Loðsilungur

Variations: Lodsilungur, Lod-silungur, Shaggy Trout; Loðufsi (Shaggy Pollock)

The Loðsilungur, or “Shaggy Trout”, is one of the most toxic fishes to inhabit Iceland. The earliest accounts date from the mid-17th century, where it is obliquely referred to as the “poisonous menace”. Illness and death follow the consumption of a loðsilungur.

The appearance of the Icelandic shaggy trout varies, but a trout-like shape and the presence of hair are diagnostic. Loðsilungurs tend to be ugly and strange. The one described in Nordri in 1855 had a beard of reddish hair on its lower jaw and neck as well as hairy patches on its sides and hairy fins. Another account distinguishes between trout with shaggy hair near the front of their head, and trout with hairy manes on either side. The adipose fin is either reduced or absent, and scales may not be present. The most detailed description specifies that it is no bigger than an Arctic char, and is often the size of a man’s finger. The tail is narrower and the front thicker than in other trout. The small, deep-set eyes are set ahead of a bulbous skull. The short snout has a distinctive overbite. The teeth are pitch black. Finally, the loðsilungur is covered with fine, downy, cottony-white hair. This hair, the namesake of the trout, resembles mold and is visible only when the fish is dead and in the water; on dry land it lies flat against the scales and becomes invisible. This makes it easier to confuse with edible trout – and makes it that much more deadly.

Across Iceland the tale is told of a tragic group poisoning. In 1692 the inhabitants of the farm called Gröf were found dead around a table with a cooked loðsilungur. Two brothers in a hunting lodge near Gunnarssonavatn Lake died with plates of trout on their knees. The most notorious poisoning incident is that of the Kaldrani farm, where an entire household were killed by a meal of loðsilungur. Only one young pauper girl had no appetite at the time, and avoided a terrible death.

Dogs and birds of prey, normally indiscriminate in their eating habits, will refuse to eat a loðsilungur. The shaggy trout are also tenacious and will cling stubbornly to life as long as possible. A group of fishermen in Hoffellsvatn Lake found that out the hard way; they left a catch of fish out overnight, only to find a live loðsilungur squirming on top of the pile. The entire catch was discarded and the lake abandoned.

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.

Öfuguggi

Variations: Öfug-uggi, Reverse-Fin Trout, Fin; Afuggafiskur, Aufuggufiskur (meanings unclear)

Ofuguggi

The Öfuguggi or Reverse-Fin Trout is one of several Icelandic fish distinguished by an extreme toxicity. Its poisonous reputation is such that its name has entered common Icelandic as a slur for jerks, perverts, loners, and homosexuals. The stories told of it are identical to those of the shaggy trout, and the two fishes are commonly confused. Accounts of this lethally poisonous fish date to before the mid-17th century.

As the name suggests, an öfuguggi looks deceptively like a normal brown trout with the exception of reversed fins and swimming organs, although Jónas Hallgrímsson specified in 1841 that only the small adipose fin is reversed. The öfuguggi swims backwards with its tail first and the head following; in color it is jet-black or coal-black. The flesh is red, indicating that the fish feeds on the bodies of drowned men.

Reverse-fin trouts live in the cold depths of freshwater lakes. There they are sometimes fished, prepared, and eaten – causing the deaths of all who tasted the meal. Öfuguggi poisoning may cause the victim to swell up until their stomach bursts, producing a cross-shaped wound. The most infamous poisoning incident is that of Kaldrani farm, where almost everyone on the household took ill and died after a meal of trout. The only survivor was a pauper girl who had no appetite at the time.

There have been sightings and tragic tales of the reverse-fin trout across Iceland. Known place names include Öfuguggatjörn (Reverse-Fin Pool), the vanished Öfuguggavatn (Reverse-Fin Lake), and Ofuggugavatnshaeðir (Reverse-Fin Lake Hills).

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.

Pálsson, G. (1991) Coastal economies, cultural accounts: Human ecology and Icelandic discourse. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Skeljaskrímsli

Variations: Fjörulalli (Beach Walker), Fjörulabbi (Beach Roamer), Fjörudýr (Shore Animal), Rauðkálfur (Red Calf), Saeúlfur (Sea Wolf), Skeljalabbi (Shell Roamer), Skeljalalli (Shell Walker)

Skeljaskrimsli

The name Skeljaskrímsli, “shell monster”, refers to a number of Icelandic shore animals known by a variety of names. Consistent among the accounts are the association with the beach, a hump on the back, and a coat of shells that rattle as the creature walks. Shell monsters have been sighted on the coasts of all the main regions of Iceland, and at least one report (the Glúmsstaðir farm’s in Fljótavík, Hornstrandir) describes a freshwater specimen.

As specified by Hlidberg and Aegisson, the skeljaskrímsli proper is a quadrupedal marine creature, bulky and powerfully built. It is the size of a winter’s old bull calf or a huge horse. The neck is broad, the jaws and teeth impressive, and the eyes reddish. There may be a phosphorescent glow coming from the mouth. The skeljaskrímsli’s tail is long and armed with a lump at the end. The short, strong legs end in circular feet armed with large claws.

The skeljaskrímsli earns its name from the thick reflective coat of shells (or flaky scales) that covers its body. These rattle and scrape against each other as the creature moves, giving warning of its arrival. As the shell monster approaches, its powerful stench also becomes apparent. There is little good to say about the shell monster – even its blood is toxic.

Skeljaskrímslis live in the sea and haul themselves onto shore in the dark moonless nights of the northern winter. Often they can be seen before or after spells of bad weather and storms. They are attracted to light and will leave deep gouges in farmhouse doors. Suffice to say that anyone who encounters one of these surly brutes will be in for a bad time.

Most weapons are useless against a skeljaskrímsli’s formidable defenses. One farmer who battled a skeljaskrímsli managed to keep it at bay until the monster tired and returned to the sea; the farmer was stricken with leprosy for his trouble. Another farmer managed to wound a skeljaskrímsli, but some of its poisonous blood spattered onto him, and he died in agony soon after.

To harm a skeljaskrímsli one must resort to alternative ammunition. Shooting silver buttons, grey willow catkins, or lamb droppings from a gun are the only ways to injure and kill this beast.

The Fjörulalli is the best-known variant of the skeljaskrímsli. It is also the size of a winter’s old bull calf, and has been reported as being smaller, about as big as a dog. A tail may or may not be present, and the head is a small, rounded outgrowth. It is covered with shells or lava fragments that scrape together as it moves. Unlike the larger shell-monsters, these smaller ones are usually harmless. They will, however, tear the udders off sheep, and pregnant women should avoid them lest they negatively affect their unborn babies.

References

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.

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.

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.