Variations: Manati


Thevet’s visit to the island of Hispaniola turned up a number of unusual and exotic creatures, one of which is a grass-eating fish known as the Bocarin or Manati.

Found in both rivers and the ocean, the bocarin looks primarily like a full wineskin tapering from the navel to the end of the tail. This corpulent monster is 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, and has grey skin with sparse hair. It has two legs at its shoulders, which it uses to swim with, and round, four-toed elephant’s feet with prominent nails. Its head is like that of an ox, except with a smaller face, much smaller eyes, and a much larger and fleshier chin. Females bocarins give birth to live young, and suckle them from teats much like whales do.

Thevet deemed it to be the most deformed and grotesque fish he had ever seen in that part of the world, but for all its ugliness it did have its uses. Its flesh tasted more like veal than like fish, and was fine to eat. Its skin was used to make shoes, its fat was used in leather-making and as ointment. Stones known as enar-onacpy in a bocarin’s head, ground into powder and taken with white wine, were remedies against kidney and bladder stones.

A Spaniard swore to Thevet that a bocarin had been kept for 20 or 30 years in a pond, and eventually became so tame that it would let people scratch its back and ride on it. But Thevet saw that as absurd, as who could imagine a fish being tamed in such a way, let alone a monstrously ugly one like the bocarin?


Lestringent, F. (1997) Le Brésil d’André Thevet. Éditions Chandeigne, Paris.

Thevet, A. (1558) Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique. Maurice de la Porte, Paris.

Thevet, A. (1575) La Cosmographie Universelle. Guillaume Chaudiere, Paris.



The Aloés is a large fish from the Caribbean around Hispaniola, reported by Thevet. It looked like a goose in general shape, with the top of its skull in the shape of a bon-chrétien (Williams) pear. It had four underslung fins, a fish-like tail, and no scales on its plump body. Several could be observed swimming alongside the boats, along with shoals of fish, and they looked remarkably like geese diving in and out of the waves.


Paré, A. (1614) Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré. Nicolas Buon, Paris.

Thevet, A. (1575) La Cosmographie Universelle. Guillaume Chaudiere, Paris.


Variations: Rauðkembingur, Raudkembingr, Rauðkembingr, Raudkempingur, Red-comb, Red-crest; Raudkembir (Red-crester); Raudkinni (Red-cheek); Raudkinnung, Raudkinnungur (Red-cheeker); Raudgrani (Red-snout); Raudhofdi (Redhead); Kembingur (Crest); Kembir (Crester); Faxi (Maned)


Of all the illhveli, or evil whales that ply Icelandic waters, the Raudkembingur (“red comb” or “red crest”) is the most savage and bloodthirsty. It may not have the size or raw power of some of the other whales, but it is unmatched in ferocity and determination to harm boats. As with all illhveli, the raudkembingur is an abomination, and eating its inedible flesh is forbidden. Boiling its meat causes it to disappear from the pot.

The nature of the red comb or crest that gives the raudkembingur its name is unclear. Accounts refer to a crest of bristly hair, a mane like a horse, or even a row of finlets; its extent varies from depiction to depiction, but Jon Gudmundsson restricts it to the neck. The crest is a bright red on a coffee-brown body with a pink belly; other accounts say it is reddish all over, or has red cheeks or a red head. Sometimes there are red streaks from the mouth to the trunk, as if drawn in blood. The head itself, as depicted by Gudmundsson, is almost saurian in appearance, with sharp teeth in both jaws. It either has a small dorsal fin or none at all.

Raudkembingurs grow to twenty to forty cubits (10-20 m) in length. They are elongate, streamlined, and very fast swimmers. Their movement is accompanied by massive amounts of foam and the whale’s ominous neighing. This, along with the red mane, makes the raudkembingur confusable with the hrosshvalur, and the two have become interchangeable over time. Hrosshvalurs, however, can be easily distinguished by their dappled coloration, horse’s tail, and enormous eyes.

There is no limit to the malice and evil of the raudkembingur. Its mere presence is enough to dissuade fishermen from an area. It will play dead for half a month, floating innocuously on the surface of the water until someone is foolish enough to approach it. Once a boat is within range, the whale puts its bulk and teeth to use, leaping onto the vessel, destroying it, and drowning all aboard. Much like a shark is followed by pilotfish, the raudkembingur regularly has a beluga whales or narwhals (nahvalur – “corpse whale”) following in its wake. These smaller, harmless whales clean up after the raudkembingur and eat its plentiful leftovers.

