Month: April 2021

Mermen and more Marvels of the Northern Seas

Mermen and more Marvels of the Northern Seas

In this episode, we continue our survey of supernatural sailors’ lore of the North with a look at mermen, Iceland’s “evil whales,” and sea-draugs.

After a brief audio tidbit recalling our previous discussion of the  Norse World Serpent, Jörmungandr (courtesy of the TV show Vikings), we briefly reconsider the Kraken  in the context of the 13th-century Norwegian text Kongsspegelen/Speculum Regale (“King’s Mirror”).  In what is likely the earliest reference to the Kraken, the attributes described and context of the discussion suggest that at this early stage of the creature’s mythology, it may have been imagined not as a cephalopod but as a particularly large and monstrous whale.

This brings us to the topic of the “evil whales” or Illhveli of Icelandic lore, much of which is taken from Olaf Davidson’s article of 1900, “The Folk-Lore Of Icelandic Fishes.”  Particularly dangerous and even malevolent toward seamen, these beasts are also enemies of benevolent species of whale that protect man.  Their flesh is considered poisonous, and utterance of their name, we learn, can summon them and great misfortune.

The largest of these creatures (if we disregard the Kraken, which seems more to occupy a class unto itself) is the Lyngbakr or “heather-back,” often mistaken for a land-mass covered with heather or grass. The same motif occurs in tales of the Kraken or Hafgufa (not discussed in the show thanks to the thematic redundancy), but tales of the  Lyngbakr characteristically describe sailors actually landing on the heather-covered mass, mistaking it for an island, and perhaps dwelling there for days on end — until the fish takes a dip.

Carta Marina
Monster from Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (1539)

The most vicious member of the Illhveli, seems to be the Raudkembingur, or “red-crest,” named for its red color and/or the rooster-like comb it sports.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a selection of Davidson’s stories of the Raudkembingur’s attacks upon ships and rather emotional disposition.

We then hear about the Hrosshvalur or “horse-whale,” named for the neighing sound it produces. It was also sometimes called the blödku hval or “flap-whale” thanks to long eyelids or flaps that hung over its eyes. As these tended to obscure the beast’s vision, it was given to wild leaps from the sea, during which the flaps would bounce from the eyes, providing the creature a brief respite from near-blindness.

We then hear a bit more about other other Illhveli, less frequently mentioned, learn why the Narwhal was regarded as the “corpse-whale,” how the Ox-Whale proved a nuisance to herdsmen, and of a particularly strange eccentricity of the Shell-Whale.

Our discussion of mermen focuses primarily on accounts provided in Danish-Norwegian author Erik Pontoppidan’s   18th-century text The Natural History of Norway (cited frequently in our previous episode). While a mermaid or two is also mentioned, Pontoppidan treats the mermen less as a sort of fairy being inclined to abduct men to an undersea realm (as is typical further south in Europe and in Britain) and more as a sort of cryptid or naturalistic phenomenon.  We hear some descriptions of mermen allegedly caught in the Northern seas (quite different from what is typically imagined), tales of enormously oversized mermen, and of the odd uses of the fatty flesh of mermen.

The merman of the north also is uniquely gifted with the ability to tell the future, a trait referenced early on in the 14th-century Hálfssaga and preserved in the Icelandic folk-tale “Then Laughed the Merman” told by Mrs. Karswell and myself.

sea troll
“Sea Troll” by Theodor Kittelsen (1887) Sometimes identified as a Draug.

Our discussion of the sea-draug begins with a clip from the 2018 Swedish film, Draug, a horror story set in the 11th century. Draug is a word from Old Norse used throughout Scandinavia to describe a walking corpse, usually guarding its grave or an underground treasure. Its folkloric attributes have been somewhat changeable and led to the evolution (specifically in the North of Norway) of a figure known as a Havdraug or  (Sea-Draug).

These are the ghosts of sailors lost at sea, who return as physical creatures horribly transformed.  While usually dressed in the typical oilskins and gloves of sailors of the North, their heads are often said to be missing, and they are known to sail about in broken boats missing their stern or to haunt the boathouses of the region. Their presence is an evil omen, and their notorious shrieks can either foretell or indirectly cause death.

We first hear mention of sea-draugs in the 13th-century Saga of the People of Eyri in which the crew of a sunken sip show up at a Yule feast, illustrating a predilection of the sea-draug to appear around Christmas, a motif maintained in tales of sea-draugs that became popular in the 19th century.  We hear some descriptions from these and the folk-tale “The Land Draugs and the Sea Draugs”.

