Song of the Sea-Beast

Ruth Fishman

While its Mediterranean neighbors, such as Greece, Egypt, and Rome, are common areas of study, the nation of Eadora is often overlooked. Little remains, after all, of that small, ill-fated island, yet enough has been uncovered as to signal an impressive literary tradition. While not all historians agree, it is generally accepted that the first known script for the first known play originates in Eadora (2,905 BC). Discovered as an etching on the palace walls, a dialogue can be read between an Eadoran king and a disgruntled peasant. “Who made you lord of all things?” asks the peasant. “Why is it that you are my ruler and I am your subject? Why is it that you are worshiped and I am forsaken?” “Fool!” retorts the king. “Rephrase your question. Say to me, instead: ‘Why is it that I am cared for and you are my caretaker? Why is it that I am left at peace, and you are watched eternally with jealous eyes?’” Whether or not this qualifies as a play is a matter of debate. There is, after all, no solid evidence regarding whether or not it was ever performed. Some historians claim it was acted out by the king himself as a ceremonial obligation. Others, however, believe it was simply a dialogue-exclusive piece of literature, meant only to be read. Whichever it is (or once was) the stone wall which holds it is now half-destroyed by erosion. We will never truly know the tale it tells.

However, my primary interest lies not in Eadoran theater, but in Eadoran poetry. All competent historians agree that the Eadorans were masterful poets, exceptional for their time and unprecedented in the ancient world. Sadly, very little remains of their poetry. It is believed that the Eadoran poets wrote primarily on scrolls of parchment (and occasionally paper, after opening trade with Egypt). Therefore, when the island submerged, countless poems were lost to time. All surviving Eadoran poetry has been preserved in one of two ways. The first, is through records kept by other cultures—primarily the Greeks and Egyptians. While Eadora was, of course, famously isolationist, there are several known instances of trade involving these two civilizations, which allowed Eadoran poetry to reach a wider audience. Even the Greek philosopher, Pseudophocles, is known to have paid the island a visit. His journals provide detailed accounts of this voyage, stating: “The poets of Eadora are to be looked at with fear. Their skill brings mighty Athens to its knees. I urge my countrymen to learn from them, lest we one day sink to irrelevance.” In fact, a poem translated by Pseudophocles became so popular in Greece, that, to this day, many falsely attribute it to the Athenians.

The Grateful Shepherd Boy
Just as I tend my flock,
So the gods tend me.
Filling my eyes with starlight,
My mouth with fresh honey
Granting me my own dominion in the form of a lamb.
I shall be a gentle god to him.
I shall not let him wander through the thorns.
I shall fill his eyes with starlight,
His mouth with fresh, sweet clover.

            (A. Kyogi, trans.)

What I have printed above is a translation of a translation, and we have no way of knowing just how many creative liberties Pseudophocles may have taken with it. This is the most frustrating aspect of Eadoran poetry preserved in such a manner. It is always a translation, likely filtered to suit the whims of whichever culture may have stumbled upon it.

Our second source of poetry is more direct—ancient carvings pulled from the watery rubble that once was Eadora. These artifacts are few and far between, as hardly any have weathered the years. In fact, only 27 carvings remain; only 9 of which are believed to be whole poems. The remaining 18 were discovered in broken fragments, and many have had their status as poetry hotly debated. Take the “poem” known today as “The Eadoran Queen”.

And in her tower she waits beneath her crown,
A humble servant of her lord and her master, her king.

            (A. Kyogi, trans.)

It is, of course, too short to be viewed in its original context. The stone it was discovered on is believed, by many historians, to be a displaced grave. Therefore, some believe that it is better categorized as an epitaph than a poem, though I’d argue that both can be the case. While no confirmed gravestones have been discovered, I’d imagine that, due to the significance of poetry among the Eadoran people, they’d likely involve it in their burial rites, particularly for a figure as important to them as their queen. However, with so little context to pull from, who can say. Who can even guess.

