#1 – “Island”

 Many old stories tell of sailors landing on mysterious islands, out in the open sea. There they make their camp, and light their fires. Then the island sinks down fast. The drowned become its food. The island is not an island at all. It is the Zaratan – a monstrous sea turtle.

Look, there is Fastitocalon!

An island good to land upon,

Although ’tis rather bare.

Come, leave the sea! And let us run,

Or dance, or lie down in the sun!

See, gulls are sitting there!


Gulls do not sink.

There they may sit, or strut and prink:

Their part is to tip the wink,

If anyone should dare

Upon that isle to settle,

Or only for a while to get

Relief from sickness or the wet,

Or maybe boil a kettle. — from the poem “Fastitocalon” in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, by J. R. R. Tolkien (1962)

In Tolkien’s poem — set in the history of his Middle Earth, and well known to the Hobbits of the Shire — the gigantic Fastitocalon is the last of the mighty turtle-fish. The beast’s huge size causes sailors out at sea to believe that that it’s shell-back is actually an island. Landing there, they set a fire on the back of the Fastitocalon, but the monster dives beneath the waves and drowns them all. Tolkien based poem is based on much more ancient sources, however. 

The Physiologus is a didactic Christian text written (or compiled) in Greek by an unknown author around the 2nd century CE. The following passage is contained within it:

There is a monster in the sea which in Greek is called aspidochelone, in Latin “asp-turtle”; it is a great whale, that has what appear to be beaches on its hide, like those from the sea-shore. This creature raises its back above the waves of the sea, so that sailors believe that it is just an island, so that when they see it, it appears to them to be a sandy beach such as is common along the sea-shore. Believing it to be an island, they beach their ship alongside it, and disembarking, they plant stakes and tie up the ships. Then, in order to cook a meal after this work, they make fires on the sand as if on land. But when the monster feels the heat of these fires, it immediately submerges into the water, and pulls the ship into the depths of the sea.

Though the aspidochelone appears to be more of a gigantic fish, or whale than a turtle in some tales, the name zaratan has become more clearly identified with the concept of a giant, island-backed turtle in recent years. This may be something of a mistake, however. 

The Kitāb al-Ḥayawān (كتاب الحيوان; “Book of Animals”) is a mediaeval text in which a vast creature with a hard shell-back, covered with fauna so as to resemble an island out at sea, entices sailors to land upon it before diving to drown them. The text identifies this creature as the saratan; the Arabic word for crab.