The beguiling beast-island.
The sailors had been at sea for 50 nights and they were starving. Standing at the prow of the ship, the captain looked towards the horizon with resignation and did not notice the salt-spray that leapt up from the dark water below. He had always prided himself on his stoic nature, but hunger chipped away at his resolve. He thought of his daughters but their faces appeared vague in his mind and he struggled to keep them in focus against the constant pain in his stomach and head. His gaze touched a slim shadow in the distance. A hallucination? The ship rolled and he saw it again, clearer this time: land. There was an island.
An hour later the crew was lying haphazardly around the landing place where their ship was moored. The island was small with mostly dunes of sand and rocky crags, but there were some trees and plants. This brief rest from the sea was as wholesome as a bowl filled with barley for the exhausted crew. Several of them waited eagerly in a circle while someone hacked at flint with steel to start a fire. Finally, the tinder caught and a merry blaze filled their eyes. The captain smiled. Life-giving warmth spread outward from the fire. Then, suddenly, his legs gave out and he was on his back looking at stars. Terror gripped him as the island trembled. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the crew from angles he could make no sense of. His stomach dropped as the island lurched again. He managed to get to his hands and knees and look up - the island was shrinking. It was an impossible sight but he could not deny the thrashing white waves seething towards him. He shouted orders, but most of the crew who still stood were already fleeing towards the ship. To his horror, he noticed that the ship had moved away from the shore, back towards the open sea. The island was moving. It was moving and it was sinking. The cold ocean clawed over his face and he sucked in salt water. The captain spent his last moments trying to understand what he had just witnessed.
There is a story told in all lands throughout all history about an island which is the back of an enormous beast. In Greek, the beast is named Aspidochelone, which translates to “asp-turtle”; “Asp” meaning shield. We have a clear description of the beast’s appearance and intentions from the Physiologus of Alexandria:
“the great sea-monster which is often unwillingly met, terrible and cruel-hearted to seafarers, yea, to everyman; this swimmer of the ocean-streams is known as the asp-turtle. His appearance is like that of a rough boulder, as if there were tossing by the shore a great ocean-reedbank begirt with sand-dunes, so that seamen imagine they are gazing upon an island…” The description of the false island is consistent across cultures, but the physical details of the rest of its body remain unconfirmed. Most who go near an Aspidochelone die, and those who escape catch only a glimpse of what lies beneath its back. Many believe it resembles a giant turtle, though some say it is more like a whale. The truth may lie somewhere in between.
What is clear is that there are more than one of this fabled giant. There have been too many sightings across too many places and times for there to be a single being (unless that being is god-like). And it goes by many names. In Middle-Earth the beast is known as Fastitocalon. The famous adventurer-sailor Sinbad encounters the beast in his first voyage and knows it by the name Zaratan. St. Brendan survives an encounter with the beast and calls it Jasconius which is the same name used by the Planeswalkers.
Should you ever set sail on an ocean adventure of your own, you would do well to remember these stories and these names. Keep your wits about you and do not be tempted. Aspidochelone waits patiently.
Written by Giles Ravensong.