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Seven Wonders of the Medieval Far North

By Minjie Su

Imagine that you are Scandinavian sailor, and that you earn your living on the bellowing waves. Every summer, you and your mates travel from port to port, city to city, trading with the locals, perhaps also doing a bit raiding and fighting. Since your life depends on it, it’s not hard to figure out how important it is for you to learn the ocean well.

Konungs skuggsjá, ‘The King’s Mirror’, is a ‘Prince’s Mirror’ type of literature composed around the mid-thirteenth century in the Norwegian court. Unlike the other mirrors for princes, it does not address the royal princes directly, but it is structured as dialogues between a learned father and his son. The young man, eager to establish himself in the world, begs his ancient, wise father for advice. In response, the old man patiently assumes the role of a teacher and explains to the son the ways of merchants, courtiers, and, finally, of kings and princes.

Although the son is never meant to be a professional merchant, he needs to gain some experience and knowledge through travelling, and mingling, with different cultures. Some of his questions concern the wonders of the strange waters around Greenland, a far corner of the medieval world.

Bestiary Harley MS 3244, ff 36r-71v

Mermaid

A marvellous creature one might chance upon when sailing around Greenland is a mermaid. They have a woman’s upper body, with large nipples, long hands, and long hair, but where we have fingers, the mermaid’s ‘fingers’ are bound together by a web. These creatures, quite contrary to our romanticised little mermaids, are terrifying and hideous in countenance. They tend to be sighted before violent storms, and it is an extremely bad omen if a mermaid plays with fish, or throw them towards a ship. But if it eats the fish, or throws them away from the ship, then the sailors know they are safe; they will survive the journey, even if there will be storms ahead.

Merman

If there are mermaids, there are bound to be some mermen. Yet the Greenlandic mermen are not as well defined as their female counterparts. In their upper bodies they are men, but they appear to have no hands and no arms, only shoulders from where the whole body grows narrower and narrower. No one definitively knows what a merman’s lower body looks like. Whereas mermaids have fishtails with scales and fins, no one has ever seen how a merman’s lower body is shaped; he may have a fishtail, but he may also be just pointed ‘like a pole’. In one word, the creature looks just like a huge icicle. A Merman’s appearance also heralds severe storms. If a merman is seen plunging into the waves away from the ship, the sailors are safe; if he swims towards the ship, the sailors know for certain that they are doomed.

Orcas attacking a whale, from Carta Marina (1539).

The Greenland Whale

The Greenland whale, according to the father, is a huge creature: it grows to eighty or ninety ells in length (one Icelandic ell roughly equals half a yard) and just ‘as large around as it is long’. Huge as it is, the Greenland whale, however, does not feed on anything that would be deemed nutritious; rather, the creature lives on moist rainwater, or whatever that happens to fall from the air. The proof for this belief is that, when a whale is captured and cut open, nothing is found in its stomach. It is utterly clean, unlike other types of fish where undigested food may be found. Therefore, the Greenland whale cannot open or close its mouth properly – and for this reason, it is not dangerous to ships at all. Its body is mostly composed of fat, which makes its meat a delicacy.

Seal

All sorts of seals can be found in the waters around Greenland. There are ‘corse seals’, ‘erken seals’ (which is a grey seal), ‘flett seals’, ‘bearded seals’, ‘short seals’, and what is called ‘the saddleback’. Smaller in size, the saddleback cannot swim on its belly like the others, but only on its back or side. The seals tend to gather around large masses of ice, where an abundance of food may be found. They can swim under thick flat ice, and make openings through it whenever they want – an ability that is especially essential to survive in the sea.

A walrus from Carta Marina (1539).

Walrus

The Greenlanders take walruses for another type of whale, but the father begs to differ; it is more like a seal than a whale, he argues, for they share similar hair, skin, heads, and the webbed hindfeet. Yet walruses distinguish themselves from seals by their tusks, which are long and large. Walruses are extremely useful to men, especially sailors and ship-makers, because their thick hides make good rope; the skin can be cut into leather strips so strong that ‘sixty or more men may pull at one rope without breaking it’. Walrus meat is good for consumption, but it should not be eaten on fast days like fish.

Ice Floes and Icebergs

Ice floes and icebergs are considered more as marvellous, but natural, phenomena than as products of a divine nature, but the father deems it worthy to mention them nonetheless. The sea floes may travel faster than the fastest ship with a fair wind behind them. When one tries to make a landing on Greenland in the wrong place, chances are that the ice floes will get in his way. But there is no need to panic: if you take your small boat and traverse the ice dragging the boat with you until you reach land, you have a greater chance to survive, though it means a few days living on the ice, and the loss of all your valuables.

Icebergs, on the other hand, look more like mountain peaks. They are similar to the ice floes in their destructive power, but they ‘never mingle with other ice but stand by themselves’.

Sea Hedge

The so-called sea hedge, as far as the father knows, appears ‘as if all the waves and tempests of the ocean have been collected into three heaps’, forming three enormous billows. They could be higher than mountains and look like lofty, steep cliffs. They were probably results of seaquakes, argued the Danish scientist I. Japetus S. Steenstrup in the late nineteenth century. If one is caught in these hedgy-waves, it is almost certain that he is lost. But, the father argues, there must be someone who has survived – otherwise how can such knowledge be passed on?

You can follow Minjue Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

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