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Title: Aspidochelone  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Physiologus, Leviathan, Sea monster, Book of Imaginary Beings, Kraken, Zaratan
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


According to the tradition of the Physiologus and medieval bestiaries, the aspidochelone is a fabled sea creature, variously described as a large whale or vast sea turtle, and a giant sea monster with huge spines on the ridge of its back. No matter what form it is, it is always described as being huge, often it is mistaken for an island and appears to be rocky, with crevices and valleys with trees and greenery and having sand dunes all over it. The name aspidochelone appears to be a compound word combining Greek aspis (which means either "asp" or "shield"), and chelone, the turtle. It rises to the surface from the depths of the sea, and entices unwitting sailors with its island appearance to make landfall on its huge shell and then the whale is able to pull them under the ocean, ship and all the people, drowning them. It also emits a sweet smell that lures fish into its trap where it then devours them. In the moralistic allegory of the Physiologus and bestiary tradition, the aspidochelone represents Satan, who deceives those whom he seeks to devour.[1][2]

Accounts of seafarers' encounters with gigantic fish appear in various other works, including the Book of Jonah and the 19th century books Pinocchio and The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen.

In the Physiologus

One version of the Latin text of the Physiologus reads:

"There is a monster in the sea which in Greek is called aspidochelone, in Latin "asp-turtle"; it is a great whale, that has what appear to be beaches on its hide, like those from the sea-shore. This creature raises its back above the waves of the sea, so that sailors believe that it is just an island, so that when they see it, it appears to them to be a sandy beach such as is common along the sea-shore. Believing it to be an island, they beach their ship alongside it, and disembarking, they plant stakes and tie up the ships. Then, in order to cook a meal after this work, they make fires on the sand as if on land. But when the monster feels the heat of these fires, it immediately submerges into the water, and pulls the ship into the depths of the sea.
Such is the fate of all who pay no heed to the Devil and his wiles, and place their hopes in him: tied to him by their works, they are submerged into the burning fire of Gehenna: for such is his guile."[3]

In The Whale

A similar tale is told by the Old English poem The Whale, where the monster appears under the name Fastitocalon. This is apparently a variant of Aspidochelone, and the name given to the Devil. The poem has an unknown author, and is one of three poems in the Old English Physiologus, also known as the Bestiary, in the Exeter Book, folio 96b-97b, that are allegorical in nature, the other two being The Phoenix and The Panther.[4] The Exeter book is now in the Exeter Cathedral library. It is possible that this book was intended to be put in the gospels because some people believe it was written by a saint and that it is about many different Christian ideas, such as the devil, God, and Christ’s death and resurrection. The book has suffered from multiple mutilations and it is possible that some of the manuscript is missing. It is believed that the book had been used as a “beer mat”, a cutting board, and suffered other types of mutilation by its previous owners. The Physiologus has gone through many different translations into many different languages throughout the world. It is possible that the content has also been changed throughout the centuries.

Nu ic fitte gen ymb fisca cynn
wille woðcræfte wordum cyþan
þurh modgemynd bi þam miclan hwale.
Se bið unwillum oft gemeted,
frecne ond ferðgrim, fareðlacendum,
niþþa gehwylcum; þam is noma cenned,
fyrnstreama geflotan, Fastitocalon.
Is þæs hiw gelic hreofum stane,
swylce worie bi wædes ofre,
sondbeorgum ymbseald, særyrica mæst,
swa þæt wenaþ wægliþende
þæt hy on ealond sum eagum wliten,
ond þonne gehydað heahstefn scipu
to þam unlonde oncyrrapum . . .
"This time I will with poetic art rehearse, by means of words and wit, a poem about a kind of fish, the great sea-monster which is often unwillingly met, terrible and cruel-hearted to seafarers, yea, to every man; this swimmer of the ocean-streams is known as the asp-turtle.
His appearance is like that of a rough boulder, as if there were tossing by the shore a great ocean-reedbank begirt with sand-dunes, so that seamen imagine they are gazing upon an island, and moor their high-prowed ships with cables to that false land, make fast the ocean-coursers at the sea's end, and, bold of heart, climb up."

The moral of the story remains the same:

Swa bið scinna þeaw,
deofla wise, þæt hi drohtende
þurh dyrne meaht duguðe beswicað,
ond on teosu tyhtaþ tilra dæda. . .
"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, misguiding . . ."[5]

In The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, J. R. R. Tolkien made a little verse that claimed the name "Fastitocalon" from The Whale, and told a similar story:

Look, there is Fastitocalon!
An island good to land upon,
Although 'tis rather bare.
Come, leave the sea! And let us run,
Or dance, or lie down in the sun!
See, gulls are sitting there!

As such, Tolkien imported the traditional tale of the aspidochelone into the lore of his Middle-earth.

