A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 8, June 2005, Issue Editor: Elizabeth Ragan

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue Navigation

Issue Homepage

Cessford, "Pictish Art"

Dobson, "Time, Travel"

Sayers, "Ship-building"

Szabo, "Monstrous Whales"


Electronic Medievalia

Continental Business


"Bad to the bone"?  The Unnatural History of Monstrous Medieval Whales

Vicki Ellen Szabo  
Department of History, Western Carolina University

©2005 by Vicki Szabo. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2005 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract: The image of the monstrous whale pervades most medieval textual traditions on cetaceans, but historians have not explored the impact of these cultural perceptions on the use of whales in the medieval world. This paper considers how concepts of the monstrous whale impacted, if at all, the use of whales in the medieval North Atlantic.

. . . it is a risky business catching a whale. It's safer for me to go on the river with my boat, than to go hunting whales with many boats. . . . I prefer to catch a fish that I can kill, rather than a fish that can sink or kill not only me but also my companions with a single blow (Ćlfric, tr. Swanton 1993, 172).

§1.  The fisherman of Ćlfric's Colloquy expresses what was surely a commonly held medieval perception of cetaceans as aggressive and dangerous creatures, but also lucrative and, for many, well worth the dangers of pursuit.1 Cetaceans were seen in the medieval world as creatures to fear and avoid, but also creatures of enormous value. This complex impression of cetaceans as creatures to fear and admire was not unique to medieval people. The earliest Near Eastern and Classical descriptions of cetaceans depict whales as forces of nature, great "fish" to be battled with and, with fortune, overcome; they were not simple fish to be caught and consumed.2 Clearly, these perceptions of whales as dangerous are based, in part, on observation and experience; to encounter a whale at sea must have been simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. A breaching whale could easily capsize a small medieval craft, while a defensive or harassed whale could inflict serious damage to a boat or an entire fleet.3

§2.  However, medieval perceptions of whales as dangerous, even malicious creatures, were so pervasive they cannot have stemmed merely from the retelling of random whale encounters. Rather, they were part of a deeper medieval understanding of the human relationship with whales, most notably enshrined in the ancient Physiologus and medieval Bestiary traditions. This paper considers the broader impact of the monstrous whale tradition on whale use in the medieval Northern world.4 It is not the contention of this paper that Northern peoples would have been dissuaded from whale use for fear of using or consuming monstrous whales; rather, we must consider that cultural perceptions of animals cannot be separated from their value and utility in the medieval mind. The medieval world was one in which "there was no such thing as generic 'animals'" (Cohen 1994, 60), so to ignore the cultural signficance of an animal is to misunderstand the medieval mind. The question of whether perceptions surrounding an animal impacted its use must be considered.

§3.  In order to appreciate the interrelationship between perceptions of animals and their utility, we must first consider how animals are conceptualized within a given culture. Human perceptions of the natural world and the animals in it clearly impact how societies fit within and exploit their environments. "We know that animals function in many cultural domains, from the basics of subsistence to complex symbols woven throughout a society" (Wapnish 1995, 233). Some animals are valued for their sociability with humans; some become symbols within a given ideology (as is the case with the Physiologus tradition); and others are valued for their beauty, strength, or useful skills, from protection to labor. Some animals are useful solely for food, while others are held in such esteem that they are protected against all harm. Every culture invests its creature companions—from the wild to the domesticated—with different degrees of value and meaning. Animals simply mean much more than food, fuel, shelter: "Animals supply examples for the mind as well as food for the body. They carry not only loads, but principles" (Willis 1974, 9).While modern Western society's images of animals and their value are based on centuries of tradition, perhaps to the extent that the initial reasons for these perceptions are no longer remembered, the early historic cultures which form the core of this study made their perceptions about animals and their symbolic value explicit. In medieval society, animals served as "scapegoats, mirror images and representations of human reality" (Cohen 1994, 76).

§4.  Ancient and modern societies invested wild and domesticated animals with complex and variable meanings which pervaded human relationships with all of nature. However, historians and archaeologists typically have approached animals in two distinct manners: either assessing animals as symbols and ideas, or as food, labor, and economic commodities.5 This approach has more to do with the boundaries of academic disciplines or methodologies than with any real separation of animal value and perception in the medieval mind. Perceptions of whales—what they were, their nature, and their relationship to humanity—played significant roles in how these creatures were used by medieval societies.6 To understand how whales were used by medieval cultures, we must first understand how they were perceived.

§5.  The Physiologus, along with the Biblical traditions of Jonah and Leviathan, established the essential symbolism of whales in the ancient and medieval worlds. The Physiologus was written by an anonymous Christian author in Alexandria or Smyrna, between the second and fourth centuries AD (Curley 1980). Disseminated throughout the ancient medieval worlds, the Physiologus existed in numerous illustrated vernacular editions, including Old English and Old Norse. This work is the ancient precursor to the medieval bestiary, describing numerous species of animals and birds, each description imbued with moral lessons based upon animal symbolism. The purpose of both the Physiologus and the Bestiary is the same:

the object of the bestiary is not to document the natural world and to analyse it in order to understand its workings. The writers of bestiaries . . . knew that everything in Creation had a purpose, and that the Creator had made nothing without an ulterior aim in mind. And they knew, too, what the purpose was: the edification and instruction of sinful man. The Creator had made animals, birds and fishes, and had given them their natures or habits, so that the sinner could see the world of mankind reflected in the kingdom of nature, and learn the way of redemption by the examples of different creatures. Each creature is therefore a kind of moral entity, bearing a message for the human reader (Barber 1993, 7).

