Porphyrios: The Tale of Moby Dick of the Byzantine Empire

In the 6th century, Byzantine sailors started sharing stories of encountering a mysterious sea creature that would attack ships journeying to and from Constantinople. It was named Porphyrios in honor of the mythical giant Porphyrion, who fought against the gods. Let's attempt to uncover the identity of Porphyrios, the Moby-Dick of the Byzantine era.

Porphyrios: The Tale of Moby Dick of the Byzantine Empire
From around the 8th century, reports came to us about encounters with mysterious sea creatures active in the sea around Constantinople that attacked ships. What animal was it?

The Danger from the Sea in Byzantine Times

Over the ages, sailors in the Mediterranean shared tales of massive creatures with tentacles, enormous sea serpents, and whale-like beasts that could sink ships.

Sea creatures were depicted on maps of the Byzantine Empire and explored in early Christian literature like The Physiologus, attributing moral or religious meanings to them.

In the same way, Byzantine bestiaries were illustrated, containing both actual animals and mythical creatures, merging scientific knowledge with traditional stories. 
During the 12th century, Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes even conducted a study on the potential existence of sea monsters and determined that they may be real...

Legend of the Kraken: Tales of Porphyrios (Whale) in the Medieval Byzantine Empire
Porphyrios remains a mystery - it can be pure legend, a misidentified sea animal, or a real but unknown creature active in the Mediterranean during the 8th century

The Sea Monsters of the Mediterranean

It is believed by many that the Mediterranean is the residence of two famous monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, who were dreaded by sailors navigating the Strait between Italy and Sicily. Scylla is illustrated as a creature with six heads and three sets of razor-sharp teeth, whereas Charybdis is a colossal whirlpool that consumes whole vessels. Homer mentions both as hurdles Odysseus had to overcome in his journey back home in 'Odyssey'.

Unveiling Porphyrios: Exploring Sea Monsters in Procopius' Byzantine Historia
According to Procopius, In the 8th century, ships in the Bosporus faced danger from a mysterious sea creature

Cetus is another sea creature linked to the Mediterranean. Poseidon dispatched Cetus to teach Queen Cassiopeia a lesson for her arrogance. In order to prevent Andromeda from being offered as a sacrifice to appease the monster, Perseus slayed Cetus.

Charting the Medieval Byzantine World: Navigating through Maps and Cartography
Medieval Byzantine maps often showed pictures of legendary sea creatures

While not your average sea monster, the Sirens were still perilous beings that lured sailors to their doom with their enticing songs. Odysseus and his men defended against the tempting song of the Sirens by securing themselves to the mast of the ship and blocking their ears with beeswax.

The Tale of Porphyrios: The Sea Monster of Emperor Justinian's Reign

During the rule of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, there was a sudden rise in accounts of ships being attacked by a mysterious sea creature near Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire's capital.

Exploring the Mighty Medieval Byzantine Navy: History, Strategy, and Legacy
Pamphylos was a type of Byzantine merchant ship, larger and broader than war galleys, designed for carrying cargo

Procopius, a Byzantine historian, clearly linked the creation of new defensive walls in Constantinople with the presence of the monster in 'The Wars of Justinian.' It seemed like the creature singled out vessels transporting stones for the construction of the new walls as if it was trying to obstruct their building process.

The New City Walls of Constantinople

The Theodosian Walls in Constantinople were successful in keeping out attackers, but with the empire expanding quickly and facing increased threats from enemies in the east and west, stronger defenses were necessary. Justinian made the decision to construct new city walls during his reign from 527 to 565 AD.

Guardians of Constantinople: Unraveling the Legend of Justinian's Walls in Byzantine History
In the 8th century, Emperor Justinian decided to build new defensive walls around Constantinople

Justinian aimed to enhance the city's defenses by repairing its walls and building new towers and gates. The Byzantine engineers constructed additional walls, forming an intricate defense system with a second or even third set of walls.

