Before 20,000: Submarine Stories from the Ancient World

In honor of speculative-fiction venerable Jules Verne, born this day in 1828, here are three stories of submarine adventures from long, long before the Nautilus.

Alexander the Great, Barrel-Rider

A favorite legend of Alexander III of Macedon finds him a little bored with conquering the nations of earth, and curious about “the truth” of the sea. In Alexandre de Bernay’s 12th-century Li romans d’Alixandre, Alexander tasks his glass-masters with constructing a “very mighty barrel, all of white glass, beautiful as man had never before seen.” It fits three and carries powerful lamps that frighten away the fish—at first.  When Alexander returns from the sea floor, the undefeated conqueror is shaken: “I have seen,” he says,

Alexander explores the sea in a submarine; detail of a miniature from BL Royal MS 15 E vi, f. 20v (the "Talbot Shrewsbury Book").

Alexander explores the sea in a submarine; detail of a miniature from BL Royal MS 15 E vi, f. 20v (the "Talbot Shrewsbury Book").

Que tous cis siecles est et dampnes et perdus,
Convoitise nous a et tourbles at vencus;
Ciertes par avarice est li mons confondus.
Le voilens grans poiscons devorent les menus;
Ausi as povres gens est li avoirs tolus.

That all these centuries are damned and lost,
Covetousness has us all surprised and defeated,
Surely by avarice is the world confounded.
The great violent fish devour the small,
As poor men are of their belongings stripped.

The truth of the sea is a primordial brutality that Alexander cannot help but understand. The ambitious civilizer—at bottom, isn’t Alexander’s project the same as those sea monsters that feed on the weak?

Jonah in the Belly of the Fish

The prophet Jonah, fleeing his importunate God, took to the sea, only to be chased by divine storms; when he realized this, he had the sailors throw him overboard, at which time he was promptly swallowed by a “great fish.”  From inside the belly of the fish, he sings—naturally—of despair, repentance, and grace. This Canticle of Jonah is one of the most affecting pieces of poetry in the Hebrew Scriptures:


The waters compassed me about, even to the soul:
the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.

I went down to the bottoms of the mountains;
the earth with her bars was about me for ever:
yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.

The medieval scholastics, missing the point as usual, and wondering how exactly Jonah knew what was happening outside the fish, decided the fish’s eyes must be transparent, with the prophet peeping through them like portholes, or like that time Starbuck flew the Cylon raider.

"Hand me a towel...?" (Folio from the  Jami al-Tavarikh , c. 1305-06.)

"Hand me a towel...?" (Folio from the Jami al-Tavarikh, c. 1305-06.)

Professor Sasson argues convincingly the line ‘the earth with her bars about me for ever’ is better rendered as, ‘the netherworld, its bars, about me for ever,’ but I prefer the more sublime interpretation, by way of Professor Friedman, that the image is of the ‘pillars of the earth,’ the continents supported on dark, mighty bars and the fish circling round them, deeper, deeper. These ancient sea-floor stories are, after all, about the oldest, obscurest, most foundational truths of the world. It is no accident that ‘the depth’ (abyssos) in 2:5 is that same inscrutable, pre-creation Deep from Genesis’s second verse, ‘and darkness was upon the face of the deep.’

Urashima Taro, a Fisherman of the Inland Sea

An 8th-century Japanese folktale tells of a kind-hearted fisherman, Urashima Tarō, who rescues a sea turtle from a pack of cruel boys and returns it to the sea. The next day, this turtle invites Urashima to Ryūgū-jō, the palace of the Dragon King of the Sea. Urashima rides the turtle’s back, without ever getting wet or needing air, to the bottom of the sea. There, among the wondrous gardens of the Sea King, the turtle reveals herself as the King’s beautiful daughter, Otohime Sama, and pledges herself to Urashima.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, "Urashima Tarō Returning on the Turtle," 1882.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, "Urashima Tarō Returning on the Turtle," 1882.

Urashima spends three days with his bride, but, recalling his duties to his aging parents, he departs. Otohime gives him a precious lacquered box, instructing him he must never open it. (Because that always goes so well.) When Urashima returns to Japan, he finds not three days, but three hundred years, have passed. His parents and everyone he knew are long dead, and he is only a name in the village chronicles. Desperate to return to his Princess, and telling himself it must contain his way back, he opens the box. A little purple cloud escapes, and suddenly Urashima is three hundred years old, with a crooked back and snowy hair, and he falls dead into the sand.

The primordial truth Urashima encounters at the bottom of the oceans is time, its ruthless erasure of the individual. Time is the pack of boys who taunt the turtle—a creature known for its longevity—"Who cares whether it lives or dies?"  (In Edmund Dulac's telling, they cry, "What's a tortoise?")  Urashima's insistence on the individual—his insistence that a single life is worth his care, that he is more than a recorded name—is so recognizably and beautifully human, but it crumbles under the force of centuries. Underneath the oceans, the pressure of the Deep is simply too great for a human to bear.


Alexander: Lambert le Court & Alexandre de Bernay, Alexandriade.  Dinan:  Chez J.-B. Huart (1861). Trans.: me, with invaluable help from @aegtx. Hat tip to Alexander Chee and Catherine Nichols for putting me on this trail with that marvelous picture. Michael Lahanas has a great webpage discussing several accounts of Alexander's diving bell, but I haven't been able to verify all his sources.

Jonah: Jack M. Sasson, Jonah (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries). New York: Doubleday (1990). The "pillars of the earth" interpretation comes from a lecture delivered by Prof. R.E. Friedman during his course on the Nevi'im at the University of California, San Diego in Spring 2002; I regret I can't be more specific, but trust me, the image has haunted me for a decade.

Urashima: Yei Theodora Ozaki, "The Story of Urashima Taro, the Fisher Lad" in Japanese Fairy Tales (1908). Lit2Go Edition, hyperlinked above.

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