Cooking on top of Kraken ca. 1215. From: Harley MS 4751, Fol 69r. Soruce: British Library

Whales and whaling in the Icelandic Seas – and the Kraken

Around 1250, someone wrote at princely mirror to educate Magnus, son of the Norwegian King, Håkon Håkonsson. Known as
Konungs skuggsjá it is famous for its fascinating overview of Norse society in the High Middle Ages. Here is an excerpt about whales and whaling

Konungs skuggsjá is a Norwegian didactic text in Old Norse from around 1250.  The text was intended for the education of King Magnus Lagabøter (1238-1280), the son of King Håkon Håkonsson (1204-1263), and was given the form of a dialogue between father and son. The son asks, and is advised by his father about practical and moral matters, concerning trade, the hird, chivalric behavior, strategy and tactics. Parts of Konungs skuggsjá also deals with the relationship between church and state. In the text, the anonymous author has included chapters on the nature and landscape of Norway, as well as Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland.

The seventy chapters of the text consist of a prologue and two main parts, of which the second may perhaps be subdivided into two sections, one focused on the king’s court, the other (more specifically) on the king’s justice. In the prologue, the speaker sets out to deal with merchants, kingsmen, the clergy and peasants, but his discussion does not extend much beyond the first two classes. It seems possible that the last two chapters were originally intended for a separate treatment of the clergy. It is this text, the concept of the Kraken appears.

The following excerpt is about the whales and whaling:

Chapter 12. The Marvels of the Icelandic Seas; Whales; the Kraken

A kraken or Aspidochelone ca. 1400. In: The bestiary of Anne Walsh. From GKS 1633 4º: Bestiarius In the Royal Library in Copenhagen,. Source: Wikipedia
A kraken or Aspidochelone ca. 1400. In: The bestiary of Anne Walsh. From GKS 1633 4º: Bestiarius In the Royal Library in Copenhagen,. Source: Wikipedia

Son: Now since we have discussed everything in Ireland that may be counted marvellous, let us have a talk about Iceland and the wonders that are found in the Icelandic seas.

Father: Aside from the whales in the ocean, there are, I should say, but few things in the Icelandic waters which are worth mentioning or discussing. The whales vary much, both in kind and size. Those that are called blubber-cutters—and they are the most numerous—grow to a length of twenty ells; a great many of them are, however, so small that they measure only ten ells; the rest are in between, each having its own size. These fishes have neither teeth nor whalebone, nor are they dangerous either to ships or men, but are rather disposed to avoid the fishermen. Nevertheless, they are constantly being caught and driven to land by the hundreds, and where many are caught, they provide much food for men. There are also other varieties of small whales, such as the porpoise, which is never longer than five ells, and the “caaing” whale, which has a length of seven ells only.

There is another kind of whale called the grampus, which grows no longer than twelve ells and has teeth in proportion to their size very much as dogs have. They are also ravenous for other whales, just as are dogs for other beasts. They gather in flocks and attack large whales, and, when a large one is caught alone, they worry and bite it till it succumbs. It is likely, however, that this one, while defending itself with mighty blows, kills a large number of them before it perishes.

There are two other varieties, the beaked whale and the “hog whale,” the largest of which are not more than twenty-five ells in length. These are not fit to be eaten, for the fat that is drawn from them cannot be digested either by man or by any beast that may partake of it. For it runs through them and even through wood, and after it has stood a while, scarcely any vessel can contain it, even if made of horn. There are certain other types which are worth a passing mention only, namely the “raven whale” and the white whale. The white whales are so named because of their snow-white colour, while most other varieties are black, except that some of them have spots, such as the “shield whale,” the “spear whale,” and the baleen whale. All these kinds that I have just mentioned may be freely eaten and many other kinds too.

There is another sort of whale called the “fish driver,” which is perhaps the most useful of all to men; for it drives the herring and all other kinds of fish in toward the land from the ocean outside, as if appointed and sent by the Lord for this purpose. This is its duty and office as long as the fishermen keep the peace on the fishing grounds. Its nature is also peculiar in this that it seemingly knows how to spare both ships and men. But when the fishermen fall to quarrelling and fighting, so that blood is spilt, this whale seems able to perceive it; for it moves in between the land and the fish and chases the shoals back into the ocean, just as it earlier had driven them in toward the men. These whales are not more than thirty ells in length or forty at the very largest. They would provide good food if men were allowed to hunt them, but no one is permitted to catch or harm them since they are of such great and constant service to men.

Another kind is called the sperm whale. These are toothed whales, though the teeth are barely large enough to be carved into fair-sized knife handles or chessmen. They are neither fierce nor savage but rather of a gentle nature, and so far as possible, they avoid the fishermen. In size, they are about like those that I mentioned last. Their teeth are so numerous that more than seventy can be found in the head of a single whale of this sort.

Still another species is called the right whale; this has no fins along the spine and is about as large as the sort that we mentioned last. Sea-faring men fear it very much, for it is by nature disposed to sport with ships.

There is another kind called the Greenland shark, which is peculiar in this that it has caul and fat in the abdomen like cattle. The largest of these whales grow to a length of thirty ells at most.

