There is a story that has crossed the spaces and times: the one about the sailors who land on an island that has no name, the island that then sinks and takes them to death, because it is alive.
This figment appears in Sinbad’s first book and in the sixth chat of Orlando Furioso, in the Irish legend of St. Brandon and in the Greek bestiary of Alexandria, in A Description of the Northern Peoples (Rome, 1555) of the Swedish poet Olaf Magnus and in that passage from the first chant of Paradise Lost in which the immovable Satan is presented as a giant whale sleeping on Norwegian sea waters.
Paradoxically, one of the first versions of the legend tells the story to show that it is not true. This is the Book of Animals by Al-Yahiz, a nineteenth-century Muslim zoologist. Miguel Asin Palacios translated it into Spanish with these words:
“As for Zaratan, I have never met anyone who says he saw it with his eyes. Some sailors claim that they have sometimes approached certain islands from the sea where there were forests and valleys and passes, and that they lit a pyre there. And when the fire came to the back of Zaratan, it started to slip on the waters with them above and with all the plants on it, so only the one who managed to escape in time was able to save himself. This story surpasses any of the most fabulous and daring relating”.
Let’s look at a 13th century text now. It is written by the cosmographer Al-Quazwini and comes from the work entitled Wonders of Creation. It says so:
“As for the sea turtle, it is so unimaginable enormous that the people on the ship thought it was an island. One of the merchants told: << We have discovered at sea an island that rises above the water and we land on it; there we dug pits to prepare our food, but the island began to move, and the sailors left on the ship cried out: Come back, for it is a turtle. The heat of fire has awakened it, and it can kill us. >>”.
In the Anglo-Saxon bestiary in the Exter Book Codex the dangerous island began to move and the monks were scared and fled to people. They had built up their tents on the island and wanted to rest after the tiring work at sea. Suddenly the Oceanfriend sank and the sailors drowned.
Zaratan also symbolizes the Devil and the Evil. It would keep this symbolic value in Moby Dick, which would be written ten centuries later.
Jose Luis Borges, El zaratan