[Northkeep] Norse whale names

Marc Carlson marccarlson20 at hotmail.com
Wed Jun 8 20:48:11 PDT 2005

Hval - whale.  Hvalr is plural

In medieval bestiaries, the fastitocalon is the false island of legend, and 
may have in earlier versions of the myths been a giant turtle, rather than a 
giant whale.  The term aspidocalon only appears in the old English poem the 

Hval is norse (I think Hvalr is plural) for whale, and is pronounced 
"hWall", or "whale".

Although I can find a some specific variations, for example Narhval, 
Hvalrus, and Rorhval ("wrinkled whale" or blue whale), walfisch, etc.  I 
can't find one for the Cachalot, or Sperma Ceti.  However, that great source 
of all things whalish, Melville, says:
"This whale, among the English of old vaguely known as the Trumpa Whale, and 
the Physeter Whale, and the Anvil Headed Whale, is the present Cachalot of 
the French, and the Pottsfich of the Germans, and the Macrocephalus of the 
Long Words. He is, without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the 
most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect; and 
lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce; he being the only creature 
from which that valuable substance, spermaceti, is obtained. All his 
peculiarities will, in many other places, be enlarged upon. It is chiefly 
with his name that I now have to do. Philologically considered, it is 
absurd. Some centuries ago, when the Sperm Whale was almost wholly unknown 
in his own proper individuality, and when his oil was only accidentally 
obtained from the stranded fish; in those days spermaceti, it would seem, 
was popularly supposed to be derived from a creature identical with the one 
then known in England as the Greenland or Right Whale. It was the idea also, 
that this same spermaceti was that quickening humor of the Greenland Whale 
which the first syllable of the word literally expresses. In those times, 
also, spermaceti was exceedingly scarce, not being used for light, but only 
as an ointment and medicament. It was only to be had from the druggists as 
you nowadays buy an ounce of rhubarb. When, as I opine, in the course of 
time, the true nature of spermaceti became known, its original name was 
still retained by the dealers; no doubt to enhance its value by a notion so 
strangely significant of its scarcity. And so the appellation must at last 
have come to be bestowed upon the whale from which this spermaceti was 
really derived." (Moby Dick, Chapter 32 "Cetology")

In other words, I'm not sure that the Norse even knew about the Sperm whale, 
so may not have had a specific term other than "whale".


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