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.

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges is, without a doubt, one of the most important literary contributions to the art of the bestiary. Its litany of obscure creatures laid the groundwork for the modern encyclopedia of mythical beasts, and ensured its citation in hundreds of works to come.

Borges was more interested in making an artistic and creative statement than in writing an exhaustively researched academic paper. As such, his references can be murky, unclear, hard to find, and, in some cases, completely fictitious. Later works came to quote Borges without attempting to track down the veracity of his statements. As Hurley notes with chagrin, it is “simply impossible to ferret out all the originals”, and “some of [Borges’] “quotations” are almost certainly apocryphal, put-ons”. The creatures discussed here are in the latter category.

a bao a quThe A Bao A Qu is said to live in the Tower of Victory in Chitor. Its appearance is uncertain, but we know it has tentacles, can see with its whole body, glows blue, and has skin like that of a peach. It follows pilgrims climbing up the stairs of the tower, but can only reach the top if the climber is a blameless person who has achieved Nirvana. Otherwise, it moans with a sound like rustling silk and tumbles down the stairs to the base, where it waits for the next pilgrim.

This story was originally attributed to Captain Richard Francis Burton (el capitán Burton), in an unverifiable footnote to the Arabian Nights. The original English translation changed that to the fictitious treatise On Malay Witchcraft by one C. C. Iturvuru. Was that believed to sound more mysterious? Were editors were concerned that contemporary readers would not be familiar with Burton? At any rate, searching for this entirely fabricated monograph is futile.
peryton

The Peryton, Perytion, or Peritio has achieved even greater fame, stripped of any Borgesian references and included in less discerning bestiaries. This carnivorous monster is a hybrid of deer and bird, with dark green plumage (or blue in Ravenna). Its oddest feature is its shadow, which is human. This is because perytons are believe to be the souls of men that have died away from the blessings of the gods. Perytons seek out humans to kill, but each peryton can only kill one man – after doing so, a peryton’s shadow becomes its own, and it is at peace.

Perytons originated from Atlantis, decimated Scipio’s army, and were foretold to destroy Rome. Borges attributes this to manuscripts written by one Aaron-ben-Chaim from Fez. These manuscripts quoted a nameless Arab author, and all copies conveniently perished in the burning of the Library of Alexandria and the Dresden firebombing.

Are the A Bao a Qu and the Peryton any less real than the basilisk and the unicorn? Repeated countless times, with their origins behind them, they are just as credible as any other nonexistent creature. After all, as told in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, an imagined world can be just as legitimate as the real world. We just have to remember that they remain literary in-jokes born from Borges’ pen.

References

Borges, J. L. (1962) Ficciones. Grove Press, New York.

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (1969) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Clarke, Irwin, & Co., Toronto.

Borges, J. L. (1978) El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios. Emece Editores, Buenos Aires.

Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.

Borges, J. L. (2009) Manual de Zoologia Fantastica. Fondo de Cultura Economica, Mexico.