Among the 9 surviving poems, one piece in particular draws my attention. A piece I would consider Eadora’s crowning glory. Though the exact date is unknown, it is believed to be Eadora’s most recent literary artifact, forged in clay mere hours before the island’s destruction (circa 398 B.C.). It is generally known as “The Sea-Beast” or “The Sea-Monster.” Its Eadoran title, “Il Ea-Ther,” can be translated either way, with the word “ther” meaning both “animal” and “villain”. Early English translations often call it “The Sea-Demon”, though this translation inaccurately implies a religious or supernatural nature to the word “ther”.

Here is my own translation of “The Sea-Beast”, as I choose to call it, done as coldly and literally as I find possible.

The Sea-Beast
Sea-beast, take possession of your dangerous fingers.
Take similar possession of your water-like eyes and fire-controlling mouth
And destroy all we love,
And all hope of Elsyaru [ the Eadoran afterlife ].
Do all this and more, without delay,
Because we cannot stop you.
Because we are lowly humans and you, sea-beast, have murdered and replaced our gods.
We have heard you shout with your fire-controlling mouth,
“When night comes, I will burn you.
When night comes I will destroy you.
And all that I do not destroy I will throw into the sea.
In two-thousand-four-hundred-and-twenty-eight years I will return
And I will take with me all that remains of your world.
All nations, both human and animal,
will be clenched in my dangerous fingers.
All of your neighbors and enemies will be
nothing but fire, water and smoke.
And you, my Eadoran children, will be the only ones told.
You will carry this prophecy, and you will carry it into the sea.”

 I am not, of course, purporting my work to be the ideal translation. It does, after all, lack the poetic tools found in the Eadoran original, most notably its AABB rhyme scheme. In translating a poem, the work of a poet is required, not merely a translator (which is all I claim myself to be). Even in terms of accuracy, I urge you to take me with a grain of salt. Eadoran, like all dead languages, can never be completely understood by modern ears. Unless I were to build some sort of time machine, and live amongst the Eadorans, there will always be nuance and meaning beyond my grasp. This translation is simply my best attempt at granting you, dear reader, a means of comparison while ingesting other (more poetically-minded) translations. Take, for example, the earliest known English translation, written in 1508 by the scholar, poet, and clergyman Lord John Gefalshinburgh.

The Sea-Demon
With thy monstrous claw,
Watry eyes, and firy maw,
Burn and smite with fiendish mite,
Tear high heavens down for spite!
Act thy curse with devlish speed,
Fore we scarce not intercede.
We are mere men form’d from dust.
Our lord god, thou stole from us.
Now thou cryest, “One and all!
I shall burn ye, come night’s fall!
All remaining, I shall drown!
Cent’ries hence, I’ll clame my crown,
Seize all nations—man or beaste.
Friend or foe, from West to Easte.
Children, heede my last decree
As ye sinketh ‘neathe the sea!”

Having read my bare-boned translation, you may notice some key changes. The most apparent is Gefalshinburgh’s use of Christian terminology for a poem written around 398 B.C. For example, while the original describes multiple “gods”, Gefalshinburgh translates this as one “lord god”. Similarly, the biblical imagery of “mere men form’d from dust” is used to describe “lowly humans”, and the phrase “high heavens” is used in place of the term “Elsyaru” (the Eadoran afterlife which only vaguely resembles a Christian heaven). And, of course, there’s that use of the phrase “demon”, as covered earlier. However, while Gefalshinburgh’s translation is a better reflection of his own time than that of the Eadoran’s, there is certainly merit to it. The AABB rhyme scheme and use of assonance suits the spirit of the poem better than my translation, even if it sacrifices certain details in the process. Finding this balance is a struggle all translators know well, and Gefalshinburgh toes that line quite elegantly, all things considered. It is also worth noting that this translation may not have been intended as a final draft. In fact, it may not have been intended for public consumption at all. Gefalshinburgh contracted the plague shortly after penning it; the poem was discovered and published following his death.