While initially categorized within the Physiologus as balena, the same category as walrus, the whale was combined with the creatures categorized under the entry of aspidochelone, which included the sea turtle. Marine mammals are so frequently conflated with sea monsters and sirens that it is difficult to gauge exactly where whales figure within medieval categories of the natural world. This lack of distinction or definition of cetaceans reveals an important reality of the Order Cetacea: the North Atlantic whales comprise two sub-orders, over six families, and several dozens of individual species. The smaller cetacea (dolphins and porpoise) were comfortably categorized as fishes, but medieval people clearly recognized similarities between the great whales to classify them as something different—but what? Whale species exhibit such morphological variety that they could be seen as defying classification. Thus, the association of whales with walrus, sea turtles, and monsters is not an illogical one.7

§6.  From a practical perspective, the environment in which humans typically encounter cetaceans is the most foreign of all worlds, making categorization of whales even more difficult.

Aquatic environments represent a strange realm from the point of view of humans . . . . Since the prey moves in a different medium, the problem of orientation demands particular models. As fishermen are physically separated from fish, they must make descriptive models of an environment about which they can only obtain information by indirect observation (Pálsson 1990, 119).

The aquatic environment was home to more bizarre creatures than nearly any other place on the earth, with the exception of the Antipodean realms, home to the Plinian races of the classical and medieval traditions.8 To the medieval mind, whales must have represented the otherness of the aquatic world, just as the Plinian races represented the edges of civilization. Therefore the whale, as depicted in the Physiologus and throughout Judeo-Christian literary traditions, is seen as a conflation of generic creatures of the deep and the great whales, a conglomerate creature made all the more foreign by its aquatic habitat. This symbolic whale of the Physiologus and the Bestiary eventually was included in medieval folk taxonomies as another species of whale alongside those routinely observed at sea.

§7.  The monstrous whale known as aspidochelone was characterized by two distinctive behaviors. First, the whale possessed the ability to entrap its prey, usually fish, through the emission of a sweet, seductive odor released from its mouth. Unsuspecting fish were attracted by the scent, only to be devoured when the whale's cavernous mouth snapped shut. Secondly, the whale was able to disguise itself as an island. According to some traditions, the whale's back was covered with rocks, dirt, and even trees and bushes in the creation of this grand façade. Such a tempting oasis within the sea readily attracted sailors and wayward monks, who settled upon this island and made camp. However, this paradise of the weary sailors was interrupted when they started their cooking fire, for their island haven would suddenly dive to the bottom of the sea and drown the men, or the whale would swim off into the remotest corners of the ocean. In effect, their sins had driven them to hell, here on the back of the great monstrous fish. Aspidochelone, the bogus insular whale was further popularized in the medieval Bestiary and in hagiography, including the whale Iasconius of Brendan's Navigatio and the whale of Columba's voyage in the Life of Columba.

§8.  Even better-known than the Physiologus and the Bestiary whale, the Biblical story of Jonah is certainly one of the most famous whale encounters in Western literature and likely was the best-known whale story of the Middle Ages. The brief story in the Book of Jonah tells us very little about the "large fish" (piscis grandis) which God sent to swallow Jonah. However, this reference, eventually conflated with the Book of Job's description of the monstrous Leviathan, provided fuel for medieval imaginings of the sorts of creatures lurking in the oceans ready to punish those who challenged God's will. "On the strength of Jonah's own words (Ion. 2.2), the whale and Leviathan, which were identified with each other, were both felt to represent the Devil or Hell. By extension, the mouth of the whale signified the entrance to Hell" (Ziolkowski 1984, 112).9 The whale in the Book of Jonah epitomized and reinforced the popular monstrous whale tradition. These monstrous whales were not simply malicious by their nature; they were employed by the Devil, in some manuscripts depicted with the Devil astride, to waylay pious medieval people in their maritime voyages (Wright 2001, Ills. 4.1, 4.3-5). Quite simply, whales were representative of the Devil, and their prey represented humanity itself; those facing the monstrous whale faced directly the temptations of the Devil (Baxter 1998, 27).

§9.  The monstrous whale is prominent in medieval traditions, but it is not only kind of whale described. Medieval texts teem with images of mundane whales, seemingly far removed from their monstrous and supernatural kin. Anglo-Saxon texts, including Ćlfric's Colloquy, or the Voyage of Ohthere, reveal the economic windfall associated with cetaceans, with little or no apparent concern with the animal's diabolical nature. Likewise, the Icelandic and Norse folk taxonomies, laws, and sagas speak candidly of whale exploitation and various whale species.10 Whales, while oftentimes threatening, appear as creatures found in the seas in great numbers and variety according to most Scandinavian traditions. They are of the highest utility to Norse sailors and settlers, they provide aid in fishing—some species are even protected from harm by stiff financial penalties—and they are the ultimate boon during famine. However, even in these most pragmatic descriptions and discussions of whales, we must ask whether the monstrous whales were ever truly forgotten. "The whale's reputation, already unsavory in antiquity, was only worsened by the accounts of its treachery in the Physiologus and Bestiary" (Ziolkowski 1984, 112). With this pervasive image of the monstrous whale firmly implanted in the minds of medieval audiences, we must question whether the symbolic association of whales with the Devil affected the material usage of whales. Joyce Salisbury (1994, 9), in The Beast Within, concludes that metaphorical meanings behind perceptions of animals "probably did not change the way [people] looked at the many real animals that were serving them." Yet when a massive whale washed ashore, there may have been some question among Christians as to the origin of the whale, that is, whether it was monstrous or mundane.

