Tag Archives: mythology

“The Whale”, Philip Hoare

Thanks to guest blogger, whale enthusiast, and author Philip Hoare for submitting the following post and photographs. He has written numerous books, among them “Leviathan or, The Whale” (Harper Collins) , and the “The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea” (Ecco), just released.

The whale is perhaps the most mysterious animal known to man.  For centuries it inspired awe and fear, and was hunted for its oil, blubber and whalebone.  Now it is seen as a symbol of an ecological threat, a barometer for a world out of kilter.  It is even more remarkable that the transition from an age of whale-hunting to an era of whale-watching has happened within living memory.

Humpback off Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania

Ancient myth regarded the whale as an uncanny monster, a creature beyond comprehension.  A whale might swallow a single human being, such as Jonah, or an entire city, as one Greek myth imagined.  The poet William Blake wrote of a terrifying vision, ‘the head of Leviathan, his forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple like those on a tyger’s forehead…advancing towards us with all the fury of a spiritual existence’.

But ever since the early Basque fishermen travelled as far as the north-east coast of America to hunt whales, humans also saw these animals as a source of wealth.  When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed into Provincetown harbour in 1620, they saw  hundreds of whales ‘playing hard by us, of which in that place, if we had instruments and means to take them, we might have made a rich return’.  By the early 1800s, Provincetown was a profitable whaling port with a fleet of 70 ships, almost rivalling New Bedford – then the richest city in America, wealthy on whale oil – in what was, in effect, a New England version of a Texan oil boom.

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Animal Panegyrics

Civilizations divided by both time and location are united with the mutual connection of the natural world. Animals were praised in folkloric panegyrics that told of both practical and religious significance. Tools fashioned from the bone of an animal will often bear carvings that depict a tale of culture or perhaps the crest of a family name. Such craftsmanship becomes passed down from generation to generation, with origins that become obscured or aggrandized with the passing of time. History is hidden under the recondite veil that is this mythology, yet it is a passageway that can be followed by the attentive eye.

UN.936.2

I am pointing to a Finnish "puukko" knife, a versatile tool used by hunters and craftsman alike. The handle is often carved to tell a story.

Our new exhibit, now on display in the east balcony of the Bourne Building’s upper floor, exemplifies such hidden history. The Lapps of Scandinavia, the Chukchi of Siberia, and the Inuit of North America are various cultures indeed, yet they meet at the mutual point of mythology. Although their cultures may seem distanced and different in appearance, in essence they each celebrate the animals that are beloved in their societies.