The second known English translation of “The Sea-Beast” was penned by the Canadian poet, Robert Lyger, in 1812. A significant time jump, to be sure, though not a surprising one, considering the saddening lack of interest in Eadoran studies. It reads as follows:

The Sea-Demon

With your fearsome claws,
Flaming eyes, and piercing jaws,
Strike and smite with fiendish might!
Tear the heavens down for spite!
Enact your will with devilish speed;
Us mortals dare not intercede.
For we are mere men made of dust;
Our lord god hath forsaken us.
We hear you cry, “Come one, come all!
I’ll come and burn you, come night’s fall!
And you I spare, I soon shall drown!
I’ll kill your king! I’ll claim his crown!
I’ll seize all creatures, great and small—
From man to mouse, from rise to fall.
Come, children! heed my last decree—
As you fall deep beneath the sea!”

As you may have observed, this translation bears a strong resemblance to Gefalshinburgh’s, and very little resemblance to the Eadoran original. For this reason, many historians believe that Lyger had not read the original at all. Other than his own claims, there is no evidence that Lyger ever studied Eadoran. Cambridge, where he was schooled, has certainly never carried any such class, and, outside of this single “translation,” Lyger never made even a passing reference to Eadora in any of his writings.

I am inclined to agree with these historians, and would not have included Lyger’s poem at all if it were not the most widely read translation. Though now largely forgotten, Lyger’s “Sea-Demon” was once quite acclaimed. Sir Andrew Dolton even dubbed it, “the poem of the century” and, “a haunting marvel for our modern times”. Normally, any mainstream interest in Eadora would delight me, but this renewed fascination was based on several levels of misinformation.

The first level is the poem’s status as a dishonest reworking of a historically inaccurate translation, as previously discussed. The second level is the misinformed view of the poem by the general public. I cannot entirely blame Lyger for this, as much as I’d like to. Though heavily dishonest, Lyger never claimed the poem as an original work, and described it as, “a relic from that ancient, fallen isle of Eadora”. However, it does not appear to have been interpreted as such by any of his readers. This is partially due to the frequent (semi-illegal) publishing of the poem out of its original context, and credited solely to Lyger. However, even those who read Lyger’s preface, often took it for a mere framing device. One review of Lyger’s poem anthology, The Last of Robert Lyger, describes Eadora as, “a fictional island, born from the poet’s delightful imagination.” Lyger himself was never able to clear the air of such falsehoods. To his credit, he died in a shipwreck shortly after the poem’s publication, and misinformation relegated Eadora to a simple work of fiction. Therefore, Eadoran poetry’s one moment in the sun did nothing to rouse the world’s interest in the nation itself.

The third known English translation, and the first to be titled, “The Sea-Beast”, was written in 1887, by the Scottish linguist, Charles Morton II. It reads as follows:

The Sea-Beast

Oh, Sea-Beast, raise your mighty fist.
Tears stain your eyes, flames stain your lips.
Destroy the fortunes we have won,
All hope of fair Elysium.

 Unfortunately, this is all Morton ever wrote, as he suffered a fatal heart attack during the process. However, there is still a great deal to discuss. After reading my translation, you may view Morton’s as somewhat lacking. Therefore, I should add a touch of context. While I translated the first line as “watery eyes”, the same word (“ea”) can be used to describe “tears”, “water”, or “the sea”. Similarly, the word “peshen” can  refer to “mouth,” “lips,” or even “language.” The use of the phrase “destroy the fortunes we have won,” as opposed to my translation of “destroy all we love,” is also linguistically justifiable. The Eadoran word “prae” is primarily used to mean “love” but can also mean “win,” “steal,” or “conquer.” My one finical complaint regards the replacement of “Elsyaru” with the similarly named Greco-Roman afterlife of “Elysium.” However, I understand Morton’s decision, as one is much more recognizable than the other. I do not doubt Morton’s knowledge of the differences between the two.

By all accounts, Morton was well-studied on the literary history of Eadora, perhaps to a fault. According to his son, Charles Morton III, his interest bordered on obsession. In Morton III’s private letters, he claims that his father would “…lock himself in his study for days at a time, reading and rereading all known Eadoran texts, certain they spelled out some sort of a mystical cipher.” When out of his study, he would appear dazed and distracted, “wandering the halls, and muttering in tongues I must assume are Eadoran.” However, despite his obsession, “Sea-Beast” is the only Eadoran poem he is known to have attempted translating.

