Into the belly of the whale

Sperm Whale Tales at Cool Antarctica contains several cetacean-based yarns, including the infamous (and untrue) tale of the sailor James Bartley, allegedly swallowed by a whale after he fell overboard from the Star of the East, a whaling ship ‘cruising off the Falkland Islands’ and subsequently recovered intact, except that ‘the whale’s digestive juices had permanently bleached Bartley’s face, hands, neck and arms as white as snow’. This allegedly happened in the early 1890s, and was reported with great fanfare in the British press, not least because it appeared to validate the Biblical tale of Jonah (‘Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights’). In 1896, a Harlem pastor recounted the story and his sermon was re-printed in the New York Times, eliciting correspondence and a reference the following week in the Topics of the Times column (‘Several of these correspondents seem to be in doubt as to how the story should be taken, whether seriously, in imitation of the Harlem clergyman, or with the calm admiration which adroit works of fiction deserve when they make only an obviously pretended claim for belief’). A month or so later, the paper printed the even more fantastical ‘Shark Story of Great Merit,’ in which a father and son are discovered in a great shark’s belly in the act of ‘sharpening the axe [to cut] their way out into daylight’. Cool Antarctica concludes with a dismissal of another ancient tale, this time of an intact corpse (‘the whale’s gastric mucosa had encased his body (particularly the exposed parts) like the foot of a large snail’) recovered from inside a whale, and a brief explanation of why whales can swallow squid (squishy, slippery), and not whole sailors (bony, hard).


Related, Antique Prints of Dolphins, Porpoises and Whales / Feuilleton on Jan Saenredam’s whale and Cabinet of Wonders on Of Whales and Tourism and Ill Luck / Sperm whale drawing with skeleton / the Bake-kujira, or ghost whale, as drawn by Gitoku, and as chronicled by The Obakemono Project, an illustrated bestiary of the ‘impressive array of animated objects, transformed animals, ogres, demons, and human freaks’ found in Japanese culture. See also the List of legendary creatures from Japan

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