Sea monsters - The whale, lost in translation

By: Irene Lorenzo
Date posted: 17 August 2018

Terror and punishment (and eventually rebirth) are synonyms of “the sea-monster”, ready to swallow you whole, and trap you in a dark and wet stomach/dungeon. But how did a highly intelligent, social, docile marine mammal join the undesired club of mean marine horrors?

Well, it all started with Jonah in the Old Testament. God punishes Jonah and has him in the dark belly of the sea giant for three days and three nights, when he repents and is released. From Jonah, all the way to Ahab’s Moby Dick and Pinocchio’s Monstro, the iconography of the mean marine giant that gobbles men up has had infinite variation.

Jonah escapes the whale - Peter Lastman 1583-1633 Jonah escapes the whale - Peter Lastman 1583-1633

The problem for whales, however, seems to be in the translation: in the original (Hebrew) Bible Jonah is swallowed by a dag gadol (a big fish). Then the New Testament (in Greek) uses the word kētos (huge fish). Which then in Latin becomes piscis grandis (big fish).

It’s with the English translation around the year 1600 that the big fish becomes… a whale (a cetacean, from the Greek kētos). The iconography could not have been clearer: from Roman mosaics to Flemish Pieter Lastman (all the way to China’s dragon) the sea-monster is a huge snake-like fish. Not a whale. Some reputations are truly undeserved.

Pinocchio and his father Geppetto escapes whale monstro (Walt Disney 1940) Sailors sacrifice Jonah to the whale - Aquileia, Roman mosaic, IV sec a.d Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) fights Moby Dick in John Huston's movie

Pinocchio and his father Geppetto escapes whale monstro (Walt Disney 1940), Sailors sacrifice Jonah to the whale - Aquileia, Roman mosaic, IV sec a.d, Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) fights Moby Dick in John Huston’s movie


This article was written by Isabel Hildebrandt, for our Spring 2018 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member from as little as £3.50 per month.

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