Personal heroes

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Are you my hero?

I planned to write a full post about all my heroes, expecting a long list to jump to mind immediately.

The obvious names came first (obvious, at least, for a person who went through the American school system): Martin Luther King, Jr. Harriet Tubman. Elie Weisel. Anne Frank. But as I thought about these and other historio-mythical figures, they didn’t seem specific enough to my life for me to consider them personal heroes.

So I moved on to geniuses in the fields of my own creative pursuits, i.e. music and literature: Mozart, Handel, Shakespeare, Rushdie. But while I’ve deeply appreciated the works these people have brought into the world, I’m not sure if I would call any writer or musician my hero. They have influenced my life, but none has saved it.

It’s a strange question, that: if anyone has saved my life. Certainly there have been incredibly powerful positive forces. I’ve had wonderful teachers, great friends, and am blessed with the most amazing, supportive family a person could ask for. Have any of them saved my life?

Perhaps. Perhaps my life is the sum of their gifts, and for this I am grateful and awed. But my original prompt was to find a singular, personal hero. I don’t believe I have one. Is this strange? Am I alone in being hero-less?

Do you have a personal hero? What reason is this person(s) your hero?

The monstrous whale in medieval imagination

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A page from Pliny the Elder's Natural History

In the fall of my senior year of college, I ventured for the first time into Rauner Library, which houses old and rare books. Dartmouth’s Rauner Library is unique to the special collections world in that a student can request any book from the collection and sit with it at their leisure, turning five-hundred-year-old pages without the the protective measure of tweezers or latex gloves. I was there to research Desdemona’s willow song (I was taking a Shakespeare class, as all English majors must do if they want to have any credibility) which meant paging through Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and other tomes contemporary to Shakespeare’s day.

The whale, as imagined by renaissance thinkers

My favorite find that day was a book called “The Elizabethan Zoo,” first published in about 1600. This book describes and illustrates twenty-eight animals recognizable to renaissance zoologists, including the elephant, the lyon, the gorgon, the phoenix, the cat, the beaver, the unicorn, the dragon, the salamander, the mantichora, the hydra, etc. The book makes no distinction between authentic and imagined animals, and indeed some real animals are depicted to look even stranger than the dragon or phoenix (the dragon being much more familiar in popular literature than, say, the hippo). The most fascination description was of the whale. The illustrated creature was much like the picture above, with claws, fangs, and strange antennae sprouting from its head. It was described as a terrifying creature, capable of capsizing boats and swallowing men whole.

In her excellent essay, “Bad to the bone”? The Unnatural History of Monstrous Medieval Whales, Vicki Ellen Szabo recounts the myths surrounding whales and the reasons they were seen to be so terrifying:

The monstrous whale known as aspidochelone was characterized by two distinctive behaviors. First, the whale possessed the ability to entrap its prey, usually fish, through the emission of a sweet, seductive odor released from its mouth. Unsuspecting fish were attracted by the scent, only to be devoured when the whale’s cavernous mouth snapped shut. Secondly, the whale was able to disguise itself as an island. According to some traditions, the whale’s back was covered with rocks, dirt, and even trees and bushes in the creation of this grand façade. Such a tempting oasis within the sea readily attracted sailors and wayward monks, who settled upon this island and made camp. However, this paradise of the weary sailors was interrupted when they started their cooking fire, for their island haven would suddenly dive to the bottom of the sea and drown the men, or the whale would swim off into the remotest corners of the ocean. In effect, their sins had driven them to hell, here on the back of the great monstrous fish.”

The whale swallows Jonah

The whale makes its Biblical debut as a symbol of Hell in the book of Jonah. In this story, God commands Jonah to prophesy at Nineveh; when Jonah refuses and escapes by boat God sends a great whale to swallow him for his sins. Jonah spends three days in the whale repenting and is let out on to dry land where he returns to Nineveh and converts the entire population (more than a half million people).

Icelandic saga also features a reference to the demonic nature of whales. In The Saga of Erik the Red, the Vinlanders arrive in the New World and spend a harsh winter unable to find proper provisions. These people pray to their Christian God to send them something to eat, but nothing comes. Then Thorhall the Hunter prays to the god Thor, who sends a beached whale. The Vinlanders eat of the meat, but all become ill. When they find out this food has come by way of a pagan god, they throw the whale’s meat over a cliff and recommit themselves to God’s mercy.

By the time of the renaissance, then, these demonic associations were at the forefront of any whale symbology. Furthermore, as Szabo points out, the aquatic environment was entirely foreign to most humans and thus anything living in that environment was automatically bizarre. Whales were a classic Other; their only role was to be feared and depicted as monsters.