Whale of a Tale, or there’s something fishy about this place…


October 10, 2012 by Gail Armstrong

Did you hear the one about the sailors who landed on an island, built a campfire and then got blown sky-high by a geyser?  No?  How about the sailors who landed on an island, built a campfire and then the whole island did a deep-dive, taking them with it?

These are just a couple of tales that made the rounds in the middle ages and both are based on the misconception that whales like to float at the surface of the water and so accumulate sand on their backs; sailors in turn mistake the whales for islands and when they make camp, may either find themselves unceremoniously caught up in the whale’s blow-hole eruption or, more commonly, they make a campfire and when it gets too hot, it startles the whale into diving into the depths, taking the sailors with it to their deaths.

Another commonly-told story about the whale was that its breath was sweet, so all it had to do was exhale into the water and swarms of little fish would swim into its mouth, attracted by the lovely perfume.

There are many depictions of whales in illuminated manuscripts, both illustrating the “traveller’s tales” above and also, of course, the Old Testament story of Jonah and the Whale.  Here are some of my favourite medieval whales:

1. I like this image because of the look on the whale’s face. There he is, minding his own business, chowing down on some fragrance-loving fish, when another darn boats parks itself on his back.  That he could take, if only they could do without the campfire and eat something at room temperature for once…I swear that’s what this poor beleaguered, world-weary whale is thinking.



This image comes from a Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish Birds, created in England (Salisbury?) in the 2nd quarter of the 3th century.

2. This whale, on the other hand, just looks befuddled, and rightly so — he’s surely much too small to be mistaken for an island.  Yet this boat has just hauled up beside him and its occupants gone ahead and built a roaring fire.  He looks like the heat is getting to him, but he’s just not quite sure of the etiquette in this unprecedented situation.  A well-mannered whale being pushed to the brink here… 



This image is found in the Queen Mary Psalter, created in England between 1310 and 1320.

3. This whale I just find interesting.  He’s unique in being so black and smooth and angular, and look at his many triangular fins…quite a work of imagination, as compared to the majority of illuminated whales who are green and very ‘fishy’-looking.  At first glance I thought he had a couple of chicken legs in his mouth – only on a closer look was I sure they were fish.  No fire on his back yet but I have no doubt when it comes, he’ll be off in a flash.  No standing on ceremony for this fellow!


This image comes from a bestiary created in the 1190’s.

4. Here’s another example which shows the boat just landing.  I think I just like this one because he’s so utterly un-whale-like…just a big green fish with weird fins and a scraggly beard.


The page dates from the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, and comes from Theological Miscellany by Peraldus, a rich source of illustrations of beasts of all kinds.

5. Speaking of weird ‘uns, here’s another…I honestly don’t know what to make of the top two images.  Forked tongue?  Forked tongue it can stick out through its blow-hole as a party trick?  And look at that body…more Godzilla than whale.  I can see this beast walking the streets of Tokyo terrorizing a cast of thousands with no difficulty at all.



This is another from Theological Miscellany by Peraldus.

More whales to come when we visit the Jonah story soon!


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