Whales in Art, Literature and Mythology

Animals have long been the subject of myths, legends, art and literature. They are mysterious, intriguing, and able to teach human beings moral lessons by their antics. Whales are no exception, and continue to appear in the art and literature of modern society.

Centuries ago, in the 1700’s, indigenous Native Americans used whales in their design of masks and totem poles. Of course, they used other animals too, but whales were significant for their being considered “monsters of the ocean”. Whales were used to convey power and might; a strong, silent giant that dominates in slow deliberation.

Jonah and the Whale.

The sound that the whales make in the water has been linked to wisdom, kindness and intelligence in various cultures. These songs are used to communicate and woo one another, but their eerie gentleness is known to humans in many different cultural spheres. Teaching these songs to the generations that follow have also meant that whales are used as a form of symbolism for lifelong bonds and a sense of heritage

Some cultures believe that whales have a divine origin, and are not mere ordinary animals. For this reason, the Vietnamese are known to occasionally hold a funeral for a whale that has died.

Here are some other incidents of whales in art, literature and mythology:

• In Austria, it was long believed that a virgin that was on the cusp of becoming an adult would be taken away to a mysterious world in a whale’s belly if she happened to have a sunbeam falling directly on her.

• Yu-kiang is a whale that is believed to have human hands and feet. His purpose, according to Chinese myth, is to rule over the waters of the oceans.

• The prophet Jonah was thought to have been swallowed by a whale after being flung from his boat in a storm. After a few days, he was vomited up by the animal to survive the ordeal. Upon later investigation, it is more likely that it was a whale shark (which is a fish, not a mammal).

• A story in Iceland tells of a man that flung a stone at a whale and got it lodged in the animal’s blowhole. The whale swelled with air and eventually burst. The man was warned not to enter the ocean’s water for the next two decades. However, one year short of his 20-year ousting, he went into the sea and was killed by the whale.

• Big Raven is an Inuit god, who was believed to have found a beached whale lying on the sand. Determined to get it back into the water, Big Raven looked to the Great Spirit for help. The Great Spirit guided him to special mushrooms that gave him superior strength, allowing him to pull the whale back into the water single-handedly.

The Christian Bible has a number of accounts that include or mention whales. These include Genesis 1:21, Job 7:12, Ezekiel 32:2, Matthew 12:40 and Lamentations 4:3. The best known literary account of a whale is, arguable, Moby Dick, written by Herman Melville and published in 1851. This is one of the most famous classics ever written. The storyline is, basically, a travelling sailor that soon discovers that the captain of the boat is determined to find the ferocious Sperm Whale called Moby Dick to avenge his lost leg that resulted from the whale’s previous attack. This novel is rich in symbolism, touching on far deeper themes than whale hunting.

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