From Iceland — Words Of Interest: Whale Tales

Words Of Interest: Whale Tales

Published May 18, 2017

Words Of Interest: Whale Tales
Photo by
Eunsan Huh

“Hvalreki” is the Icelandic word for a beached whale. It comes from the words “hvalur”, for whale, and “reki”, meaning something washed up on shore. In the olden days, it also referred to an unexpected surprise, though it seems rather outdated, given that the handful of young Icelanders I polled did not know that the word had an alternate meaning. Presumably, a beached whale was a delight for Icelandic settlers, who could use the corpse for variety of different purposes, including meat and oil, as well as use the bones for building materials.

These days, whale is only considered a treat for unaware tourists. Only 1.7% of Icelanders reportedly consume whale meat regularly (compared to 18% of tourists), but Iceland remains one of the few countries around the world still hunting for whales.

Sometimes, the whale doesn’t always wind up on a beach. Just north of Reykjavík is a fjord called Hvalfjörður, which means whale fjord. According to legend, there was a fisherman who pissed off an elf maiden, who turned him into a whale. He was wearing a red cap, so the people named him Rauðhöfði, meaning red head.

Rauðhöfði turned into a rather mean mammal, wreaking havoc and sinking ships left and right. Two of his victims were the sons of a pastor. The pastor grieved deeply for his lost children and vowed revenge. He baited the beast into swimming further and further into the fjord. Now there is a lake there called Hvalvatn, or whale lake.

The pastor went further inland, eventually leading Rauðhöfði to a waterfall. The frenzied whale tried to climb up the waterfall, but being a whale, and also having chased the pastor for some time now, he died of exhaustion. The whale’s remains were later found in Hvalvatn.

Fortunately, contemporary Icelandic whales are not known to be so vicious. Over twenty different species of whales live around Iceland, and many of them can be spotted frequently on whale watching tours.

Every Single Word in Icelandic is a pictographic exploration of the Icelandic language. I find an interesting compound word, then deconstruct and illustrate it as icons. The goal is to express how Icelandic can be deadpan literal and unexpectedly poetic at the same time.

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