§10.  Medieval authors themselves debated the nature of whales and their apparent monstrosity, one author even going so far as to assert that the monstrous qualities of whales transcended death, imbued within the dead bones of these creatures. Some of the most original descriptions and analyses of whales occur in the works of Albertus Magnus (AD 1193-1280) and Olaus Magnus (AD 1490-1557). Each author claims to derive his data from observation or from direct witnesses of various phenomena.11 As Albertus says: "These facts about the nature of whales have been gleaned from our own experience. We have omitted what the ancients wrote because they do not accord with the practical knowledge of experienced fishermen . . . [who have] examined many whales at close range on innumerable occasions" (Albertus Magnus 14.19, tr. Scanlan 1987, 341). Of Olaus Magnus, Peter Foote declares: "Personal experience is an important element in the Historia [de Gentibus Septentrionalibus] and one can well believe, for example, that Olaus had watched a fishing community deal with a stranded whale" (Foote 1996, lvii).

§11.  Albertus Magnus, Dominican friar, saint, bishop, and mentor to St. Thomas Aquinas, described whales at length in his massive encyclopedic work De Animalibus. He included within the discussion of the animal category "Cetus" a host of marine mammals, including dolphins, whales, and even a few monstrous creatures. Albertus's descriptions include whale morphology, behavior, and the various means of capture and butchery employed by fishermen, as he observed at Dutch ports and whale butchering stations. He made an effort to set himself apart from ancient and earlier authors, to act as a good natural philosopher and to dispel myths of capricious whale behavior as described in ancient texts. Albertus writes that "the whale has a capacious mouth from which it spews large quantity of water when it breathes, an amount sometimes sufficient to swamp and sink small boats" (Albertus Magnus 14.15, tr. Scanlan 1987, 336). The whale did not intentionally destroy boats and men, as myth often contends; according to Albertus, such accidents were merely an aspect of their biology or behavior. He asked fishermen whom he observed to dispel myths of certain whale behaviors. For example, the female whale is said to descend to the depths of the sea after mating, where it fattens "to the size of an island . . . . I do not believe this to be true, nor do others who have first hand knowledge of whales" (Albertus Magnus 14.16, tr. Scanlan 1987, 337). Albertus's descriptions of hunting strategies, butchering, and whale behavior are among the most complex and accurate of the pre-modern period. He even offers us a lengthy description of a proto-Nantucket sleigh-ride six centuries before Melville (Albertus Magnus 14.18, tr. Scanlan 1987, 339-340). However, while Albertus seems to transcend the stereotypical definition of the monstrous whale, separating the mythic creature from its materials, other authors embrace medieval traditions, perceiving whales both living and dead as fully monstrous, literally "bad to the bone."

§12.  Olaus Magnus, Archbishop of Uppsala, has been described as a scholar and a man of curious mind who studied the Northern world, particularly the environment and culture "to satisfy a general curiosity about the North among foreigners . . . . [He] also saw himself . . . as one of long line of travelers and researchers who had recorded their investigations into the nature of things" (Foote 1996, lvi). Olaus, though, records much of the Northern world that is more consistent with medieval tradition than the learned humanist attributes he is ascribed by some.

§13.  Olaus describes whales and their interactions with humans in Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, Book Twenty-One, entitled "On Sea Monsters." What we read, though, is not always what we might expect from our Northern humanist. 12 Olaus includes several chapters focusing on the practical utility of whales and even addresses, as Albertus did, misconceptions about whales. Most notably, he dispells the behaviors of the Physiologus whale through perceptive observation: "The whale's skin has a surface which looks like sand on the seashore. Hence, when it raises its back above the waves, as it frequently does, sailors completely mistake it for an island. So, they put in, disembark, drive stakes in to tie their vessels to, and kindle fires to cook their food, till the whale, at last feeling the heat, plunges into the depths" (Olaus Magnus 21.15, ed. Foote 1996, 1098). However, unlike Albertus, Olaus tends more towards the symbolic in his depiction of whales. His image of whales, derived at least in part from the medieval monstrous tradition, clearly reveals the continued medieval traditions of popular culture or belief in the Northern world: "The moralizing mentality of the Middle Ages is strong in [Olaus]" (Foote 1996, lviii).

§14.  In Olaus's worldview, whales and monsters are virtually synonymous: "Off the coasts or out in the Norwegian sea are found monster fish with strange names (though they are reckoned to be species of whale)" (Olaus Magnus 21.5, ed. Foote 1996, 1086). The relationship between men and whales in this text is revealing. Men are eager to seize stranded whales, sometimes even to hunt them at sea. Olaus focuses most on the use of stranded whales, but he also states that whales are "dragged [on to the coasts] during men's incessant hunting expeditions to provide spoil for their neighborhood" (Olaus Magnus 21.21, ed. Foote 1996, 1104). The prominent picture we get from Olaus is not the utility of whales, but rather fear of them. Referencing the Hexameron of Ambrose, Olaus states that men should not be eager to encounter whales at sea: "They say that you can view whales, not off the beaches or the coasts, but out in the Atlantic deeps, where the sight of them dissuades mariners from their bold voyages in those latitudes and, through terror of meeting their end, from presuming to penetrate the secrets of the elements" (Olaus Magnus 21.41, ed. Foote 1996, 1127). Olaus recounts stories of whales or sea monsters engulfing ships, tearing men from their boats, and raising themselves high above ships, "like a colossal pillar . . . in order to destroy sailors" (Olaus Magnus 21.6, ed. Foote 1996, 1087). There is little attempt here, as seen in Albertus, to demystify the whale. Rather, Olaus seems to extend by association the monstrous qualities of sea monsters to all whales, in a routine conflation of the natural and the unnatural. Olaus reveals that even by the sixteenth century, the second century traditions of Physiologus were as alive and well as the writhing monstrous whales at sea. Olaus, like other medieval authors, also believed that the malignancy of whales was found not only in their behavior but also in their very material essence.

