The Island Fish

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Area(s) Reported: Oceans
Date(s) Reported: ????

Ancient tales from Arabia tell us that Sindbad, a sailor who would later become famous for his daring and impossible adventures, had a curious first experience as a sailor. During Sindbad's first sea voyage the boat he was traveling on lost wind for its sails and came to a rest near a small green island. The surface of the island was almost flush with the surface of the ocean. The captain allowed a number of curious seamen to stretch their legs on this meadow-like island as they waited for the wind to pick up again, Sindbad among them. But the visit didn’t last long... shortly after the sailors stepped on it, the whole island began to shake and sink. The captain called everyone back; some made it, but Sindbad was sucked into the ocean by what he now realized was a tremendous fish diving for the depths. Luckily, he managed to grab some lumber that was going to be used to make a fire, and floated back to the surface and, eventually, back to solid land. It's a wonder Sindbad ever went near the ocean again!

There is also a historic figure who is said to have met the curious fish; the Irish saint, Brendan [484 - 577 CE]. It was recorded that St. Brendan was determined to find a magical island called the “Land of Promise of the Saints,” and so set sail with a number of his monks to search. Their journey was long and hard, and they visited many islands. One island in particular had no grass or sand, and very little wood; nonetheless, St. Brendan instructed his men to anchor to the island. Everyone but the saint went ashore, and slept on the island for the night. On the following day, the men built a huge fire to cook a meal... and the island began to shudder and shake. The men scrambled back onto their ship and cut it free as the island first sunk, then swam off.

St. Brendan explains the situation

St. Brendan then explained to his men that they had just spent the night on the largest fish in the ocean, called “Jasconius.” The saint had received a divine message that they would be safe on the fish for the night... so he saw no reason to alarm his friends by telling them what they had landed on. Of course, St. Brendan had slept on the ship; so maybe he wasn't so sure about how 'safe' the fish actually was!

A Whale of a Tale... or a Tale of a Whale?

While these stories may sound fantastic now, a few hundred years ago they made perfect sense. This was because the details of these stories were collaborated by what most people believed to be true of the largest ‘fish’ in the seas... the whale. Whales were well-known as large sea animals, but observations of their actual behavior was limited; and this led to an intriguing set of beliefs regarding these creatures.

Whale Whoppers

One of the best known tales about whales was that they would often bask on the surface of the ocean for long periods of time; long enough, it was said, for grasses and shrubs to take root and grow in the sand and dirt on the whale’s back, which naturally made it look like an island. This idea, coupled with vast exaggerations of the whale’s size, made believable the stories told of sailors anchoring their boats to a whale and accidentally waking the beast while building campfires. When this happened, the whale was said to dive to the bottom of the ocean to cool itself off, taking the boat and all sailors with it.

Another strange 'fact' told about whales connects them to a different legendary sea creature... the 'kraken' of Norway. Now often thought of as a giant squid, the original tales of the 'kraken' made it out to be a large beast that looked like an island when at the surface of the ocean. It was said to have an ability to attract fish to it with an odor it could release; and the medieval tales of whales also claimed that whales could do this. So it seems clear that the old tales about whales, the island fish, and the kraken are all related... but it's anyone's guess now as to which came first! Over all though, it’s not surprising tales of giant fish have been told; if not inspired by whales, the sheer size of the ocean itself suggests the possibility of unknown and gigantic animals.

See also: The Kraken
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  • "On the Whale," topic in the Aberdeen Bestiary, ca 1200. Online: Click here!
  • "Whale," page in The Medieval Bestiary website, viewed 6-1-2009. Online: Click here!
  • Brendaniana: St. Brendan the voyager in story and legend, by Denis O’Donoghue, 1893 Browne & Nolan. Pgs. 111-115,127. Online: Click here!
  • Legends and Satires from Medieval Literature, edited by Martha Hale Shackford, 1913 Ginn and Company, Boston, USA. Pgs. 105-106. Online: Click here!
  • Thousand and One Nights, The:  or, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1827 Exeter, England. Pg. 63-64. Online: Click here!

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