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Source: British Library - Collect Britain Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 69r



Latin name: Aspidochelone

Other names: Aspedocalane, Aspido testudo, Aspis chelone, Balain, Balainne, Balayn, Balene, Cete, Cethe, Coine, Covie, Fastitocalon, Lacovie

Sailors mistake the whale for an island


General Attributes

The whale remains floating at the surface for long periods, so its back becomes covered with sand. Approaching sailors, thinking the whale to be an island, land there and build a fire to cook their food. After a time the heat penetrates the whale's thick skin, and it dives to cool itself. The ship is dragged down with it and the sailors drown.

When the whale is hungry it opens its mouth and emits a sweet odor, which attracts small fish. The fish swim into the whale's mouth, which closes on them.


The whale who deceives sailors and drags them down to their deaths signifies the devil, who deceives those he drags down to hell. Those of weak faith who give in to the sweet odor of worldly desires will be swallowed up by the devil.

Sources (chronological order)

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 6:6): Whales (ballenae) conceive through coition with the sea-mouse. (Book 12, 6:7-8): Whales are immense beasts, with bodies equal to mountains. They have their name from emitting water, for the Greek ballein means emit; they raise waves higher than those of any other sea beast. They are called monsters (cete) because of their horribleness. The whale that swallowed Jonah was of such size that its belly resembled hell; as Jonah says (Jonah 2:2): "He heard me from the belly of hell."

Guillaume le Clerc [13th century CE] (Bestiaire): In the sea, which is mighty and vast, are many kinds of fish, such as the turbot, the sturgeon, and the porpoise. But there is one monster, very treacherous and dangerous. In Latin its name is Cetus. It is a bad neighbor for sailors. The upper part of its back looks like sand, and when it rises from the sea, the mariners think it is an island. Deceived by its size they sail toward it for refuge, when the storm comes upon them. They cast anchor, disembark upon the back of the whale, cook their food, build a fire, and in order to fasten their boat they drive great stakes into what seems to them to be sand. When the monster feels the heat of the fire which burns upon its back, it plunges down into the depths of the sea, and drags the ship and all the people after it. When the fish is hungry it opens its mouth very wide, and breathes forth an exceedingly sweet odor. Then all the little fish stream thither, and, allured by the sweet smell, crowd into its throat. Then the whale closes its jaws and swallows them into its stomach, which is as wide as a valley. (Bestiaries and Lapidaries (London, 1896) Kuhns translation)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 13): ... there is a great fish in the sea, that hight Bellua, that casteth out water at his jaws with vapour of good smell, and other fish feel the smell and follow him, and enter and come in at his jaws following the smell, and he swalloweth them and is so fed with them. ... It is said that the whale hath great plenty of sperm, and after that he gendereth, superfluity thereof fleeteth above the water; and if it be gathered and dried it turneth to the substance of amber. And in age, for greatness of body, on his ridge powder and earth is gathered, and so digged together that herbs and small trees and bushes grow thereon, so that that great fish seemeth an island. And if shipmen come unwarily thereby, unneth they scape without peril. For he throweth as much water out of his mouth upon the ship, that he overturneth it sometime or drowneth it. Also he is so fat that when he is smitten with fishers' darts he feeleth not the wound, but it passeth throughout the fatness. But when the inner fish is wounded, then is he most easily taken. For he may not suffer the bitterness of the salt water, and therefore he draweth to the shoreward. And also he is so huge in quantity, that when he is taken, all the country is better for the taking. Also he loveth his whelps with a wonder love, and leadeth them about in the sea long time. And if it happeth that his whelps be let with heaps of gravel, and by default of water, he taketh much water in his mouth, and throweth upon them, and delivereth them in that wise out of peril, and bringeth them again into the deep sea. And for to defend them he putteth himself against all things that he meeteth if it be noyful to them, and setteth them always between himself and the sun on the more secure side. And when strong tempest ariseth, while his whelps are tender and young, he swalloweth them up into his own womb. And when the tempest is gone and fair weather come, then he casteth them up whole and sound. Also Jorath saith, that against the whale fighteth a fish of serpent's kind, and is venomous as a crocodile. And then other fish come to the whale's tail, and if the whale be overcome the other fish die. And if the venomous fish may not overcome the whale, then he throweth out of his jaws the whale throweth out of his mouth a sweet smelling smoke, and putteth off the stinking smell, and defendeth and saveth himself and his in that manner wise. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

Middle English Bestiary (British Library Arundel MS 292) [13th century]: Cethegrande is a fis, / The moste that in water is. / That thu wuldes seien get, / Gef thu it soge wan it f let, / That it were a neilond / That sete one the se sond. / This fis that is unride, / Thanne him hungreth he gapeth wide; / Ut of his throte it smit an onde, / The swetteste thing that is o londe. / Therfore othre fisses to him dragen. / Wan he it felen he aren fagen. / He cumen and hoven in his muth; / Of his swike he am uncuth. / This cete thanne his chaveles luketh, / Thise fisses alle in suketh. / The smale he wile thus biswiken; / The grete maig he nogt bigripen. / This fis wuneth with the se grund / And liveth ther evre heil and sund / Til it cumeth the time / That storm stireth al the se. / Thanne sumer and winter winnen / Ne mai it wunen therinne; / So drovi is to sees grund / Ne mai he wunen ther that stund, / Oc stireth up and hoveth stille / Wiles that weder is so ille. / The sipes that am on se fordriven, / Loth hem is ded and lef to liven; / Biloken hem and sen this fis, / A neilond he wenen it is. / Therof he aren swithe fagen, / And mid here migt tharto he dragen. / Sipes on festen / And alle up gangen, / Of ston mid stel in the tunder / Wel to brennen one this wunder; / Warmen hem wel and heten and drinken. / The fir he feleth and doth hem sinken: / For sone he diveth dun to grunde. / He drepeth hem alle withuten wunde. / This devel is mikel with wil and magt / So witches haven in here craft. / He doth men hungren and haven thrist / And mani other sinful list; / Tolleth men to him with his onde, / Woso him folegeth he findeth sonde: / Tho am the little, in leve lage. / The mikle ne maig he to him dragen; / The mikle I mene the stedefast / In rigte leve mid fles and gast. / Woso listneth develes lore / On lengthe it sal him rewen sore. / Woso festeth hope on him / He sal him folgen to helle dim.

William Caxton [1481] (Myrrour of the World (Westminster, 1481) Myrrour of the World): In this see of Ynde is another fysshe so huge and grete that on his backe groweth erth and grasse; and semeth proprely that it is a grete Ile. Wherof it happeth somtyme that the maronners sayllyng by this see ben gretly deceyved and abused; ffor they wene certaynly that it be ferme londe; wherfor they goo out of their shippes theron. And whan they have made their preparacions and their logys theron, and lyghted their fyre and made it to brenne after their nede, wenyng to be on a ferme londe, but incontynent as this merveyllous fysshe feleth the hete of the fyre, he mevyth hym sodenly and devaleth doun in to the water as depe as he may. And thus alle that is upon hym is lost in the see. And by this moyen, many shippes ben drowned and perisshid, and the peple, when they supposed to have be in savete. (from the Caxton's Mirrour of the World (London, 1913) Prior edition)


Drawings of whales vary greatly; while they usually have the form of a large fish, they sometimes have unusual features, like the four legs on the whale in Merton College Library, MS. 249 (f. 8r). The story of the sailors landing on a whale is commonly illustrated, sometimes with a fire already built on its back, and sometimes with the whale diving and dragging down the doomed sailors. Fish are often shown swimming into the whale's open mouth, to show the two main attributes of the whale in one scene.

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