| This page tracks several lines of allusion including the historical, biblical, and mythical that Melville employs both frequently and effectively. When appropriate, the allusions are grouped so that the reader can better see the connections upon which the effectiveness of the allusion largely depends. Also, there is no separate category for "literary" allusions -- those that refer to specific authors or works; by their very nature, all of Melville's allusions are "literary." |
Before some sections I have included a headnote briefly commenting on the general terms of Melville's allusive structure.
Finally, to return to the chapter simply click the "Back" button on your browser or click on the chapter numbers at the end of each entry. You may also you these chapter numbers to see other places where Melville uses the same or similar allusions.
Adamastor, "CamoŽns' Spirit of the Cape" : Adamastor is a character from the epic poem the Lusiads (published 1570) of Portuguese poet Luiz Vaz de Camoes (1524-1580). The work recalls the glories of the Portuguese over the enemies of Christianity and particularly focuses on the triumphs of the great explorer, Vasco da Gama. In casting da Gama's voyages as mythological journeys, Adamastor emerges as the giant of classical literature who threatens (but fails) to destroy da Gama's fleet as they return by the Cape of Good Hope. (adapted from Encyclopedia Brittanica)
Alexander the Great and Bucephalus : Alexander (356-323 BC), a Macedonian King and conqueror of the Persian Empire, established an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea all the way to India. Purported to be a descendant of Hercules on his father's side and Achilles on his mother's side, Alexander's feats often took on epic proportions. One of the earliest legends about Alexander involved his taming of the great horse, Buchephalus, the steed that carried him all the way to India before it died.
Articles of War : The Articles were the regulations of the Royal Navy compromising a varied collection of rules dealing mainly with the misconduct of both officers and seamen. They covered a broad range of issues including: pays and wages, mutiny, spying, and insubordination. Under Article Four, Billy was required to convey any information concerning an enemy or would-be mutineer to a superior officer within twelve hours of the opportunity to do so. In this case, however, Vere is most concerned with two Articles: Article Twenty-two which forbids any quarreling with, striking, drawing a sword on, or offering to draw swords with a superior officer; and Article Twenty-eight which orders death as punishment for anyone convicted of murder. (adapted from A Sea of Words by King)
Bart, Jean : Bart (1650-1702) was a French privateer and naval officer renowned for both his skill and daring. He served King Louis XIV in wars against both the Dutch and the English. (adapted from A Naval Encyclopedia)
Bentham, Jeremy and Utilitarianism: Bentham (1748-1832), an English philosopher and founder of the philosophy of utilitarianism, thought that ideas, institutions, and actions should be judged on the basis of their usefulness or utility. For him, utility was defined by the ability of something to produce happiness or pleasure. He advanced those things which ultimately produced the greatest possible amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.
Brydges, George, the Baron Rodney: Brydges (1718-1792) was an English admiral who won several key victories against the French, Dutch, and Spanish. He was particularly successful against those European nations that supported the Americans during the war for independence. (adapted from A Naval Encyclopedia)
Burke, Edmund : Burke (1729-1797), was a British statesman and politician, a prolific author, and a skilled orator. During the American Revolution he had urged British conciliation believing the colonists deserved the same rights as all British citizens. He was, however, highly critical of the French Revolution that stretched over nearly the entire final decade of his life. Most vehemently in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke attacked the French for what he saw as violations of individual rights, unwarranted attacks on the Church, and highly volatile attempts to establish a new social order.
Calvin, John : Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation and founder of Presbyterianism. The tenets of his religious philosophy, as recorded and developed in Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), clarified his support for constitutional government, representative government, the right of people to change their government, and the separation of civil government from church government. He also subscribed to the theory of the "Elect," those predestined by God to be saved. For Melville, the foundations of the Calvinistic theory of the Elect are flawed. 
Chang and Eng : Born in Siam (now Thailand), Chang and Eng (1811-1874) were famous Siamese twins joined at the rib-cage. Melville invokes them metaphorically to emphasize the common source and mutual dependence of envy and antipathy.
Charles II, the Rev. Dr. Titus Oates, and the Popish Plot : Exile by the Parliamentary government of Oliver Cromwell since 1651, Charles II (1630-1685) returned to England and ascended the throne in 1660. Titus Oates (1649-1705) was a conspirator who revealed a plot to kill Charles II in 1678. Feeding on growing suspicions of many English towards Roman Catholics, Oates emerged first as a hero for exposing the so-called Popish Plot. In 1685, it was revealed that Oates had in fact made up the entire thing.
