At this time of year the southward-migrating humpback whales can be seen off our Sydney shores. These magnificent creatures are a source of wonder and admiration for us today but the sad history of whaling demonstrates that this wasn’t also so. In the Middle Ages, the “status” of whales was even more lowly with medieval people viewing them as a source of deception and death. The basis of this view can be traced to the whale’s depiction, and description, in a number of medieval bestiaries. (More on “bestiaries” in another post but, for now, a handy definition of a medieval bestiary is a type of compendium of beasts and animals, real and mythical, accompanied by a symbolic interpretation and a moral lesson, particular to each beast).
Medieval image of whale and mariners
In 1481 William Caxton (of English printing press fame), drawing on much earlier bestiary definitions, wrote of the whale as being a “fish so huge and great that on his back grows earth and grass” and that this makes the whale appear as if it is an island on which mariners can “come ashore”. Once there, Caxton explains that it is not unusual for the seamen to light a fire on which to cook their food. However, the heat of the cooking fire eventually distresses the whale to the extent that he must dive down under the water to cool himself, thereby taking all the mariners with him to their death. The symbolic interpretation of this is that the whale is as deceitful as the devil, luring men to death (spiritual and physical) when they fail to be alert to the deception, and fall for easy and comfortable options.
Now, how fortunate we are to have an informed understanding of these magnificent creatures and how lucky to be able to catch sight of the whales each year as they make their epic journey along the eastern Australian coast.