I heard a rumor that there was an ancient Greek myth about a human swallowed by a whale (or other large sea monster) and living to tell the tale, similar to the Biblical story of Jonas the prophet. I was surprised because I hadn't heard of such a myth yet, and it's one that would have surely stuck in my mind.

Some searching on the internet lead me to a short section in a book that claims Herakles had this adventure. The book is ed. Louis Jonker, Douglas Lawrie, Fishing for Jonah (anew): Various approaches to Biblical interpretation, chapter 4.2.5 by Louis Jonker, (2015) published SUN PReSS, a division of AFRICAN SUN MeDIA, Stellenbosch. Link to p. 41 on Google Books. (References section)

The ancient Greeks narrated the story of Heracles who fought a sea monster, but was devoured in the process. After three days and three nights he managed to free himself fighting his way out.

I couldn't find anything more definitive than this and a few other short mentions. Have you heard of such an ancient Greek myth? Can you give a source that tells me more specifically about it, rather than the Old Testament story?


The association of whales with the Jonah myth comes from the Sepuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The original of Jonah 2:1 reads:

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the fish is rendered into Greek as mega kētos (μέγα κῆτος). To the Greeks, this meant any huge sea creature or sea monster. The word is also the root of the Latin cetus, and this is where the association with whale comes from. Cetus is also the root of the scientific nomenclature for whale species, Cetacea.

There are two myths regarding kētos: Perseus & Andromeda and Heracles & a variation on this story in the ninth work of Heracles, where he defeats a sea monster (not specifically a whale) to save Hesione. In Appolodorus 2.5.9, we read:

διὰ τοῦτο Ἀπόλλων μὲν λοιμὸν ἔπεμψε, Ποσειδῶν δὲ κῆτος ἀναφερόμενον ὑπὸ πλημμυρίδος, ὃ τοὺς ἐν τῷ πεδίῳ συνήρπαζεν ἀνθρώπους. χρησμῶν δὲ λεγόντων ἀπαλλαγὴν ἔσεσθαι τῶν συμφορῶν, ἐὰν προθῇ Λαομέδων Ἡσιόνην τὴν θυγατέρα αὐτοῦ τῷ κήτει βοράν, οὗτος προύθηκε ταῖς πλησίον τῆς θαλάσσης πέτραις προσαρτήσας. ταύτην ἰδὼν ἐκκειμένην Ἡρακλῆς ὑπέσχετο σώσειν, εἰ τὰς ἵππους παρὰ Λαομέδοντος λήψεται ἃς Ζεὺς ποινὴν τῆς Γανυμήδους ἁρπαγῆς ἔδωκε. δώσειν δὲ Λαομέδοντος εἰπόντος, κτείνας τὸ κῆτος Ἡσιόνην ἔσωσε. μὴ βουλομένου δὲ τὸν μισθὸν ἀποδοῦναι, πολεμήσειν Τροίᾳ ἀπειλήσας ἀνήχθη.

3 Therefore Apollo sent a pestilence, and Poseidon a sea monster, which, carried up by a flood, snatched away the people of the plain. But as oracles foretold deliverance from these calamities if Laomedon would expose his daughter Hesione to be devoured by the sea monster, he exposed her by fastening her to the rocks near the sea.4 Seeing her exposed, Hercules promised to save her on condition of receiving from Laomedon the mares which Zeus had given in compensation for the rape of Ganymede.5 On Laomedon's saying that he would give them, Hercules killed the monster and saved Hesione. But when Laomedon would not give the stipulated reward,6 Hercules put to sea after threatening to make war on Troy.

Following the association of ketos specifically to whales via the Latin denomination, this is probably what you're looking for, though Heracles was not swallowed by the creature according to the tale. In the original Greek of Apollodorus this refers to an undetermined sea monster, just like the Hebrew of Jonah refers to an undetermined big fish.

  • 2
    This is the relevant sea monster, but you don't actually answer what I'm actually interested in, because the version of the myth that you quote from Appolodorus does not mention Hercules being inside the monster. Meanwhile, @Gareth Rees is telling me in the chat chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/56677050#56677050 where that part is coming from. – b_jonas Jan 8 at 11:23

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