Sawfish
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Source: Kongelige Bibliotek (Bestiaire (Gl. kgl. S. 3466 8)) Copyright 2003 Kongelige Bibliotek / Used by permission Manuscript description Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 3466 8, Folio 43v


 

Sawfish

Latin name: Serra

Other names: Flying fish, Sarce, Sarre, Scie, Serre

The sawfish has enormous wings and likes to race against ships

 

 
General Attributes

The sawfish is a sea monster with enormous wings. When it sees a ship, it raises its wings so it can race against the ship. The sawfish tires after thirty or forty stadia and dives back into the water to devour fish. When it raises its wings they hold back the wind from ships; sailers do not like the sawfish because it causes ships to sink. This beast is also said to have a serrated crest that it uses to cut into ships.


Allegory/Moral

The sawfish signifies those who start on a righteous path with good intentions, but soon tire and sink back into sin and are carried down to hell. The devil, who holds back holy inspiration from men, is like the sawfish that holds back wind from the ship's sail.

From British Library MS. Sloane 3544 (On the Legend of the Serra or Saw-Fish (London, 1919) Druce translation): "This beast (usual reading: Now the sea) is a symbol of this world. The ship is a type of righteous persons, who without peril or shipwreck of their faith pass through the midst of the storms and tempests of this world (and overcome the deadly waves, that is, the adverse forces of this world). But the saw-fish, that is that beast which availed not to beat the ship in sailing, affords a symbol of those persons who at first eagerly engage in good works, but who afterwards do not persevere in them, and are led astray by faults of different kinds (that is, of greed, pride, drunkenness, and luxury), which toss them about as it were upon the waves of the sea and plunge them down to the depths of hell. For not to those who only make a beginning, but to those who persevere, is the reward promised."


Sources (chronological order)

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 6:16): The sawfish (serra) has its name from the saw-toothed crest on its back, with which it cuts a ship when swimming under it.

Vincent de Beauvais (Speculum Natural, bk. xvii, ch. 127): The saw fish swimming hidden beneath the ship cuts through its bottom, so that as the water rushes in, it drowns the crew by its crafty device and gorges itself on their flesh. (On the Legend of the Serra or Saw-Fish (London, 1919) Druce translation)

Philippe de Thaon [12th century CE] (Bestiaire): "Quaut veit nes en mer halt . si se leve en halt. | A la nef fait grant laid . ke devant le nef vait | E si retent le vent . que ele, nen ad nent. | Ne la nef entant deure de nent ne pot cure." (When it sees a ship on the high sea it rises up. | To the ship it does great harm, for it goes before the ship I And holds off the wind so that it gets none of it. | Nor can the ship all that time sail on at all. - On the Legend of the Serra or Saw-Fish (London, 1919) Druce translation)

Guillaume le Clerc [13th century CE] (Bestiaire): "Les mariners qui par mer vount. | Ne la querent ja encontrer. | Quer cest un grant peril de mer. | Si fait sovent la nef perir. | A qy ele put avenir." - British Librtary, Cotton Vespasian A. vii. (The mariners who cross the sea | Are not wishful to meet it: | For it is a great peril of the sea. | It often makes the ship to founder | To which it is able to get near." - On the Legend of the Serra or Saw-Fish (London, 1919) Druce translation)

British Library MS. Sloane 3544 [13th century CE) (On the Legend of the Serra or Saw-Fish (London, 1919) Druce translation): "There is a beast in the sea which is called a saw-fish, and has immense wings. When this beast has seen a ship making sail on the ocean, it raises its wings above the water and competes with the ship in sailing. (But when it has competed in sailing or racing against the ship) for 30 or 40 furlongs, being unable to sustain the exertion, it gives up, and lowering its wings draws them in. And the waves of the sea carry it back again, tired out, to its own place in the deep."


Illustration

The illustration of the sawfish usually shows a large, winged dragon-like monster, racing with a ship or catch fish or sometimes both. Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 3466 8 (f. 43v) shows two sawfish, one diving into the sea to catch fish, the other rising from the sea to block the wind from a ship full of alarmed sailors. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16 (f. 109r) has an ordinary fish with large red wings raised, but no ship.


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