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Chapter 104: The Fossil Whale.


From his mighty bulk the whale affords a most congenial theme whereon
to enlarge, amplify, and generally expatiate. Would you, you could not
compress him. By good rights he should only be treated of in imperial
folio. Not to tell over again his furlongs from spiracle to tail,
and the yards he measures about the waist; only think of the gigantic
involutions of his intestines, where they lie in him like great
cables and hawsers coiled away in the subterranean orlop-deck of a

Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behooves me
to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not
overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his blood, and spinning him
out to the uttermost coil of his bowels. Having already described him
in most of his present habitatory and anatomical peculiarities, it
now remains to magnify him in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and
antediluvian point of view. Applied to any other creature than the
Leviathan--to an ant or a flea--such portly terms might justly be deemed
unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is
altered. Fain am I to stagger to this emprise under the weightiest
words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been
convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have
invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased
for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer's uncommon personal
bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author
like me.

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject,
though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing
of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard
capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an
inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my
thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their
outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole
circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and
mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas
of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its
suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal
theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose
a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the
flea, though many there be who have tried it.

Ere entering upon the subject of Fossil Whales, I present my credentials
as a geologist, by stating that in my miscellaneous time I have been
a stone-mason, and also a great digger of ditches, canals and wells,
wine-vaults, cellars, and cisterns of all sorts. Likewise, by way of
preliminary, I desire to remind the reader, that while in the earlier
geological strata there are found the fossils of monsters now almost
completely extinct; the subsequent relics discovered in what are called
the Tertiary formations seem the connecting, or at any rate intercepted
links, between the antichronical creatures, and those whose remote
posterity are said to have entered the Ark; all the Fossil Whales
hitherto discovered belong to the Tertiary period, which is the last
preceding the superficial formations. And though none of them
precisely answer to any known species of the present time, they are yet
sufficiently akin to them in general respects, to justify their taking
rank as Cetacean fossils.

Detached broken fossils of pre-adamite whales, fragments of their bones
and skeletons, have within thirty years past, at various intervals, been
found at the base of the Alps, in Lombardy, in France, in England, in
Scotland, and in the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Among the more curious of such remains is part of a skull, which in the
year 1779 was disinterred in the Rue Dauphine in Paris, a short street
opening almost directly upon the palace of the Tuileries; and bones
disinterred in excavating the great docks of Antwerp, in Napoleon's
time. Cuvier pronounced these fragments to have belonged to some utterly
unknown Leviathanic species.

But by far the most wonderful of all Cetacean relics was the almost
complete vast skeleton of an extinct monster, found in the year 1842, on
the plantation of Judge Creagh, in Alabama. The awe-stricken credulous
slaves in the vicinity took it for the bones of one of the fallen
angels. The Alabama doctors declared it a huge reptile, and bestowed
upon it the name of Basilosaurus. But some specimen bones of it being
taken across the sea to Owen, the English Anatomist, it turned out
that this alleged reptile was a whale, though of a departed species. A
significant illustration of the fact, again and again repeated in this
book, that the skeleton of the whale furnishes but little clue to the
shape of his fully invested body. So Owen rechristened the monster
Zeuglodon; and in his paper read before the London Geological Society,
pronounced it, in substance, one of the most extraordinary creatures
which the mutations of the globe have blotted out of existence.

When I stand among these mighty Leviathan skeletons, skulls, tusks,
jaws, ribs, and vertebrae, all characterized by partial resemblances to
the existing breeds of sea-monsters; but at the same time bearing on
the other hand similar affinities to the annihilated antichronical
Leviathans, their incalculable seniors; I am, by a flood, borne back
to that wondrous period, ere time itself can be said to have begun;
for time began with man. Here Saturn's grey chaos rolls over me, and I
obtain dim, shuddering glimpses into those Polar eternities; when wedged
bastions of ice pressed hard upon what are now the Tropics; and in
all the 25,000 miles of this world's circumference, not an inhabitable
hand's breadth of land was visible. Then the whole world was the
whale's; and, king of creation, he left his wake along the present lines
of the Andes and the Himmalehs. Who can show a pedigree like Leviathan?
Ahab's harpoon had shed older blood than the Pharaoh's. Methuselah seems
a school-boy. I look round to shake hands with Shem. I am horror-struck
at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of
the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after
all humane ages are over.

But not alone has this Leviathan left his pre-adamite traces in the
stereotype plates of nature, and in limestone and marl bequeathed his
ancient bust; but upon Egyptian tablets, whose antiquity seems to claim
for them an almost fossiliferous character, we find the unmistakable
print of his fin. In an apartment of the great temple of Denderah,
some fifty years ago, there was discovered upon the granite ceiling a
sculptured and painted planisphere, abounding in centaurs, griffins, and
dolphins, similar to the grotesque figures on the celestial globe of the
moderns. Gliding among them, old Leviathan swam as of yore; was there
swimming in that planisphere, centuries before Solomon was cradled.

Nor must there be omitted another strange attestation of the antiquity
of the whale, in his own osseous post-diluvian reality, as set down by
the venerable John Leo, the old Barbary traveller.

"Not far from the Sea-side, they have a Temple, the Rafters and Beams
of which are made of Whale-Bones; for Whales of a monstrous size are
oftentimes cast up dead upon that shore. The Common People imagine, that
by a secret Power bestowed by God upon the temple, no Whale can pass it
without immediate death. But the truth of the Matter is, that on either
side of the Temple, there are Rocks that shoot two Miles into the Sea,
and wound the Whales when they light upon 'em. They keep a Whale's Rib
of an incredible length for a Miracle, which lying upon the Ground with
its convex part uppermost, makes an Arch, the Head of which cannot be
reached by a Man upon a Camel's Back. This Rib (says John Leo) is said
to have layn there a hundred Years before I saw it. Their Historians
affirm, that a Prophet who prophesy'd of Mahomet, came from this Temple,
and some do not stand to assert, that the Prophet Jonas was cast forth
by the Whale at the Base of the Temple."

In this Afric Temple of the Whale I leave you, reader, and if you be a
Nantucketer, and a whaleman, you will silently worship there.