§15.  Insight into medieval perceptions of monstrous whales and their utility is most notable in Olaus Magnus, but especially in the Icelandic family sagas or Islendingasögur.13 The Icelandic sagas are perhaps our preeminent source for perceptions of whale utility in the North Atlantic world, as they provide numerous references to whale use, particularly whale strandings. A common topos exists in the sagas involving famine; a large stranded whale, usually a rorqual on disputed or common land; and a dramatic human conflict over the division of the stranded whale. This conflict always sees the invocation of law and often involves a physical struggle over the proper division of the whale. Throughout these stranded whale scenes, the drama is almost fully played out on the human level and is almost certainly played for comic effect, as in the famous whale stranding scene of Grettir's Saga. In this episode, the stranded whale, a great rorqual, serves as nothing more than a pretext for the human drama that ensues. In fact, the whale is quite literally the stage for the drama—serving as the platform upon which the battle is fought, while its bones and blubber become weapons and missiles: "I've heard how steely weapons were used, when whale-blubber was wielded at Rif Skerries. The fighters kept exchanging lethal whale-meat missiles. That's how these boors play the game of battle" (Grettir's Saga 12, tr. Fox and Pálsson 1974, 20). But not all whales in the Northern tradition were so benign.

§16.  Some authors contend that the whale—even dead or dying—outside of its natural environment, was still a force to be reckoned with. Olaus Magnus says in the Historia that "if there is some suspicion that [a stranded whale's] powers may revive, [men] stick daggers or big, sharp spikes beneath its sides while it lies quiet . . . . Sometimes too a monster drops into an unusually heavy sleep on the beach as it basks in the sunshine, and then it falls a simple prey to the hunters" (Olaus Magnus 21.15, ed. Foote 1996, 1098).14 Surely known from experience, the whale remained a dangerous creature outside of its habitat, particularly during its death throes.15 But the whale's power was not necessarily a result of its physical being; the monstrous qualities of the whale could transcend its living strength and be imbued within its very material essence.

§17.  Eirik's Saga, one of the two Norse accounts of the settlement of Vinland written in the fourteenth century, includes an episode of a large stranded whale which reveals itself to be demonic. Several elements of the story coincide with the common stranding theme. The large whale, again a rorqual, strands as the Vinlanders face starvation.

They stayed there that winter, which turned out to be a very severe one; they had made no provision for it during the summer, and now they ran short of food and the hunting failed. They moved out to the island (Straum Island) in hope of finding game, or stranded whales, but there was little food to be found there . . . . Then they prayed to God to send them something to eat, but the response was not as prompt as they would have liked.

Meanwhile Thorhall the Hunter disappeared and they went out to search for him. They searched for three days; and on the fourth day Karlsefni and Bjarni found him on top of a cliff. He was staring up at the sky with eyes and mouth and nostrils agape, scratching himself and pinching himself and mumbling They asked him what he was doing there; he replied that it was no concern of theirs . . . . They urged him to come back home with them and he did.

A little later a whale was washed up and they rushed to cut it up. No one recognized what kind of a whale it was, not even Karlsefni, who was an expert on whales. The cooks boiled the meat, but when it was eaten it made them all ill.

Then Thorhall the Hunter walked over and said, "Has not Redbeard [Thor] turned out to be more successful than your Christ? This was my reward for the poem I composed in honor of my patron, Thor; he has seldom failed me." When the others realized this they refused to use the whalemeat and threw it over a cliff, and committed themselves to God's mercy (Eirik's Saga, in Vinland Saga 8, tr. Magnusson and Pálsson 1965, 96).

§18.  This depiction of the whale as an associate of evil, or here paganism, is reminiscent of monstrous whale traditions. This mysterious whale, a species unknown even to Vinland's whale expert Karlsefni, was summoned by the expedition's sole pagan. It was, because of its pagan origins, indigestible to the Christian Vinlanders. While this episode is resonant with the larger Christian themes of Eirik's Saga, it also reflects well-known folk taxonomies of the North Atlantic. The King's Mirror, a thirteenth century Norwegian guidebook for noble youth, speaks of whales such as that summoned by Thorhall: "the 'horse whale' and . . . the 'red comb' . . . are unfit for human food; being the natural enemies of mankind, they are, in fact, loathsome" (King's Mirror 12, tr. Larson 1917, 122).16 The whale's inedibility stems not from its oiliness or its tough flesh; rather its very nature makes it unfit for human, specifically Christian, consumption. The stranded whale of Eirik's Saga could be seen as a variation on the common Judeo-Christian theme of the monstrous whale, but it is, in fact, an important extension of that tradition. In the Physiologus/Bestiary traditions, we encounter live, malicious whales. The whale of Eirik's Saga is dead onshore; it is unrecognizable, but assumed to be a whale of material utility. Upon consumption, it is immediately clear that this whale is, in fact, unusable because of its demonic nature. The monstrous character of this animal impacted its material utility, even after death.

§19.  The most notable episode of a dead whale's monstrous or supernatural essence affecting its material utility is recounted by Olaus Magnus in his description of whalebone houses of Northern Scandinavia. Within these houses the whale's monstrous nature lives on within its disarticulated, now architectural, bones. Whalebone houses are found in a handful of ancient texts and archaeologically throughout the Arctic, Africa, and Asia. 17 Olaus Magnus offered a unique perspective on the whalebone house, unseen in other sources. Olaus explains that the harsh climate of Arctic Norway does not allow sizable trees to grow, so wood is not readily available for building. However:

provident Nature has taken thought for the inhabitants and enabled them to construct houses and all the requisite furniture within the gigantic ribs of these animals . . . it is a known fact that the bones which remain are so strong and enormous that people can produce from them entire homes: walls, doors, windows, roofs, chairs, and even tables. The ribs are twenty to thirty feet long, or even more, while the spinal vertebrae and the forked bones of the colossal skull are themselves of no small magnitude . . . . Once the flesh and internal organs of the massive beast have wasted away and perished, only the bones remain, in the shape of a huge keel. After the skeleton has eventually been cleansed by rains and fresh air, strong men are enlisted to erect it in the form of a house. The one who is supervising its construction exerts himself to put windows at the top of the building or in the monster's sides, and divides the interior into several comfortable living quarters. The doors are made from the creature's hide, which has long since been stripped off for this or some different purpose and hardened by the rough winds (Olaus Magnus 21.22, 24, ed. Foote 1996, 1105, 1107).

