Aspidochelone

Variations: Aspido-chelone, Aspidochelon, Aspidocalon, Aspidoceleon, Aspidodeleon, Aspidodelone, Aspischelone, Aspido-tortoise, Asp-tortoise, Asp-turtle, Fastitocalon, Shield-tortoise, Sea-monster, Sea-tortoise, Sea-turtle, Sulhafat, Turtle

Aspidochelone

The motif of the island-turtle or island-whale is one of the most common and pervasive of maritime yarns. Whether it is a turtle, a whale, a fish, or a crab, the story is the same. A great sea creature raises its back out of the water. Sea-sand and vegetation gather in on its rough back, until it looks like a small island. Sailors anchor their ship to the deceptive “island”, disembark, and light a fire. The monster, feeling the fire on its back, immediately dives, taking the sailors and their ship down to a watery grave.

Prototypes of the gigantic fish are in the Indian Zend-Avesta, the supposed 3rd-Century letter of Aristotle to Alexander, and the Babylonian Talmud composed around CE 257-320.

The monster in al-Jahiz’s account is a crab (saratan) – surely confusion with the similarly shelled turtle? In al-Qazwini’s entry on the turtle (sulhafat), he distinguishes between the terrestrial tortoise and the sea turtle. The sea turtle is of great size, and sailors believe it to be an island in the middle of the sea, landing on it and lighting a fire until the turtle stirs, whereupon those aboard the ship call out “Come back, for it is a turtle that felt the heat of the fire, come back that you may not go down with it!” Sindbad the Sailor encountered this creature in his first Voyage, but managed to escape with his life.

The Account repeated in the Physiologus and bestiaries such as the Exeter Book, and the monster is identified with the whale that swallowed Jonah. The original Greek versions of the bestiary talk of the Aspidochelone – a name of uncertain etymology. Chelone refers to a turtle or tortoise, but aspido has been assumed to mean “shield” or “asp” (as in, the snake). The “shield” origin may stem from the turtle’s shell, but it seems like a redundant descriptor for a turtle. Another possibility is that the turtle was originally more of a serpent, or that this is a reference to the aspidochelone’s evil.

Whatever the meaning, the name aspidochelone became corrupted over time to become the “fastitocalon”, and the turtle supplanted with the more familiar whale (although the description of a rough back sounds more like a turtle’s shell).

The Physiologus or Bestiary adds further moralizing elements to the story. The aspidochelone will exhale a pleasant odor from its mouth, attracting fish that are then swallowed. Thus the aspidochelone is an allegory for Satan. Sinners who anchor themselves to the Devil are doomed to go to Hell, and sinful pleasures are enticing as perfume.

The aspidochelone entry is preceded by the panther entry. Both use fragrant breath to attract other animals, but the aspidochelone is evil while the panther is an allegory for Christ. The juxtaposition is probably intentional. The fragrant smell of the aspidochelone may also be derived from the odorous cetacean substance known as ambergris.

Aspidochelones are minor subjects in medieval woodcarvings, visible at Kidlington, Great Grandsden, Isleham, Swaffham Bulbeck, and Norwich Cathedral. They can be distinguished by the presence of ships and cooking-pots on their back, or with their mouths open to attract fish.

References

Barber, R. (1993) Bestiary. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (2002) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Vintage Classics, Random House, London.

Cook, A. S. (1821) The Old English Physiologus. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Cook, A. S. (1894) The Old English ‘Whale’. Modern Language Notes, 9(3), pp. 65-68.

Curley, M. J. (1979) Physiologus. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Druce, G. C. (1914) Animals in English Wood Carving. The Third Annual Volume of the Walpole Society, pp. 57-73.

Gordon, R. K. (1957) Anglo-Saxon Poetry. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London.

Hippeau, C. (1852) Le Bestiaire Divin de Guillaume, Clerc de Normandie. A. Hardel, Caen.

Iannello, F. (2011) Il motive dell’aspidochelone nella tradizione letteraria del Physiologus. Considerazioni esegetiche e storico-religiose. Nova Tellus 29(2), pp. 151-200.

Al-Jahiz, A. (1966) Kitab al-Hayawan. Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa Awladihi, Egypt.

Al-Qazwini, Z. (1849) Zakariya ben Muhammed ben Mahmud el-Cazwini’s Kosmographie. Erster Theil: Die Wunder der Schöpfung. Ed. F. Wüstenfeld. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, Göttingen.