Sources of the story

Pliny the Elder's Natural History tells the story of a giant fish, which he names pristis, of immense size; he also relates the tale of sailors landing on its back, only to discover that it was not in fact land when it submerged.[6]

The allegory of the Aspidochelone borrows from the account of whales in Saint Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae. Isidore likens the whale to the Devil, and as authority cites the prophet Jonah; the Vulgate translation of the Book of Jonah translates Jonah 2:2 as Exaudivit me de ventre inferni: "He (the Lord) heard me from the belly of Hell". On this authority, Isidore equates whales with the Devil.[7]

It is also called different names in different cultures. It has been mentioned in traveler’s myth and lore in Greece, Egypt, throughout Europe, and in the Latin world. In these cultures, the beast was known to look as the deceptive island that lured travelers to be pulled down into their drowning deaths.

In the folklore of the Inuit of Greenland, there was a similar monster called an Imap Umassoursa. It was a giant sea monster that often was mistaken for a vast and flat island. When the monster emerged from the water, it would tip sailors into freezing waters, causing their deaths. Whenever the waters seemed shallow, the sailors would tread carefully for fear of being over that dreadful creature.

In Irish folklore, there was a giant fish of a monster that breached the boat of Saint Brendan. It was called the Jasconius. It was also mistaken for a vast island.

Zaratan is another name given to the Aspidochelone. This is the name for the monster that is used mostly in the Middle East. It is used in the Middle Eastern Physiologus and is in Arab and Islamic legends. It is mentioned in “The Wonders of Creation”, by the Al Qaswini in Persia and in the “Book of Animals” by a Spanish naturalist named Miguel Palacios. It is also mentioned in the first voyage of Sinbad the Sailor in the “Tales of the Thousand and One Nights”.

In Chile, there is a giant sea monster named Cuero, or Hide. It is a vast and flat thing that looks like stretched out animal hide that devours every living thing that it comes in contact with. It is also known to lure sailors to their death.^ Rose, Carol: Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth (Norton, 2001; ISBN 0-393-32211-4)


A similar monster appears in the Legend of Saint Brendan, where it was called Jasconius. Because of its size, Brendan and his fellow voyagers mistake it for an island and land to make camp. They celebrate Easter on the sleeping giant's back, but awaken it when they light their campfire. They race to their ship, and Brendan explains that the moving island is really Jasconius, who labors unsuccessfully to put his tail in its mouth.[8]

The same tale of a sea monster that is mistaken for an island is told in the first voyage of Sinbad the Sailor in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.[9]

The name Jasconius is also used for the whale in the children's book The Adventures of Louey and Frank by Carolyn White. She attributes the name to having grown up with the legend of Brendan.[10]

The Magic: the Gathering card game also features a card named Island Fish Jasconius, the art of which is a massive fish bearing tropical foliage on its back.


John Milton also alludes to the tale of the aspidochelone in his account of the Leviathan in Paradise Lost. Milton again uses the monster as a metaphor for Satan:

. . . or that sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th' ocean-stream.
Him, haply slumbering on the Norway foam,
The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,
Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,
With fixed anchor in his scaly rind,
Moors by his side under the lee, while night
Invests the sea, and wished morn delays.[11]

Appearances in Modern Fiction

Other stories where the asp-turtle make an appearance include Naruto, a Japanese manga about ninjas. It is where the main character goes to train before a big battle. This version of the asp-turtle is a little different. It does not lure the travelers to their death; it works with them so they are not discovered. It also floats in the sea and is constantly moving. However, it is a giant turtle with the appearance of an island.

It also appears in the movie The NeverEnding Story. In the movie, the main character finds himself on a vast island. He soon discovers that it is a turtle. When evil is on the move, the turtle decides to suddenly submerge. The main character must then be rescued from its back.

The third and final season of Avatar: The Last Airbender has the protagonist being trained in the technique of Energybending by a giant turtle island.

Was also the center of The One Piece Film, Giant Mecha Soldier of Karakuri Castle.

In the multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft fourth expansion pack Mists of Pandaria introduced new zone The Wandering Isle, a roaming giant turtle named Shen-zin Su, where Pandaren player characters begin their adventure, which they leave after choosing a faction. Historically, the Pandaren explorer Lui Lang was overcome with a rare trait in the Pandaren of that time, Wanderlust. It is because of this he departed Pandaria around 10,000 years ago on the back of the turtle, Shen-zin Su. Lui Lang had returned to his homeland a few times, and each time the turtle had become progressively bigger.

In The Game The Legend of Zelda Major's Mask, the player Link rides to the Great Bay Temple on the back of a giant sea turtle that resembles a small island.

See also

  • Hafgufa
  • Kraken
  • Lyngbakr
  • Vanishing island


External links

  •  : Whalees:Fastitocalón


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