Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Whale and the Millenarian Cycle

In my book, Sailing the Black Current, I discuss the motif of the whale or other giant sea creature and its connection with the "navel of the sea," and natural disasters including the millennial Great Flood and the coming millennium.

In the 1987 film Whale Rider. Witi Ihimaera tells the story of a Whangara Maori prophecy in which a recurrent golden age is ushered in by the coming of a leader riding on a whale.

From Southeast Asia throughout much of the Pacific, tales of whale riders and otherwise helpful whales are commonly found. In coastal central and south Vietnam, whales are seen as protectors of fisherman and sailors who rescue those at sea by allowing them to ride on their backs. A dead whale is seen as a sign of coming prosperity, a type of golden age if you will.

These Vietnamese beliefs appear to originate in the Cham whale cult of Po Rayak. Whale temples house the bones of dead whales who are given royal funerals by coastal peoples. The person who finds the dead whale takes on the role of the cetacean's first-born child and performs formal mourning. After the whale carcass has been interred for three years, the bones are recovered for placement in a temple. During the Nguyen Dynasty, the dead whales were granted titles by the emperor usually with rank of a "general" or "admiral" of the highest order.

Whales were considered incarnations of Thanh Nam Hai "God of the South Seas," and were sometimes called Nam Hai Dai Vuong "Great King of the South Seas." Revolutionary heroes like Ngyuen Trung Truc and Marshall Nguyen Huynh Duc are often seen as incarnations themselves of the whale god Ka Ong.

Whales and the Ebisu Cult of Japan

The Japanese patron deity of fishing, Ebisu, is often viewed as a whale in coastal regions of Japan in a cult that Sakurada Katsunori believes originates in southern Kyushu.

Ebisu is a form of the "divine visitor" also known as Miroku and as Marebito in the Ryukyus. When Ebisu visits, an age of prosperity ensues. This may be viewed naturally, outside of other considerations, in two ways, either the whale chases fish toward the shore or beaches itself providing the bounty of a whale carcass.

Whaling is seen as a sacred venture, and as in Vietnam, whale monuments dot the Japanese coast. About 25 matsuri festivals are held yearly as memorial festivals for whales many with the purpose of helping the whale spirit reach enlightenment to become a Buddha in Paradise. Traditional whalers are known to say the Namu Amida Butsu prayer at the death of a whale in hopes that the whale will become a Buddha.

The whale is also sometimes seen as the great fish Namazu-e (literally 'catfish'), who causes earthquakes and brings about world destruction and renewal.

Whales and the Navel of the Sea in the Philippines and Indonesia

Among the Maranao of the South Philippines, there is giant fish called Lumbang, probably a whale, that dwells at the "navel of the sea" that causes earthquakes when it moves around. The Maguidanao know this huge fish as Limbo. In some languages of the Philippines, lumba-lumba means "dolphin" or "tuna."

The Batak of Palawan tell of a great dragon known as Tandayag who causes floods by closing up the navel of the sea, which they call burungan. The word tandayag means "whale" or "giant fish" in various other Philippine languages like Waray and Maguindanao. Marcos de Lisbon, writing in 1754, defines tandayag in the Bicol language as 'a very great snake, that they say went to the sea, and returned there as a whale' ("una culebra muy grande, que dicen se iba a la mar, y se volven alla ballena").

In other Philippine mythologies, the creature associated with the navel of the sea and the linked Earth pillars is a dragon, giant serpent, giant crab, giant eel, etc. The great animal or fish causes earthquakes or floods often because of the wrath of the Supreme Deity at the sins of humanity. The Great Deluge of yore in Philippine mythology is usually associated with this creature stopping up the navel of the sea, and thus renewing the age.

Usually the same creature, attracted by the Moon is said to cause the ebb and flow of the tide by moving in and out of the navel of the sea, and also the eclipse of the lunar and solar orbs. It is sometimes thought to be female in gender and is known as the lord of the sea or waters, the king of fishes or even as the Supreme God itself.

In some cases, if God's anger is not propitiated, the destruction of the world ensues. This is known at times by the Malay Muslim word Harikiamat "Day of Judgement" (alikiamat, Tiruray; harikiama, Maranao; harikiamat, Maguindanao).

However, among the indigenous peoples, Harikiamat is not associated with the Islamic prophecies of the al-Mahdi, the descent of Isa (Jesus) and the final war with the Antichrist. Instead, we find the native beliefs in the destruction of the world by flood or earthquake associated with the navel of the sea and the great whale, dragon, serpent, etc.


Speaking of whales and the end of the world, the great biblical sea creature Leviathan, often also thought of as female, is identified as a whale by many commentators. In Jewish lore, Leviathan's massive carcass provides the fare for the great messianic feast at the end of the age.

Leviathan is also often associated with the "beast" that John of the Book of Revelation sees rising out of the sea as he stands on the shore. This beast is not a carcass but has a deadly wound that is healed by a "dragon" before the great apocalypse.

Of course, one also needs to think of the story of Jonah when thinking about whales. Jonah is swallowed by a 'great fish' and spat up on a beach to warn Nineveh of impending doom. Back in 1837, FC Baur studied the similarity of the Jonah motif with that of Babylonian Oannes, the fish-man who also comes from the sea to the shore at the start of a new age. Oannes is one of the abgal, messengers who come regularly from the sea to Mesopotamia at the start of a new kingdom.

Thus, Oannes like Jonah, the doomsday prophet, has millenarian aspects. Some have even suggested that the etymologies of the two names are linked.

Herman Melville, in his 1851 American classic Moby Dick, identifies Leviathan with the whale and specifically the great albino sperm whale of his story. He further makes a connection with the Hindu Matsya Avatara, the first cyclic iincarnation of the god Visnu. The Matsya Avatara is described as a great fish (matsya) that rescues the Hindu Adam, known as Manu, from the Great Flood that ushers in the new age (Satyayuga).