White, T. H. (1984) The Book of Beasts. Dover Publications, New York.

Wiener, L. (1921) Contributions toward a history of Arabico-Gothic culture, volume IV: Physiologus studies. Innes and Sons, Philadelphia.

Swamfisk

Variations: Swam-fisk, Swamfisck, Swamfysck, Svvamfysck, Ahunum, Hahanc

Swamfisk

The Swamfisk described by Olaus Magnus appears off the coast of Norway and is much less common than cetaceans. It is frequently hunted for its fat and oil, used primarily for treating leather and providing light during the long winter months.

Swamfisks are very fatty animals and are excellent sources of fat and oil. They have round, globulous bodies, forming a huge distensible bag that is almost entirely stomach; there is no neck to speak of. The mouth is in line with the belly and can engulf vast amounts of fish. Swamfisks are voracious eaters and convert everything they consume into additional mass until they are little more than floating bags of blubber.

When attacked by larger creatures a swamfisk will curl up on itself like a hedgehog, folding its skin and fatty tissues over its head. It will remain like this until the danger goes away. If hunger strikes while a swamfisk is curled up, it will be forced to eat part of itself to assuage its insatiable gluttony.

De Montfort believed it to be a giant octopus.

References

Magnus, O. (1555) Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. Giovanni M. Viotto, Rome.

Magnus, O. (1561) Histoire des pays septentrionaus. Christophle Plantin, Antwerp.

de Montfort, P. D. (1801) Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particuliere des Mollusques, Tome Second. F. Dufart, Paris.

Swan, J. (1643) Speculum Mundi. Roger Daniel, Cambridge.

Trochus

Variations: Rota

Trochus

The Trochus, “wheel”, or Rota is a huge sea-monster known to swim close to shore in large groups. Schools (pods?) of these have been seen off Athos and Sigeum.

A trochus is fortunately timid, despite having a crest and spines of great size that show above the water. It revolves and contracts and dives deep, uncoiling and rolling and returning to the surface.

The wheel-like resemblance suggests a jellyfish or ray, but the size and behavior makes it clear that the trochus is a whale surfacing and diving.

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. III. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Chipfalamfula

chipfalamfula

Chipfalamfula, “River-Shutter”, is an enormous aquatic creature found in Ronga Bantu tales and waterways of Mozambique, notably in the bay of Delagoa. It is of indeterminate gender and species, being either a whale or rather a colossal catfish. Chipfalamfula has control over all water, and can provide or withhold it as it pleases, causing droughts and floods alike. It is so large that its belly is a world on its own, with fertile fields, livestock, and communities of people living there happily and wanting for nothing. Tales of young girls living inside Chipfalamfula before returning to the surface may be regarded as coming-of-age stories.

Chichinguane, the youngest daughter of Chief Makenyi, was beloved by her father, but envied and hated by her older sisters. When the young women went to the riverbank to fetch clay for plastering walls, the eldest sister ordered Chichinguane to stay at the bottom of the clay pit and hand her the clay. She did as she was told, only to be left behind by her older sister to face a rising tide.

She had just about given up hope when Chipfalamfula surfaced next to her and opened its cavernous mouth. “Come inside, my daughter”, it told her reassuringly. “Come inside me where you will live in peace and comfort”. So Chichinguane did as she was told, and lived inside Chipfalamfula, sharing the river-shutter’s bounties with its other children.

Years passed, and the outside world caught up with Chichinguane as it was bound to do. Makenyi’s daughters came down to the river again, balancing pitchers of water on their heads and singing “We are the group who puts pitchers on their heads… She who killed her sister killed her in the swamp, where the reeds are tall…” The youngest of the group lagged behind. She was the new youngest member of the family, and now received the same hate the presumed-dead Chichinguane did. She wasn’t good at balancing a pitcher either. She sat down and wept, when lo and behold Chichinguane appeared, attracted by the singing. Her stay in Chipfalamfula had metamorphosed her, and she was now covered in glistening silvery scales. She also wasn’t particularly pleased with the lyrics of the song. “You tried to kill your sister?” she shouted, striking her younger sister. But the girl didn’t even recognize her, whereupon Chichinguane relented, and helped her little sister carry her pitcher. However, she did not follow her into the village, instead diving back into the river.

