Porphyrios, The Whale That Spread Terror Among Byzantine Sailors Of The 6th Century

Sep 27, 2023 0 comments

In his novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville recounts numerous cases of cetaceans turning against whalers who were hunting them, attacking their boats and even their ships. We know that the creator of the literary white whale was inspired by the case of the Essex, sunk by a sperm whale, combining it with a story from the same era about another giant, albino to boot, known as Mocha Dick. But Melville also dedicates a few lines to recall a much earlier case, which occurred in the 6th century AD: that of Porphyrios, a sea monster that struck terror into Byzantine sailors, sinking so many ships that it concerned the Emperor Justinian himself.

As mentioned in the initial text, the primary account of the threat posed by Porphyrios was left by Procopius of Caesarea, a historian whose works are the main sources for understanding the reign of Justinian I. In both "History of the Wars" and "Secret History," he speaks of that beast, which he identifies as a whale and even provides its measurements: 45 feet long (13.7 meters) by 15 feet wide (4.6 meters). As Melville notes, Procopius does not specify whether it was male or female or what type of whale it was, among other things because in his time, not much was known about marine life; the American writer believes it was a sperm whale.

Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik

In reality, it is not clear, nor is there any evidence to establish to which species it belonged. Some authors speculate that it could have been an orca, given that they are often found in the Mediterranean, but this does not correspond to the dimensions mentioned by Procopius, as orcas do not typically exceed eight meters, and that's for males, as females are smaller. Therefore, the more widely held opinion is that Porphyrios was a sperm whale, a marine mammal that can reach over 20 meters in length and exceed fifty tons, sufficient to dare to confront ships.

In fact, as mentioned earlier, there are plenty of accounts of sperm whales that, either feeling harassed or to protect their calves, ram the hulls of the pursuing vessels with their enormous heads - which make up one-third of their total length. Sometimes, these encounters are mistakenly perceived as attacks. Sperm whales live in pods and lack natural predators, even though orcas and sharks may hunt an occasional individual that is too young, old, or sick. Even then, they need to hunt in groups to break through the so-called Margeurite formation, which these cetaceans adopt to protect the vulnerable individual by surrounding it.

Contrary to the hypothesis of Porphyrios being a sperm whale is the fact that Procopius mentions that it ate dolphins - although this could be an embellishment of the story or a mistake in observing them swimming together - and sperm whales typically do not venture into the eastern Mediterranean. They are found in the western Mediterranean, but the geographic area where the attacks reported by Procopius occurred is in the eastern Mediterranean.

Distribution of sperm whale sightings around the world. Image by Kurzon/Wikimedia Commons

Specifically, the Sea of Marmara, at that time called the Propontis, which separates the Aegean Sea from the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, and whose waters were adjacent to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, in the same passage from Moby Dick, Melville is not so sure:

For a long time I fancied that the sperm whale had been always unknown in the Mediterranean and the deep waters connecting with it. Even now I am certain that those seas are not, and perhaps never can be, in the present constitution of things, a place for his habitual gregarious resort. But further investigations have recently proved to me, that in modern times there have been isolated instances of the presence of the sperm whale in the Mediterranean. I am told, on good authority, that on the Barbary coast, a Commodore Davis of the British navy found the skeleton of a sperm whale. Now, as a vessel of war readily passes through the Dardanelles, hence a sperm whale could, by the same route, pass out of the Mediterranean into the Propontis.

There's another point in favor of this theory, and that's their age. Sperm whales are long-lived; they can reach up to 70 years of age, and it just so happens that reports of attacks on Byzantine vessels occurred for more than five decades, with periods of activity alternating with calm, possibly related to seasonal migration ("...it would sometimes disappear for a fairly long interval," as Procopius recounts). Apparently, Porphyrios didn't discriminate and would ram humble fishing boats as well as merchant and even warships, usually in the vicinity of the Bosphorus, which must have been quite a spectacle because, aside from the sailors who endured it, there were sometimes witnesses from the shore.

