Alex Haley, Alexander the Great, Anglo-Saxon, Arrian, asp-turtle, Aspidochelone, Babylonian Talmud, Bestiary, Cynewulf, Fastitocalon, Gamera, giant, hafgufa, Imap Umassoursa, Indica, Isaac Bashevis Singer, island, Jasconius, kraken, megafauna, midgard-worm, Naturalis Historia, Nearchus, Physiologus, Pliny, Pristis, Saint Brendan, Seuss, shield-turtle, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, turtle, Yertle, Zaratan
“The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decks
Which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.”
Novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of non-knowledge”. This nugget of wisdom is particularly germane if one is on a ship at sea and encounters what they believe to be an uncharted island, especially in the age of satellites, geospatial mapping, and Google Earth, where “uncharted” can generally be equated with, “did not exist yesterday”. A good rule of thumb regarding such a discovery is to conclusively establish that said island is not actually a commonly reported, mythological monstrosity variously called a Fastitocalon (Old English), Aspidochelone (Latin “asp” or “shield” turtle), Zaratan (Arabic), Pristis (Greek), Imap Umassoursa (Greenland), or Jasconius (Irish), an island-sized turtle (possibly some strange sort of fish, opinions vary among medieval bestiaries) that many an unsuspecting sailor has landed upon, envisaging a tropical paradise, only to be unceremoniously drowned when the massive beast submerges beneath the waves, as marine critters the size of a small land mass are occasionally wont to do. Turtles are not usually prime fodder for monster archetypes, no doubt something to do with their defining qualities that involve glacial slowness and hiding inside one’s shell until threats get bored (notable exceptions being Godzilla’s Gamera, who has the general shape of a turtle, but the evolutionary advantages of being bipedal and able to fly, as well as being the size of a skyscraper; the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who can fall back on their ninja training and are rather fond of humans anyway, despite living in the sewers with a giant rat for a mentor, no doubt a very confusing adolescence; and the various mythological turtles reputed to hold the world on their back, and consequently are a little busy; and that terrible Seussian warlord Yertle the Turtle). This of course, makes the Fastitocalon particularly fearsome, since its species has had to endure countless millennia of association with sloth and cowardice (or more positively a reputation for being laid-back and easy-going, more or less the patron saint of stoners), and this has no doubt resulted in a certain antipathy or annoyance towards humans. Alternatively, the Fastitocalon is so enormous that it really takes no notice of us, until we do something obnoxious like try to have a luau on its back.
Charming accounts of our Fasticocalon friend are found in a variety of translations of the Physiologus, a natural history text by an unknown author, originally written in Greek during the 2nd Century A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt. The Physiologus was translated into Latin, Ethiopic, Syriac, a number of European and Middle Eastern languages, and is generally considered to be the fundamental foundation for many of the foremost medieval bestiaries. The Latin translation of the Physiologus quoted below is believed to have been produced in roughly 700 A.D., and of course has certain Christian sensibilities that equate Fasticocalon (Aspidochelone) with the Devil, or at least a symbolic warning to be wary of the Devil’s tricks. Those pesky medieval Christians. Everything is a devil with them.
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 (Physiologus Latinus Versio B, Chapter XXIV).
Believe it or not, the Physiologus was one of the most widely read texts of the Middle Ages, which of course is not saying much since literacy rates in medieval Europe are estimated to have been somewhere in the 5-10% range. Nonetheless, experts agree that it is rather uncharitable to pretend to be a nice place for some surfing and a cookout, when one is in fact a monstrous sea creature. Downright mean, when the rest of the turtle species is generously referred to as “charismatic megafauna” – code for cute animals that are useful in conservation marketing. The Old English translation of the Physiologus (thought to have been written in the 9-10th Century by a Anglo-Saxon poet awesomely named Cynewulf, one of only twelve Anglos-Saxon poets known by name) tried to hip it up a bit, by writing in something approaching verse, but definitely expands upon our already expansive turtle.
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. Now will I spur again my wit, and use Poetic skill to weave words into song, Telling of one among the race of fish, the great asp-turtle. Men who sail the sea Often unwillingly encounter him, Dread preyer on mankind. His name we know, The ocean-swimmer, Fastitocalon. Dun, like rough stone in color, as he floats He seems a heaving bank of reedy grass Along the shore, with rolling dunes behind, So that sea-wanderers deem their gaze has found An island. Boldly then their high-prowed ships they moor with cables to that shore, a land that is no land. Still floating on the waves, Their ocean-coursers curvet at the marge; on that island; the vessels stand by the beach, enringed by the flood. The weary-hearted sailors then encamp, dreaming not of peril. On the island they start a fire, kindle a mounting flame. The dispirited heroes, eager for repose, are flushed with joy. Now when the cunning plotter feels that the seamen are firmly established upon him, and have settled down to enjoy the weather, the guest of ocean sinks without warning into the salt wave with his prey, and makes for the bottom, thus whelming ships and men in that abode of death (Cook, 1921, p12-14).
