Variations: Stokkull, Stöckull; Blödkuhvalur, Blökuhvalur, Blodkuhvalur (Flap-Whale); Bloejuhvalur (Veiled Whale); Springhvalur (Springing Whale); Stökkfiskar (Jumping Fish); Sprettfiskur (Sprinting Fish); Léttir (Agile One); Léttur (Light One); Dettir (Falling One); Hrosshvalur (Horse-Whale, probably erroneously)
The Stökkull is probably the most feared of the Icelandic illhveli, or “evil whales”. While not the largest or the most well-armed of whales, it is remarkably powerful for its size, and is easily capable of pile-driving ships into a watery grave. In fact, its name is used rather indiscriminately for a number of other monstrous whales with similar behavior; Jon Gudmundsson combined it with the hrosshvalur.
Stökkull means “jumper”, or “leaper”, and this is an apt description of this whale’s habits. A stökkull has a rounded body, black above and white below, and is about 8 to 20 meters long. It has a reinforced battering-ram snout and an underslung lower jaw full of sharp teeth. Most notably, it has blinder-like flaps of skin covering its eyes.
These fleshy flaps earn the stökkull its alternate name of blödkuhvalur (“flap whale”). They prevent the stökkull from seeing ahead of it, and so in order to see it has to leap out of the water and look underneath the flaps. Some accounts instead specify that the stökkull can see underwater and is blinded when it breaches, but this is less likely. It is said that the stökkull’s depredations were once even worse than they are today, until Saint Brendan implored the Lord to intervene. God responded by causing the flaps of skin to grow over the stökkull’s eyes, hindering its capacity to do evil.
Blinded or not, stökkulls are still formidable foes. They leap out of the water, breaching so high that the land and mountains can be seen below them, and cover a distance of four waves with every leap. When in pursuit of a ship, a stökkull can leap a mile in pursuit. It will sink anything it sees floating by jumping onto it nose-first, pulverizing boats and breaking the backs of large whales.
To avoid attracting the attention of a stökkull, it must not be referred to by name, otherwise it is likely to notice your presence. Any of a number of euphemisms must be used when talking about the jumper, and that is the reason for its profusion of names.
If a stökkull is sighted in the distance, it must be distracted before it smashes its way into the boat. The easiest way to do this is to throw a buoy or empty barrel overboard; the stökkull will exhaust itself trying to sink the object. Even a hat thrown overboard will distract a stökkull, as fishermen on Eyjafirth discovered. Another method is to make for the direction of the sun. If the stökkull tries to see where the boat is going, the sun’s glare will interfere. Finally, if all else fails, suitably strong firepower is advised. One stökkull was shot before it could leap, and that so startled it that it swam away at full speed, trailing blood behind it.
The legend of the stökkull probably dates back to tall tales of flying fishes. It may be inspired by sperm whales, Risso’s dolphins, and killer whales to various extents. Today stökkull is used in Iceland to refer to a number of harmless dolphins and porpoises.
Davidsson, O. (1900) The Folk-lore of Icelandic Fishes. The Scottish Review, October, pp. 312-332.
Hermansson, H. (1924) Jon Gudmundsson and his Natural History of Iceland. Islandica, Cornell University Library, Ithaca.
Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.