Behold the grandissimus!

Ransom Riggs

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the genitalia of an animal which astounds us with its size in so many other respects -- it grows up to 60 feet in length and can weigh 150 metric tons -- is also pretty sizable. (Indeed, bull sperm whale penises can reach nine feet.) What is remarkable, though, is the powerful mystique that this particular piece of a particularly large animal seems to have held, and continues to hold, over us. Three examples are mentioned in Eric Dolin's magnificent history of whaling in America, Leviathan:

1) The 1598 stranding of a sperm whale on a Dutch shore was a rare and newsmaking event. Of special interest to onlookers -- and to engraver Jacob Maltham, who depicted the event above -- was the animal's prodigious sexual organ. As Dolin points out, "One of the men leans toward the whale and uses his staff, apparently to measure the organ's size. The other man's left arm is draped around the woman's back, drawing her near, while his other arm is outstretched, palm upward toward it, as if to say 'behold!' Yet another man, finding the protruding penis less interesting than useful, uses it as a ladder to get on top of the whale."

2) Some 400 years later, as previously mentioned here, an unfortunate explosion involving a decomposing whale being trucked through a Taiwanese city attracted considerable attention worldwide. (Gruesome pictures helped.) When the whale finally reached its destination -- a nature preserve outside the city where it was to be dissected and studied -- it continued to attract attention, mostly from local men. According to the Taipei Times, they flocked "to see the corpse and 'experience' the size of its penis."

3) The penis of the sperm whale holds a peculiar place of honor in American literature. Before you scour your Intro to Literature syllabus to see if you missed a lecture, consider that in Moby-Dick, thought by many to be our greatest novel, Melville devotes an entire chapter to, you guessed it, the sperm whale's penis, which he dubbed "the grandissimus." An brief excerpt:

"Had you stepped aboard 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 its base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg."

He goes on, to be sure, even describing the shipboard custom of transforming the "idol's" outer skin into a wearable coat! In short (no pun intended), the mystery of the whale's member is really the mystery of why people find it so fascinating (like this guy, who started a museum of phalluses in Iceland, the whale being its centerpiece). Any guesses?