3rd World Congress of Environmental History

Individual Submission Summary

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The Many Face of Leviathan: A History of Whales in European Literature and Science

Tue, July 23, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Centro de Filosofia e Ciencias Humanas (CFH), Auditorio do Bloco E


There is no animal best known across human cultures and times than the whale. Even if the animal itself was not clearly recognized at each time and by each society, we find the large fish and the sea monster represented in multiple forms of art and science – painting, sculpture, poetry, literature, cinema as well as in natural history and philosophy, zoology and anatomy, history and archaeology, conservation and genetics. I aim at exploring the concept of the mighty Leviathan in European and American literature and zoology from the early modern period to present day. A wide number of authors will be addressed - from the Bible to Thomas Hobbes (1651), from Herman Melville (1851) to Patrick O’Brien (1930s), from Philip Hoare (2015) to Paul Gadenne (2017), in literature; and from diverse European naturalists (16th and 17th centuries) to Buffon (1792), from Richard Ellis (1991) to Vicki Szabo (2008), in natural history. The many ways people perceived the whale, the monster and the myth, but also the many visions of the animal about itself, its environs, and of humans surrounding it are reflected in these works. Here, we will find not just several perspectives of whale hunt expertise and experiences, but also the sperm whale calf Skogula vision from the underwater realm into the ocean’s surface, sea peoples’ lives and whaling activities. This analysis, conducted from an environmental humanities viewpoint, will highlight humans’ past and present interactions with these large marine mammals and their fluid environments, and the importance of whales’ agency in history. It will show the multiple faces of Leviathan in different stories and in diverse historical contexts.