Variations: Skieliungur; Svarfhvalur, Suarfhualur (Iron Whale); Skútuhvalur (Schooner Whale); Tigrishvalur (Tiger Whale); Hnúfubakur, Humpback Whale
The Skeljúngur, or “shell whale” is one of the many illhveli, or “evil whales” of Iceland. Unlike its brethren, the skeljúngur is edible and safe to eat, making it the most dangerous of the edible whales. It has even helped humans on occasion; one young skeljúngur aided Hjalmper and Olvir in battle against a vicious hrosshvalur.
It is described as ranging from 20 to 45 meters long. It is very fat and short-flippered, lacks dorsal fins, and its entire body is covered with shells that rattle as it swims. The shells tend to make it itchy, and it will rub its head against rocks in deep coastal waters. Despite its portly appearance, it is a fast swimmer, earning it the nickname of “tiger whale”. It dives vertically, and sleeps vertically with its head sticking out of the sea. Whether it has teeth or baleen is unclear.
A shell-whale will position itself in the path of an oncoming ship, and will continue to obstruct the vessel’s course if the captain tries to avoid it. Skilled sailors should change their course fast enough to evade it, as sailing right onto it causes the whale to throw the ship and kill all on board. When destroying boats, it likes to strike them with its fins and tails. Skeljúngur armor makes them impervious to most attacks and quite fearless, and the whales will play dead to entice prey within range. The whaling ship Minerva off Grimsey thought they had killed a skeljúngur, but the seemingly dead whale immediately recovered and destroyed the boat sent to finish it off.
Skeljúngurs hate the sound of iron being ground and filed. If one of these whales hears that loathed sound, it will go frantic and beach itself to get away from it. The alternate name of svarfhvalur (“iron whale”) is derived from this aversion.
Skeljúngur is also another name of the humpback whale or hnúfubakur.
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.
Larson, L. M. (1917) The King’s Mirror. Twayne Publishers Inc., New York.