Coke, Sir Edward and Blackstone, Sir William: Coke and Blackstone were two of the most prominent figures in the history of English law. Together, their writings were for many years recognized as being the prime source for information about the law both in England and America. 
Cook, Captain James : Cook (1728-1779) was a British navigator and is generally recognized as one of the world's greatest explorers, commanding three voyages to the Pacific and circumnavigating the globe twice. In 1768, he lead the expedition to Tahiti to which Melville refers. 
Dansker: Melville's variation on Dane, referring to a person from Denmark. The precise effect of this identification is unclear, perhaps Melville hoped to evoke a sense of mystery by making the old Dansker a foreigner.
Decatur, Stephen: Ascending to the rank of Captain at only twenty-five years old, Decatur (1779-1820) was renowned throughout his career as a daring yet uncommonly successful officer. He was killed in a duel by former Commodore James Barron, against whom he had ruled as a member of a military court. 
De Grasse, Francois Joseph Paul : De Grasse (1722-1788) was the French Admiral who aided George Washington at the siege of Yorktown. He was later defeated and captured by the British in the West Indies. 
Dibdin, Charles : Dibdin (1745-1814) was a popular British playwright at the end of 18th and beginning of 19th century. He was especially noted for his sailor songs. Melville quotes Dibdin's line celebrating British loyalty, "And as for my life, 'tis the King's!"
Diderot, Denis : Diderot (1713-1784) was a major French philosopher during the period known as the Age of Reason. A literary artist who wrote criticism, satire, fiction, and drama, he spent much of his life working on the French Encyclopedia, a work reflecting his revolutionary sentiments. 
Don John of Austria : Don John (1547-1578), the illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, was a naval commander most noted for his victory over the Turkish at the Battle of Lepanto. (adapted from Encyclopedia Brittanica)
Doria, Andrea: Doria (1466-1560), the great Genovese admiral and politician noted for his fearlessness, won several major victories while serving both the French and Spanish crowns. (adapted from A Naval Encyclopedia)
the English Channel: The Channel, the body of water between England and France connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, ranges from 21 to 100 miles in width. Historically, naval control of the passage has been hotly contested between the two countries. Especially during the time of Revolution -- i.e. the time of narrative of Billy Budd, the proximity of England and France fed a good deal of nervousness.
Fatalism: Generally, fatalism refers to a group of several belief systems that hold that all events are driven by forces beyond man's control. Because the future is predetermined and fixed by some other power, many fatalists believe that future can be predicted.
Fawkes, Guy : Fawkes (1570-1606) helped lead a group of pro-Catholic supporters in their attempt to blow up King James I and Parliament on November 5th, 1605. After the attempt failed, Fawkes, the man charged with setting off the explosion, was hanged.
Fra Angelico: Born Guido di Pietro (1400?-1455), Fra Angelico is known for combining the Renaissance qualities of clarity of form, linear perspective, and shading light with the Medieval qualities of flowing lines, rich color, and Christian symbolism.
The French Revolution is the name given to what is actually a series of struggles in France lasting roughly from 1789 and 1799. France, however, was rocked nearly continuously by unrest during the last decade of the eighteenth century, through the first decade of the nineteenth century, and until the 1815 defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. Though based in a democratic theory and successful in ending supreme monarchical rule, the Revolution failed largely to establish a democracy. Despite what many considered a failure, however, the series of legislatures elected after the July 1789 storming of the Bastille did help to increase the power of the middle class and establish new concepts of freedom.
genus homo : Broadly, a genus is any group of similar things; homo derives from the Latin for "man." In this case, then, genus homo refers to Billy as Being an exemplar of "one belonging to the group of man."
the German wars: This is probably a reference to the Thirty-Years' War (1618-1648), a series of political and religious wars that eventually involved most of the European countries. It began as a conflict in Germany between Catholics and Protestants during the 16th century, but grew and spread as it became more of a political struggle between certain princes and the Holy Roman Emperor. It ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. 
Germanicus: In 54 B.C., Julius Caesar invaded England with a small force, defeated some of the indigenous Celts, and then left. Although the Romans did not actually control England completely until Claudius ordered the Romans to invade England again in 43 A.D., Germanicus Caesar (15 B.C.-19 A.D.) a general and conqueror, did win some significant victories over the British. Less than four decades later, Rome controlled nearly all of Great Britain, a rule that lasted until around 400 A.D.