A relative boom in translations occurred in the 1920s, with Adam Shvindler, a classics professor. Shvindler had long been interested in Eadoran Studies, and had even penned an exceptional translation for the fractured Eadoran Epic, “The Goat-Headed Prince.” However, his main contribution came from teaching the first (and only) Eadoran Studies course at Cornell University. For the year in which this course existed, Shvindler required each of his students to pen their own English translation of “The Sea-Beast”. As he taught 29 students, I have no intention of showing every poem that resulted from this assignment. However, I have selected my personal favorite—“The Sea-Brute” (translated by an 18-year-old student named Elsa Falsk).

The Sea Brute

You, Sea-Brute! Take your nails of vicious murder
Leaking eyes, or burning words or
Mouthand burn all that we love.
Burn Elsyaru from above.
Do this and more, unfaltering.
We have no means of altering
Your will; we are but mortals.
You have murdered our immortals.
Shout, in flames, “Fast dawns the night
When I shall burn, and I shall smite
You all! Save those I toss into the seas!
Then, in some 20 centuries,
I’ll seize your world with monstrous might
You men, you beasts, you’re fools to fight!
Both friend and foe shall fall and choke and
Turn to fire, water, smoke, and
None but you must ever know the cursed knowledge you must bear.
And so you sink into the sea. And so you sink into despair.”

Certainly one of the more unique translations! And the only one I know of involving the double meaning of “peshen” as both “mouth” and “language.” At least, that is what I have assumed to be Falsk’s intention with the line, “burning words or mouth”. You are likely expecting me to critique its inaccuracies, particularly the strange manipulations made to the final lines. However, I have been unable to uncover the exact instructions given by Shvindler. I know he assigned a translation of “The Sea-Beast,” but it is unclear whether he expected a traditional one or a more creative interpretation. I have done my best to fill these gaps of knowledge by seeking an interview with Shvindler and his students, but, sadly, none were available for contact. Elsa Falsk was found dead in Cayuga Lake a week after turning in her poem. A month later, 7 of her classmates died similarly unfortunate deaths in a dormitory fire. As for Shvindler, he went missing the final month of the semester and was never heard from again. All remaining classes were called off, all surviving students were passed automatically, and no Eadoran Studies course was ever hosted again at Cornell University. In fact, the creation of any clubs or student organizations relating to Eadoran studies was banned the following year (though, so far as I am aware, none were ever proposed). As for the remaining 21 students, I have been unable to track them down.

It is truly unfortunate that these rare, ill-fated translations are all that exist. While Greek and Latin are taught at every university in the world, how difficult it is to study Eadoran! How difficult it is to even hear of it! If historians, scholars, classicists, and poets continue to ignore Eadora the world will continue to lose out on a vibrant and extraordinary civilization. In my opinion, that is a tragedy too terrible to accept. Too terrible to allow.

As this essay draws to a close, I would like to add one final poem—the final translation of my esteemed former colleague, the late Anna Kyogi. As will soon become apparent, she has chosen only to translate the Sea-Beast’s “speech”, and has taken a poetic approach. May her memory live on.

Song of the Sea-Beast

The night must come. The night must fall. And so must I burn
My children,
My children.
And some I shall spare. Yes, some I shall spare. Yes, some I shall throw
To the sea,
To the ocean.
In two-thousand
Twenty-eight years
I beg of you, listen! Please, listen!
All cities,
All nations,
All humans,
All creatures
Shall die by time’s deadly erosion.
I’m sorry I’ve told, and I’m sorry you know,
But I can’t let these words go unspoken.
shall carry this tragedy nobly, although
We must carry it into the ocean.
must carry it, carry it,
carry it, carry it,
carry it into the ocean.


Ruth Fishman is a creative writing student from New Jersey. She has two cats and is allergic to both of them. She is a reader at Orion’s Belt, and you can find her work published in Reader Beware.