In the oceans they reign supreme and they are an endangered species. Celebrated by thousands of tattoos and a timeless novel called ‘Moby Dick’…
Whales belong to the order of Cetacea, a category of mammals known as “eutheria” which gradually became accustomed to underwater life. The anatomy of the whale is absolutely fascinating from a scientific and zoological viewpoint. Their size varies greatly but the infamous blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus Linnaeus) can reach up to 33 metres in length and weigh over 160 tons. It is its huge dimensions that have led many ancient cultures around the world to see whales more as mythological beasts (and idols to be worshipped) rather than normal evolutions of primitive life forms.
Five holy descriptions
The Bible, actually mentions whales five times in the Old and New Testaments. An example would be the ‘Book of Jonah’ where the Hebrew expression “dàg dògol” is used, meaning “great fish”. Then again, in Genesis (1:21) it says that “God created the sea monsters”; in Job (7:12) it tells of another unspecified “sea monster”; in Matthew (12:40) it describes the Jewish prophet Jonah as he who lived “for three days and three nights in the belly of the whale”; and finally, in Ezekiel (32:2) there is an eloquent metaphor “thou art like a young lion of the nations, and thou art as a whale in the sea”.
The Pinocchio connection
The Jonah already mentioned above makes reference to an unspecified “great fish” in whose stomach the prophet himself “remained for three days and three nights”. Here there is an interesting correlation with ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’, the children’s novel written by Carlo Lorenzini (simply Collodi) at the turn of the twentieth century. It also echoes ‘The True Story’ by Lucian of Samosata, a Greek author who lived from 120 to 192 AD, where in Book II he tells how he himself together with a group of friends was swallowed by a “cetacean” inside of which he managed to survive for months by eating the fish and birds swallowed by the creature while breaching and sounding.
“Moby Dick”, aka the masterpiece
The milestone in world literature where whales are concerned is one we all know. We’re speaking about ‘Moby Dick’, the masterpiece written in 1851 by the American Herman Melville. Universally considered a treasure of world literature, the story tells of the sailor Ishmael (the famous opening line is the dry: “Call me Ishmael”) and his voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod under the command of the cantankerous Captain Ahab who has but one ambition in life: to kill Moby Dick, a mysterious white sperm whale which sank his ship years before and ripped off part of his leg so that now he has a peg leg.
Historical references in Melville
The plot is all centred around this epic challenge, even though the fast-paced “adventure novel” is frequently interrupted by Ishmael’s musings of a scientific, religious or philosophical nature. It is said that Melville took inspiration from two true events before he put pen to paper. These were the shipwreck of the whaling ship Essex which was rammed by a sperm whale off the coast of South America and described by the officer Owen Chase (one of the few survivors of the disaster) in the book of the extremely long title ‘The Narrative of the most extraordinary and distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex from Nantucket which was sunk by a great sperm whale in the open Pacific Ocean’. The other was the killing in 1830 of the legendary albino sperm whale Mocha Dick in the waters around the Chilean island Mocha which went into the gory details (it seems that the poor beast was pierced with over twenty hooked harpoon) by the adventurer Jeremiah N. Reynolds in an article he published years later (1839) in the magazine ‘The Knickerbocker’.
Revenge is pointless…
It’s unarguably the existential dilemmas of the crew of the Pequod (which includes the tattooed harpooner Queequeg, a native of the non-existent island of Kokokov) that have fascinated scholars and readers alike in a metaphorical story that is truly timeless and blends Homerian epic with the Bible and the great lessons of Shakespeare. And he concludes with an absolute truth: revenge is pointless and obsession is always something that lives within us and never outside. As Starbuck sums up in chapter 135 of the book, “Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”. We should also mention here the tribute to the novel by the American metal group Mastodon who in 2004 devoted an entire concept album to Melville’s book in the excellent ‘Leviathian’, and Led Zeppelin, who, in their legendary second album ‘Led Zeppelin II’ in 1969, get carried away on a roller-coaster instrumental called ‘Moby Dick’.