The frequency of these incidents led sailors to take a detour to avoid such formidable encounters, which raised concerns for Emperor Justinian I, fearing it could become an obstacle to maritime trade or simple navigation ("And he sank many ships and terrified the passengers on many others, diverting them from their course and taking them great distances," as Procopius describes it). It is known that Byzantine soldiers traveling to Italy to fight the Ostrogoths carried amulets for protection. However, there was little that could be done to address the problem, as, while whaling has existed since prehistoric times, up until the Modern Age, the prey usually consisted of smaller cetaceans (dolphins, belugas, porpoises...), and in any case, there was no whaling tradition among the Byzantines.

Sperm whale attack a row boat from a whaling ship. Circa 1851.

Some articles and books mention that Empress Theodora commissioned the famous general Belisarius to solve the issue, and he embarked with archers and a catapult to try to shoot and harpoon the animal, but with no success. This is fascinating but fictional because it actually originated in the imagination of a writer; we are talking about Robert Graves, who found it interesting to draw a parallel between the empress and Porphyrios in his novel "Count Belisarius," published in 1938. By the way, this novel is based on the previously mentioned works of Procopius, just as his famous "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina" are based on "The Lives of the Twelve Caesars" by Suetonius.

Graves leans towards identifying Porphyrios as an orca seeking revenge for the mistreatment inflicted by fishermen (similar to the plot of the 1977 movie "Orca," starring Richard Harris, also known as "Orca: The Killer Whale"). Interestingly, since 2020, there have been documented about fifty attacks by orcas on boats in the area around the Strait of Gibraltar and the Spanish Levant (not including accidental collisions). To explain these incidents, experts consider two hypotheses: the aversive situation (an adverse experience with a boat drives the animal to confront others) and self-induced behavior (play).

In any case, the real Porphyrios continued to build his bad reputation year after year to the point where the Byzantines eventually gave him a name, a tradition that would repeat itself over the centuries with the most fearsome cetaceans. We mentioned Mocha Dick and there were others. The curious thing about the chosen name is that the exact cause is not known, and several explanations have been proposed. Some believe that Porphyrios could be an allusion to Porphyrius Caliopas (a famous charioteer with the same name, considered the best of his time) or to Porphyrio (a mythological giant, son of Gaia, who rebelled against the gods and was struck down by Zeus with a lightning bolt).

However, most researchers believe that Porphyrios was a name derived from "porphyra," the word that referred to the color purple, either as a reference to the hue reserved for imperial garments - thus acknowledging the majesty of that animal - or to the coloration that the cetacean's skin may have had.

Regarding the latter, sperm whales are gray, and orcas are black, but perhaps the sun reflecting on their surface gave the impression of a dark reddish tone, at least at certain times of the day, confusing witnesses. Recently, it has been suggested that the literal translation should be "purple child."

What's truly important is that, despite Edward Gibbon's insinuation that Porphyrios's exceptional size and location could indicate that it didn't actually exist and was merely a metaphor, this was the first documented instance of a whale attacking humans (the biblical episode of Jonah doesn't count because there is no direct animal aggression involved; the fish mentioned in the text simply swallows the prophet by God's command, sparing the ship he was on). As we saw, these actions repeated themselves over time without anyone being able to stop them. So, what happened to Porphyrios and his uncontrollable rage? Well, he had a sad ending; it's best to let Procopius tell the story:

It happened that while a deep calm reigned over the sea, a large number of dolphins gathered near the mouth of the Euxine Sea. Suddenly, they spotted the whale and fled in every direction they could, but most of them ended up near the mouth of the Sangarius River. Meanwhile, the whale managed to capture some of them, which it immediately swallowed. And then, driven either by hunger or a contentious spirit, it continued its pursuit just as fiercely as before until, without realizing it, it came very close to the shore. There, it ran aground in very deep mud, and although it struggled and made every effort to get out of it as quickly as possible, it was still completely unable to escape from this shoal and sank even deeper into the mud.

Now, when this became known to all the people living in the vicinity, they immediately rushed upon the whale. Even though they attacked it persistently with axes from all sides, they still could not kill it. Instead, they dragged it up with some heavy ropes, placed it on carts, and found that its length was about thirty cubits, and its width was ten. Then, after forming several groups and dividing the whale accordingly, some ate the flesh immediately, while others decided to cure the portion they received.

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


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