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The Silver Calabash

July 26, 2009

A curious and easily overlooked detail in Melville’s Moby-Dick might say much about the character of Captain Ahab, but the ambiguity of the detail makes interpretation difficult. Before boarding the Pequod, Ahab’s ship, in pursuit of the white whale, the narrator, Ishmael, encounters a strange man on the docks named Elijah. The stranger warns Ishmael about Ahab, showing him how little he knows about the captain. Ishmael, despite his claiming to know all about Captain Ahab, can only speak of him in vague generalities. Elijah, on the other hand, speaks of Ahab in more detail, but his statements seem no less ambiguous. Elijah asks Ishmael if he knows about the “deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa” and “the silver calabash he spat into.” He hasn’t, but dismisses Elijah’s ominous hints as gibberish.

Elijah doesn’t give Ishmael much of an image, but the picture he paints should have clued Ishmael into the person from whom he would soon take orders—at least, had Ishmael’s ears been more attentive, he should have inquired further into the meaning of the strange prophet. Consider the image: Ahab was before an altar in Santa, he kills a Spaniard, and he spits into a silver calabash. Given the names, it’s pretty clear that Ahab killed a man before an altar in Catholic country. He was in a church or a chapel, holy ground in any case. It is here, apparently, that he spits into a silver calabash. A calabash is a type of gourd, one that looks like a bowl. In fact, calabashes are sometimes dried and made into bowls. So Ahab spits into a bowl while before an altar in a Catholic holy setting. Could this silver calabash have held the Eucharist?

It requires no stretch of the imagination to see Captain Ahab spitting into a bowl that holds the Eucharist. When Starbuck, Ahab’s first-mate, describes the captain’s obsession with the white whale as madness and blasphemous, Ahab responds, “Talk to me not of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” “Who’s over me?” Ahab asks. “Truth hath no confines.” The white whale injured Ahab, and he seeks vengeance: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreck that hate upon him.” If the sun (Son?) itself were to insult him, he would strike it in return, with the same blasphemous obsession with which he hunts Moby Dick. Do we see the tragic tale of man’s rebellion against God in Ahab’s self-destructive and hate-filled quest to destroy the white whale?

Ahab initiates the hunt and establishes communion and common purpose on his ship with a ritual of shared drink, a false and perverse liturgy of the Eucharist. “Drink and pass!” Ahab cries. “Round with it, round! Short draughts—long swallows, men; ‘tis hot as Satan’s hoof.” Then, after implying he’s something like the Pope, Ahab has the harpooneers, “my sweet cardinals,” detach the iron part of the harpoons and angle them so they can be filled with drink. In the ritual, the harpooneers are made cup-bearers to “commend the murderous chalices.” He has them drink and swear: “Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” Ahab himself admits his quest comes from hell. Among his final declarations before the white whale destroys him, his crew, and the Pequod are the words “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Ishmael really should have heeded Elijah’s warning.

8 Comments
  1. Colonel4God permalink
    July 27, 2009 2:22 am

    I never realized the biblical names in the book. Elijah, the prophet, Ishmael, the first son of Abraham exiled with his mother, Ahab, the king of Israel that makes some bad decisions for his people leading to his own ruin.

    • July 27, 2009 8:42 am

      Yes. Melville does biblical imagery very well: the more you know about the biblical images, the more meaning you get out of his story.

  2. July 27, 2009 12:31 pm

    I read Moby Dick for a college class. All they discussed was what it had to do with globalization.

    When I read pieces like this, it reminds me of how terrible that class was and how much they missed b/c of the blinders they had on.

    • Kyle Cupp permalink*
      July 27, 2009 4:32 pm

      Interesting. What did they say Moby-Dick had to do with globalization?

  3. July 27, 2009 5:24 pm

    I think it was that the quest for power exhibited by Captain Ahab was written to condemn the quest of power for nations exhibited in globalization/colonization.

  4. September 14, 2009 6:27 pm

    great I love to dig deep into spiritual imagery. Its a wonderful thing to have a very close relationship with God I thank God I’m so priviledge

  5. john albertson permalink
    November 3, 2009 5:19 pm

    Thanks for your insight Kyle.

  6. Ben permalink
    July 21, 2010 1:16 pm

    I took the calabash to be an allusion to the Book of Jonah. I believe this chapter takes place after the sermon on Jonah. The sermon describes and embellishes every part of the book save the last chapter. In that chapter Jonah starves himself outside of Nineveh in the hot sun, God creates a gourd (or calabash) to provide Jonah shade. God than smites the Gourd in a display of his power and it is implied that Jonah and God reconcile.

    Ahab instead sees a gourd and takes it upon himself to smite it. Not accepting God’s gift or allowing God the opportunity to rule over Ahab. Ahab does not want reconciliation with God and wants to destroy him.

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