Today, the word “cetacean” refers specifically to a whale, dolphin, or porpoise, but it is derived from the Latin cetus, a broader term including many large and legendary marine creatures. Similarly, while Pulter’s description of the “leviathan” (lines 77-84) seems to describe a whale, it participates in a long tradition of conflating whales with mythological sea monsters.
One notable example of this tradition occurs in Conrad Gessner’s Historia animalium (of which Topsell’s The History of Four-footed Beasts was an abridged translation), published in Zürich during the 1550s and 1580s. Gessner’s description of the trolual, a tusked “devil whale” from Old Norse myth, also reflects the legend of the aspidochelone, a large sea creature bearing an unfortunate resemblance to an island. In most versions of this legend, unwitting sailors cast anchor into a sleeping whale that they mistake for dry land. However, when they disembark upon it and build a fire, the whale awakens and dives into the sea, taking the hapless sailors with it. Variants of this legend appear in the third-century Greek Alexander Romance, the Old English poetry of the Exeter Book, The Wonders of Creation by the thirteenth-century Persian scientist Zakariya al-Qazwini (who identifies the monster as a sea turtle), and medieval European hagiographies of St. Brendan the Navigator.
Conrad Gessner, Historia animalium liber IV: qui est De piscium & aquatilium animantium natura: cum iconibus singulorum ad viuum expressis ferèe omnibus DCCXII, 2nd ed. (Frankfurt: Andreas Cambier, 1604), p. 119. Biodiversity Heritage Library, Public Domain.
Many early modern writers used whales and sea monsters as metaphors for powerful individuals or institutions, most famously Hobbes in his influential work of political philosophy, Leviathan (1651). John Donne also included a whale in “Metempsychosis,” a poem that draws on Pythagoras’s doctrine of the transmigration of the soul. (On the related concept of palingenesis, see Frances E. Dolan’s Curation for Pulter’s “View But This Tulip (Emblem 40)” (Poem 105).)
Like “Universal Dissolution,” Donne's “Metempsychosis” relates the ascent of a soul from the humble bodies of plants to successively higher orders of beings, although Donne concludes with humans rather than celestial bodies. Donne describes the whale in an extended passage that may refer to the fall of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
- Into an embryon fish our Soul is thrown,
- And in due time thrown out again, and grown
- To such vastness, as if unmanacled
- From Greece Morea [Peloponnesus] were, and that by some
- Earthquake unrooted, loose Morea swum,
- Or seas from Afric’s body had severed
- And torn the hopeful Promontory’s head,
- This fish would seem these, and, when all hopes fail,
- A great ship overset, or without sail
- Hulling [Drifting], might (when this was a whelp) be like this whale.
- At every stroke his brazen fins do take,
- More circles in the broken sea they make
- Than cannons’ voices, when the air they tear:
- His ribs are pillars, and his high arch’d roof
- Of bark that blunts best steel is thunder-proof:
- Swim in him swallowed Dolphins, without fear,
- And feel no sides, as if his vast womb were
- Some inland sea, and ever as he went
- He spouted rivers up, as if he meant
- To join our seas with seas above the firmament.
- He hunts not fish, but as an officer,
- Stays in his court, at his own net, and there
- All suitors of all sorts themselves enthrall;
- So on his back lies this whale wantoning,
- And in his gulf-like throat sucks every thing
- That passeth near; fish chaseth fish, and all,
- Flyer and follower, in this whirlpool fall;
- O might not states of more equality
- Consist? and is it of necessity
- That thousand guiltless smalls, to make one great, must die?
- Now drinks he up seas, and he eats up flocks,
- He jostles Islands, and he shakes firm rocks.
- Now in a roomful house this Soul doth float,
- And like a Prince she sends her faculties
- To all her limbs, distant as Provinces.
- The Sun hath twenty times both crab and goat
- Parched, since first launch’d forth this living boat,
- ’Tis greatest now, and to destruction
- Nearest; There’s no pause at perfection,
- Greatness a period hath, but hath no station.
- Two little fishes whom he never harm’d,
- Nor fed on their kind, two not thoroughly arm’d
- With hope that they could kill him, nor could do
- Good to themselves by his death (they did not eat
- His flesh, nor suck those oils, which thence outstreat [flowed out])
- Conspir’d against him, and it might undo
- The plot of all, that the plotters were two,
- But that they fishes were, and could not speak.
- How shall a Tyrant wise strong projects break,
- If wretches can on them the common anger wreak?
- The flail-finn’d Thresher, and steel-beak’d Sword-fish
- Only attempt to do what all do wish.
- The Thresher backs him, and to beat begins;
- The sluggard Whale yields to oppression,
- And t’hide himself from shame and danger, down
- Begins to sink; the Swordfish upward spins,
- And gores him with his beak; his staff-like fins,
- So well the one, his sword the other plies,
- That now a scoff, and prey, this tyrant dyes,
- And (his own dole) feeds with himself all companies.
- Who will revenge his death? or who will call
- Those to account, that thought and wrought his fall?
- The heirs of slain kings, we see are often so
- Transported with the joy of what they get,
- That they, revenge and obsequies forget,
- Nor will against such men the people go,
- Because he’s now dead to whom they should show
- Love in that act. Some kings by vice being grown
- So needy of subjects[’] love, that of their own
- They think they lose, if love be to the dead Prince shown.
The ocean’s perils could take many forms, and even small fish could prove dangerous for mariners. Many writers before Pulter warned of the remora or echeneis, which allegedly fastened itself to boats, thus impeding or halting their movement. Pliny the Elder went so far as to attribute Mark Antony’s failure at the Battle of Actium, and thus the end of the Roman Republic, to the echeneis:
Certes, reported it is that in the naval battle before Actium, wherein Antonius and Cleopatra the queen were defeated by Augustus, one of these fishes stayed the admiral ship wherein M. Antonius was, at what time he made all the haste and means he could devise with help of oars, to encourage his people from ship to ship, and could not prevail, until he was forced to abandon the said admiral and go into another galley. Meanwhile the armada of Augustus Caesar, seeing this disorder, charged with greater violence, and soon invested the fleet of Antonie.
Remoras appear in many early modern texts, including this illustration from Andrea Alciato's Emblemata, a compilation of Latin verses and accompanying woodcuts first published in 1531. Alciato’s collection was the first European “emblem book,” a genre that had become popular by Hester Pulter’s lifetime.
Andrea Alciato, Emblemi di Andrea Alciato, Huomo Chiarissimo, dal Latino nel Vulgare Italiano Ridotti… (Padua: P. P. Tozzi, 1626), p. 117. The Getty Research Institute, Public Domain.
While it is true that remoras readily attach themselves to boats, marine animals, and even nearby humans, using their membranous dorsal fins to generate suction, ecologists now believe that in most cases, remoras do not significantly impair their hosts’ navigational abilities. Instead, the remora’s relationship to its host may be an example of commensalism (a symbiotic relationship in which one individual benefits and the other is not harmed) or mutualism (symbiosis benefitting both parties), as the remora may clean parasites and dead skin cells off its host’s body. Common remora hosts include sharks, whales, rays, and sea turtles.