Skötumóðir

Variations: Skate Mother; Fluxuskrímsl (Flake Monster); Vatnsandi (Water Spirit); Vatnaskratti (Water Devil)

skotumodir

Skate in Iceland are mystical creatures. Saint Peter recognized them as the holiest fish in the sea, and they are intimately connected with the number nine. A skate has nine good qualities and nine bad. It will watch over a drowned man for nine nights, and spend the next nine nights eating him. A skate will carry its young within her for nine months, then lie upon them for nine weeks, during which a stone grows within them. This stone, the “skate-stone”, could make a man invisible for one hour, or relieve labor pangs. Empty mermaid’s purses, or “Peter’s purses” as they are known, have lost their skate-stones.

Most terrifying of all is the Skötumóðir, or “Skate Mother”. Like the other Icelandic “fish mothers”, they are not necessarily skate themselves; in fact, some accounts describe them as evil whales that resemble skates. They are enormous and toxic to eat, with backs like mud-covered islands, and sport nine tails. Unlike regular skate, they have been found inland, in freshwater, and even on dry land.

There is always a swarm of skate swimming around a skötumóðir. As they are caught by fishermen, the sea seems to get shallower as the skötumóðir rises to the surface. Finally, the vengeful skate mother hooks its wings onto the gunwales of the boat, and drags it below the waves.

To evade a skötumóðir, prompt action is required. When the huge ray latches its wings onto the boat, they must be immediately chopped off with whatever sharp implement is handy. This will effectively neutralize the threat.

An enormous skate, no doubt a skötumóðir, was one of three monsters terrorizing people around Lagarfljót, lying in wait at ferry crossings. It was transfixed to the bottom of the river by a powerful sorcerer, and unless it has escaped, it is there still.

References

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.

Selamóðir

Variations: Seal Mother

selamodir

The Selamóðir, or “Seal Mother”, is the protector of the harbor seals and grey seals of Iceland. It is called by seals when persecuted, or it may appear of its own accord to defend its charges. Unlike most seals, it can be found inland as well as at sea, in freshwater and saltwater.

Seal mother or not, a selamóðir is a monstrous sight. It is like a seal in general appearance, but of “unusual dimensions”, “terrifying size”, or simply the size of a large foreign dog with short legs. It is reddish-pink in color (perhaps with a red neck), with flashing eyes and a back like an island. There is a tuft of hair, like brushwood or heather, between its eyes.

Seal mothers may be found wherever seals gather, and ferociously attack anything that approaches their “children”. There is one report of a selamóðir charging out of the sea to scare off would-be seal hunters, and others of selamóðirs swimming upriver.

A selamóðir was also one of the three monsters inhabiting the Lagarfljót river. It slept under the waterfall, and was much feared until it was vanquished and transfixed to a rock.

References

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

Flyðrumóðir

Variations: Flyðrumóðirin (pl.), Halibut Mother; Laxamóðir (Salmon Mother), Laxamóðirin (pl.); Silungamóðir (Trout Mother), Silungamóðirin (pl.)

Flydrumodir

The Flyðrumóðir, or “Halibut Mother”, is fairly representative of the Icelandic móðirin, the “mothers” of certain species of fishes. These creatures look like huge, monstrous versions of their namesakes, and they protect their smaller kin fiercely.

A flyðrumóðir looks like the halibut it protects, but it is much larger, growing to the size of a fishing boat. Its body, which turns grey on both sides with age, is covered with shells, barnacles, and seaweed, making it look like a small island when it surfaces.

While the flyðrumóðir has been said to be the mother of all fishes in the sea, its true “children” are the halibut. It is followed by schools of halibut out at sea, and it protects them if they are persecuted. A schooner in Faxaflói attracted (and escaped) the attention of a flyðrumóðir after it hauled up 40 halibuts. Another fishing boat owned by Archdeacon Hannes Stephensen was less lucky; it caught a flyðrumóðir on a coffin-nail hook, but was capsized by the halibut mother with all hands lost.

Even catching a flyðrumóðir is not necessarily a good thing. After the halibut mother of Breiðafjörður was snagged on a golden hook and filleted, the waters of the area ceased to produce fish, and the angler who caught the giant halibut never again caught a fish in his life.

