And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 17. mai 2016

The Vanishing Islands - or, Excerpts from the cultural history of the whale

HAMLET: Or like a whale.
POLONIUS: Very like a whale
- Wiliam Shakespeare,
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

Yesterday, it was the feast of Saint Brendan the Navigator (c.486-575), abbot of Clonfert. Most of his fame both today and in the medieval period owed much to the account Navigatio Brendani, which was written in the 8th or 9th century. This narrative recounts how Brendan and a group of monks set out in a boat - usually identified as an irish curragh - to find the gates of Paradise. They achieve their goal, but can not enter, and on their way they encounter several wonders of the seas, including an iceberg and a whale mistaken for an island.

Landfall - or rather, whalefall
Besançon - BM - ms. 0551, f.026, Miracles de Notre Dame, Gautier de Coinci, 13th century
Courtesy of

The episode of Brendan's landfall on a sleeping whale is perhaps the most iconic and well-known episode in the Navigatio. To confuse sea-beasts with islands has become a literary motif, and it might have been so already at the time of the Navigatio's composition. We find some brief excerpts of this motif's cultural history in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, where the three protagonists of the novel discuss the size of octopuses and provide some examples of such beasts being mistaken for islands.

Today I received a book which is very pertinent to the discussion of this motif, and in this blogpost I therefore wish to quote at length from it. The book in question is a translation of a twelfth-century bestiary by T. H. White (author of The Once and Future King), contained in Cambridge University Library, II.4.26. The MS was edited in 1928 by M. R. James. The quotation below does not come from the chapter on the balene, but the asipdo-delone, which is identified in the bestiary as a cetus, which, like balene, means whale.

Things are heating up
Chalon-sur-Saône - BM - ms. 0014, f.089v, bestiary, c.1280
Courtesy of

There is an ocean monster which is called an ASPIDO DELONE in Greek. On the other hand, it is called a WHALE (cetus) because of the frightfulness of its body and because it was this animal which swallowed (excepit) Jonah, and its belly was so great that people took it to be Hell. Jona himself remarked: 'He heard me out of the belly of Hell' [Jonah 2:2].

This animal lifts its back out of the open sea above the water waves, and then it anchors itself in the one place; and on its back, what with the shingle of the ocean drawn there by the gales, a level lawn gets made and bushes begin to grow there. Sailing ships that happen to be going that way take it to be an island, and land on it. Then they make themselves a fireplace. But the Whale, feeling the hotness of the fire, suddenly plunges down into the depths of the deep, and pulls down the anchored ship with it into the profound.

Now this is just the way in which unbelievers get paid out, I mean the people who are ignorant of the wiles of the Devil and place their hopes in him and in his works. They anchor themselves to him, and down they go into the fires of Hell.

The nature of this monster is that whenever it feels hungry it opens its mouth and blows out a sort of pleasantly-smelling breath, and, when the smaller fishes notice the odour of this, they crowd together in the mouth. Naturally, when the monster feels his mouth to be full, he shuts it at once. Thus he swallows them down.

That is the way in which human people who are lacking in faith get addicted to pleasures. They pander to their grub as if it we re perfume. Then suddenly the Devil gobbles them up.
Bestiary, translated by T. H. White as "The Book of Beasts", Dover Publications, 2015: 197-98

Stranded on a whale, with fatal results
Dijon - BM - ms. 0526, literary miscellany, 14th century
Courtesy of

For similar blogposts:

Oxen under the Sea (Adam of Bremen's treatment of the walrus)

The Chill of the Hunt (on how to hunt an elephant)

The Divided Child (Derek Walcott's poem on a beached whale)

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