Even when the whale bones were fashioned into a house, there remained a recognition that the house retained the character of the whale. The windows are described as on top of the structure, but also in "the monster's sides" (Olaus Magnus 21.15, ed. Foote 1996, 1098). The house not only served as a domestic space; it simultaneously retained some elements of its animal form and character.

§20.  The house may even possess further complexity than this dual status as both house and creature. There is a preternatural air to the whalebone house. According to Olaus, the bones actually retained their animal nature and affected the occupants of the house dramatically. The whale whose bones sheltered the household occupied the dreams of those who dwelled within: "Those who sleep inside these ribs are forever dreaming that they are toiling incessantly on the ocean waves or, harassed by storms, are in perpetual danger of shipwreck" (Olaus Magnus 21.24, ed. Foote 1996, 1107). The dreamer, encased within what was the body of the whale, experienced the whale's journey in the seas and perhaps even its ultimate demise in the tempest—the tempest which washed it ashore and provided its bones to the occupants.18 The sinister nature of the dreams—toiling in waves, in danger of tempests—may be related to the whale's propensity towards the supernatural.

§21.  The whale is not the only animal described by Olaus whose material remains after death were permanently infused with its living essence. Another creature, the glutton, bears a luxurious coat much valued by Northern peoples:19

The glutton's flesh is quite unfit for human consumption, but its skin is very useful and precious . . . . The inhabitants of those countries [northern Sweden] do not allow glutton pelts to be exported to foreign parts for profit's sake, since they use them as covers in winter to show hospitality to their more honoured guests . . . . I should not omit to mention that, if people sleep beneath these covers, they usually experience particular dreams, which seem to have some connection with the life and characteristics of this beast: the way it devours things voraciously, springs ambushes on other animal, or takes care to avoid their attacks . . . . There appears to be yet another secret of Nature attaching to these skins: anyone clad in them exhibits not the slightest trace of satiety, however much he drinks or eats (Olaus Magnus 18.7-8, ed. Foote 1996, 888-889).

§22.  The symbolism of the glutton skin and its users is perhaps not so oblique as that of the whale and the occupants of the whalebone house. The glutton skin is reserved not just for the honored guests, but especially for the princes and men of high standing (Olaus Magnus 18.7, ed. Foote 1996, 888). Olaus's criticism of the ruling classes and their gluttonous propensity is more easily intelligible than the reference made to men toiling upon the waves as whales suffering wreck. These disparate examples reveal that both flesh and bone were perceived to retain the monstrous or at least supernatural qualities of living creatures. What remains to be seen, though, is whether perception impacted material use, as evidenced in the surviving material record.

§23.  Few archaeological artifacts tell stories of their construction, their utility, or perceptions held of their material of creation. It is difficult to diagnose the primary function of many objects, much less the perceptions held of them. Objects bearing inscriptions, though, do tell stories, often of their ownership or lineage, their religious dedications, or perhaps function. Few objects speak as voluminously as does the Franks Casket, a small lidded whalebone box from eighth-century Northumbria. The Franks Casket, the most famous medieval whalebone artifact, provides compelling testimony on how perceptions about a creature may affect the use of its material resources. This exquisite casket is bedecked not only with iconography from Christian, Germanic, and Roman traditions, but also bears carved Latin and Runic inscriptions. The front panel of the casket—showing scenes of Weyland the Smith and the Adoration of the Magi—offers the following inscription, which rings the front panel: "The fish (fisc) beat up the sea on to the mountainous cliff. The king of terror became sad where he swam on to the shingle. Whale's bone" (Webster and Backhouse 1991, 101).

§24.  In this inscription, the material of the box is identified alongside the manner of the acquisition of the material—the stranding of the whale, the so-called king of terror. This inscription may have elevated the status and value of the object itself, for it was crafted from the bones of the "king of terror." Would this material, like the bones of the whalebone house, not be considered somewhat exotic or powerful? Clearly the material must matter, otherwise its origins would not have merited mention. However, the question remains whether the material was thought to impart any of the essence of its former existence. One must question whether the material would have merited inscription if it had been something more mundane; the archaeological record offers few such examples. The inscription implies that the material itself is as fantastic as any of the magical iconography spanning the box. The Franks Casket, when considered alongside literary evidence for the significance of whale symbolism, reveals that perception of the animal could impact how materials were valued and received, if not used. Most archaeological evidence, though, is less forthcoming in revealing how cultural perceptions impacted the use of an animal. However, consideration of numerous North Atlantic assemblages of whalebone artifacts may reveal more than historians or archaeologists hitherto have appreciated.

