Whales in Literature, Art and Music

Whales in Literature, Art and Music

Throughout time, people have come into contact with whales, and something about them – their size, their song, their magnificence – has resonated with our human brains. Art, literature and even music across cultures and ages reflect this fascination, awe and, sometimes, fear.

Whales in Literature.

In two of the most well-known whale stories, the whale represents huge ideas that are commensurate with its size.

Moby Dick was a novel written in 1851 by American writer Herman Melville. On the surface, the story is about a man’s obsessive hunt for the white whale that bit off his leg while he was whale hunting. But, underlying it, the whale and the search for it are symbolic of the struggle to make sense of life and the events it seems to throw at people.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, the Book of Jonah sets out how Jonah was instructed by God to go to Nineveh to preach, but he chose to avoid this by boarding a boat to Tarshish. This boat was besieged by a terrible storm which only abated when Jonah was thrown overboard. A whale saved Jonah by swallowing him, letting him free only when Jonah agreed to go to Nineveh. In this story, the whale could be seen as symbolising responsibilities to God and being overwhelmed by them until they are faced.

Whales in Art

The painting Jonah Leaving the Whale is by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568 – 1625). It was painted in oil in around 1600, and depicts Jonah being released from the whale’s mouth near a rocky coastline.

When a painting was left to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England in 1873, it was thought to be an unremarkable seascape painted by Hendrick van Anthonissen in 1641. It was wondered what the depicted group of people on the beach were actually looking at, but no-one thought any more about this until the painting was sent for restoration work to Shan Kuang, in 2014. After painstaking work, the conservator found what the group in the painting were looking at – a beached whale! Why the whale was painted out of the picture, or by whom, remains open to conjecture.

Whales in Music

Recordings of whale song, with its haunting, mysterious quality, have been used for relaxation music, and it is even believed that the sounds may encourage babies to sleep!

Musicians have often been inspired by whale song. Judy Collins, the famous American singer–songwriter, was given a recording of humpback whale song, made by the biologist Roger Payne. She was so struck by it that, on her 1970 album Whales and Nightingales, she included a traditional song called Farewell to Tarwathie.

Whales in Music
Whales in Music

On this track she sang alongside the whale song, creating a haunting duet. Collins donated a proportion of the royalties to Roger Payne’s conservation work and, soon after, Capitol records released Payne’s recordings of whale song. The publicity Collins’ and Payne’s recordings created helped to galvanise public opinion against whale hunting. In 1972 the U.S. banned all whaling and whale products.


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