Jan Jonston’s Wonderfully-Shaped Whale

17 March 2014: Massive updates! See below.

Jan Jonston¹ was a 17th Century Scottish-Polish naturalist who appears to have been largely forgotten by English speakers. Jonston made some of his own naturalistic observations (Miller 2008) but relied heavily on the works of 16th Century authors Conrad Gessner and Ulisse Aldrovandi (MacGillivray 1834) as well as the near-contemporary Georg Marcgrave (Romero 2012). Jonston’s work has been interpreted as some of the last done in the Gessner–Aldrovandi style and something of an anachronism for its lack of focus on classification (Asúa & French 2005); Miller (2008) argued Jonston took a unique philosophical approach. The important thing is, Jonston’s work is preserved on a website run by the University of Mannheim and is well worth looking at for the engravings by Matthäus Merian

From Jonston’s Liber V. De Cetis

These are very nice renderings, but holy crap, Jonston needed an editor. This is the second illustration of a sawfish and why both are hanging out with marine mammals is mysterious; perhaps some earlier worker confused the spiracles for blowholes. The competing depictions of walruses as separate species (?) is really mind-bending. The ‘Rosmarus Wallroſs‘ is from Gessner who in turn based his depiction on Olaus Magnus’s… but with wings; the Rosmarus Vetus‘ are from a 1613 illustration by Hessel Gerard (through De Laët) and are reportedly the most accurate walruses until 1853² (Allen 1880). So on the same page, Jonston managed to be cutting edge and behind the curve. Then there’s the mythical Scolopendra cetacea’, a Roman dolphin-faced, Aldrovandi-style whale with extra… footy things³. I think this is a good sample of Jonston’s work: a beautiful, incoherent mish-mash of monsters and real animals.

But enough stalling, what is… Jan Jonston’s Wonderfully-Shaped Whale?

From Jonston’s Additamentum De Cane Aristotelis

Cete admirabilis forme. Aside from this article, the phrase is only found on the University of Mannheim’s website. It doesn’t even seem to be in Jonston’s own text. Jonston doesn’t even use the word “cete” — “cetis” and “balaena” are used for his whales —so it may be a reference to size rather than affiliations. Or something. I have no idea why it’s grouped with relatively realistic fish, which can be recognized as a chimera, pufferfish, a lumpsucker, and a bream. Except for the lumpsucker (and Wonder-Whale), these fish have teeth specialized for crushing. The Cete admirabilis forme is nowhere to be found in Rondelet’s L’histoire entière des poissons or Aldrovandi’s De piscibus or Marcgrave’s Historia Naturalis Brasiliae. It could be possible it’s from a more obscure source, represents original research from Jonston, or it’s a fictitious entry.


I would opt for this being a joke because… just what the hell is going on here? The overall body shape is from a cartoon fish, the mouth is Sperm Whale-like, and the head is Basking Shark-like aside from the octopus stuck on it. It’s really hard imagining this having anything to do with reality. Unfortunately, I’ve hit a dead end and I… just don’t know. Normally I don’t publish these, but hey, it’s a new The Lord Geekington. Perhaps some day I’ll make a lucky discovery in an old tome and write a followup. Or perhaps somebody out there on the Internet already knows.

I would really recommend checking out the University of Mannheim’s website; Jonston may have been an iffy researcher, but Merian’s illustrations are well worth looking at.

I didn’t forget about those updates…


Allen, J. (1880) History of North American Pinnipeds. Available.

Asúa, M & French, R. (2005) A New World of Animals. Partially Available.

MacGillivray, W. (1834) Lives of eminent Zoologists from Aristoteles to Linnaeus. Available.

Miller, G. (2008) Beasts of the New Jerusalem: John Jonston’s Natural History and the Launching of Millenarian Pedagogy in the Seventeenth Century. History of Science 46(152) 203–243. Available.

Romero, A. (2012) When Whales Became Mammals: The Scientific Journey of Cetaceans From Fish to Mammals in the History of Science. InTech.  DOI: 10.5772/50811. Available.


¹ Also known as John Jonston, John Johnstone, Joannes Jonstonus and Scoto-Polonus.

² Walruses appear to have a particularly bizarre art history… I’ll have to cover this another time.

³ Perhaps my favorite monster and almost certainly a future subject. I’ve discussed the bizarre 20th Century revival of this beast on Memories of Myspace past or the Cetacean Centipede Rides Again! (from… 7 years ago?!), Return of the Many-Finned!, and The Many-Finned and Cladistics.

