Angel Shark

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

angel shark Squatina squatina, which occurs in the Mediterranean and E. Atlantic, with close relations in warm temperate oceans all round the world, is a fish with unusual features and interesting names. It is correctly termed a shark, having cartilaginous rather than true bones and possessing most of the other characteristics of sharks; but is regarded by scientists as representing an evolutionary stage between sharks and rays.

Certainly it does not look like a conventional shark. On the contrary, it is generally agreed to present an ecclesiastical appearance. Medieval sages saw its large pectoral fins as wings and its tapering body and tail as angelic robes. From being an Angel, it was later demoted to the rank of Monk by Norwegians, who according to the ichthyologist Rondelet, writing in the 16th century, were impressed by a specimen washed up on the shore and noted that ‘it had a man’s face, rude and ungracious, the head smooth and shorn. On the shoulders, like the cloak of a monk, were two long fins.’ It is still often called monkfish, although promoted to Bishop by some authorities; and an Australian species has even attained the rank of Archbishop, no doubt because of its ornate dappling of denticles (McCormick, Allen, and Young, 1963). A well-known medieval woodcut shows the fish in episcopal guise.