Monday 16 July 2012

The whale-road

Mastodon's Leviathan is one of the greatest concept albums in the history of metal. The band's rolling, driving sound is ideally suited to the sea, a mythologised space if ever there was one. On Leviathan, the ocean is home to ancient sea-beasts, Norse gods and Leviathan himself: the white whale.

But I don't respond to Leviathan out of romantic fascination alone. I grew up in the coastal floodplains of northern Germany, where only a dyke protects us from the sea. When the levees break, as last seen in 1962, the results can be disastrous. (A memorial plaque in the town hall places the 1962 high-water mark half-way up the stairs between the ground and first floor.)

Before there was a dyke system, the coastline shifted radically several times. In a fourteenth-century storm surge known as the Groote Mandrenke ('great drowning of men' in Low German), the area where we now live was torn off from the mainland and remained an island for three hundred years. Small wonder that in those days churches were built on artificial mounds, to provide refuge to people and their cattle in times of need.

The people here were peasants and fishermen, but they were not above deliberately shipwrecking passing vessels by manipulating signal fires. The sea could kill but it also presented opportunity, be it Hanseatic trading (and piracy!) across the North Sea to England and Scandinavia or, in later centuries, the international connections of Hamburg and Bremen. Old captains' houses sometimes have whalebone fences; a twentieth-century church in a nearby town is built in the shape of a ship.

With industrial society the importance of the sea has waned, but its mythic power is undiminished. There are annual windjammer parades and numerous museums and preserved spaces. When I was a child, I adored stories of the age of sail, people heading into the unknown on the far side of the world. Turns out I'm still into that sort of thing.


  1. Are you familiar with the German band Ahab? Obviously, their band name and their first album, The Call of the Wretched Sea, were both inspired by Moby Dick (which I am reading for the first time right now). They've continued with the nautical theme; their latest album, The Giant, takes its inspiration from Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym.

  2. I'm not familiar with them yet, but I'll definitely check them out. Thanks for the recommendation, mate!