Soon Chichinguane and her youngest sister were meeting every day, and eventually Chichinguane told her sibling the truth about her and why she lived in the river. The sister returned and told her mother, who followed her to the river and tried to embrace her long-lost daughter. But Chichinguane warned her “Do not try to hold me, mother, I am now a fish and I must live in the water”. She slipped out of her mother’s arms like a greased eel and disappeared underwater again.

She still longed to return to her family, and finally Chipfalamfula allowed her to leave, blessing her with a magic wand to use in time of need. Chichinguane returned to her mother’s hut, where her silver scales fell off her body and become silver coins. Then she told them her story, of her older sister’s treachery, and of the land of milk and honey inside the river-shutter.

Chichinguane interceded to prevent the oldest sister’s execution by the furious Makenyi. This was a mistake, as she returned to her schemes. Talking Chichinguane and the youngest sister into climbing up a tree and sawing off branches, she then collected the branches and left, leaving them out on a limb. To make matters worse, a family of one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed, and one-eared ogres saw the two girls in the tree and started cutting it down. Fortunately, Chichinguane used the river-shutter’s wand to heal the tree every time it started to fall. The ogres grew tired and decided to rest, giving Chichinguane and her sister a window to escape. They climbed down the tree and ran with the ogres in hot pursuit, and when they reached the river, Chichinguane touched it with the wand and sang “Chipfalamfula, shut off the water”. The water parted before her and the two girls ran through to safety. The ogres were halfway through when Chipfalamfula opened the water again and drowned them. On their way back, Chichinguane and her sister found the ogres’ cave, full of untold riches, and returned home in regal finery.

The eldest sister was decapitated despite Chichinguane’s entreaties.

The name Chichinguane has confusingly been given to both the youngest and the eldest daughter. The latter is the case in Junod’s older source; Knappert’s usage of the name for the heroine has been preserved here.

References

Junod, H. A. (1897) Les Chants et les Contes des Ba-Ronga. Georges Bridel et Cie, Lausanne.

Knappert, J. (1977) Bantu myths and other tales. E. J. Brill, Leiden.

Sverðhvalur

Variations: Sverdhvalur, Sword-whale, Swordwhale; Sverðfiskur, Sverðfiskar, Sverðfiskr (Sword-fish); Sverðurinn (Sworder); Brúnfiskur, Brún-fiskur (Brown-fish); Sveifarfiskur (Crank-fish); Slambakur (Slap-whale); Staurhvalur (Stump-whale); Einbægslingur (One-fin); Haskerðingur (High-Fin; potentially the basking shark or the swordwhale); Killer Whale, Orca, Swordfish

Sverdhvalur

The Sverðhvalur (“Swordwhale”) or Sverðfiskur (“Swordfish”) is one of the illhveli, or “evil whales” that lurk off the coast of Iceland. Like the other evil whales, it is unfit for eating, and the steypireyður or blue whale is its mortal enemy.

The sverðhvalur’s most distinctive feature is the sharp bony fin growing out of its back. This fin is 3-12 cubits (1.5-6 meters) tall. The sverðhvalur is about the size of a sperm whale at the largest, and its spouting is short and heavy. Its face is owlish in appearance, with a pointed snout and a large mouth set with vicious teeth. If the brúnfiskur (“brown-fish”) is one of its many aliases, it can be assumed to be brown in color, but another account describes it as grey.

The sverðhvalur is a fast swimmer, and beats the water on either side of it with its fin when agitated. It is often accompanied by a smaller whale – perhaps its offspring – that swims under its pectoral fin and feeds on its scraps. The bladed dorsal fin is used as a weapon, and a sverðhvalur will swim underneath good whales to cut their bellies open with crisscross slashes. Whales will beach themselves rather than suffer a sverðhvalur’s attack. Sverðhvalurs are also wasteful eaters, choosing to eat only the tongue of cetacean prey and leaving the rest to rot. Boats are treated in the same way as whales are, with the dorsal fin punching holes through hulls or slicing cleanly through smaller boats and sailors alike.

Other encounters, especially with larger vessels, are more harmful for the whale. A trading ship sailing from eastern Iceland to Copenhagen came to a stop in the middle of a large pod of whales, and suddenly felt a strong tug coming from below. When the ship moored in Copenhagen, a large fish’s tusk was found sticking out of the hull.

Another sverðfiskur followed a boat off Eyjafjörður, and gave up the chase only after a gun was fired into its gaping mouth.