Interestingly, Melville describes among the crew of the whaler Ahab the "Manila men" with "tiger yellow" skin who when rowing Ahab's boat seemed "all steel and whalebone; like five trip-hammers they rose and fell with regular strokes of strength."

The phantoms, for so they then seemed, were flitting on the other side of the deck, and, with noiseless celerity, were casting loose the tackles and bands of the boat which swung there. This boat had always been deemed one of the spare boats, though technically called the captain's, on account of its hanging from the starboard quarter. The figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white toothe evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff.
But strangely crowning this eboness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas; -- a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid
spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.

Ahab's ship passed the Philippines while searching for Moby Dick along the Kuroshio Current and the final encounter with the whale occurred near the equator somewhere southeast of Japan.

The writing style of Moby Dick certainly invites the search for hidden meanings and it has been described as following the apocalyptic archetype with Ahab even identified as St. John the Divine, author of the Book of Revelation. The whale itself seems to alternately symbolize good and evil, God and Satan (or the beast of Revelation). Melville writes:

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Moby Dick is seen by some as symbolizing the human and specifically American obsession with destroying evil.

Although an early supporter of the new doctrine of Manifest Destiny to some extent, Melville strongly rebelled against the treatment of Polynesians and other Pacific Islanders. He considered the Pacific as the new frontier that was being destroyed by the coming of "snivelization." He chided Americans for their ruthless colonialism:

The Anglo-Saxons -- lacking grace
To win the love of any race;
Hated by myriads dispossessed
Of rights -- the Indians East and West.
These pirates of the sphere! grave looters--
Grave, canting, Mammonite freebotters,
Who in the name of Christ and Trade
(Oh, bucklered forehead of the brass!)
Deflower the world's last sylvan glade.

Clarel 4.9.117-25

Journey to the Navel of the Sea

Although most descriptions of Philippine and Indonesian myths of the navel of the sea are rather cursory, Dario Novellino has conducted a significant study of this theme among the Batak of Palawan.

The Batak believe that once this navel known as burungan is open, if the Tandayag dragon is not appeased the universe will eventually dissolve following the great floods.

To help prevent this occurrence, the Batak shaman (babailan) undertakes a spirit journey to the burungan to "renew the world."

To then ‘renew the world’, the most important phase of the ritual is the trance performed by the shaman. The shaman holds coconut oil in one hand, while dancing. During the trance the kiaruwa’ of the shaman will move in search of selected spirit guides, and will require their help to reach the burungan. These spirit guides are associated with animal species, and they represent their ‘spiritualised’ version. They are the kiaruwa’ of animals ‘of the water’ and ‘of the higher up’, and include the swallow, the otter, the monitor lizard, and the river turtle. The kiaruwa’ of the river turtle is considered the most enduring and capable of confronting the fury of the water at the burungan. It will also play a shamanic role by dancing the same dance as the shaman, thus fostering the closing of the two boulders over the burungan. While the turtle’s kiaruwa’ dances, the shaman smears the two boulders with coconut oil, facilitating the coming together of the two stones above the burungan opening, thus stopping the water outflow. According to the informants, a particular malevolent panya’en appears at the burungan site in the form of an attractive woman, and she will try to call on her the shaman’s attention. It is said that if the shamans looks back at the malevolent panya’en, he may be hit by the water outflow, and fall inside the burungan hole. Finally, with the assistance of the spirit guides, the shaman will try to place the rooster claw back on the metal bar. In so doing the rooster will stop flapping its wings and, the storm will end.

When the burungan is closed, offerings of chickens, ceramics and human blood (but not sacrifice) are made to the Tandayag, the guardian of the burungan.

The millenarian idea of "healing" or "renewing" the world is quite interesting. Possibly related to this is the old practice of the Igorots of Kagubatan who regularly fed the sacred eels of the Kagubatan lake. If these eels are not fed, it is believed a drought would ensue and crops would fail. The eels are so accustomed to the feeding that they rise to the surface like goldfish when the Igorots sang specific songs meant to summon them. The eels here could have been seen forms of their supreme god Lumauig's python that controls the waters at the navel of the sea.

In studying the importance of the whale or some similar large sea creature in millenarian myth, we can note that the whale or sea serpent is often conflated with the sea boat in totemic cultures. The cargo cult mentality places much emphasis on the "treasure boat," and thus the boat-whale symbolism would take on special importance. Indeed, the whale itself brings abundant cargo when it lands on a beach. In addition to acting as a tutelary god, the whale is sometimes seen as an ancestor. For example, the Maori Paikea, ancestor of the Ngāti Porou, is sometimes described as riding a whale, but at other times as a whale himself.

I explore the connection of the whale-dragon and the navel of the sea with natural disasters and apocalyptic beliefs in Sailing the Black Current focusing on the area of the Philippine Trench near the beginning of the Kuroshio Current (Black Tide).

Paul Kekai Mananasala


McLeod, Mark W. Culture and Customs of Vietnam, Greenwood Press, 2001.

Melville, H., Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851.

Naumann, Nelly. "Whale and Fish Cult in Japan: A Basic Feature of Ebisu Worship," Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1 (1974), 1-15.

Novellino, D. Contrasting Landscapes, Conflicting ontologies. Assessing environmental conservation on Palawan Island (The Philippines), University of Kent, n.d., (

Ouwehand, C. Namazu-e and Their Themes, An Interpretive A4pproach to Some Aspects of Iapanese Folk Religion, E.J. Brill, Leiden, I964.

Taylor, Philipp. Goddess on the Rise: Pilgrimage and Popular Religion in Vietnam, University of Hawaii Press, 2004.