Who were the Vikings?
You may have heard that Iceland was settled in the second half of the ninth century, at around 870 AD. Seafarers that we call Vikings today came from Norway and Ireland to make a home for themselves on this island that they found in the North Atlantic.
The writings of the Vikings
As soon as Christianity came to Iceland at around 1000 AD, the culture of manuscript writing also arrived and monks were put to work to write down and copy not just biblical texts, but also stories and poems of the past generations that tell us about their lives and their belief system. From the very beginning of the settlement, Icelanders kept a meticulous record of who settled where, whose children took over which farm and who went on adventures overseas to discover what. For example, the exploration of North America and how Vikings fared there is described in a historical source called Eiríks saga rauða, the Saga of Erik the Red.
Whales in the sources
Whales and other sea creatures that live around Iceland were also mentioned in these sources - not surprisingly, seeing as Vikings were quite often out at sea for many days. Whenever whales were named in the Icelandic sagas, they usually served a specific function. Manuscript parchment was scarce and the Icelanders did not dwell on describing the fun antics of dolphins as we may be inclined to do in modern reports of whale encounters.
Firstly, whales were important for indicating that fishing grounds were nearby the island, which was of interest to the Vikings who were looking for a new home where they would be able to sustain themselves. With whales being found all around Iceland close to the shores and in the fjords, it was a good indicator that rich fishing grounds were in these places, proving that the island they discovered was a great places to settle.
Furthermore, stranded whales could serve not only as a food source, but also as a means to divide the land. As Iceland was a completely new country to humans, the settlers needed to decide who would own which part of the land from now on. When a whale was found dead on the beach, conflict could arise about who would own the meat, if the land had not been clearly divided yet. In Grettis saga (the Saga of Grettir) and Fóstbræðra saga (the Saga of the Sworn Brothers), the conflict over a beached whale led to a long-lasting feud between two families. This scenario could have been the inspiration for the depiction of a brutal fight over a beached whale in the TV show Vikings. In an episode of season 6, a settler called Kjetill claims the whale as his own as it washed up on his land, and proceeds to kill the other Vikings who insist that he shares the resources that can be yielded from this large animal, which he refuses to do.
The ancestors of today's Icelanders loved mentioning supernatural occurrences in their sagas, possibly to create more excitement and interest in the stories. Whales sometimes appeared as magical creatures which the Vikings encountered in dangerous sea conditions. In a saga called Ketils saga hængs (the Saga of Ketill Trout), a whale with “human eyes” comes to the rescue of Ketill, the protagonist, who has been lost at sea in a storm. The whale leads him to a friendly shore and even uses its powers to calm down the storm. This story could be an allegory for how whales were often aids in navigation for the humans whose life depended on seafaring.
Sometimes, whales were also evil creatures in the sagas, like in Friðþjófs saga (the Saga of Friðþjófr) where the protagonist and his crew come across a whale accompanied by two witches riding its back, hindering the seafarers from reaching the land they desired to go to. The whale and the witches were sent by an evil king which the protagonist is at odds with, thus, it is not the main antagonist, but a part of the evil forces.
To summarize, whales are depicted in the historical Icelandic sagas to serve numerous narratological functions. They indicated on the one hand that Iceland was a desirable land for settlement as their presence all around its shores indicated rich fishing grounds. Stranded whales served as food sources themselves, and also sparked discussions about how to divide the new land between settlers. Furthermore, whales were at times a part of descriptions of supernatural encounters at sea, whether as friendly helpers or antagonistic monsters.
As far as we can say, there is no proof in these sources that whales were ever actively hunted by the ancestors of modern Icelanders. Although this may occasionally have been the case, it never seemed to have been practiced to a high degree that it was worth being mentioned in the sagas.
When we find these large animals on whale watching tours around Iceland, it seems logical that we would want to tell our own stories about what the encounter with them means for our own lives! Maybe you can take some inspiration from the Icelanders of the past.
- Murray-Bergquist, Karin. "‘To Talk of Many Things.‘ Whales, Walrus, and Seals in Medieval Icelandic Literature." MA thesis, University of Iceland, 2017.