‘To Talk of Many Things’: Whales, Walrus, and Seals in Medieval Icelandic Literature
By Karin Murray-Bergquist
Master’s Thesis, University of Iceland, 2017
Abstract: The sea and its inhabitants occupied a crucial and multifaceted place in the lives of medieval Icelanders, and this is reflected in their literature. In comparing the roles of whales, walrus, and seals, this study will examine the themes that recur throughout the Old Icelandic literary tradition, and how these may have been influenced by the circumstances of the time.
Íslendingasögur and förnaldarsögur alike used sea animals in the stories that they told, depicting these creatures alternately as mysterious monsters, valuable resources, and catalysts of human conflict.
The use of whales, walrus, and seals in the sagas illustrates a cultural map of the ocean. This network of places, known and imagined, is filled in by trade goods, species and place names, and stories that incorporate the denizens of the deep. At the edges of the land, they are nonetheless constantly intruding upon human space, impacting human settlement, or transforming between human and animal forms. As such, they illuminate such concepts as the division of land and sea, and complicate the modern categories of natural and supernatural.
The classification of animals is a telling aspect of the relationship between people and their environment. This study will examine the ways that whales, walrus, and seals were named and categorised, and draw connections between this and the literary roles that they play, shedding light on the stories that compose scientific concepts.