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.

Dory speaks whale

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Though we humans may have trouble understanding whale communication, Dory from “Finding Nemo” has no trouble expressing herself in their foreign tongue.

Whale songs

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Relatively little is understood about the songs with which whales communicate, yet they are a topic of enduring intrigue to scientists and amateurs alike. The sound of whales singing underwater is haunting, a noise of seeming primordial origin. Though whale songs may sound more like prolonged groans to human ears, they are actually incredibly complex, and according to, “similar to classical music, a whalesong consists of different themes which develop and build over the years.”

The oceans are apparently too polluted with noise now for whales to communicate from pole to pole, as they were once able. However, it has been proven that the songs of whales in Hawaii reach the whales in Japan and these Japanese whales alter their own songs accordingly. Scientists are able to use the newest technological advances in sound recording and analysis to study these dialectical variations, and perhaps at some point we humans will understand just what it is whales are expressing through song. Until then, we will continue to be awed.

How to be a whale watcher

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What you’ll need: Database of markings in order to identify whales sighted, dramamine

Songlist: Every Breath You Take (I’ll be watching you) by The Police, Swallowed in the Sea by Coldplay

Further reading: The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare

Last night I looked at my parents’ pictures of their recent trip to the Pacific coast of Mexico. The beautiful flowers, brightly painted buildings, and humpback whales from their whale-watching expedition were a perfect antidote to the drab snow that still covers the ground here. I was going to save the topic of whale watching for the summer, but it seemed like a good day to think about warmer times.

When I lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts for a summer, I looked forward to becoming a “local.” I wanted the Portuguese fishermen to recognize me, the folks at Farm Land to remember my sandwich order (apple, brie, and sprouts in a whole wheat wrap). Provincetown, however, is one of those summer-vacation towns that balloons to ten times its off-season size, thus rendering me just another out-of-towner in the minds of the real locals.

One time, at the end of the summer, I felt like I fit in. I had gone on a whale watch with my fellow interns and boss in early August and, when a friend visited in late August, I took him down to the dock. We stood in line behind the rest of the tourists but when we got to the boat itself, the captain of the Portuguese Princess waved us past the ticket booth.

“They’re friends!” he explained to the confused ticket seller. And so we went on a free whale watch.

Now, I’ve spent most of my life as a landlocked Minnesotan, and so the idea of a whale watch is beyond thrilling to me. You not only get to spend a long afternoon on a boat (!) but also get to watch whales (!!!!!) I’d gone on maybe one or two before my summer in Provincetown, and assumed that the rest of the world shared my enthusiasm for boats and whales. Only when I brought this up to my roommate in Spain did I find out that not everyone wants to be whale-watching at all times (this roommate had had a bad experience once, having gotten seasick on a whale watch and vowed never to go on such an expedition again).

Escaping harpoons, calving, hanging out with the pod: what could be better?

Perhaps she didn’t share my lifelong love of whales. My favorite board game as a child was called “The Whale Game: Survival at Sea*,” a sort of Game of Life with whales, except less exciting. I used to beg my family to play it with me, which they at least saw as a step up from “The Ungame,” a game with no real start or end, no winners, and no strategy (my brother would only play this with me if he got to crush me in “Risk” afterwards).

As a way to channel my interest in whales into something better than an unexciting board game, I got a humpback whale adoption kit for Christmas when I was about eight. I chose to adopt a whale named Sod (we also got a Ouija board for Christmas that year, and I used it to help me pick which whale to adopt) and looked forward to getting updates on my personal whale from the quarterly newsletter. We got that newsletter for maybe a year, but there was never anything about Sod. I always worried that she’d died in some terrible accident. My poor whale.

I don’t remember what part of the world Sod was from, but I did think of her on that free whale watch in Provincetown. The day was absolutely beautiful–sunny, warm, exactly the type of afternoon a person (me) would want to spend on the water looking for whales. As the boat sailed away from Provincetown Bay, we saw a basking shark off the port side. Then, a half-hour later, we saw our first humpbacks, a mother and baby. And then two males, breaching out of the water. And another female by herself further on. The biologists on board identified these whales for us by name–these humpbacks were all locals. The kind of locals the Portuguese fishermen would recognize, the kind for which the Far Land folks would remember the sandwich order (plankton on rye). Though none of these whales was named Sod, the afternoon was perfect, punctuated by a pod of dolphins that greeted us when we returned to the bay. Who wouldn’t enjoy such a day?

*When I was researching for this post, it took me forever to find an image of this game, probably because it was so unpopular. The only reference I found to it on was this listing, in which the game is being sold for $75.00. I have no idea why it would be worth that much, but it makes me think I should dig up our version of “The Whale Game” from the basement–maybe its unpopularity makes it a collector’s item now?