Before Melville, stories of demonic whales circled the globe. The whales that emerge from myths and fables often were not whales at all—at least not what we now know as whales. In medieval and renaissance maps, mapmakers populated the seas with many strange and fantastic beasts, often assuming every land animal had a sea-dwelling counterpart. For the colossal creatures larger than ships, they ascribed terrifying and threatening traits, as if they naturally posed a threat to sea travel. In later maps, whales began to signify good fishing areas, but they never lost their monstrosity.
The biblical story of Jonah and the whale translated into Greek as ketos, the etymological precursor to the Latin cetus and the root of modern cetology, or the study of whales.
In the 1700s and 1800s, when European naturalists were trying to categorize every living creature, and literalize all biblical narratives, they concluded that these leviathans must have swallowed Jonah. However, this is impossible—most species of whale have too small of an esopha-gus and thin baleen “teeth” too fragile to chomp a human.
Sperm whales, however, can swallow giant squid whole, so could conceivably do the same to a small person. But the experience would be unlike Jonah’s—or Pinocchio’s inside Monstro. The stomach is a compact tract filled with digestive chemicals, strong muscles, and, occasionally, flatulent gasses.
It seems Melville’s white whale may be based off stories of albino whales, which do exist. One internationally famous story concerned “Mocha Dick, the White Whale of the Pacific,” who was first sighted in 1810 and pursued by over 100 whalers until it finally succumbed in 1838, or two years before Melville went on his whaling voyage.