§25.  Archaeology can tell us a great deal about whale use in the Middle Ages, but our evidence is far from ideal. To determine the quantity of whales used on archaeological sites, much less species, ages, or manners of acquisition based on worked and waste bone is an onerous task. To consider the impact of cultural perceptions as reflected in this already problematic body of evidence could seem well beyond our current analytical abilities. The fact that whales are often described as "archaeologically invisible" further reveals their problematic status as quantifiable medieval resources (Smith and Kinahan 1984, 95). By invisible, archaeologists simply mean that all or most processing of dead whales took place at coastal locales, rather than settlement sites. In most cultures, large whales are often butchered at the coast and only meat and blubber are transported inland. Hence, they are "invisible resources"; their meat and blubber would be used, but few physical remains of this use were left at archaeological sites. Archaeologists must use bones to reconstruct animal use, so if little whale bone is present, there is little evidence to ascertain patterns of whale exploitation. However, by looking comparatively at how different Northern cultures processed and used whale bones, based on the evidence that does remain, it has become clear that whale use was approached in culturally distinct manners.20

§26.  The Orkney archipelago, north of the Scottish mainland, provides some of the most compelling archaeological evidence for whale use in the Northern medieval world from ca. AD 400-1200. Despite its agricultural fertility and relative proximity to the resources of the Scottish mainland, Orkney has produced extensive evidence for early medieval whale use, even when compared with island groups more dependent upon marine mammals for survival, such as Shetland or the Faroes.21 This evidence typically takes the form of worked bone waste, although the range of objects produced from whale bones, in both the Pictish and Norse periods, is extensive.22 When considered across periods and sites, some patterns begin to emerge from Orkney's whalebone evidence with respect to how different cultures exploited whale resources.23

§27.  Several Orcadian archaeological sites, with substantial Pictish and/or Norse phases were selected for study, so that use of whales by these different peoples could be considered in the same specific ecosystems. Study of multiple sites in the Pictish and Norse periods, in congruence with analysis of contemporary textual traditions, yielded important information on the impact of cultural traditions on whale use. While no clear evidence of whale rejection based on cultural perception of whales as monstrous has been found in the Orcadian archaeological record, important cultural patterns in use were determined, particularly in the case of the Norse.24 If early medieval peoples used whales according to culturally defined patterns, as will be shown, it is possible that other perceptions or patterns, such as the rejection of unfamiliar or "monstrous" whales as depicted in Icelandic sagas, may also have impacted medieval whale exploitation patterns.

§28.  Study of Orkney's Pictish whalebone assemblages suggest that Picts sought out whales, either hunted or stranded, primarily for meat and blubber, and for simple raw materials. This is seen in the bones that typify Pictish assemblages, namely a relatively higher proportion of bones associated with important cuts of meat, especially lumbar and caudal vertebrae. These "high meat value" bones are ill-suited to craft production, and therefore are almost certainly byproducts of butchery. These bones also reveal evidence that the Picts transported sizeable portions of whales back to settlements for secondary butchery, as is seen in the presence of large articulated sections of vertebrae.25 The Orcadian Norse, in contrast, seem to have completed all but the most minor processing on the foreshore, as seen in proportionately fewer articulated and high meat value bones on Norse sites. Norse laws, particularly the mid-eleventh century Gulathing Law, possibly the law code imported to Orkney with the Norse settlers, clearly demand as much—that butchery be kept at the foreshore.26 In fact, Gulathing Law very clearly determines how, where, and by whom a whale should be butchered:

A hauld or a man of higher rank, [if he comes upon a whale that is no more than] eighteen ells in length, has the right to the entire whale; any other man [has the right] to one half as long. If a man comes upon a whale, he shall cut it up before witnesses, or let him leave the backbone, the head, and the tail fin; then these parts, if he has no witnesses, shall testify for him. He shall cut it up in the water and shall not carry [the parts] up on the green sod; if he does bring them up, the owner of the land shall have one-half of the whale, unless he [the finder] shall redeem it with the fine for trespass, thinking the whale of greater worth. If a man proceeds to cut up a whale where the grass is sufficient to feed a ewe and a lamb in the summer, he shall redeem the parts with the fine for trespass if he brings them up [on the land] (Gulathing Law 149, tr. Larsen 1935, 126).

The law's demand that the whale's backbone, head, and fin must be left by the butcher/claimant, to testify for him if no witnesses are present, ensures that no one has unjustly claimed a whale larger than is allowed, since Norse law dictates that individuals of lower rank or status may not claim any but the smallest whales for individual use. Furthermore, important agricultural and grazing land was protected by law, so that butchers did not drag whales further ashore than necessary, for fear of forfeiture of their prize. These laws—and the apparent Norse obedience of them—may be reflected in Orkney's Norse-period archaeological record, in the paucity of articulated and large bones, typical butchery byproducts, found on sites. The bones found on Norse Orcadian sites contain proportionately fewer vertebrae and more "low meat-value" bones, especially ribs and mandibles. These are fine bones for craft production, but are typically not associated with good quality meat. While meat and blubber were surely a concern, soft-tissue acquisition is not as visible an activity on Norse sites as on Pictish. The bones may reflect obedience of long-standing legal proscriptions on whale butchery.

§29.  This brief look at archaeological evidence reveals that cetacean use in Norse Orkney appears to have been carefully regulated, culturally dictated, and far from random. Whale use in the Norse world seems to follow careful patterns set by law and culture. From this Norse example, we may ask whether the Norse and other northern cultures, attentive to legal proscriptions on whale use, were equally attentive to cultural perceptions of the animals. Were the finicky settlers of Vinland in Eirik's Saga and the later Scandinavians described by Olaus Magnus merely literary creations, expressing authors' perceptions of monstrous whales, or were their reactions accurate reflections of common practices and concerns?