Similar fish mothers include the freshwater Laxamóðir, “Salmon Mother” and Silungamóðir, “Trout Mother”. Both of these resemble oversized salmon and trout, respectively. Salmon mothers will swim out of salmon-rich rivers, tearing through fishing nets along their way. The big-headed trout mothers are bad luck to catch, and should be released whenever possible.

References

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

Sverðhvalur

Variations: Sverdhvalur, Sword-whale, Swordwhale; Sverðfiskur, Sverðfiskar, Sverðfiskr (Sword-fish); Sverðurinn (Sworder); Brúnfiskur, Brún-fiskur (Brown-fish); Sveifarfiskur (Crank-fish); Slambakur (Slap-whale); Staurhvalur (Stump-whale); Einbægslingur (One-fin); Haskerðingur (High-Fin; potentially the basking shark or the swordwhale); Killer Whale, Orca, Swordfish

Sverdhvalur

The Sverðhvalur (“Swordwhale”) or Sverðfiskur (“Swordfish”) is one of the illhveli, or “evil whales” that lurk off the coast of Iceland. Like the other evil whales, it is unfit for eating, and the steypireyður or blue whale is its mortal enemy.

The sverðhvalur’s most distinctive feature is the sharp bony fin growing out of its back. This fin is 3-12 cubits (1.5-6 meters) tall. The sverðhvalur is about the size of a sperm whale at the largest, and its spouting is short and heavy. Its face is owlish in appearance, with a pointed snout and a large mouth set with vicious teeth. If the brúnfiskur (“brown-fish”) is one of its many aliases, it can be assumed to be brown in color, but another account describes it as grey.

The sverðhvalur is a fast swimmer, and beats the water on either side of it with its fin when agitated. It is often accompanied by a smaller whale – perhaps its offspring – that swims under its pectoral fin and feeds on its scraps. The bladed dorsal fin is used as a weapon, and a sverðhvalur will swim underneath good whales to cut their bellies open with crisscross slashes. Whales will beach themselves rather than suffer a sverðhvalur’s attack. Sverðhvalurs are also wasteful eaters, choosing to eat only the tongue of cetacean prey and leaving the rest to rot. Boats are treated in the same way as whales are, with the dorsal fin punching holes through hulls or slicing cleanly through smaller boats and sailors alike.

Other encounters, especially with larger vessels, are more harmful for the whale. A trading ship sailing from eastern Iceland to Copenhagen came to a stop in the middle of a large pod of whales, and suddenly felt a strong tug coming from below. When the ship moored in Copenhagen, a large fish’s tusk was found sticking out of the hull.

Another sverðfiskur followed a boat off Eyjafjörður, and gave up the chase only after a gun was fired into its gaping mouth.

The term sverðfiskur or sverðfiskr (“sword-fish”) has been used to refer to the swordfish, the sawfish, and the killer whale. The basking shark and the killer whale have also been accused of slicing through ships and eviscerating whales with their fins, and it is the killer whale or “swordwhale” that appears to be the sverðhvalur’s ancestor.

References

Anderson, P. (1955) Bibliography of Scandinavian Philology XXIV. Acta Philologica Scandinavica, Ejnar Munksgaard, Copenhagen.

Árnason, J.; Powell, G. E. J. and Magnússon, E. trans. (1866) Icelandic Legends, Second Series. Longmans, Green, and Co., London.

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.

Lyngbakur

Variations: Lyng-bakur, Lyngbakr, Ling-back, Heather-back; Jasconius, Iascanus; Hólma-fiskur, Hólmafiskur (Island Fish)

Lyngbakur

The Lyngbakur is the largest of all the illhveli, the largest of the whales, indeed one of the largest creatures in the sea. In Icelandic lore only the hafgufa (or kraken) is bigger than it, and the two giants are frequently interchangeable.

Despite its enormous size, the lyngbakur is rarely seen, and it does not go out of its way to sink ships the way its smaller brethren do. Most of the time its back is the only thing seen, looking like an island covered with a growth of heather. Its eyes are dorsally located, giving the impression of circular pools of water. From a distance the lyngbakur seems jet-black, but on closer inspection it is a mossy grey. It is tailed and finned like other whales.