Girard, Stephen: Girard (1750-1831) was a French born American businessman and philanthropist who helped finance the United States during War of 1812 and who played a key role in the founding of the Second Bank of the United States. As Melville points out, Girard was an admirer of the French liberal thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot.
Gunpowder: Melville here refers to the commonly held theory that gunpowder -- an explosive combination of saltpeter and sulfur -- originated in Asia. Gradually, it moved westward eventually reaching Europe sometime in the 13th century. 
Hauser, Caspar : Hauser (1812?-1833) appeared mysteriously in Nuremberg, Germany in 1928, Popularly imagined to be of noble birth, his presence aroused international attention. He was assassinated in 1833.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel : Hawthorne (1804-1864), with Melville a giant of American literature, was especially concerned with probing the darker side of human nature. A sometime friend of Hawthorne's, Melville here refers to the short story, "The Birthmark."
James, G.P.R. : James (1799-1860) was a prolific and popular nineteenth-century British novelist. As Freeman pointed out, Melville probably meant to quote William James, the author of the 1880 Naval History of Great Britain. 
Last Assizes: Generally, the assizes refers to any session of the courts. IN England, it also refers more specifically to periodical sessions of a law court formerly held in each county. Melville here uses the phrase metaphorically to refer to the final judgment at Armageddon. 
Liverpool and Erie Canal: This reference, like the one that follows about the Erie Canal, perhaps incoporate portions of the Meville's own biography. In 1837, hoping to relieve some of his family's financial burdern, he had tried unsuccessfully to earn a position as an engineer for the Erie Canal Project. Later, in the summer of 1839, Melville had served aboard a merchant ship that sailed from New York to Liverpool. 
Martial: Though his full name was Marcus Valerius Martialis, Martial (approximately 40-140 A.D.) was an ancient Roman writer credited with the development of the modern epigram -- a short, witty or pointed saying marked by conciseness and polish. He used the epigrams to criticize the vices of his society. "Honest and poor, faithful in word and thought, / What has thee, Fabian, to the city brought?" 
Marvell, Andrew "Lines Upon Appleton House, to My Lord Fairfax": A major Renaissance poet of the 1650s, Marvell (1621-1678) composed these lines to honor his benefactor -- Marvell had worked for a time as Lord Fairfax's daughter's tutor -- Lord Fairfax. Vere was the family name of Fairfax's wife. 
Montaigne, Michel Eyquem, seigneur de: Montaigne (1533-1592) is the French writer considered by many to be the creator of the personal essay. The "realities" to which Melville here refers probably points to Montaigne's insistence on making himself and his personal experiences the focus of his exploratory and informal essays. 
the Monitor: During the American Civil War, the Monitor was one of the newly designed ironclad ships of the Union Navy both built of and covered by iron. In 1862, the ship designed by Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson engaged in one of the most famous naval battles with the confederate ironclad, the Virginia (originally known as the Merrimack). Though both ships were lost within the year, the battle itself marked for the whole world the rising dominance of the steam-driven, ironclad warship. 
Murray, William, Earl of Mansfield: Mansfield (1705-1793) served as the chief justice on the King's Bench from 1756-1788 as was noted throughout his career for a series of significant decisions affecting the policies of law both in England and in America.
Paine, Thomas Rights-of-Man: Paine (1739-1807), an 18th century activist, was a famous political writer who heavily influenced the political thinking of the leaders of the American and French Revolutions. He first rose to prominence with his publication of the political pamphlets Common Sense, a defense of the Colonists stance toward England, and The Crisis, a series of pamphlets that served to further inspire the Revolutionary cause. In 1791, thoroughly involved in the tumult of the French Revolution, Paine publish The Rights of Man, a reply to Burke's critique of the French Revolution. For many English, the work itself earned Paine the label of radical.  
Peter the Great of Russia: First czar and later emperor of Russia, Peter I (1682-1725) is often credited with transforming the country from an isolated, backward country into a European leader in architecture, art, military, and science. Melville adopts the pejorative -- "Peter the Barbarian" -- as a note disdain for Peter's often repressive measures against his own people including heavy taxation, forced labor, and expansion of feudal policies. Melville also refers obliquely to some practices in St. Petersburg -- the Russian capital founded by Peter I -- at the end of the 19th century including the murder of Czar Alexander II in 1881. 
Phrenology: A pseudoscience developed at the beginning of the 19th century in Germany, phrenology is the practice of analyzing a person's character by the shape of the skull. According to phrenologists, the bumps or bulges on the head each corresponded with a dominant trait. The practice of phrenology reached the height of its popularity inthe mid-1850s. 
