May 25, 2012


        I thought the aspidochelone would be an appropriate creature to feature in the neighbor-hood of World Turtle Day.  The aspidochelone is an enormous sea turtle, big enough to be mistaken for an island.  According to medieval bestiaries, when sailors land on it, it sinks under their feet, drowning them.  The aspidochelone is one of a whole family of mythical beasts with the same habit of tricking sailors by their island appearance.  Some of the aspidochelone's relatives include 
     pristis - a giant fish upon which sailors mistakenly land, described by Pliny the Elder in about 78 CE.  (This may be the same species of fish upon which Sinbad the sailor landed on his very first voyage, toward the end of the eighth century.)
     Jasconius - a giant fish encountered by St Brendan and his sailors on their voyage in the sixth century.  They celebrated Easter on its back, but woke it by lighting a fire.  According to Brendan, Jasconius has the additional trait of constantly trying yet failing to catch its tail in its mouth.
     Fastitocalon - an island-like whale described in a tenth century Old English poem.  Like many traditional descriptions of these island creatures, the moral is stated, "Such is the way of demons, the wont of devils: they spend their lives in outwitting men by their secret power, inciting them to the corruption of good deeds…"
     Hafgufa and Lyngbakr - two fish or whales found in the Greenland Sea in the thirteenth century.  The former poked its nose above the water like two rocks, while the latter's back was covered with heather.
     kraken - a giant cephalopod described in Norwegian scientific works since at least the 13th century.  According to the Natural History of Norway (1752) the real danger to sailors is not the creature itself but the whirlpool caused when it submerges beneath them.
     leviathan - In Paradise Lost (1667) John Milton attributes the same island trick to the leviathan, the Biblical giant sea monster.
        As I mentioned, many medieval accounts equate such sea monsters with Satan, and all accounts see them as dangerous to man and therefore evil.  But, as usual, I prefer to think the best of such a wondrous creature, so I've imagined that the aspidochelone might live in harmony with humans.  In my new block print I've shown them living together in partnership, providing each other with food, protection, and companionship.  Besides, wouldn't a giant sea turtle island be cool?

[Pictures: Aspidochelone, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012 (sold out);
Whale, ink and pigment on vellum, anonymous illustrator from the Harley Bestiary, c 1235.]


Anonymous said...

existe animal maior que aspidochelone, kraken , leviatan,jasconius, fastitocalon e outros citados noimáginario popular medieval,o bestiarios lendários?

Anonymous said...

jormundgard, segundo as lendas nórdicas o mesmo era tão icomensurávelmente colossal que dava uma volta nanoplaneta e encontra a caalda

Timothy William Ladd said...

Cool beans. All of it.