§30.  Medieval people most likely would not reject whale bones or flesh derived from a creature of mysterious origin. However, the works of medieval and post-medieval authors reveal the pervasive monstrous qualities believed possessed by whales. Given the inextricability of cultural perceptions and uses of animal resources, we must consider how perceptions of creatures may have impacted use, rather than merely dismissing them as fictions. Throughout the medieval North Atlantic, whale bone served as a simple utilitarian material, used in a wide variety of applications. Given the importance of whales as resources within the medieval world, and their clear impact upon the medieval mind through literary tradition, further thought must be given to the relationship between perception of whales and their utility. While difficult to answer, such questions must be asked in order to appreciate the unique cultural and economic contributions of whales to the medieval world.


1. Cetaceans refers to whales, dolphins, and porpoise. This study will typically refer to great whales and the largest dolphins in discussing medieval concepts of whales, as porpoise and smaller dolphins would have fit more naturally within the same conceptual categories as fish. [Back]

2. References to whales and battles with whales can be found, most notably, in Arrian's Life of Alexander and Pliny's Natural History. [Back]

3. Nathaniel Philbricks' masterful work on the whaleship Essex (Philbrick 2000), based on first-person accounts of the attack upon the Essex by a bull sperm whale, demonstrates without question the reality of whale aggression against ships. [Back]

4. The Northern world is broadly defined here as the Scandinavian North Atlantic, Britain, and the lands bounding the North and Baltic Seas. Textual traditions considered here include Icelandic sagas, Norse and Icelandic law, Old English texts, and Albertus Magnus and Olaus Magnus, the latest authors considered here, who describe whale use in the Netherlands and Northern Sweden. Lastly, archaeological evidence of Pictish and Norse Orkney rounds out this survey of whale use and perceptions. [Back]

5. The work of Paula Wapnish, among others, transcends the methodological/analytical divide; see Hesse and Wapnish 1985; Wapnish 1995. [Back]

6. This is not to suggest that ideology supplants or inhibits utility; we merely must acknowledge that animals are invested with cultural meanings which, explicit or implicit, affect how animals are perceived and possibly used. [Back]

7. Walruses, perhaps even more than whales, defied easy categorization. Consider that whales and walrus were often (and not illogically) categorized together. Then consider that walruses also fell under the medieval Bestiary category of amphibia: "is a general term for beasts that live on the land and in the water" (George and Yapp 1991, 93) This category includes, among others, seals, crocodiles, hippopotami, and otters. [Back]

8. Olaus Magnus and the King's Mirror, among others, provide descriptions of at least two dozen creatures resembling whales, monsters, or some combination thereof. [Back]

9. Ziolkowski here refers to whales of literary tradition, but could the same be held true of perceptions of whales at sea? [Back]

10. See especially the King's Mirror. [Back]

11. There is some dispute over the actual levels of personal observation reported in Albertus' work; see Friedman 1997. [Back]

12. Olaus's work is especially valuable for the fascinating woodcuts which illustrate numerous chapters, including a striking illustration for Book 21, ch. 24 depicting the whalebone houses discussed shortly. [Back]

13. Most of the Icelandic sagas are of High or Late Medieval authorship, although the sagas are generally used as windows upon traditions of early Iceland. Likewise, as stated previously, Olaus Magnus, despite his relatively late period of authorship, also may be seen as a reflection of medieval thought and tradition. [Back]

14. This latter may refer to walrus. [Back]

15. Modern Faroese pilot-whalers face their greatest dangers in the hunt immediately prior to or during the dispatch of the whales, when their powerful flukes easily disturb or even destroy small craft surrounding the whale pod. [Back]

16. Smith and Kinahan's studies of the Khoi of Namibia revealed similar proscriptions barred the consumption of several species of whales. "Certain whales were considered unfit for human consumption as they were indigestible and caused diarrhoea. Two whales fell into this category: the Killer whale and the Great Sperm whale" (Smith and Kinahan 1984, 94-95). [Back]

17. Olaus Magnus himself, in Chs. 22-23 of Book 21, recounts the ancient references to whalebone houses, including Pliny, Strabo, Solinus, and Marcus Scaurus; for archaeological exemplars of whalebone houses and whalebone architectural elements within houses, see Childe 1931; Clark 1947; O'Connell and Hawkes 1988; Smith and Kinahan 1984; and Savelle 1997. [Back]

18. This reference, in its larger context, does not appear to be related to the Biblical tradition of Jonah. [Back]

19. The glutton is illustrated in Olaus Magnus 18.7. [Back]

20. The following examples derive from the author's research on various Iron Age, Pictish, and Norse whale bone assemblages from the Orkney and Shetland Islands, Scotland. [Back]

21. This is partially a function of Orkney's extensive archaeological tradition and its fairly well drained soils, when compared to Shetland and Faroe. [Back]

22. Typical Pictish and Norse typologies include bone rings, chopping blocks, clamps or latches, notched implements (variously called mattocks, line stretchers, or spatulate tools), perforated epiphysial discs, polishers, scoops, toggle, and wedges, to name but a few forms (Szabo 2000). [Back]

23. While the evidence discussed here pertains specifically to Orkney, the material forms are not unknown elsewhere in Pictland and the Norse world. Orkney serves as an illustration of whale use, not an exemplar for the rest of the Northern world. [Back]

24. One difficulty in this comparison is the relative aliteracy of the Picts; while they did leave us with a symbolic language—the well-known Pictish symbols—and some textual traditions—namely the king lists and ogham inscriptions—there are no texts as informative on cultural perceptions of animals as we find in the Norse, especially Icelandic, traditions. [Back]

25. The Howe site, Tankerness, Orkney, produced at least three sizeable lumbar vertebrae, likely from a killer whale, during Late Phase 7-Late Iron Age strata. [Back]

26. The Earliest Norwegian Laws; Being the Gulathing Law and the Frostathing Law, 1935. "Since this Gulathing code was common to all the western colonies of the Norwegian empire, it is highly unlikely that the code accepted by Orkney and Shetland lawthings was significantly different and indeed there are clear references in the later Court records to the Gulathing version of the Magnus code" (Ryder 1988). [Back]


