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An Expert Analysis of the Weird Whale Penis Chapter in ‘Moby Dick’

Given that it contains graphic scenes of a man wearing a whale’s dick skin as a ceremonial robe, I really needed to ask a few whaling, biology and literature experts what it all means

“Call me Ishmael.”

These are the opening words to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Unfortunately, many people never make it past these three words, finding the book to be either intimidating, uninteresting or both. But if you actually take the time to read it, you’ll find, like I did, that it’s pretty fucking weird and hilarious. Ahab, the whale-crazed captain of the Pequod, is incredibly funny, and the book is chock-full of dirty jokes. The best and most extensive of these is Chapter 95, entitled “The Cassock.” 

At just a page long, “The Cassock” is short, capable of being read in a few minutes. But every single one of its 438 words is dedicated to a single subject: the enormous dick of a sperm whale. After having killed a whale in a previous chapter, “The Cassock” meticulously details the size, shape and removal of the whale’s “grandissimus,” as it’s called, and it continues with the detailed dissection of the member. Its title, “The Cassock,” is the name for a clergyman’s robe, and the reason why it’s called that is perhaps the wildest thing in Moby Dick. While the whale’s penis is being stripped apart, the “mincer” of the whale removes its dick skin whole, cuts himself a couple of arm holes and wears the giant penis skin like a priest’s robe, or a cassock.

That’s just one crazy detail from the chapter, which is packed with other jokes about sex and religion. And so, in celebration of a truly great piece of fiction — both Moby Dick and “The Cassock” — I assembled a panel of experts in history, literature and whale physiology to annotate this masterwork.

* * * * *

“Had you stepped on board the Pequod at a certain juncture of this post-mortemizing of the whale; and had you strolled forward nigh the windlass, pretty sure am I that you would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers. Not the wondrous cistern in the whale’s huge head; not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you, as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone — longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg.”

Here Melville explains, in all its glory, the size and shape of a sperm whale’s dick. “That does sound like the penis of a sperm whale,” confirms anatomy professor Joy Reidenberg, who hosted the PBS nature series Sex in the Wild. She also tells me, “Sperm whale penises can be black.” She confirms that the size described by Melville — “longer than a Kentuckian is tall”— is correct as well, at about five or six feet long. “A foot in diameter at the base is about right too, and it’s cone-shaped,” she says. 

Furthermore, Reidenberg explains that “a whale’s penis is usually inside of his body thanks to a muscle called the retractor penis, which withdraws the penis into the body to make it streamlined for swimming. When it dies however, the muscles relax, and the penis comes out.” 

As for “Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg,” Margaret Guroff, a writer and editor who created the online annotation Power Moby Dick, explains, “Yojo is an idol [figurine] literally made of ebony that the character Queequeg carries with him.” 

“And an idol, indeed, it is; or, rather, in old times, its likeness was. Such an idol as that found in the secret groves of Queen Maachah in Judea; and for worshipping which, King Asa, her son, did depose her, and destroyed the idol, and burnt it for an abomination at the brook Kedron, as darkly set forth in the 15th chapter of the first book of Kings.”

Here, Melville equates the whale’s dick with various types of religious idols. Literature professor Wyn Kelley, associate director of the Melville Electronic Library, tells me that although Melville was steeped in his Protestant religion, he also “spent a lot of time at sea with people who despised Christians.” There are a number of anti-Catholic jokes in the book, too — which was fairly common and not controversial at the time — the biggest of which comes later in the chapter. Before that though, Melville brings in the “mincer” who proceeds to slice off the whale’s dick.

“Look at the sailor, called the mincer, who now comes along, and assisted by two allies, heavily backs the grandissimus, as the mariners call it, and with bowed shoulders, staggers off with it as if he were a grenadier carrying a dead comrade from the field.”

The “mincer” is definitely what they called the guy slicing up the whale, which he did on top of the whale as the dead creature was strapped to the side of the ship. The word “grandissimus” does have some questions surrounding it, though. While certainly fitting for a sperm whale’s massive member, it’s unclear if this was a genuine term used by sailors or one just made up by Melville. “‘Grandissimus’ has a peculiarly Melville tincture to it,” says Michael Dyer, curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Melville did spend four years whaling with both American and Australian whalers prior to writing Moby Dick, but not everything in the novel is factual. “The whole point of Moby Dick is that it was founded on spurious mariners’ lore,” explains Dyer. “So, as a primary source about whaling, it’s not always reliable. It’s a fictitious book about a fictitious voyage from a fictitious vessel from a fictitious port with a fictitious crew and a fictitious master.”

