North Sailing News
March 11th 2005
ICELANDIC MYTHS AND TALES OF WHALES
The text below is borrowed from www.icewhale.is, the website of the Whale Museum in Husavik.
In Old Icelandic Sagas, around seventeen stories describe the relationship between humans and whales. Though, none of these stories portray whaling or processing of the meat.
In former times, with the fishing boats being much smaller, it is not hard to envision that fishermen were frightened by the sudden appearance of these large animals. Consequently, several stories evoked. People depicted the whales of being either “good whales” or “evil whales”.
The evil whales had the propensity to swallow boat and men, appreciating human flesh. After having such meal, they would not leave the area for a year or longer. During that time, the fishermen had to go to different areas to fish. Being out in the ocean, it would bring bad luck to talk about the whales. Furthermore, it was prohibited to use words, which contained fractions of their names, even though they would have different meanings.
Various methods were used to scare the whales away from the vulnerable boat. The fishermen brought with them diverse objects, like cowshed, mashed fox testicles, yarrows or ash, which they would use to throw with. Metal tools where used to create sudden noise. Sometimes they would build a fire on the boat, but it was not easy to keep the fire alive.
Once, the “Cat Whale” came towards a fishing boat and placed itself right next it, so the fishermen could not bring out the fishing gear any longer. They then wanted to throw spears at the whale, but the captain did not allow it, being afraid it might smash the boat with its fluke. During the night, the whale had disappeared and was never to be seen again. The fishermen said that it was safe to allow the whale to rest next to the boat, letting it “cry” just like a cat. Cat Whales were considered to be both, “good” and “evil".
The “Bull´s Whale” received it´s name due to the noise he created while blowing, which sounded like the roar of a bull. Once a cow ran into the ocean after she had heard that noise, and was never to be seen again. Near Húsavík, such whale had roared so loud that people and all of the cows living on the nearby island could hear it. The cows started to run, wanting to jump in the ocean, but fortunately, they could be stopped and rescued. Though, the cows had then to be kept inside the stable for several days.
The “Redcomb” was constantly on the look out for humans to be killed, and their boats to be destroyed. Being the biggest of all toothed whales, the people had depicted it as being a horse-whale. It could swim so fast, that it would encircle Iceland in only 48 hours. Redcombs were escorted by the white belugas, which enjoyed the leftovers of their prey.
Bottlenose Dolphins, the strongest of all whales, were fast and furious. They were said to attack other whales and seals, and everything in reach. They were hilarious and could jump straight out of the water, so high that one could see both the sun and the mountains appearing underneath them. To keep them away, a balloon or barrel was thrown into the water, which would keep them busy until either balloon or barrel would burst, or the dolphins themselves.
“Taumur”, smarter than the Bottlenose Dolphin, used to lie under the boats, sometimes across, just to come up and break them. They often caused the boats to flip, or they would bite off the rear part of it. Its name was given due to the blond stripes that were visible on each side of the mouth.
The “Shell Whale”, or "Barnacle Whale" was covered with seashells. It was anxious to smash the boats and ships with its fluke and flippers. Even if the whale just passed by, it would squish the boats by simply jumping on them. It was of no use to try to scare it away, because it would come back again immediately.
The “Ling-Back”, the biggest of all whales, looked like an island when seen from above, since it´s back was covered with lings. The “Sword whale” chased the boats and exterminated them. It had a very high but thin dorsal fin looking like a sword, and it would use it to hit the surface to cause high waves. The "Narwhale" would love to eat the remains of men, which had died in the ocean. The Icelandic name, "Náhvalur" (pr. nauqualur), originates from this practice.
The "Blue whale", the big protector of the fishing boats, did scare away all the wicked whales. By encircling the boat three consecutive times, it indicated the approach of danger. It happened that the blue whale tried to chase away the “evil whales”, even if they were superior in number. Though, if there were more than three, the blue whale would explode, dragging the others till death.
Source: www.icewhale.is - Whale Museum in Husavik