Updates (St. Patrick’s Day 2014):

Thanks to Andreas Johansson for pointing out I should have been searching for Cete Admirabilis Formae (or Formæ). This directed me to Allen (1882) which briefly describes the image and attributes it to Carolus Clusius. One edition of Clusius (1605) has an ‘æ’ that looks very much like an ‘e’ at a glance, so I suspect Jonston used that as a source. Nieremberg (1635) also features the whale, but the ‘Æ’ is unmistakable. So what does Clusius have to say about this remarkable, uh, whale? Unfortunately, in order to find out, I will have to clumsily stumble my way across his Latin text. But first, a picture:


SVB finem Novembris ſuperioris, ab ornatiſſimo viro Iacobo Plateau diligente reruna Exoticarum conquiſitore, & quibus muſeum habet inſtruetiſſimum, Cetacei piſcis iconem, quam ex F. Ludovici Granatenſis Catechiſmo excepiſſe ſcribebat, accipiebam: eam licet ſatis negligenter, & ab imperito forſitan pietore, expreſſam, quia tamenmeo argumento ſerviebat, hoc loco inſertam volui, additâ etiam ex Latino Fratris Ludovici exemplari ejus deſcriptione.

So in November 1604, one James Plateau received a naïve picture and description from one Father Lewis.

LUDOVICUS igitur (ut paullò altiùs repetam ejus verba) in fuo Catechiſmo, ad finem cap. XXI. libri de Creatione mundi, hæc ſcribit.

So I guess Father Lewis also wrote this down?

Hoc autem capite declarato quàm admirabilis ſit in horum animalium fabrica, æquum eſt, ut quàm admirabilis ſit in majorum quoque animalium fabrica oſtendamus; ut facile appareat, idem eſſe in omnibus operibus ſuis: utque intelligatur, jure optimo illum Angelum, cuidam interroganti, quod ſibi nomen eſſet, reſpondiſſe, Iudic. XIII…

Something, something, admirable.

…Curmeum nomen interrogas, quod admirabile eſt? In hanc ſententiam poſſem ego huc adducere duas feras, quarum magnitudinem deſcribit idem Creator cap. XL. & XLI. Iobi ſub his nominibus Behemoth & Leviathan: ſic & cete, quæ notiſſima ſunt.

Not sure of the significance of bringing those two up…

Attamen his prætermiſſis, hîc admirabilem cujuſdam piſcis magnitudinem referam, qui anno M.D.LXXV.X.Kal.Maii ad Peniche jam mortuus in littus, è mari ſuit projectus

The animal stranded at Peniche in, uh… 1575? And if I’m looking at the calendar correctly, the 22nd of April? I’m in way over my head here…

[ſinus is est in Luſitania Occidentem ſpectante, vicinus illi urbi qua vulgò Nova Lisbona appellatur, circiter ſeptem aut octo miliaribus ab Ulyſipona distante, panè ex adverſoejus inſulaquam las Berlingas vocant.]

Some further notes about the location, the significance of which I don’t understand.

Hoc nihil admirabilus viſum ſuit umquam: erat enim ejus longitudo quadraginta cubitorum:

The length was 40 cubits. Assuming 45 cm, this would mean 18 meters. However, Portuguese cubits were apparently 66 cm, which would give 26 meters… but who knows how that varied throughout time. So, uh, let’s call it cetacean-sized.

ejus corium in dorſo nigrum erat, in ventre album:

The skin was black and the belly was white, so damn, my illustration was wrong.

caudæ verò amplitudo ab extremitate unius pinnæ ad alteram quinque cubitorum erat, & ejus latitudo quindecim palmorum.

So it seems the tail was 5 cubits wide and… something about fifteen palm trees?! [Edit: Palms, as in the unit, of course. Thanks again, Andreas]

Corporis craſſitudo tanta erat, ut duo homines ſatis grandes in utroque latere collocati vix ſe conſpicerent:

It sounds like the body was so thick, two large men couldn’t span it, or wrap around it, or something.

uterque oculus unius cubiti erat longitudine:

Each eye was a cubit (?!) in length. Huh.

caput in ſublime elatum ferebat ad quatuor cubitorum altidudinem

Apparently the head was held four cubits high, or something?

Os in capite non habebat ut alii piſces, ſed in ventre:

The mouth was more ventrally placed than those of other fish.

majores illius dentes ſinguli erant octo cubitorum:

A comment about teeth and eight cubits I don’t understand.

in ore præterea fexdecim habebat dentes, & cujuſlibet circuitus erat dimidii cubiti, interſtitium verò inter ſingulos erat unius palmi.

I don’t understand a lot of this, but it seems the teeth were separated by a span (half-cubit).

Cujus figuram hîc addere volui, quæ ab Henrico, qui ſempiterno fruitur ævo allata ſuit.

An apparent reference to King Henry?