The lyngbakur is a slow swimmer, and tends to doze at the surface, looking indistinguishable from a heather-covered island. It is possible to go right up and land on it, but the whale eventually awakes and dives, and anyone still on it will be drowned. Some fishermen in southern Iceland stayed two days on the whale’s back before it sunk, but they had the presence of mind to escape while they could. Trying to draw water from the “pools” on the island is certain to awaken it. The lyngbakur feeds only once every three years, but when it does it engulfs anything in its path, fish, birds, and whales alike.

The saga of Arrow-Odd relates the titular hero’s adventures, which include an encounter with a lyngbakur sent by his enemy Ogmund. He stopped by a large heather-covered island, and had five of his crew disembark to find drinking water. Before long the island began to move, going underwater and drowning the unfortunate crewmen.

Saint Brendan moored at a small island covered with sparse vegetation and with no sand on its shores. He and his followers spent the night praying on the island, but left next morning in a hurry as the ground began to shake. They returned to their ship in time, where they found out that they had been on the back of a Jasconius or Iascanus, a great whale that seems to be none other than the lyngbakur. The next time they encountered the whale, Saint Brendan fearlessly sang Easter Mass on it, and none were harmed.

It is said that there is only one lyngbakur, and it will live until Armageddon.

References

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

Edwards, P. and Pálsson, H. (1970) Arrow-Odd: A Medieval Novel. New York University Press, New York.

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

Part of my job in curating ABC involves responding to email. While this can mostly be done from the safety of my email application, every now and then I get correspondence that requires a broader answer for the public good.

Dear ABC,

How many illhveli species are there? I am planning a pleasure trip to Iceland – should I reconsider?

Sincerely,

Alex S.

illhveli scaleDear Alex S.,

The illhveli, or “evil whales” are a very specific grouping of Icelandic whales, which mostly share a few key features. There are 10 species of illhveli. As is evident from the image, they come in a dizzying variety of shapes and sizes, and are not necessarily biologically related. Due to the dangers involved in studying them, the scale given (with a human diver in the bottom left corner) is approximate.

An evil whale is known to be:

  1. Inedible. In fact, it is a crime to eat them, and attempts to do so will result in their flesh disappearing from the cooking pot. The only exception to this is the skeljúngur, which is safe to eat.
  2. Evil. By and large illhveli are dedicated to the destruction of humans and other, benign whales, and take sadistic pleasure in death and destruction. Once again, the skeljúngur is an occasional exception, as it has been known to help worthy humans.

If you have the misfortune to run into an evil whale, try making full speed towards the sun, whose blinding rays will dazzle the whale. If the whale is a raudkembingur, outracing it will cause it to die in frustration. Try making loud noises, or tossing items overboard to distract the whale. Any number of foul substances have been known to deter taumafiskurs, and will probably work on other illhveli as well.

The steypireyður, or blue whale, is the mightiest of the “good” whales and is a valuable ally. It will intercept and fight any illhveli nearby. For that reason, do not harm or impede blue whales; in fact, killing one of those gentle giants may place a terrible curse on you.

Not all evil whales are illhveli; the trolual and the ziphius, for instance, are not illhveli, although they share the Scandinavian waters with the evil whales and are no less bloodthirsty. They are also found alongside the hafgufa or kraken, which is bigger and more terrifying than any of them.

In conclusion, I would say that your chances of getting shipwrecked are quite high, but I wouldn’t let that scupper your travel plans. I would steer clear of the sea if I were you, unless your boat was particularly fast or your captain was an Icelandic sorcerer. Avoid any suspicious-looking islands, but look out for blue whales.

ABC will resume encyclopedic coverage on Friday. Thank you for your patience!

hrossgrr

References

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.

Skeljúngur

Variations: Skieliungur; Svarfhvalur, Suarfhualur (Iron Whale); Skútuhvalur (Schooner Whale); Tigrishvalur (Tiger Whale); Hnúfubakur, Humpback Whale

Skeljungur

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.

References

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.