The Tale Of A Monstrous Whale That Harassed Ships In the Age Of Justinian

According to the historian, Procopius (c. 490-565), a forty-five foot (13.716 meter) long and fifteen foot (4.572 meter) wide whale caused havoc in the 6th century within the waters of the straits that linked the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea.  The creature was a great menace to the seafarers of Byzantium, and it did not discriminate when choosing which ships to attack, be them crewed by fishermen, merchants or warriors. It was known to roam from time to time, but the monstrous whale apparently had a special fondness for the Bosporus Strait, where the more confined environment made the whale’s harassments all the more destructive. For around fifty years, the whale patrolled the straits, and the locals came to see it as something of a sea-monster that could attack their ships at any moment. Sailors even gave the whale a nickname—either Porphyry, Porphyrius or Porphyrion—which was likely derived from a famous charioteer, or otherwise was inspired by a mythological giant that waged war on the gods. Procopius described the struggle between the local sailors and the aggressive beast:

“It was at that time also that the whale, which the Byzantines called Porphyrius, was caught. This whale had been annoying Byzantium and the towns about it for fifty years, not continuously, however, but disappearing sometimes for a rather long interval. And it sank many boats and terrified the passengers of many others, driving them from their course and carrying them off to great distances. It had consequently become a matter of concern to Emperor Justinian to capture this creature, but he was unable by any device to accomplish his purpose” (The Wars, book VII, chapter 29).

As was hinted in the quote above, the whale’s reign of terror eventually came to an end during the reign of Justinian (r. 527-565). According to the account of Procopius, the creature was chasing dolphins one day near the mouth of the Black Sea, when it fatefully swam too close to shore. To the shock and delight of nearby locals, the whale that had been terrorizing them for decades accidentally beached itself and became stuck. When news of the stranding spread, an angry mob quickly rushed to the scene, carrying ropes and axes to mete out revenge against the downfallen scourge of the Bosporus. Unfortunately for the whale, energetic locals were said to have used ropes and wagons to haul the creature further inland, where they butchered it with axes and held a feast with its meat to celebrate their victory over the famous sea monster.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Illustration by I. W. Taber for a 1902 edition of Moby Dick, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).



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