Plato: Plato (427-347 B.C.) is an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist who based his ethical philosophy on the premise that all people desire happiness, the natural consequence of a healthy soul. Melville seems simultaneously to be using Plato both authoritatively and ironically -- though one of the central philosophers of Western thought, his explanation of Natural Depravity is largely a non-explanation. 
Radcliffe, Ann The Mysteries of Udolpho: At the end of the 18th century, Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho was the most popular of the Gothic novels, horror stories of castles and dark, stormy nights filled with suspense. 
the Republic : After the overthrow of the monarchy, the Roman Republic was established in 509 B.C. The city state soon developed a (semi)democratic system of government based in representative rule. By 82 B.C., however, the state had degenerated and Lucius Sulla emerged as dictator who ruled in conjunction with the Senate. In the following years if Roman expansionism, several generals rose in prominence, most notably Julius Caesar. By 44 B.C. he had become sole ruler of Rome, but was murdered by a group of conspirators who hoped to revive the old Roman Republic. Following the murder, continued civil war eventually brought Octavius, Julius Caesar's adopted son and heir, to power. His crowning as Emperor Augustus marked the beginning of the "Rome of the Caesars" and a 200 year stretch of the pax romana. Renewed civil war eventually brought an end to the Roman Empire in 476.
Romance: Though the term romance as applied to literature has shifted over the years, Melville here insists that this story bears none of fantastic or supernatural elements of the novelistic romance. Despite his claim, however, Melville was certainly aware that he uses in Billy Budd some of the elements central to the romance.
Straits of Gibraltar: Named for the British dependency on Spain's southern coast, the Straits of Gibraltar were the primary entry and exit for ships into the Mediterranean. Control of the Straits by the British Mediterranean fleet was key during the Napoleonic Wars. 
Tecumseh: Tecumseh (1768-1813), a Shawnee warrior, worked to unite the eastern American Indian tribes in an alliance against the encroaching white settlers. During the War of 1812, he allied with the British and led the Indian forces against the Americans. Melville uses him as an archetype for the strong Indian warrior.
touchstone: Literally, a touchstone is a smooth, fine-grained, black stone used to test the purity of gold or silver. Melville, however, employs the term figuratively as any means of testing something or someone. In this case, Vere serves as the test or standard or criterion against which one could measure "man's essential nature." 
transgressor: During the Middle Ages, the Church took over many functions of government left unfulfilled by the unseated Roman emperors such as collecting taxes, serving as hospitals, and educating the wealthy of Europe. Although the Church became the largest landowner in all of Europe, it also insisted on independence from the state. As an independent entity, it claimed that civil law was subordinate to ecclesiastical law on Church property and involving clergy. Thus, a criminal seeking refuge in a Church could not be apprehended by the civil authorities except by consent of the Church.
"Vestal princess" : IN ancient Rome, the Vestal Virgins (or Princesses) were the six priestesses chosen to tend the sacred flame in the temple to Vesta, the goddess of the household who symbolized the eternity of Rome. 
Abraham and Isaac: When Abraham, one of the patriarchs of the Hebrew people, was ninety-nine years old, God made a covenant with him promising that his wife, Sarah, would bear a son despite her old age. Later, God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his long-promised son, Isaac. When Abraham demonstrated his willingness to fulfill God's request, the demand was withdrawn and a ram was provided as a substitute. Abraham's obedience renewed the covenant with God. Vere is here likened to the father driven by duty to a higher power to sacrifice his own son. (see Genesis 22)
Ananias: Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sold a possession but secretly withheld some part of the price, laying the balance on the Apostles. Peter revealed the lie and said, "Ananias . . . thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God." Upon hearing these words, Ananias "fell down, and gave up the ghost." Thus, in the Biblical tradition, Ananias became the archetypal liar. It is important to note that the established parallel between Claggart and Ananias elevates his violation. (see Acts 5) 
The Beatitudes : In the New Testament, the beatitudes are those statements proclaiming the happiness, good fortune, or blessedness of certain types of people. Melville employs the passage in Matthew (5:9) where Christ says "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." The application to Billy both suggests an alignment of him and "the children of God" as well as pointing out the ironic juxtaposition of the fighting peacemaker. 
Cain: Cain was the oldest son of Adam and Eve. His is a story of sibling rivalry and fratricide, for he killed his younger brother Abel. As punishment for the murder, God forced Cain to wander perpetually, "a fugitive and a vagabond." (Genesis 4) 
The Creation and Fall from EdenThe following references can all be grouped together as various pieces of the fall of Adam and Eve from paradise as told in the second and third chapter of Genesis.