If anything, the whale’s single-minded love of destruction represents the best hope of foiling it. If a boat escapes it, and it does not destroy another within the same day, it will die of frustration. One raudkembingur destroyed eighteen boats in the course of one day, but a nineteenth boat managed to escape by dressing a piece of wood in clothes and tossing it overboard. The raudkembingur, believing it to be a human, kept trying fruitlessly to drown it while the boat made its escape.

Raudkembingurs will also overexert themselves to death when pursuing prey. A boat captained by Eyvindur Jónsson off Fljót ran into a raudkembingur, and the crewmen reacted by rowing for land as fast as possible until they reached safety at the inlet of Saudanesvik. The sea then turned red as the raudkembingur breathed its last. The boat itself earned the nickname of Hafrenningur (Ocean Runner) after this feat.

Like the hrosshvalur, the demonic raudkembingur is also associated with sorcery and metamorphoses. One tale tells of a callous young man at Hvalsnes who was cursed by the elfs into becoming a monstrous red-headed whale. He wreaked havoc in Faxafjord and Hvalfjordur, until he tried to chase a priest up-river. The red-head died of exhaustion in Hvalvatn Lake, and its bones can still be seen there.

It is generally believed that the raudkembingur and hrosshvalur are monstrous aggrandizements of the walrus (itself derived from hvalhross – “whale-horse”). If the walrus is indeed the origin, however, it has become fully dissociated from its descendants. Gudmundsson realistically depicts both the walrus and the two illhveli, making it very clear that the latter are indeed whales. Otto Fabricius believed the raudkembingur to be inspired by the maned Steller’s sea lion, all the way from Kamchatka.


Arnason, J.; Powell, G. E. J. and Magnusson, E. trans. (1864) Icelandic Legends. Richard Bentley, London.

Davidsson, O. (1900) The Folk-lore of Icelandic Fishes. The Scottish Review, October, pp. 312-332.

Fraser, F. C. An Early 17th Century Record of the Californian Grey Whale in Icelandic Waters. In Pilleri, G. (1970) Investigations on Cetacea, vol. II. Benteli AG, Bern.

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.

Kapel, F. O. (2005) Otto Fabricius and the Seals of Greenland. Meddelelser om Grønland Bioscience, Copenhagen.

Larson, L. M. (1917) The King’s Mirror. Twayne Publishers Inc., New York.


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)

Stokkull 2

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.


Variations: Mushveli, Mousewhale; Hafmús, Hafmus (“Sea-mouse”)


The chimaera, ratfish, or rabbitfish (Chimaera monstrosa) is a small and completely harmless deep-sea fish. Evidently its legendary counterpart the Múshveli, or “mousewhale”, is enormous and highly dangerous. As one of the illhveli (“evil whales”) of Iceland, it is inedible and delights in causing death and destruction.

Múshvelis are mostly mouth, ear, and tail. The gaping, deeply split mouth is large enough to swallow a rowboat in a single gulp, and the large, prominent ears stick out like sails while the animal swims. A long whiplike tail without a fin allows the múshveli to swim at terrifying speeds, so fast that the sea churns ahead of it. Instead of fins, there are two stumpy hoofed legs. These animals are over ten meters long, and light gray or brownish-black in color.

Múshvelis sink ships by ramming them or rearing up, placing their feet on the gunwales, and pushing down until the ship capsizes. If a múshveli is sighted, the best course of action is usually to make for shore as fast as possible, and once there make for higher ground. Unlike most other evil whales, múshvelis can clamber onto the beach with their stubby legs, but they are out of their element and give up quickly. One múshveli ran a boat aground and followed the sailors as far as it could. It easily shrugged off three bullets, and eventually returned to the sea with the next high tide.