There are certain varieties that are fierce and savage toward men and are constantly seeking to destroy them at every chance. One of these is called the “horse whale,” and another the “red comb.”  They are very voracious and malicious and never grow tired of slaying men. They roam about in all the seas looking for ships, and when they find one, they leap up, for in that way, they are able to sink and destroy it the more quickly. These fishes are unfit for human food; being the natural enemies of mankind, they are, in fact, loathsome. The largest of this type never grow more than thirty or forty ells in length.

There is still another sort called the narwhal, which may not be eaten for fear of disease, for men fall ill and die if they eat of it. This whale is not large in size; it never grows longer than twenty ells. It is not at all savage but rather tries to avoid fishermen. It has teeth in its head, all small but one which projects from the front of the upper jaw. This tooth is handsome, well-formed, and straight as an onion stem. It may grow to a length of seven ells and is as even and smooth as if shaped with a tool. It projects straight forward from the head when the whale is traveling; but sharp and straight though it is, it is of no service as a defensive weapon; for the whale 123is so fond and careful of its tusk that it allows nothing to come near it. I know of no other varieties of whales that are unfit for human food, only these five that I have now enumerated: the two that I mentioned first were the beaked whale and the “hog whale;” the three mentioned later were the “horse whale,” the “red comb,” and the narwhal.

There are certain varieties of even greater size which I have not yet described; and all those that I shall now discuss may be eaten by men. Some of them are dangerous for men to meet, while others are gentle and peaceable. One of these is called humpback; this fish is large and very dangerous to ships. It has a habit of striking at the vessel with its fins and of lying and floating just in front of the prow where sailors travel. Though the ship turns aside, the whale will continue to keep in front, so there is no choice but to sail upon it; but if a ship does sail upon it, the whale will throw the vessel and destroy all on board. The largest of these fishes grow to a length of seventy or eighty ells; they are good to eat.

Then there is that kind which is called the Greenland whale.This fish grows to a length of eighty or even ninety ells and is as large around as it is long; for a rope that is stretched the length of one will just reach around it where it is bulkiest. Its head is so large that it comprises fully a third of the entire bulk. This fish is very cleanly in choice of food, for people say that it subsists wholly on mist and rain and whatever falls into the sea from the air above. When one is caught, and its entrails are examined, nothing is found in its abdomen like what is found in other fishes that take food, for the abdomen is empty and clean. It cannot readily open and close its mouth, for the whalebone which grows in it will rise and stand upright in the mouth when it is opened wide; consequently, whales of this type often perish because of their inability to close the mouth. This whale rarely gives trouble to ships. It has no teeth and is fat and good to eat.

Then there is a kind of whale called the rorqual, and this fish is the best of all for food. It is of a peaceful disposition and does not bother ships, though it may swim very close to them. This fish is of great size and length; it is reported that the largest thus far caught have measured thirteen times ten ells, that is, one hundred and thirty ells by the ten-count. Because of its quiet and peaceful behaviour, it often falls prey to whale fishers. It is better for eating and smells better than any of the other fishes that we have talked about, though it is said to be very fat; it has no teeth. It has been asserted, too, that if one can get some of the sperm of this whale and be perfectly sure that it came from this sort and no other, it will be found a most effective remedy for eye troubles, leprosy, ague, headache, and for every other ill that afflicts mankind. Sperm from other whales also makes good medicine, though not so good as this sort. And now, I have enumerated nearly all the varieties of whales that are hunted by men.

Cooking on top of Kraken ca. 1215. From: Harley MS 4751, Fol 69r. Soruce: British Library
One whale was so huge that sailors could mistake it for an island. From a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th–early 13th century): From: Harley MS 4751, Fol 69r. Source: British Library/wkipedia

There is a fish not yet mentioned which it is scarcely advisable to speak about on account of its size, which to most men will seem incredible. There are, moreover, but very few who can tell anything definite about it, since it is rarely seen by men, for it seldom approaches the shore or appears where fishermen can see it, and I doubt that this sort of fish is very plentiful in the sea. In our language, it is usually called the “kraken.” I can say nothing definite as to its length in ells, for on those occasions when men have seen it, it has appeared more like an island than a fish.

Nor have I heard that one has ever been caught or found dead. It seems likely that there are but two in all the ocean and that these beget no offspring, for I believe it is always the same ones that appear. Nor would it be well for other fishes if they were as numerous as the other whales, seeing that they are so immense and need so much food. It is said that when these fishes want something to eat, they are in the habit of giving forth a violent belch, which brings up so much food that all sorts of fish in the neighbourhood, both large and small, will rush up in the hope of getting nourishment and good fare. Meanwhile, the monster keeps its mouth open, and since its opening is about as wide as a sound or fjord, the fishes cannot help crowding in in great numbers. However, as soon as its mouth and belly are full, the monster closes its mouth and thus catches and shuts in all the fishes that just previously had rushed in eagerly to seek food.

Now we have mentioned and described most of those things in the Icelandic waters that would be counted wonderful, and among them a few that are more plentiful in other seas than in those which we have just discussed


Title: The King’s Mirror ca. 1250. Speculum regale-Konungs skuggsjá. Author: Anonymous
Translator: Laurence Marcellus Larson.
The American Scandinavian Foundation 1917


Norse: Konungs skuggsjá, Latin: Speculum regale; modern Norwegian (Nynorsk): Kongsspegelen or (Bokmål) Kongespeilet





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