The new fortress was higher and broader. The strength and ability to withstand siege weapons of the walls were improved with the use of large, precisely shaped stones. In addition, defenders were provided with a higher vantage point to throw objects and fend off assaults from any direction by constructing towers and bastions. New walls were built as well around the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara to protect the city from naval invasions.

Attacks of Porphyrios

According to Procopius, a historian from the Byzantine era, ships transporting stone blocks for the construction of the new defensive walls were consistently attacked by an enigmatic figure named Porphyrios for many years.

Identifying Unidentified Medieval Sea Creatures and Monsters in Byzantine Maritime History
Porphyrius would sometimes disappear for long periods

Due to his large stature, Porphyrios was able to cause considerable harm. Reports indicate that his length was 13.7 meters (45 feet) and his width was 4.6 meters (15 feet).

Unveiling the Maritime Might: The Byzantine Navy in Medieval Times
The Byzantine navy was the most powerful navy in the world at that time

Sailors tried to protect their ships and valuable goods, but they were not successful. Procopius claimed the monster targeted only ships transporting stones for the new Constantinople city walls, but it is more likely that Porphyrios attacked without discrimination, inflicting damage on fishing boats, merchant vessels, and warships. It is worth noting that Porphyrios was not consistently present. People were often puzzled by his occasional prolonged disappearances.

Moby Dick of the Byzantine Seas: Unraveling the Mystery in Justinian's Era
According to Procopius, meeting the formidable Porphyrios was a frightening experience

Because of the monster's existence, ships frequently altered their route, leading to a rise in transportation expenses and a sharp increase in the cost of constructing new defensive walls in Constantinople.

Emperor Justinian prioritized capturing Porphyrios due to his threat to crucial sea routes, which were the economic lifelines of the Byzantine empire. Nevertheless, the Byzantines were unsuccessful in reaching this objective for an extended period of time.

Moby Dick: Unveiling the Enigmatic Sea Creature of Byzantine Lore in Justinian's Reign
Porphyrius became stranded on the beach and perished, as recounted by Porphyrius

The issue was resolved when Porphyrios got stranded on the shore while chasing dolphins during his hunting and got stuck there. The Byzantines sought vengeance against the creature, launching an attack that resulted in its dismemberment. The waters of Constantinople were safe once more.

Mystery on the Deep Blue Sea

Medieval Moby Dick: Exploring the Byzantine Empire's Enigmatic Sea Creature in Justinian's Time
Who was Porphyrios?

If we accept Procopius' account as true and regard Porphyrios' presence as a reality. It is possible to speculate that Porphyrios could have been a whale or a pod of orcas. Numerous scientists concur with that assessment. Similarities between these marine mammals include their large size, hunting of dolphins, and extended periods away during migration. Orcas are recognized for their cleverness, intricate social structures, and organized hunting strategies that may be misunderstood as deliberate ship attacks.

Was Porphyrios a misidentified orca or whale?

Large whales may exhibit aggressive behavior when they feel threatened or distressed. It's possible that the claims of Porphyrios attacks on ships are inflated accounts of natural whale actions witnessed by sailors who misinterpret them.

Porphyrios (Whale): The Medieval Moby Dick of the Byzantine Seas in Justinian's Time
Could Porphyrios have been a misidentified animal, such as a whale or an orca?

Additionally, some animals can become aggressive or exhibit hostility due to negative interactions with humans. This is a common occurrence when marine creatures are harmed or disturbed by humans.

For example, if sharks have been trapped in fishing gear or harmed by humans, they may develop a resentment towards them. This could lead to deliberate unfriendly behavior directed towards individuals in the future.

Similarly, dolphins or seals could display aggression when humans have disturbed or annoyed them.

Was Porphyrios motivated by a desire for retaliation based on previous harm done to him?

Porphyrios, the enigmatic sea monster, blurs the line between myth and reality, leaving us intrigued and adds an interesting layer to Byzantine history. Existence of such tales indicates that while there aren't as many accounts of sea monsters in Byzantine times as in Ancient Greece, the Byzantine world was still aware of them. 
Rephrase with Ginger (Ctrl+Alt+E)


Popular Posts