not being watched. It was occasionally brought to the church, but did not make any special gestures.
Bishop Fish (The Book of Days)
The most famous Bishop Fish was caught in 1433 by fishermen in the Baltic Sea. Because of the odd, pointed appearance of its head, the fishermen assumed that it was indeed an undersea bishop and gave it as tribute to the King of Poland. Soon after, a group of bishops received an audience with the king and got to view the creature. Supposedly, it communicated with holy hand gestures until the bishops were convinced that it was indeed a fellow clergyman, and they thus convinced the king to return the Bishop Fish to the sea. Once released, it purportedly made the sign of the cross before swimming away.
Bishop Fish (Richard Breton, Colorized)
A second story comes from Germany in 1531, where fishermen caught another Bishop Fish off the German coast. The creature refused to eat and died in captivity after three days. A similar story rose up off the British Atlantic later, though there is no consistent date included with this one, and it may just be a retelling of the German story.
Bishop Fish (Giulliaume Rondele)
Current theories state that the Bishop Fish may have been a deformed manta ray, as its fins would resemble the billowing “cape” the fish was claimed to have. Some cryptozoologists believe that it was a monkfish (the lophius, not the legendary sea monk). It superficially resembles the Jenny Haniver, a hoax creature often constructed from the dried-out corpse of a skate.
Sea Monk (The Book of Days)
The Sea Monk is very similar to the Bishop Fish. In following the same belief, if there were bishops under the sea, there would have to be monks as well. Another was found off the eastern coast of Zealand (the Danish island, not New Zealand) in 1546. The accounts’ descriptions of the Sea Monk was detailed enough to provide a fairly consistent imagery for it, including a “robe” that superficially resembles multiple tendrils.
Sea Monk (Janus Steenstrup, comparison with squid)
Since the 19th Century, scholarship has identified the Sea Monk as most likely being a squid. Janus Steenstrup famously compared traditional illustrations of the Monk with a squid captured and preserved in 1853. Other theories state that it could have been an angel shark, a hooded seal, or the eponymous monkfish.
Both creatures have a place in popular culture. The Bishop and monk have been illustrated in numerous zoological guides between the 16th and 19th century, and are studied often in cryptozoological circles, often in comparison to other similar creatures such as Japan’s Umi-Bozu “sea monk.”
Monster in my Pocket
In 1992, a rubber figure of the Bishop Fish was produced for the Monster in my Pocket toy line. It resembled a more “monsterized” version of the Bishop Fish’s traditional depiction, and the backstory included with its trading card was mostly accurate, albeit with the additional claim that if you catch a Bishop Fish, it will “protect” you. The line also included a Jenny Haniver, though it did not resemble the Bishop Fish at all.
In 2006, another Bishop Fish was released in the new, “revived” Monster in my Pocket toy line. Unfortunately, this figure did not resemble the traditional Bishop Fish at all, instead resembling a fat, slovenly mer-man. The information on its trading card was also completely inaccurate, claiming that it was named after the chess piece, lives in the China sea, and causes storms and hurricanes. The 2006 series also included an equally-inaccurate Jenny Haniver.
In 2002, small figures of both the Sea Monk and Bishop Fish were released in the Demon’s Chronicle line by Yanoman. Demon’s Chronicle is a Japanese line that depicts western mythological creatures, most often angels and demons, and produces figures meant to be used as substitute chess pieces. Both are exact reproductions of their depiction in the 1862 Book of Days, although those are copies of older 16th century artwork. For example, the Bishop Fish’s appearance in the Book of Days resembles Richard Breton’s artwork from 1562. Strangely, both creatures are misnamed in Demon’s Chronicle – the Bishop Fish is labeled as Dagon while the Sea Monk is labeled as the sea serpent Rahab. The reason for this misappropriation is unknown, as other Demon’s Chronicle figures, even obscure ones such as the Succarath, are properly labeled.
And now… THE TOYS!