In search of . . . whales in literature

homage to melville

To scan the treatment of whales in literature is to track the growing confidence of man upon the harsh and unforgiving seas.  Early man’s knowledge of cetacea came first from the observations of sailors.  Naturally, the appearance of a frolicsome creature of ten feet or so that seemed to play and smile was a welcome sight to those aboard lonely vessels; in most early myths dolphins are represented as the merciful side of a dangerous environment.  The appearance of a massive 70-foot creature spouting ‘vapors’ and then quickly submerging elicited other emotions; in the early myths, whales often represent the terrifying and mysterious aspects of the ocean.  Sightings of whales by early sailors were the basis of stories across cultures that described ‘monsters of the deep’, dragons, and other terrifying creatures.



The Book of Jonah (written after 530 BCE)

In Judeo-Christian stories, the belly of the whale is often used to represent Hell, and the whale’s jaws as Hell’s gates. The image of the mighty whale is connected with the terrifying biblical sea monster, Leviathan.  The ‘big fish’ that swallowed the sinner Jonah is commonly interpreted to be a whale, which also connects the image of the whale with the idea of rebirth.  God’s awesome power and his willingness to forgive are united in the story of Jonah:  God calls up a storm and commands the most frightening creature of the sea: the whale vomits Jonah safely onto the beach, reinvigorating his faith and obedience.  In ancient Islamic folktales, Jonah’s whale is one of only ten animals allowed into Heaven.



Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, Book 5

Manilius tells of the drama of the sea-monster, Cetus, coming to devour Andromeda:  “Now had a heavy surge begun to rise and long lines of breakers were fleeing before the thrust of the massive monster. As it cleaves the waves, its head emerges and disgorges sea, the waters breaking loudly about its teeth and the swirling sea afloat in its very jaws; behind rise its huge coils like rings of an enormous neck chain, and its back covers the whole sea.  Ocean clamors in every quarter, and the very mountains and crags quake at the creature’s onset.”


whale in norse mythology

Norse myth,  11th century AD

Thor went fishing with the giant Hymir. The two did not get on, and when Hymir refused to provide Thor with bait, Thor decided that the head of Hymir’s largest ox would have to suffice.  They rowed to a point where Hymir often sat and caught flat fish.  Then, in a show of might, Thor drew up two whales. After this, Thor demanded to go farther, even though Hymir pleaded with Thor to return. They had traveled into the realm of the fearsome Serpent.  Thor ignored him and, to Hymir’s horror, they rowed out even further.

Thor then prepared a strong line and a large hook, and the monster, Jörmungandr, took the bait. Thor pulled the serpent up; the two faced off, Jörmungand dribbling poison and blood. Hymir went pale with fear, and as Thor grabbed his hammer to kill the serpent, the giant cut the line, leaving the serpent to sink beneath the waves.



East Asian mythology

In Chinese mythology a whale with the hands and feet of a man is thought to rule the ocean.  The Chinese also connected the single spiral tusk of the Narwhal, an Arctic-dwelling whale, with the horn of the sacred Unicorn.  In Tibet, images of whales frequently appear near statues of the Buddha.

There is a Tz’u poem from the Song Dynasty (10th to 12th centuries AD) that describes an encounter between the moon and a whale:  The moon is said to:

…float under the bottom of the sea/ but how could this be?/ Somehow, one sorrows and is disquieted/ To think that the big whale, ten thousand li long,/ Would butt the moon sidewise and shatter to pieces/ Its jade palaces and jasper towers!


scrimshaw design

Scrimshaw (from 1817 until the ban on commercial whaling)

Scrimshaw is the term given to the handiwork of bored whalers, who carved pictures on the teeth of whales.  The earliest known piece of scrimshaw dates from 1817 and was inscribed with the following: “This is the tooth of a sperm whale that was caught near the Galapagos Islands by the crew of the ship Adam and made 100 barrels of oil in the year 1817.”


Melville Kent Moby Dick

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851

Moby Dick is both the most famous and the most infamous of literary whales.

Two real life events inspired Melville’s tale.  In 1820, a sperm whale rammed the Essex, a Nantucket whaler, off the coast of South America.  One of the eight survivors, First Mate Owen Chase wrote about the experience in Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which was published in 1821.  Nearly 20 years later, tales surfaced about an albino sperm whale of unusual ferocity with the name Mocha Dick.  In May 1839, an article appeared in the New York magazine The Knickerbocker by Jeremiah Reynolds that reported a battle in which “an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength… [that] was white as wool” attacked a ship in premeditated fury.

However, Melville’s brilliance is in connecting these events to the earlier mythologies, when Ahab says, for example:

Look ye, Starbuck, all visible objects are but pastecard masks.  Some inscrutable, yet reasoning things put forth the molding of their features.  The white whale tasks me—he heaps me, yet he is but a mask. ‘Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued and frightened man since time began.  The thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on with half a heart and half a lung.



Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio, 1883

The story of the wooden puppet Pinocchio was a unique literary melding of genres for its time. Collodi had not intended the novel as children’s literature when it was first serialized.  At the request of his editor, Collodi added another twenty chapters in which Pinocchio arrives home after many adventures to find his ‘father’ Geppetto missing.  Pinocchio goes in search of him, encounters the hideous whale, Monstro, and ends up, Jonah-like, in the whale’s belly.  It is after feats of bravery and self-sacrifice that Pinocchio is resurrected, a real boy at last.



William Tyler Olcott, Sun Lore of All Ages, 1914

“There is a curious custom found in many parts of the world, which relates to the sun’s influence on young maidens entering on womanhood.  According to this superstition, these maidens must not touch the ground nor permit the sun to shine upon them.  In Fiji, brides who were being tattooed were hidden from the rays of the sun, and in a modern Greek folk tale, the Fates predict that in her fifteenth year a princess must be careful not to let the sun shine on her lest she be turned into a lizard.  A Tyrolese story tells how it was the doom of a lovely maiden to be transported in the belly of a whale if ever a sunbeam fell on her.”



Jack Henry Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast, 1981

Between the ages of 12 and 37, Jack Henry Abbott spent all but nine months imprisoned.  Abbott heard from his prison cell that Norman Mailer was writing a book about the executed murderer Gary Gilmore (Executioner’s Song).  This led to a celebrated correspondence between the two men, which was eventually published in 1981 as In the Belly of the Beast.  The publication of the book coincided with Abbott’s early release from prison.  Only six weeks later, on the very day a favourable review of In the Belly of the Beast appeared in The New York Times, he stabbed and killed a waiter in Greenwich Village.


whale rider

Witi Ihimaera, The Whale Rider, 1987

By the late twentieth century, whales had become something to defend rather than something to fear or commodify.  In this beautiful novel by the New Zealand writer, Witi Ihimaera, Maori tradition is broken when Kahu, a young girl in a patriarchal society, reveals she has the whale rider’s ancient gift of communicating with whales.  The novel was made into a moving film in 2002.


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