"the devils also believe, and tremble" : James tells the early Christians, "Thou believest that there is one God: thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble" (2:19). The application here suggests the universality of "conscience" to all beings. 
Elisha, Elijah: Though the text names the prophet Elisha, the reference actually recalls his predecessor, Elijah. In 2 Kings (1-12), Elisha inherits the mantle of Elijah when the latter ascends into heaven on "a chariot of fire" pulled by "horses of fire." Melville uses the biblical allusion as a vivid metaphor for the dawning of Billy's execution day.
Ham: Most commonly, Ham refers to the third of Noah's sons and the father of Canaan. The story in Genesis (9:18-27) relates the following: When Noah feel asleep drunk and naked, Ham saw him in his tent and reported the sight to his brothers. Averting their eyes, the elder sons covered their father with a garment. As a punishment for his voyeuristic son, Noah pronounced a curse upon him and his descendants: "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren." 
Jonah: A minor prophet of the Old Testament who, in defiance of God's command that he preach to the Assyrians, fled aboard a ship bound for Tarshish. When God sends a storm which overtakes the ship, the sailors blame Jonah for bringing the storm upon them. To calm the waters, Jonah has the sailors toss him overboard; he is immediately swallowed by a "great fish." (Jonah 1:17). After three days inthe belly of the whale, Jonah is saved by God. 
Joseph: The youngest -- and favorite -- son of Jacob, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. They then covered his "coat of many colors" in the blood of a young goat and brought it to their father claiming Joseph had been devoured by wild animals (Genesis 37: 31-). The final section of Genesis tells the story of Joseph's rise to prominence in Egypt and his mercy toward his brothers when they come to him in need (though they do not recognize him). Melville focuses his reference on the deceptiveness of the brothers who lie to Joseph's elderly father. 
"Lamb of God": This phrase is the messianic title used by John (1: 29-30) upon greeting Christ: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Here, Melville seems once again to align Billy and Christ.
"a man of sorrows" : In Isaiah, the Lord's servant is "despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (53:3). Strangely, Melville seems almost to characterize Claggart as a victim.
"Mystery of Iniquity" : In 2 Thessalonians (2:7), Paul says "the mystery of iniquity doth already work." Vere uses the scriptural phrase to cut short any discussion by the drumhead court of those things which they cannot reasonably debate according to logic or within the bounds of naval law. The classification of the mystery as one of "iniquity," however, does suggest Vere's recognition of the violations underlying this case. 
Pharisee: In the bible, the Pharisees are members of a Jewish religious and political party charged with maintenance of law within the community. Though often functioning in a role as religious judges, most Pharisees were laymen. In the New Testament, Jesus often has confrontations with them, most notably when they condemn him to death. In Billy Budd, Melville applies the term to characterize the "law-upholding" portion of Claggart which drives him to seek retribution from Billy.
"the Prince of Peace" : In Isaiah (9:6), a list of messianic titles for the savior Jesus is given: "his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." Here, the Chaplain serves in a dual -- and possibly contradictory -- roles as both a minister of Christ and a servant of the pagan god of war, Mars.
Saul and David : Saul is the first king of Israel who, after disobeying God's will, is disowned in favor of young David, the hero who defeated the Philistine giant Goliath. A close friend of Saul's son, Jonathan, who "loved him with his own soul" (1 Samuel 18:1), David spent much time in court and grew in popularity with the people of Israel. This popularity and David's great beauty drove Saul to grow increasingly jealous of David. His jealousy grew to such a point that he tried repeatedly to kill David.
Agamemnon: In the Greek tradition, he was the commander of the Achaen forces during the war at Troy. Upon his return from Troy, he was killed by his wife's (Clytemnestra) lover, Aegisthus. Eventually, he was revenged by his son, Orestes. Melville also refers to the ship Agamemnon, one of Nelson's early commands. Beginning with his ascendance to captaincy of it in 1793, Nelson began seven years of nearly continual warfare at sea. It was during this time that he was wounded at Calvi, on the Corsican coast, and lost the sight of his right eye. For the Old Dansker to have served aboard this ship -- to have been injured like Nelson himself -- is indeed a high honor.