In hujus piſcis fabrica, Divinæ Providentiæ artificium animadvertendum eſt, qui altum fert caput, ut piſes proſpiciat, quibus nutriendus erat: ſed cùm diſtantia inter caput & aquam magna eſſet, ei os in ventre accommodavit, ut vicinius & accommodatius ad piſcandum eſſet, quod oculisjam eſſet aſſequutus. Illud quoque audivi, hunc piſcem in ventre axungiam ad medendum ſatis accommodatam & magni pretii habuiſſe. Hactenus Frater Ludovicus.

This appears to describe the mouth being in the “belly” and seems to imply that the blubber was valuable.

So far as I can gather from my very, very, very limited abilities with Latin, this sounds like an early, mangled description of a Sperm Whale. The Aliud Cete admirabile which follows is far more unambiguous, and Allen appeared to regard it as one of the very first illustrations. There are still of course some baffling details about the Cete Admirabilis formæ (the head being held up high, the size of the eyes, the unexplained octopus-nose in the sketch), but it seems that even in the early 1600’s it was viewed as being a bit off-kilter.

7 thoughts on “Jan Jonston’s Wonderfully-Shaped Whale”

  1. Obviously drawn on the basis of eye-witness testimony of sperm whale which had surfaced while half-way through a calamari dinner: except for the tentacled thing on the snout (with its oversized eye!) the anatomy is reasonable, though cartoonish.
    (((No, I don’t take this suggestion too seriously… but — particularly with your rendition in which the squid is a different colour from the whale — it came to mind spontaneously.)))

  2. “Cete” and “cetis” are both inflected forms of Lat. cetus “whale, sea monster”, so it’s not quite correct to say Jonston’s text doesn’t use the word.

    Note that “forme” should prescriptively be formae (pronounced the same in Jonston’s day). If you amend your search accordingly, you’ll find variants of this picture, which shows the same bizarro critter along with another … curious whale (which makes the use of the plural form “Cete” more sensible).

  3. Well, at least the NEXTpicture (below it in Andreas’s link, on next page in Clusius) is non-mysterious: readily recognizable as a stranded sperm whale! (I take it that the erect penis– I’ve seen it in other depictions of dead whales– is normal post-mortem. Perhaps the pressure of gasses of decomposition inside the body forces the penis out?)

    Perhaps the mysterious picture was drawn (perhaps from memory? perhaps on the basis of testimony from memory?) from a specimen that had suffered a bit more post-mortem degradation: the “octopus” might be an interpretation of loose strips of flesh. The “eye” located in the “octopus”… is maybe in about the right position to be the blowhole: whale eyes being comparatively small, perhaps the witness missed them, and mistook the blowhole as an eye socket.

  4. O.k., my Latin is probably about as rudimentary as yours, but I think I can make a bit of sense of a few things. In the description just after the “weird” picture, somebody– I’m not sure whether it is Clusius or someone he is quoting– is waxing theological, about this critter displaying the wondrous nature God’s creation. So there is a citation of Judges 13, where the angel who is announcing to his prospective parents that Samson will be remarkable says “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” This is followed by references to Job 40 and 41, where Behemoth (who sounds like a Hippopotamus: “he eats grasslike an ox… Under the lotus plants he lies, in the covert of the reeds and in the marsh) and Leviathan (who sounds a bit crocodilish: “Who can penetrate his double coat of mail?… His back is made up of rows of shields, shut up closely as with a seal. One is so near to another that no air can come between them”).

    So: this critter washed up in Portugal is wonderful, but we already know from scripture that God has made wonderful animals. (Or maybe, We shouldn’t be sceptical when scripture tells us of wonderful creatures, since we know from our Portuguese informants that there ARE wonderful creatures.)

    The line about the bigger teeth being individually eight cubits long probably MEANS just that, but Clusius thinks that has got to be an error: on the next page he says as much (adding that he thinks only elephants have fangs that long), and suggests that it is the JAWS rather than the teeth that are that long: plausible enough, since (for some possible lengths of a cubit, a sperm whale’s lower jaw may be eight cubits long.

  5. The better picture (page 131 in Clusius) derives from an account of another stranding: just above the picture he says (“Itaque me facile persuaserim…”) “So I think (closer to literally: so I can readily persuade myself…) it is not very different from the beast that was thrown up on the shore inHolland in a storm in 1598… The longtime residents by the North Sea call it the “pot-walvisch””
    At any rate, I ***think*** that’s what the Latin says, and pot-walvisch is something the Dutch call a sperm whale.

  6. “something about fifteen palm trees?!”

    Not palm trees but palms of the hand. The last bit is “& and its width 15 palms”. Since the 5 cubits must be the span between the lateral points of the fluke, I’m a bit confused as to which “width” is being refered to here. Oh, and a palm as a unit of length was in southern Europe generally a bit over 20 cm, so if they’re using a 66 cm cubit, well then 15 palms and 5 cubits are approximately the same …

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