Medieval Bestiary: The Whale

The Whale was the terror of the seas, a danger to sailors who often mistook it for an island and anchored their ships on its back. Inspired by a tale from an illustrated medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751), this animation explores the life of the sea-creature beneath the waves.

There is a monster living in the sea, which the Greeks call ‘aspidochelon’ and we call the ‘whale’. Whales are creatures with huge bodies and mouths, which draw in and spout out water.

The whale raises its back above the waves, and to passers-by, it seems to stay in the same place. The winds blow sea-sand on it and it becomes a level place where greenery can grow. Unwary sailors often mistake the whale for an island, and beach their ships on its back. Then they light fires, and when the creature feels the heat of the fire, it dives beneath the waves and drags the ship and her crew down with it into the depths. 

When this sea-monster is hungry, it opens its jaws and gives out a sweet scent. Little fish smell this and unwittingly gather in its mouth. As soon as its mouth is full, the monster snaps its jaws shut and eats the fish whole. It was the whale that swallowed the prophet Jonah and held him in its belly for three days. Its stomach is so large that it could be mistaken for Hell.

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