Our episode closes with a strange tale of another Norwegian whale of the modern era, one killed near the island of Harøya in 1951 — at which point it’s weird saga actually begins.  The story rather unexpectedly involves a brief appearance by Louis Armstrong, and we hear some bits from his 1938 hit “Jonah and the Whale.

 

The Kraken and Other Marvels of the Northern Seas

The Kraken and Other Marvels of the Northern Seas

The Kraken is only one of the monsters said to inhabit the storied northern seas of Scandinavia. This episode is the first of two that will examine fantastical nautical tales of these regions.

We begin with a bit of dialogue about the Kraken uttered by Davy Jones in Disney’s 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean film Dead Man’s Chest.  It’s particularly appropriate to our first theme: the Kraken (and a couple Kraken-adjacent creatures) as embodiments of the apocalypse.  The first of these is probably never far from some listeners’ thoughts — Cthulhu.  The second is the Norse World Serpent (a Sea Serpent), Jörmungandr.

Lovecraft’s creation, some scholars believe, may have been inspired by an 1830 poem “The Kraken” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which we hear read by Mrs. Karswell.  Of particular interest here is the way in which Tennyson associates the creature with the sort of epochal shift Lovecraft later represented in the rising of the Old Ones to claim the Earth for themselves.

Jörmungandr is a primary participant in the Norse End of the World or Ragnarök. We hear this described in a passage from the 13th-century Prose Edda.  We also hear a more “light-hearted” tale in which Thor goes fishing for the World Serpent – hilarity ensues!

Thor fishes
Thor fishes for Jörmungandr (18th century illus. fro Eddas)

The earliest accounts of sea serpents (though not necessarily the Kraken) come from the Swedish writer Olaus Magnus, a 16th-century Archbishop of Uppsala.  He not only populated his map of the northern seas, the Carta Marina (the first to represent the region) with illustrations of monsters, but described some common beliefs about the creatures in his 1555 book, History of the Northern People, from which he hear some passages focusing on sea serpents.

Hans Egede, Lutheran missionary to Greenland of Danish and Norwegian descent, provides our next account of a sighting, not secondhand lore as with Magnus, but a description of a creature he alleges to have seen himself on July 6, 1734.  The passage we hear is  from his 1745 publication, A Description of Greenland.

Detail: Carta Marina (1539)

Then we come to the definitive source for our show’s topic, the Danish-Norwegian author and Lutheran bishop, Erik Pontoppidan.  His work The Natural History of Norway, published in two volumes in 1752 and ’53 describes both serpentine monsters and the Kraken.

Regarding the former, he provides a wealth of information, from which we have extracted the more intriguing bits — sailors firing on sea serpents and serpents sinking ships, the creature’s disgusting method of attracting a meal of fish, the differences between sea serpents of the Norwegian and Greenland Seas, preventative measures taken against these monsters, and an interesting use for sea serpent hide.

Where Pontoppidan turns his attention to the Kraken, the waters get murkier. It soon become clear that our current way of imagining the Kraken (formed largely by 19th-century illustrations and later media) may not apply.  In an effort to “rationalize” this monster by comparison to natural creatures, Pontoppidan calls in a number of candidates: “polypi” (squid or other cephalopods) as well as starfish, a type of sea anemone, and  even crabs.  “Krabben” (a form of crab) even turns out to be a name equivalent to “Kraken” according to Pontoppidan. We also hear what we think of as tentacles referred to as “horns” or “antennae.”

One thing that remains clear in Pontoppidan’s descriptions  (and perhaps more so in earlier accounts to be explored next time) is that the monster is very large, the largest animal of land or sea.  We hear an account from The Natural History of Norway emphasizing this as well as some others highlighting the creature’s more off-putting habits.

One reason, we learn, that Pontoppidan won’t just lock in the giant squid comparison, is that the existence of such creatures was not confirmed by those who study such things until the 1870s, roughly a century after Pontoppidan’s career.   Even in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the tentacled creature visualized so memorably in Disney’s 1954 film (from which we hear a clip) was not identified as a squid, but as an octopus (or octopi, as it’s an entire school of these that menace the Nautilus.)

After a quick look at how the giant squid worked its way into Kraken lore and public consciousness, we sirvey a few more modern accounts mirroring the legendary attacks these beasts would make on ships, the latest from 1978, and a substantially more dramatic one from World War II.  Features are some clips from a 1980 episode, “Monsters of the Deep,” from the television show Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Alecton
Crew of Alecton attempts to capture giant squid. (Illus: La vie et les mœurs des animaux, 1866)