The term sverðfiskur or sverðfiskr (“sword-fish”) has been used to refer to the swordfish, the sawfish, and the killer whale. The basking shark and the killer whale have also been accused of slicing through ships and eviscerating whales with their fins, and it is the killer whale or “swordwhale” that appears to be the sverðhvalur’s ancestor.

References

Anderson, P. (1955) Bibliography of Scandinavian Philology XXIV. Acta Philologica Scandinavica, Ejnar Munksgaard, Copenhagen.

Árnason, J.; Powell, G. E. J. and Magnússon, E. trans. (1866) Icelandic Legends, Second Series. Longmans, Green, and Co., London.

Davidsson, O. (1900) The Folk-lore of Icelandic Fishes. The Scottish Review, October, pp. 312-332.

Hermansson, H. (1924) Jon Gudmundsson and his Natural History of Iceland. Islandica, Cornell University Library, Ithaca.

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.

Brethmechin

Variations: Arabian Breth-mechin, Whale Panther

Brethmechin

Gessner describes the Brethmechin as an amphibious beast found near the island of Java. He gives the name as being of Arabic etymology, although it is hard to tell what words it derives from. Gessner’s contact was Theodorus Beza, who reported a brethmechin washed up on the Javan shore on April 14, 1551.

A brethmechin is 10 cubits (about 4.5 meters) long and 2 cubits (about 1 meter) high. It has two legs, which allow it to move around on land to some extent. It has a panther’s head and a lion’s claws, with a horse-like tuft of hair on the tip of its pantherine tail. Brethmechins are red in color with blue markings, and have a lighter cerulean tail with red spots. They are well furnished with red dorsal and ventral bristles, with the ventral bristles being particularly long towards the tail.

The brethmechin has seen minor use in heraldry.

References

Gessner, C. (1560) Nomenclator aquatilium animantium. Christoph Froschoverus.

Holme, R. (1668) The academy of armory, or, A storehouse of armory and blazon containing the several variety of created beings, and how born in coats of arms, both foreign and domestick. Printed by the author at Chester.

Lyngbakur

Variations: Lyng-bakur, Lyngbakr, Ling-back, Heather-back; Jasconius, Iascanus; Hólma-fiskur, Hólmafiskur (Island Fish)

Lyngbakur

The Lyngbakur is the largest of all the illhveli, the largest of the whales, indeed one of the largest creatures in the sea. In Icelandic lore only the hafgufa (or kraken) is bigger than it, and the two giants are frequently interchangeable.

Despite its enormous size, the lyngbakur is rarely seen, and it does not go out of its way to sink ships the way its smaller brethren do. Most of the time its back is the only thing seen, looking like an island covered with a growth of heather. Its eyes are dorsally located, giving the impression of circular pools of water. From a distance the lyngbakur seems jet-black, but on closer inspection it is a mossy grey. It is tailed and finned like other whales.

The lyngbakur is a slow swimmer, and tends to doze at the surface, looking indistinguishable from a heather-covered island. It is possible to go right up and land on it, but the whale eventually awakes and dives, and anyone still on it will be drowned. Some fishermen in southern Iceland stayed two days on the whale’s back before it sunk, but they had the presence of mind to escape while they could. Trying to draw water from the “pools” on the island is certain to awaken it. The lyngbakur feeds only once every three years, but when it does it engulfs anything in its path, fish, birds, and whales alike.

The saga of Arrow-Odd relates the titular hero’s adventures, which include an encounter with a lyngbakur sent by his enemy Ogmund. He stopped by a large heather-covered island, and had five of his crew disembark to find drinking water. Before long the island began to move, going underwater and drowning the unfortunate crewmen.

Saint Brendan moored at a small island covered with sparse vegetation and with no sand on its shores. He and his followers spent the night praying on the island, but left next morning in a hurry as the ground began to shake. They returned to their ship in time, where they found out that they had been on the back of a Jasconius or Iascanus, a great whale that seems to be none other than the lyngbakur. The next time they encountered the whale, Saint Brendan fearlessly sang Easter Mass on it, and none were harmed.

It is said that there is only one lyngbakur, and it will live until Armageddon.

References

Davidsson, O. (1900) The Folk-lore of Icelandic Fishes. The Scottish Review, October, pp. 312-332.

Edwards, P. and Pálsson, H. (1970) Arrow-Odd: A Medieval Novel. New York University Press, New York.

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.