Albertus Magnus. 1987. Man and the beasts; De animalibus (Books 22-26). Trans. James J. Scanlan. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. [Back]

Barber, Richard, ed. 1993. Bestiary; Being an English version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley 764. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. [Back]

Baxter, Ron. 1998. Bestiaries and their users in the Middle Ages. London: Sutton Publishing. [Back]

Childe, Vere Gordon. 1931. Skara Brae: A pictish village in Orkney. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubaer and Co., Ltd. [Back]

Clark, Grahame. 1947. Whales as an economic factor in prehistoric Europe. Antiquity 21, 81:84-104. [Back]

Cohen, Esther. 1994. Animals in medieval perceptions: The image of the ubiquitous other. In Animals and Human Society, eds. Aubrey Manning and James Serpell. New York: Routledge. [Back]

Curley, Michael J. 1979. Physiologus. Austin: University of Texas Press.

———. 1980. Physiologus, and the rise of Christian nature symbolism. Viator 11:1-10. [Back]

Dennis, Andrew, Peter Foote and Richard Perkins. 2000. Laws of early Iceland: Grágás II. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press.

Foote, P. 1996. Introduction. Pp. xiii-lxxii in Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentionalibus Romae 1555, trans. Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgens. London: The Hakluyt Society. [Back]

Fox, D. and H. Pálsson. 1974. Grettir's saga. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. [Back]

Friedman, John B. 1997. Albertus Magnus's topoi of direct observation and his debt to Thomas of Cantimpré. Pp. 379-392 in Pre-modern encyclopaedic texts, ed. Peter Binkley. New York: Brill.  [Back]

George, Wilma and Brunsdon Yapp. 1991. The naming of the beasts: Natural history in the medieval bestiary. London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd.  [Back]

Hermannsson, Halldór, ed. [1938] 1966. The Icelandic physiologus. Facsimilie Edition. Islandica, vol. 27. Reprint, New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation.

Hesse, Brian and Paula Wapnish. 1985. Animal bone archaeology: From objectives to analysis. Washington, DC: Taraxacum.  [Back]

Karlsson, Gunnar, Kristján Sveinsson and Mördur Árnason, eds. 1992. Grágás: Lagasafn íslenska ?jódveldisins. Reykjavík: Mál og Menning.

Larson, Laurence Marcellus, trans. 1917. The King's mirror (Speculum Regal-Konungs Skuggsjá). New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., and The American-Scandinavian Foundation. [Back]

———. 1935. The earliest Norwegian laws; Being the Gulathing Law and the Frostathing Law. New York: Columbia University Press. [Back]

Magnusson, Magnus and Hermann Pálsson, eds. and trans. 1965. Vinland Sagas: Grćlendinga Saga and Eirik's Saga. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc.  [Back]

McCartney, Allen P., ed. 1995. Hunting the largest animals: Native whaling in the western Arctic and Subarctic. Calgary: University of Albertusa, the Canadian Circumpolar Institute.

O'Connell, J. and K. Hawkes, 1988. Hadza hunting, butchering, and bone transport and their archaeological implications. Journal of Anthropological Research 44:113-161. [Back]

Olaus Magnus. 1996. Historia de Gentibus Septentionalibus Romae 1555. Ed. Peter Foote, trans. Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgens. London: The Hakluyt Society. [Back]

Pálsson, G. 1990. The idea of fish: land and sea in the Icelandic world-view. Pp. 119-133 in Signifying Animals, ed. R. G. Willis. Boston: Unwin Hyman. [Back]

Philbrick, Nathaniel. 2000. In the heart of the sea: The tragedy of the whaleship Essex. New York: Penguin Books.  [Back]

Ryder, J. 1988. Udal law: An introduction. Scottish Society for Northern Studies 25:1-20.  [Back]

Salisbury, Joyce. 1994. The beast within: Animals in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge. [Back]

Savelle, James. 1997. Architectural utility in the formation of zooarchaeological whale bone assemblages. Journal of Archaeological Science 24:869-885. [Back]

Smith, Andrew B. and John Kinahan. 1984. The invisible whale. World Archaeology 16.1:89-97. [Back]

Squires, Ann, ed. 1988. The Old English Physiologus. Durham: Durham Medieval Texts.

Swanton, Michael, ed. 1993. Anglo-Saxon Prose. London: J. M. Dent. [Back]

Szabo, Vicki. 2000. Monstrous fishes and bones "of no small bigness": The history and archaeology of whale exploitation in late Iron Age, Pictish, and Viking Orkney, Scotland. Ph.D. thesis, Cornell University.  [Back]

Wapnish, Paula. 1995. Towards establishing a conceptual basis for animal categories in archaeology." Pp. 233-274 in Methods in the Mediterranean: Historical and archaeological views on texts and archaeology, ed. David B. Small. New York: E. J. Brill. [Back]

Webster, Leslie and Janet Backhouse, eds. 1991. The making of England. Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. [Back]

Willis, Roy. 1974. Man and Beast. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers. [Back]

———, ed. 1990. Signifying animals: Human meaning in the natural world. London: Unwin Hyman Ltd.

Wood, Ian. 1990. Ripon, Francia and the Franks Casket in the early Middle Ages. Northern History 26:1-19.

Wright, Rosemary Muir. 2001. The rider on the sea-monster. Pp. 70-87 in The North Sea world in the Middle Ages, ed. Thomas R. Liszka and Lorna E. M. Walker. Portland, OR: Four Courts Press. [Back]

Ziolkowski, Jan. 1984. Folklore and learned lore in Letaldus' Whale Poem. Viator 15:107-118. [Back]