“Extending it upon the forecastle deck, he now proceeds cylindrically to remove its dark pelt, as an African hunter the pelt of a boa. This done, he turns the pelt inside out, like a pantaloon leg; gives it a good stretching, so as almost to double its diameter; and at last hangs it, well spread, in the rigging, to dry. Ere long, it is taken down; when removing some three feet of it, towards the pointed extremity, and then cutting two slits for arm-holes at the other end, he lengthwise slips himself bodily into it.”

Here, the mincer strips the skin from the whale dick, stretches it out and leaves it to dry. After a bit, he takes it down, cuts the top off, slices a couple of arm holes in the sides and wears it like a robe. Whether or not this ever actually happened seems doubtful. “They did make raincoats out of whale penis skin,” says Reidenberg. “It’s a very oily skin, and I remember being at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and seeing the clothing of some Eskimo and Inuit populations. Some of them were wearing a waterproof outer garment made of whale penis skin. I actually have a sample of tanned whale penis skin that I bring with me when I talk about whale anatomy. That said, I don’t think they just took the whole sheet and slipped it on. Strips of it were used, and they were stitched together.” 

Even after tanning it and stretching it, as Melville describes, Reidenberg is unsure that a single sperm whale’s penis would be large enough to get a whole robe out of it.

Similarly, Dyer has his doubts about the penis robe. “They did use whale penis leather — or pizzle leather — for practical purposes, like for the sheath of a dagger, but I’ve never heard of anyone making a coat out of it,” he says. “For one thing, it’s not that big. You’d have to stitch together a good three whale penises in order to get a coat.” He goes on to speculate that they would, however, make a great apron, and it’s a “distinct possibility that they could make a work apron out of pizzle leather.”

“The mincer now stands before you invested in the full canonicals of his calling. Immemorial to all his order, this investiture alone will adequately protect him, while employed in the peculiar functions of his office. That office consists in mincing the horse-pieces of blubber for the pots; an operation which is conducted at a curious wooden horse, planted endwise against the bulwarks, and with a capacious tub beneath it, into which the minced pieces drop, fast as the sheets from a rapt orator’s desk.”

The mincer is now cutting up the whale’s dick meat into “horse-pieces” that John Bockstoce, author of Whales, Ice, and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic, explains were “pieces small enough to move around on deck.” There are also “sheets” or “leaves” being cut, which Bockstoce notes are thin slices that can be easily rendered into oil.

“Arrayed in decent black; occupying a conspicuous pulpit; intent on bible leaves; what a candidate for an archbishoprick, what a lad for a Pope were this mincer!”

And here’s the punchline, though I’ll completely admit that I didn’t get it myself, even after reading it through a dozen times. Kelley explains that the outward meaning of the scene is talking about the mincer in his ceremonial-looking dick robe. Melville, on the surface, is saying, “Wouldn’t this lad make a great archbishop or even a pope?” But there’s more going on, too. “The subtext is, ‘Wouldn’t he make a great lad for the pope?’ which is a joke about sexual abuse in the Catholic church,” she says. 

There’s also a well-placed pun in that final sentence. Kelley explains that the word “archbishopric” is the position held by an archbishop, but here, it’s spelled “archbishoprick,” with an extra “k.” As such, Kelley says, “Melville is referencing the archbishop’s prick. It’s very dirty!”

That’s the end of “The Cassock,” Melville’s 438-word joke about a whale’s dick. But one question on the subject remains: Why the hell is this chapter even in the book? To that, Guroff says, “Throughout the book, Melville tries to entertain you while he also jams your head with facts about whales. He wanted this book to contain all the information it possibly could about whales and whaling, and this was one of those details. But Moby Dick is also hilarious. It’s a really funny book, and too few people appreciate that. There’s dirty humor, there are fart jokes and I think this chapter exists because Melville had the idea of making a raincoat out of a whale’s penis and he decided to run with it.”

Kelley, on the other hand, explains the chapter much more simply: “It’s a big dick joke.” When it comes to “The Cassock,” that’s all you really need to know.