"And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." - Jonah 1:17


  • The belly of the whale: Jonah  (prophet of God, formerly of Galilee)
  • The back of the whale: Saint Brendan  (Irish monk from Tralee in Ireland)
  • The head of the whale: Tashtego  (harpooneer on the whaler Pequod, formerly of Martha's Vineyard)
  • The belly of the whale: James Bartley  (British seaman on the whaling ship Star of the East.)


Four people, four "big fish" stories, some better known than others. Fisherman's tales often grow in the telling.

Jonah's Tale

Jonah, a prophet of God honoured in Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition, was born in the area of Galilee, in a town called Gath-hepher. He was sent to prophesy by God, who told him "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me." Now Jonah was a country boy, and Nineveh was big, described in the Bible as being an "exceeding great city of three days' journey" (probably the circumference, which made it almost nine miles across). It was certainly a grand place, rivalling Babylon for sheer splendour. Naturally, the poor chap was scared out of his wits. Prophesy doom to the great city and its powerful king? Shivering in terror, he hit on a better plan – run like blazes to the port of Joppa and grab a ship to Tarshish (possibly either Tarsus or Spain).

Of course, he couldn't outwit God, nor outrun him. During the voyage, God caused a great storm to blow up, which alarmed the superstitious sailors, who divined that it was poor Jonah who was the cause of their ills. Jonah confessed that he was trying to run from his duties, and asked to be cast overboard, which they did, albeit reluctantly. 

Doubtless impressed by Jonah's confession, and out of great mercy, "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." Out of one predicament, and into another, the abject prophet beseeched his God, "I will pay that that I have vowed", and finally, the whale obligingly vomited him up onto shore, and he completed his divine mission. The rest is history – the Ninevites repented and turned from their evil and depraved ways, and the "sixscore thousand persons" of the city were saved the divine wrath.

Of course, according to some scholars, it ain't necessarily so – the Hebrew of the Bible doesn't specify what the "big fish" (דג גדול) was, and based on William Tyndale's translation of the New Testament passage of Matthew 12:40, popular retelling by the hoi polloi made the fish a whale. True? Well probably not, according to modern science. Most whales lack a throat wide enough to swallow a human being whole, and if they have a big enough throat, the stomach is lacking. Several other fish have been suggested, including the Whale Shark and the Great White Shark , but each of them falls down on modern evidence.

"But", I hear some cry, "this was the work of the Creator!", and of course, they are qute right. The God who made all things, and who could stop even the passage of the sun across the skies, could arrange matters by a miracle. If you have faith, the story could be true.

Saint Brendan, High And Dry

Another godly tale is that of Saint Brendan of Clonfert – born in County Kerry around 484 AD, who heard of a distant blessed land from Father Barinthus. This monk came to him one day and told him of a voyage he had undertaken to a distant land, shrouded in mists, but overflowing with good things, a land where the rule of Jesus Christ permeated all. "No plant saw we there without its flower; no tree without its fruit; and all the stones thereon were precious gems."

On hearing this, Brendan and many of his brethren were overcome with delight that God would show them such goodness."I have in my heart resolved to go forth in quest of the Land of Promise of the Saints", he said, and choosing fourteen of the brethren, fasted for forty days and having gained the blessing of the Prior, set about building a boat to make the long voyage to the West. The boat would be unusual to most of us today, being a "light vessel, with wicker sides and ribs, such as is usually made in that country, and covered it with cow-hide, tanned in oak-bark, tarring the joints thereof..." This curragh they boarded and sailed Northward on their quest.

The voyage is recorded in a document known as Nauigatio sancti Brendani abbatis ("Navigatio"). Many adventures befell them, but the one that interests us concerns an island they found en route to a place called the "Paradise of Birds". On landing on the island they found that "there was no grass on the island, very little wood, and no sand on the shore." The monks camped overnight, but Brendan stayed with the boat, and in the morning, when the monks lit a fire to make their breakfast, "the island moved about like a wave; whereupon they all rushed towards the boat", after which the island moved away, the fire still burning. Brendan then explained that God had told him the nature of the island, which was in fact "a fish, the largest of all that swim in the ocean, which is ever trying to make its head and tail meet, but cannot succeed, because of its great length. Its name is Iasconius".

Commentators have for centuries declared that this was a whale – certainly they were in whale territory, and prior to this they had seen other whales. Further, this was not the last they saw of the great beast, whose patience matches only Job's, as they peacefully camped at least once more on its great back. Later, in 1976, one Tim Severin built a similar craft to test the theory that Saint Brendan and his crew could have discovered North America, and on that voyage, they did indeed encounter a large number of whales, some of which would stay close to their boat. Whether or not this voyage was historical, it does at least match with Tim's findings, and it is tempting to believe that the "Land of Promise of the Saints" was indeed America, and that Brendan and his faithful crew spent a night on the back of a whale. 

Finally, the Navigatio states that a monk in the Land of Promise told Brendan that they must return home, although "...after many years this land will be made manifest to those who come after you, when days of tribulation may come upon the people of Christ". That would explain a lot, if it were true.