Large boats are usually impregnable to múshvelis. In one account, two Icelandic fishermen on a small boat were alerted to the presence of a múshveli by the roar of the foaming sea. It was making right for their boat, and terror made them freeze up. Fortunately, the crew of a French fishing schooner saw their plight, and steered their boat into the múshveli’s path. The sea-mouse rammed the ship so hard that it listed to one side, but remained afloat. The múshveli continued to take its rage out on the French schooner while the fishermen were taken aboard to safety, and eventually the monstrous whale gave up and disappeared.


Davidsson, O. (1900) The Folk-lore of Icelandic Fishes. The Scottish Review, October, pp. 312-332.

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.


Variations: Trolwal, Trolval, Teufelwal, Teuffelwal, Devil Whale


The Trolual or “devil whale” is one of the more familiar sights on ancient ocean maps. These malevolent cetaceans are mostly found in the northern Atlantic around Scandinavia.

Troluals are depicted as enormous whales with prominent tusks, frills, paws, and large scales on their body. They are as big as mountains, and may have vegetation growing on their backs.

A sleeping trolual on the surface of the ocean looks deceptively like a small island. Sailors will land on it, walk around, even start a fire – and then the whale awakens and sinks below the waves, drowning anyone unfortunate enough to remain on it. Unlike most other island monsters, troluals will also take a more proactive approach by crushing and overturning ships, making them a significant navigational hazard.

Fortunately, troluals can be distracted from their murderous intentions. One strategy is the sounding of trumpets, which are loud enough to momentarily startle and confuse the trolual. Barrels thrown overboard will also divert the whale’s attention. As the trolual plays with its new toys, the ship can sail to safety.

Even the great troluals are not immune to exploitation by humans. Munster states that the inhabitants of Iceland build their houses out of the bones of these whales.

The only major literary appearance of a trolual is in the fabulous tale of Alector, where one surfaces off the coast of the Asian Tangut Empire and ravages harbors every full moon. It is defeated and slain with the help of a magical flying hippopotamus.


Aneau, B. (1560) Alector, Histoire Fabuleuse. Pierre Fradin, Lyon.

van Duzer, C. (2013) Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps. The British Library, London.

Gessner, C. (1560) Nomenclator aquatilium animantium. Christoph Froschoverus.

Munster, S. (1552) La Cosmographie Universelle. Henry Pierre.

Nigg, J. (2013) Sea Monsters: A Voyage around the World’s Most Beguiling Map. University of Chicago Press.

Davy Jones

Variations: David Jones

Davy Jones final

Where there is the sea, there will be Davy Jones. He is the demon of the ocean, the proprietor of Davy Jones’ Locker where all drowned sailors go. Originally from British tales, he has since been expanding his influence across the ocean; as long as sailors fear the deep, this “blackguard hell’s baby” will continue to exist.

There is no limit to the shapes Davy Jones can appear in. He is the whale, the shark, the whirlpool, the giant squid, the hurricane, all the fears of sailors. He has been described with huge saucer eyes, triple rows of teeth, a tail, and horns, with blue smoke pouring from his nostrils. When the sailors of the Cachalot landed an enormous, barnacle-crusted bull sperm whale with a twisted lower jaw, some of them declared they had killed Davy Jones himself.

Davy Jones rules over the lesser demons and spirits of the sea, and they do his bidding. He can be seen in various forms on the rigging of doomed ships, gleefully announcing their impending destruction. All who die at sea and sink to the bottom of the ocean – Davy Jones’ Locker – are his.

The first literary appearance of Davy Jones was in Defoe’s Four Years Voyages, as a passing remark. The origin of the name is unknown. One unlikely possibility is a corruption of Duffy Jonah, the ghost (Duppy) of the Biblical Jonah associated with storms at sea. Another possibility is that he was based on a real person. There was a sailor, mutineer, and eventual pirate by the name of David Jones in the early 1600s, and the Locker may have been expression he was fond of. Unfortunately there is no fully convincing explanation for the origin and etymology of Davy Jones.


Bullen, F. T. (1906) The Cruise of the Cachalot. MacMillan and Co., London.

Defoe, D. (1726) The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts. A. Bettesworth, London.

Smith, A. The Perils of the Sea: Fish, Flesh, and Fiend. In Davidson, H. E. and Chaudhri, A. (2001) Supernatural Enemies. Carolina Academic Press, Durham.

Smollett, T. (1882) The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle. George Routledge and Sons, London.