Some scholars trace the origins of legends about the Fasticocalon to Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 A.D), Naturalis Historia directly citing his description of the Pristis (which they assume to be the Fasticocalon), but Pliny had very little to say on the subject, except that the Pristis is definitely not a whale, and is one of the biggest marine animals. People who spend a lot of time looking at medieval bestiaries, no doubt a diagnosable mental condition awaiting the next revision of psychology’s Diagnostics and Statistics Manual, love Pliny, as he pretty much started the whole natural history craze and combed through the works of his literary predecessors, a roll call of historically inclined writers that makes most Classical scholars wet themselves, including such notables as Varro, Livy, Euclid, Eratosthenes, Aristotle, Archimedes, Cato the Censor, Augustus, Valerian, Dionysius, Aristides, Xenophon, Herodotus, Alexander the Learned, Alexander the Great, Seneca, Virgil, Hippocrates, Lucilius. Basically, the Naturalis Historia is a 37 book set of cliff notes to the biological observations of the ancient world. So, the oldest bestiaries borrowed from Pliny, including the Physiologus, and the later bestiaries relied more heavily on the Physiologus, which resulted in both some fanciful elaborations based on very thin data, as well as the addition of information that turned up from later traditions, or ancient traditions that re-emerged. At any rate, Pliny only seems to have dedicated a line or two to the Pristis (aka the Fastitocalon).
The largest Creature in the Indian Sea is the Pristis and Balsena (Whale). In the Ocean of Gaul the largest is the Physeter, which lifteth itself up in the Manner of an immense Pillar, higher than the Sails of Ships; and spouteth forth almost a Flood. In the Ocean of Gades there is a Tree spreading abroad with mighty Arms, to such an extent that it is believed to be the Cause why that Arm of the Sea is never entered. There are to be seen also what from their Shape are called Wheels, distinguished by four Rays; with their two Eyes closing over the Naves on each Side (Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories, Book IX, Chapter iv).
It seems that somewhere along the way, confusion entered the picture, and it started to become unclear whether the Fastitocalon was a fish or a turtle. This is of course, inevitable when things are translated across multiple languages over several hundred years. I’m no zoologist, but I’m pretty certain I can distinguish between a turtle and a fish (I may of course be giving myself too much credit), but when the specimen is larger than your average bear, I would hope that either its fishlike or turtlelike characteristics would be proportionate, and thus more easily recognizable. This simply highlights the fact that the authors of most bestiaries were merrily plagiarizing or citing previous sources, and not giving verified eyewitness account of monsters. Hey, we give them props for being interested in our favorite subject, and when a text has been cribbed from ancient Greek, rewritten in Latin, copied in German, interpreted into Old English metrical verse, and then to something recognizable as modern English, things inevitably get lost in translation. Correspondences to culturally familiar stories and symbols are drawn, mistakes are made, and names are changed to protect the innocent. The earlier versions of the Fastitocalon do seem to emphasize its relative turtleness, whereas later scribes seemed to want to relate the monster to a gargantuan sea creature of which they were no doubt aware i.e. the whale.
The original Physiologus was most probably compiled in Egypt: the animals of the first collection are Egyptian. Later versions show, through words strangely corrupted, how the creatures themselves have been transformed: thus the whale by its name Fastitocalon, in the Anglo-Saxon poem, proves its identity with the original sea-turtle, the aspidochelone, whose broad back is mistaken for an island and turned to a convenient and successful allegory, though the whale, later, usurped the turtle’s claim (Ker, 1904, p94-95).
So, if you can’t call Pliny, who you gonna call? Accounts of something similar to the Fastitocalon seem to derive not from Pliny, but from two curious sources–The Babylonian Talmud and Arrian’s description of a report from Nearchus.
Albert S. Cook, who has written on the legend of the aspidochelone, or shield-turtle, has traced the germ of the Physiologus chapter to an account by Nearchus, admiral of Alexander the Great’s fleet. His experience with a disappearing island can be found in the Indica of Arrian (xxxi) and in Strabo’s Geography (xv.2.13). A new element enters the story in an apocryphal letter of Alexander to Aristotle which appears in the romance of Pseudo-Callisthenes. Here it is reported that the occupants of a boat drowned when the supposed island which they were approaching proved to be an animal and sank. Finally, the Physiologus tale is quite similar to that told in Hebrew by Rabbah bar Hana, a Babylonian rabbi of the late third century A.D. As for calling the sea monster a turtle, there are numerous and widely spread legends about the size and habits of turtles which might have led to the apparent confusion. No explanation has been given for the odor attracting fish, but it should be noted that the aspidochelone in the oldest Latin texts follows the chapter on the panther where a similar trait is attributed to that animal (McCulloch, 1962, p91-92).
The Babylonian Talmud contains a description that is fairly consistent with other tales of the Fastitocalon. This is fairly handy, since between the 3rd and 5th Century A.D., various parts of Mesopotamia (more or less modern day Iraq) were centers of Jewish learning, and produced the voluminous Talmudic commentary called the Babylonian Talmud.
