Icelandic Sea Monsters
In 1570, the Belgian mapmaker Abraham Ortelius published Europe’s first atlas of maps: the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. The book is remarkable for its accuracy (relative to the maps that had come before), but it’s also full of monsters, both in the descriptions and in the illustrations. The seas in his map of Iceland are particularly monster-infested. Let’s take a look at the best ones!
“The greatest kind of whales, which seldom shows itself. It is more like a little island than a fish. It cannot follow or chase the smaller fishes, by reason of the huge greatness of its body, yet it preys upon many, which it catches by a natural wile and subtlety which it uses to get its food”
This fine fellow is actually pretty normal-looking for a Medieval or Renaissance picture of a whale. He has blowholes like a real whale, a face and paws like a land mammal, and scales and a tail like a fish. He’s also got tusks and claws because he means business. I think he’s amazing.
I also love that Ortelius thinks he is a sneaky whale. I have no idea what he means by its “natural wile and subtlety”, but in an RPG context he definitely means the St. Brendan/Sinbad thing where the whale pretends to be a little island so the PCs sail to him and wander around on his back. Then, when he dives, they drown and the whale eats them. He could also block channels in ports so ships dash themselves upon the rocks and the whale can eat the sailors.
“The English whale, seventy feet long. It has no teeth, but the tongue of it is fifteen feet long.”
First off, the whale in the picture definitely has teeth. It also has a horrible beak and no nostrils or blowhole. Lacking gills, it must breathe air, and presumably has to lift its mouth fully out of the sea on every breath to keep from inhaling water. No wonder the one shown looks exhausted!
The pictured beak looks like it could really do a number on a ship’s hull. One can easily imagine the whale waggling that fifteen-foot tongue through the breach, searching for food. Make the tongue prehensile so it can grab an unwary sailor, and you’ve got yourself a memorable combat encounter: fighting a tentacle-like tongue in a rapidly-flooding ship’s hold while the hull buckles under the grinding of the sea creature’s mouth!
“Skautuhvalur, this fish altogether full of gristles or bones, is somewhat like a ray or skate but an infinite deal bigger. When it appears, it is like an island, and with his fins overturns ships and boats.”
Skautuhvalur is my favorite monster of the bunch because he’s so different from your typical sea monster. His laterally-compressed body is feathery on its edges, yet supported by spines like the ‘fingers’ in a bat’s wing! Ortelius’ description suggests Skautuhvalur may also be able to manipulate his spines like fingers, slipping them underneath a boat’s hull to slowly tip it until it capsizes.
A fight with Skautuhvalur is a timed event. He doesn’t fight back (there’s not much he can do), but every turn that passes, the boat tips further and further. You have to deal enough damage to drive him off, but if you don’t deal it quickly enough, he’ll capsize the boat and devour everyone who spills out.
“Steipereidur, a most gentle and tame kind of whale, which for the defense of fishermen fights against other whales. It is forbidden by proclamation for any man to kill or hurt this sort of whale. It is in length a hundred and fifty feet at least.”
A spinier, beakier cousin of the “greatest kind of whales”, above, Steipereidur is apparently a good guy! If your party is going up against multiple sea monsters simultaneously, consider having Steipereidur show up to help out the PCs!
“Seenaut, sea cows, of color gray. They sometimes come out of the sea and do feed upon the land many in a company together. The have a little bag, hanging at their nose, by the help of which they live in the water. That being broken, they live altogether upon the land, and do accompany themselves with other cows.”
These guys were too silly to leave out. But the bags they wear for breathing underwater are pretty cool from an adventure design standpoint! They offer a way to defeat a sea monster without killing it (tear its bag and force it to live onshore), and if a person can use the bag to breathe water, they’re a fun bit of treasure.
Finally, Ortelius provides us with some neat sea ‘terrain’ that can spice up a battlemap on the waves. (Ignore the walrus.)
The clouds floating on the water (‘O’) are “spermaceti, or a base kind of amber”. Ortelius is probably here confusing spermaceti (a waxy substance found in the heads of sperm whales that you can make candles from) with ambergris, a waxy secretion of the sperm whale bile duct. The creatures sometimes throw it up, where it floats on the sea until it makes landfall. Folks used to use it to make perfume, and it was very valuable. Having a sizable chunk of ambergris float past during a fight could force PCs to choose between saving the ship and striking it rich.
The floating tree trunks (‘P’) are “blown up from the roots off the cliffs of Norway by violent tempests, tossed to and fro before passing through many storms, and are at length cast up to rest against the shore.” A collection of tree trunks floating on the open ocean could conceal a sea monster beneath them. But they also provide a platform for acrobatic PCs to run around on while attacking the creature!
Do you have thoughts about sea monsters, Icelandic or otherwise? Have you ever thrown a Medieval or Renaissance-style whale at your party as a combat encounter? Come tell me about it over at the Facebook page!