Raven-fish, physeter, salpouth?

Here’s a lovely pastoral description of Alcina’s realm from 6.36:

Thither swift dolphins gambol, inly stirred,
And open-mouthed the cumbrous tunnies leap;
Thither the seal or porpus’ wallowing herd
Troop at her bidding, roused from lazy sleep;
Raven-fish, salmon, salpouth, at her word,
And mullet hurry through the briny deep,
With monstrous backs above the water, sail
Ork, physeter, sea-serpent, shark, and whale.

School of Fish

Reading this with one of my ERC nerds, I was asked, “What’s a physeter?”  I laughed because I’d never bothered to check in my previous read-throughs.  “Context!” I thundered.  “Obviously he’s just listing a bunch of sea creatures.  It might even be mythical.”  Undaunted he, “Yes but what kind?”

So to the internet we went.  Huh.  Turns out…no one knows?  No one that Google knows, anyway.  So it became a quest.  The first amusing note is to look at the Italian:

Veloci vi correvano i delfini,
vi venìa a bocca aperta il grosso tonno;
i capidogli coi vecchi marini
vengon turbati dal loro pigro sonno;
muli, salpe, salmoni e coracini
nuotano a schiere in più fretta che ponno;
pistrici, fisiteri, orche e balene
escon del mar con mostruose schiene.

Where does one start?  After a few unobjectionable translations of dolphin and tuna and the like, suddenly we are assaulted on every side.  The four terms starting with pistrici suddenly become five in Rose’s hands.  Salpe to salpouth and fisiteri to physeter look suspiciously like translator-punts.  If Rose couldn’t figure it out while performing his life’s work, what chance do I have?  Muli we can guess as mullet, and if salmoni isn’t salmon then we are in real trouble.  But coracini?  Pistrici?

I floundered a bit trying to pin these down.  Modern Italian dictionaries only recognize a few; this is early 16th century poetry after all, and Italy has only been a semi-unified nation for a little over a century.  I showed a sailing friend of mine who made a few educated guesses–much to his credit, he said we really should have cod in there to round out the “big fish” theme (more on that below).  I turned to some websites of Italian cuisine and felt like I was getting close on a few.

Out of the clouds, descending in glory, I found a link to Florio’s Italian-English Dictionary from 1611.  Now we’re talking:

Coracino–“a little heart, a bright Raven colour; also the blacke fish with a head shining like gold, whereof there is no male”
Pistrice–“a kind of Whale-fish; also a sign in heaven like that fish; also a ?-baker”
Fistera–“a kind of great fish”

Ok, but what about salpe?  Well it turns out old Florio is not quite as helpful here:

Salpe–“as Salpa”
Salpa–“Stock-fish or Poore John”

But that’s just enough leverage, because Google does know what Stockfish and Poore John are: different names for cod.  Hence my sailing friend was vindicated and I was sure to praise him for it.

So the fish that swim ’round Alcina’s isle?

“Mullet, Cod, Salmon, and whatever the hell Coracino is…
Whale fish, big fish, orca and whale.”

Rose probably got the better of me there.


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