“that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb”

English: Nut, Egyptian goddess of the sky in t...

English: Nut, Egyptian goddess of the sky in the tomb of Ramses VI. Deutsch: Nut, ägyptische Himmelsgöttin im Grab von Ramses VI. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Chapter 24 of Moby-Dick, “The Advocate,” in the course of his (preliminary) argument for the distinct and monumental greatness of whaling, Ishmael states: “One way or another, [the high and mighty business of whaling] has begotten events so remarkable in themselves, and so continuously momentous in their sequential issues, that whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb.” This mother to whom Ishmael refers is Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky; she is imagined as the literal sky stretching above the earth, who swallows the sun every night and gives birth to it every morning. She is the wife of Geb, god of the Earth, and the mother of Isis, Osiris, Seth, and Nephthys. The particular myth to which Ishmael alludes in Moby-Dick is the story of the birth of Isis and Osiris, wherein Isis was born pregnant from Nut’s womb impregnated by Osiris. It is of interest that Ishmael both obscures the mythological import of the story by referring to Nut, not by name or even as a goddess, but merely an “Egyptian mother” and amplifies the superhuman capacity of this mother by intimating that not one but multiple (perhaps all) of her offspring are born “pregnant from her womb.” The latter distortion certainly supports Ishmael’s aim to advocate for the honor and glory of whaling.

As he says, the “remarkable” and “continuously momentous” events begotten by whaling are so manifold that to catalogue them “would be a hopeless, endless task.” Let’s follow his lead and let a handful of examples suffice: whaling has lead to the exploration and mapping of the “remotest and least known parts of the earth”; it was the whale-ships that “cleared the way for the missionary and the merchant, and in many ways carried the primitive missionaries to their first destinations”; whaling brought into the world’s hospitable company “that double-bolted land, Japan,” “the uncounted isles of all Polynesia,” and “[t]hat great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia”; “it might be distinctly shown,” Ishmael states, “how from [the] whalemen at last eventuated the liberation of Peru, Chili, and Bolivia from the yoke of Old Spain, and the establishment of the eternal democracy in those parts.” The reference to the divine mother Nut and her pregnant offspring is befitting Ishmael’s conception of whaling as the mother of global democracy, which itself has to be fertile, life-giving for all these values begotten by the analogy to be sustained.

Nevermind, Ishmael, all the death begotten in the wake of your whale-ships. Nevermind, Ishmael, that the womb of Nut is also a sarcophagus wherein are housed the mummified remains of kings and queens. Nevermind all the colonial contraband stowed in the whale-ship. The death bubble of countless whales surrounds all your offspring: a poisoned amniotic sac that never breaks and which you drink in like mother’s milk.

2 thoughts on ““that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb”

  1. That’s great. If you are going to make an analysis of a classic to help young people study it better, might as well leave your white guilt at the door.

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