...the whale was able to disguise itself as an island. According to some traditions, the whale’s back was covered with rocks, dirt, and even trees and bushes in the creation of this grand facade. Such a tempting oasis within the sea readily attracted sailors and wayward monks, who settled upon this island and made camp. However, this paradise of the weary sailors was interrupted when they started their cooking fire, for their island haven would suddenly dive to the bottom of the sea and drown the men, or the whale would swim off into the remotest corners of the ocean. In effect, their sins had driven them to hell, here on the back of the great monstrous fish.
– – “Bad to the bone”?  The Unnatural History of Monstrous Medieval Whales

The whale became a negative oceanic figure in Christianity – it’s your fault, sailor, that you were lured into this deception. This traces back to Physiologus, and seems to be an adaptation of a land-based monster’s tale of of deception from India (recounted in a supposed letter from Alexander to Aristotle).

TH White translated a 12th century bestiary this way:
Now this is just the way in which unbelievers get paid out, I mean the people who are ignorant of the wiles of the Devil and place their hopes in him and in his works. They anchor themselves to him, and down they go into the fires of Hell.
– T. H. White, trans. The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts; Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century,  1954 (excerpt)
TH White had his own issues with transgression and temptation (read H is for Hawk and cry for the man).

Poor whale.


If you light a fire on the back of a whale, thinking it is an island, and drive stakes into its back, thinking you are on sandy land, you will almost certainly be tossed and turned into the sea.



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.
– Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 13)


The monstrous whale known as aspidochelone was characterized by two distinctive behaviors. First, the whale possessed the ability to entrap its prey, usually fish, through the emission of a sweet, seductive odor released from its mouth. Unsuspecting fish were attracted by the scent, only to be devoured when the whale’s cavernous mouth snapped shut.
“Bad to the bone”?  The Unnatural History of Monstrous Medieval Whales 

This poem is so fun to say aloud and it nearly is sensible:

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. /
– Middle English Bestiary (British Library Arundel MS 292) [13th century]



When whales were monsters…

In medieval society, animals served as “scapegoats, mirror images and representations of human reality.
– "Bad to the bone”?  The Unnatural History of Monstrous Medieval Whales


teratology now means a study of deformity, in the olden days it referred to monsters

writhing sea monsters of the deep… whales were monstrous

hell lay inside their mouths (jonah’s experience)

they were often depicted with horns and scales.

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.” – medieval bestiary