Once, while on a ship, we came to what we assumed was a large island, since we saw on it sand and growing grass. We disembarked the ship, went on to the island, built a fire, and cooked our meal. Yet what we assumed to be an island was really a fish. When the fish felt the heat, he rolled over and we were plunged into the water. Had the ship not been nearby, we would have drowned. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Basra 73b).
Then there is Arrian of Nicomedia (86-160 A.D.), an ethnically Greek, Roman historian, more celebrated for his military history than his natural history, but considered an authoritative source on Alexander the Great. Arrian had access to a lot of works that are now lost, including the accounts of Nearchus (360-300 B.C.), Admiral of Alexander’s fleet, who voyaged to India, and reported an encounter with a disappearing island that has frequently been equated with the Fastitocalon. While we would be hard pressed to identify either a turtle or whale in the Arrian’s description of Nearchus’ experience, certain elements resonate with later stories, suggesting perhaps that a measure of symbolic merging went on in subsequent interpretations.
While they were coasting along the territory of the Fish-eaters, they heard a rumour about an island,’ which lies some little distance from the mainland in this direction, about a hundred stades, but is uninhabited. The natives said that it was sacred to the Sun and was called Nosala, and that no human being ever of his own will put in there; but that anyone who ignorantly touched there at once disappeared. Nearchus, however, says that one of his galleys with an Egyptian crew was lost with all hands not far from this island, and that the pilots stoutly averred about it that they had touched ignorantly on the island and so had disappeared. But Nearchus sent a thirty-oar to sail round the island, with orders not to put in, but that the crew should shout loudly, while coasting round as near as they dared; and should call on the lost helmsman by name, or any of the crew whose name they knew. As no one answered, he tells us that he himself sailed up to the island, and compelled his unwilling crew to put in; then he went ashore and exploded this island fairy-tale. They heard also another current story about this island, that one of the Nereids dwelt there; but the name of this Nereid was not told. She showed much friendliness to any sailor who approached the island; but then turned him into a fish and threw him into the sea. The Sun then became irritated with the Nereid, and bade her leave the island; and she agreed to remove thence, but begged that the spell on her be removed; the Sun consented; and such human beings as she had turned into fishes he pitied, and turned them again from fishes into human beings, and hence arose the people called Fish-eaters, and so they descended to Alexander’s day. Nearchus shows that all this is mere legend; but I have no commendation for his pains and his scholarship; the stories are easy enough to demolish; and I regard it as tedious to relate these old tales and then prove them all false (Indica, Arrian, Chapter XXXI).
Later descriptions call Fastitocalon by the name Jasconicus and relate it directly to other myths of island sized critters like the hafgufa, kraken, and the Midgard-worm. The account of a monster masquerading as an island is found in the tales about the voyages of Saint Brendan of Clonfert or Bréanainn of Clonfert (484 -577 A.D.), an Irish monk, recorded in tale appropriately called The Voyage of Saint Brendan (over 100 manuscripts of the story have been found throughout Europe, the earliest dating to about 900 A.D.).
We have here a combination of two mythical features. One is the great fish of the “Navigatio Brandani,” on which they land and make a fire to cook lamb’s flesh, when the fish begins to move, and the brethren rush to the ship, into which they are taken by Brandan, while the island disappears and they can still see the fire they have made two leagues away. Brandan told them that this was the largest of all the fish in the sea; it always tries to reach its tail with its head (like the Midgard-worm) and its name is Jasconicus. The same myth is referred to in an Anglo-Saxon poem [Codex Exoniensis, ed. Benj. Thorpe, London, 1842] on the great whale Fastitocalon, where ships cast anchor and the sailors go ashore and make fires, upon which the whale dives down with ship and crew. The idea of such a fish resembling an island is also found in the northern myth of the hafgufa [cf. the “King’s Mirror”], or krake, and is doubtless derived from the East. Tales of landing on an apparent island which suddenly turns out to be a fish are found in Sindbad’s first voyage, in Qazwini (where the fish is an enormous turtle), and even in Pseudo-Callisthenes in the second century (Nansen, 1911, p234).
Turtles are not generally known for aggression. I mean, there are those nasty little snapping turtles, but turtle avoidance protocols are easy to follow. Step slowly to the side. You don’t need to hurry. This has to bother turtles a little bit. Nobody is afraid of them. Consequently, I have a sneaking suspicion that these legends have been invented by turtles or their representatives. Do not assume I am dismissing the existence of the Fastitocalon out of hand, as he seems to have a fairly robust presence in the monstrous literature, rather it seems prudent to consider Alex Haley’s observation that, ““Anytime you see a turtle up on top of a fence post, you know he had some help”.
Arrian. Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander And Indica. London: G. Bell & sons, 1893. Cook, Albert S. 1853-1927, James Hall Pitman, and Cynewulf. The Old English Physiologus. New Haven: Yale university press, 1921. Ker, W. P. 1855-1923. The Dark Ages. London: Blackwood, 1904. McCulloch, Florence. Mediaeval Latin And French Bestiaries. [Rev. ed.] Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962. Nansen, Fridtjof, 1861-1930. In Northern Mists: Arctic Exploration In Early Times. New York: Frederick A. Stokes company, 1911.