Apollo: An Olympian god who is the son of Zeus and Leto, and twin brother of Artemis. Generally, he is depicted as having outstanding beauty and great stature, especially distinguished by his long, curly, black hair. Most importantly, Apollo is the God of Light, in whom there can be no darkness, and the God of Truth, who can utter no lies. As Melville also, knew, Apollo was often linked to the creation of music and poetry (i.e. and literary art). The reference here serves to raise Billy's stature and inherent purity to Olympic proportions. 
Chiron and Achilles : Chiron the Centaur was the immortal son of Cronus and the Oceanid Philyra. He was friendly with humans and served as a tutor to Peleus, Achilles' father. When Peleus and Thetis were separated, his father entrusted the young Achilles to Chiron for his education. Under Chiron's tutelage, he learned the arts of the warrior, of hunting, and of medicine; he also learned how to sing and play the lyre. By the time of the Trojan war, he was the greatest Achaen warrior who was invincible save for one weakness: a vulnerability in his heel. (There are a couple of different stories about how Achilles became vulnerable.) For Melville, Achilles serves as a prime metaphor for Billy: strong, beautiful, beloved, yet suffering from one very significant flaw that will ultimately cost him his life.
the Graces: Also called the Charites, the Graces were the personification of grace and beauty. They are generally depicted as three sisters who influence artistic and imaginative works. Billy is said to be favored by them once again raising his stature to near-supernatural levels.
Hercules: The demigod son of Zeus and the mortal Alcemene whose very name evokes the idea of physical strength. He used his great abilities to perform the Twelve Labors, including killing the Nemean Lion, capturing the Ermanthian Boar, and freeing Prometheus. As he states explicitly, Melville uses Hercules as the prototypical strong man.
Hesperides: The Hesperides, the Nymphs of the Setting Sun, were the three sisters who lived in the extreme west near the edge of the ocean at the foot of Mount Olympus. Their primary purpose was to guard Hera's garden where the golden apples grew. After Hercules successfully carried away the golden apples, they were turned into trees. Melville here refers to the painting by Renaissance artist Fra Angelico, The Garden of the Hesperides. Melville recalls the classical beauty of Fra Angelico's painting. 
Mars: In Billy Budd, Mars, the Roman god of war, is often paired with references to the Prince of Peace (see above), Jesus, from the Christian tradition. Melville's pairing of these figures suggests the irony underlying the Chaplain's role as a man of God -- a theoretical proponent of peace -- serving in war.
Merlin: Unlike most of the other mythical figures inthe novel, Merlin derives from English folklore as opposed to the Greek or Roman traditions. He was the powerful sorcerer who served as teacher and guide to the young Arthur and later served as an adviser to the Knights of the Round table. The Dansker serves as an equivocating Merlin who invariably knows more than he is willing to reveal to the young Billy.
Oracle at Delphi: The Oracle, associated with the god Apollo, was the place to which people came in search of prophecies. It was held to be the center of the world where a priestess of Apollo would deliver prophecies inspired by the trance inducing vapors that rose from a deep cleft in the rock. The intimacy between the gods and man that reigned at Delphi was believed ultimately to instruct man how to make peace with the gods; but the delivery of the oracular truths was often compromised by ambiguity -- while the prophecy was always true, it was not always clear. Melville focuses on the similar equivocal quality of the Dansker's oracular pronouncements. He too tells the truth; but for one such as Billy, the truth is not always comprehensible when hidden veiled by ambiguity.
Orpheus: Orpheus, son of the muse Calliope, is the archetypal singer, musician, and poet. He was said to play and sing so sweetly that wild beasts would follow him, the trees and plants would bow down to him, and the wildest of men would be calmed by him. His skill was so great that he was allowed to descend to the underworld to bring out his wife, Eurydice, who had been carried off by Hades. The only condition was that he not turn to look at her until they left the underworld. Seized by doubt just before emerging from below, he turned to look at her, and she was swept away. For Vere, Orpheus represents the perfection of the measured forms of music. The reality of Orpheus' greatest failure, however, is not lost on Melville.
Taurus and Aldebaran : In astrology, Taurus, or the Bull, is the second sign of the zodiac. People born under this sign are considered loyal, patient, trustworthy, and kind. Aldebaran is the brightest star in the constellation.
Theseus: Theseus, the son of Aegeus and Aethra, was a great king of early Athens. He is also credited -- with Ariadne's help -- with defeating the Minotaur of Crete. The ship to which Melville refers is H.M.S. Theseus, the seventy-four commanded by Nelson in 1797 when he lost his arm. The ship also saw action at the Battle of the Nile the following year.