The Sanctum Sanctorum

Before men learned how to tap the great resources of oil from earth’s crusty mantle, certain bold mariners ventured onto the high seas in search of the Whale. After harpooning the megacreature and bleeding the life out of it, they would drag it alongside their ship,  then hoist the expired leviathan and tie it to the side of the ship. In this position, the sailors would puncture a hole in a sperm whale’s head and draw whale oil out from it, sometimes 500 gallons or more.  This precious oil would then be stored aboard the ship until they reached port, at which time the ship’s captain would present their costly liquid to the owners of the ship. Then the whale oil would be sold. Whaling was thereby a profitable venture for the owners of the ships, and also for the seamen who manned the ships.

The availability of whale oil, as near as I can determine, is what generally got people in the habit of burning oil to produce heat. But in the mid 1800s, the development of kerosene from coal, and petroleum oil, eventually rendered the difficult capture and extraction of whale oil obsolete and cost-ineffective.

Herman Melville explained (1851), in chapters 77 and 78 of Moby Dick, the strange process by which whale men would harvest, from the head of a sperm whale, this unctuous resource, beginning with this description:

“…so the tun of the whale contains by far the most precious of all his oily vintages; namely, the highly-prized spermaceti, in its absolutely pure, limpid, and odoriferous state.” The “tun”, as Melville calls it, is a very large natural cask inside the whale’s head wherein the oil is contained. He compares the huge chamber to a famous wine vat in Germany, known as the Heidelburgh Tun.

But at the conclusion of his two-chapter discourse about this unique resource recovery, he refers to the secret inner oil-chamber as the “sanctum sanctorum” of the whale.  Sanctum Sanctorum is Latin for Holy of Holies.

To an ancient Israelite, that phrase, when translated to Hebrew, meant the most sacred place in their Tabernacle, and later in the Temple.

To me, “sanctum sanctorum” means the womb of my wife, where our three unique children began their very special lives, when I delivered my very own 23-chromosome spermaceti to be united with the 23 chromosomes in Pat’s oocyte.

I bet you didn’t think I would end this blog about the sanctum sanctorum of a whale with such a statement so personal, and seemingly irrelevant to the subject, mentioned above, of whale oil.

But I want you to understand that raising children in this world is a whale of a job, and a very precious one, certainly the holiest of all holy projects that any couple could take on.

CR, with new novel, Smoke, in progress

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