Tashtego's Fluke Accident

Tashtego was an American Indian hailing from Gay Head, a promontory of Martha's Vineyard. Turning from hunting on land to harpooning whales at sea, he joined the crew of Captain Ahab's vessel the Pequod. During the great chase for Moby Dick, the captain and crew were still hunting regular old whales, both for their oil (vital for lighting landlubber's lamps) and spermaceti, a valuable substance found in the head of the Sperm Whale.

According to Herman Melville, how they got it was this: the whale was lashed to the ship and the head was cut open by a sailor standing on its head. Then a bucket is lowered into the cavity, and the precious substance is hauled out. 

Chapter 78 of Moby Dick describes the sprited Tashtego as being poised above this cavity, plunging the bucket into the depths and hauling it out in the face of the winds, tossing seas, and uncertain, oily footing. Suddenly, after about eighty buckets had been drawn from the twenty-foot well of the whale's head, Tashtego "dropped head-foremost down into this great Tun of Heidelburgh, and with a horrible oily gurgling, went clean out of sight!" One of the sailors tries to press the bucket down to reach the stricken harpooneer, as the tackle supporting the head gives way. As if being imprisoned in the head of a whale were not enough, Tashtego now has to contend with his cell slowly sinking into the icy waters.

Thankfully, the spunky Queequeg is on the scene, and ever quick to respond, he dives into the water after his colleague in a desperate rescue attempt. After a few desperate moments, he reappears, having cut a hole in the bottom of the head with a sword, and pulling the prisoner out by his hair. "And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished".

Fictional, of course, and highly unlikely, but it makes for a good tale, and what with being brought out alive and head first, it would have been like being born again, delivered from the womb of the whale by the midwife Queequeg. 

James Bartley's Whale Of A Tale

Another whaler, another accident. This time, the trail is less than clear, as so many stories have circulated about this adventure that it's hard to pin down the details. 

The story as it's most often heard is this: in 1891 a whaling ship called Star of the East set out on a voyage (various ports are mentioned, among them Great Yarmouth in England, and Aukland, New Zealand). In February, the vessel was hunting near the Falkland Islands, when they came across a whale. Two boats were launched – one successfully harpooned the creature, the other was dashed to pieces by the tail, and two men, one of whom was our hero, were lost. The next day the whale was hauled to the ship and "processed". During the grisly disembowelling, the stomach was hauled onto the deck and it was found to contain Bartley, who was alive, though severely mentally traumatised and apparently bleached by the gastric juices.

Following medical treatment on his return to England, he lived hale and hearty for many years, although his skin is said to have been permanently yellowed and wrinkled "like ancient parchment". Overall, it would seem that he was a very lucky chap indeed.

Historian Edward B. Davis carried out detailed research into the story, which by our time was being circulated in tract form by various Christian groups, presumably to support the validity of the story of Jonah. He tracked down a report in the New York Times of 1896, which reported the tale, crediting the source as the "South Yarmouth Mercury". He finally tracked down two whale stories. The first was in the Yarmouth Independent, dated June 1891 (which reported the successful harpooning of a whale near Gorleston in Norfolk, although there was no reference to any sailors within). The second he found in the Yarmouth Mercury, again in June 1891, with the headline screaming "Man in a whale's stomach, Rescue of a Modern Jonah". The trail was hot, it would seem, although subsequent research failed to find a vessel named "Star of the East" that was large enough to have been a whaler, though one ship by that name was en route from London to Wellington, New Zealand via New York at the time, a route that would take it close to the Falklands. 

Having also checked medical records held in the library of the Royal College of Surgeons, he failed to find a case even remotely similar to Bartley's, which is surprising, given the unique nature of his condition. Further, he found that whaling did not commence near the Falklands until around 1909. 

He concluded that someone with an unusual skin condition and a creative imagination, coupled with a desire to make some ready cash, had heard about the Gorleston whale, quickly made up a convincing tale embellishing it (weaving in details of a real vessel on a real journey), in order to pass himself off as a minor hero-celebrity, to make money at sideshows and fairs. It would have been a simple task to find someone to pass themselves off as the ship's captain, give details to the press and stay around long enough to lend credence to his tale.

Hook, Line and Sinker?

It seems that we have a strong desire to follow and believe these marvellous tales of the sea. Do I believe any of them? No, not I. Are there other tales of herring-do? Yes, there certainly are - I found another two whilst digging for Mr Bartley, but all seem to hang on the flimsiest of evidence, and fall into the category of nautical legend. (Additionally, kthejoker points out that there's also Pinocchio and his father, Geppetto, how could I forget?) Reminds me of all of those fishing stories people tell about the size of the fish they caught. Seems that we were caught by these, this time.




Inspired by The Everything People Registry
Encyclopædia Britannica
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonah
http://www.lamp.ac.uk/celtic/Nsb.htm
http://www.straightdope.com/columns/010914.html
http://www.asa3.org/aSA/PSCF/1991/PSCF12-91Davis.html

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