Aspidochelone: A Giant Sea Monster of the Ancient World and an Allegorical Beast
In ancient Greece there was a large and dangerous sea monster called the aspidochelone, which could be translated as asp-turtle. The people who described it for centuries probably just saw a whale, but in their imaginations it was a fearsome beast and a mythical animal that killed sailors and destroyed their ships.
A Giant Whale or Turtle
The name Aspidochelone seems to come from the combination of the Greek words aspis, which means “asp” or “shield,” and chelone - turtle. According to the Physiologus, a didactic Christian text from the 2nd century AD, that was written or compiled in Greek by an unknown author, the Aspidochelone is a sea creature, described as a large whale or vast sea turtle. No matter what it was, for the people who saw it, it looked like a giant sea monster with huge spines on the ridge of its back. In medieval bestiaries, it is always described as being huge, and often it was first mistaken for an island or a rock.
The Aspidochelone, from a 1633 manuscript in the Danish Royal Library. ( Public Domain )
According to the legend which appears in most of texts mentioning the aspidochelone, sailors thought that the mythical animal was an island, landed there and then built a fire to cook their food. With time the whale dived into the depths to cool itself - dragging the ship down with it and drowning the sailors. According to some of the oldest texts, when the aspidochelone was hungry, it opened its mouth and emitted a sweet odor to attract fish. This part of the description suggests that the beast couldn’t have been a turtle, but more likely a whale.
This mysterious animal became an allegory of bad spirit in the moralistic part of the Physiologus and bestiary traditions. Pliny the Elder also wrote of it in his Natural History mentioning a story of a giant fish. He named it ''pristis'', (of immense size) and wrote a tale of sailors landing on its back, only to discover that it was not in fact land when it submerged.
The Medieval Strength of Fear
According to the Christian medieval texts, the symbol of the aspidochelone is an allegory of Satan. The one who made this myth stronger was Isidore of Seville who lived in 7th century AD. In his book Etymologiae he described whales as immense beasts with bodies equal to the size of mountains. In his explanations, they gained their name from emitting water when they rise waves higher (the Greek ballein means emit). They were also said to be called monsters ( cete) because of their horribleness.
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Page of Etymologiae, Carolingian manuscript (8th century), Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium. ( Public Domain )
There are two more medieval books, by Guillaume de Clerc and Bartholomaeus Anglicus, which include some of the most important texts about the aspidochelone. Both come from 13th century AD. Guillaume le Clerc calls the monster Cetus. In his book Bestarie, he describes the animal as a bad neighbor for sailors, writing that it is dangerous for the ships, sailors, and everything that lives.
A dragon-like sawfish with webbed feet and the requisite enormous wings attacks a ship from Bestiaire of Guillaume le Clerc. (Bibliothèque Nationale de France) ( Public Domain )
Bartholomaeus Anglicus in his work De proprietatibus rerum , took another approach, and instead of just describing the acts of the mythical beast (which he also did), he tried to understand what kind of animal it could be. He called it Bellua and described it as the scariest and most dangerous creature in the history of the world. He compared the beast to a horrible crocodile with huge jaws and a very big body which was incomparable in size to anything else.
Due to these and other authors, the vision of the sea monster as a metaphor for the devil stayed strong for many centuries.
Crocodile in the Medieval Bestiary Rochester. ( Public Domain )
A Source of Fear Around the World
A similar myth was described in areas apart from the Mediterranean region. The mythical sea monster was mentioned everywhere in the Latin world, but also in other cultures.
For example, in Irish folklore a giant fish appears in the story about Saint Brendan. In the legend, the monster, called the Jasconius, breached the boat of Brendan because he also mistook it for an island. In the mythology of Greenland, the same monster was called the Imap Umassoursa . Described in the same way, the beast was said to tip sailors into freezing waters, causing their deaths.