Stökkull

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.

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.

Múshveli

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

Mushveli

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.

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.