April 30, 2019


Of all the illhveli, evil whales, that plagued Icelandic waters in ancient times, the Raudkembingur, the Red Crested Whale, was the most savage and bloodthirsty. It may not had the size or raw power of some of the other illhveli, but its ferocity and determination to hunt and harm boats was unmatched by any other living creature in the sea.


The raudkembingur is an abomination, and eating its inedible flesh is not only deadly but forbidden. Those desperate enough to try, came to discover that boiling its meat causes it to disappear from the pot.


The nature of the red crest that gives the raudkembingur its name is unclear. Some witnesses' accounts refer to a crest of bristly hair, others to a mane like that of a horse, and some other talk of a row of finlets (small fins) that move like serpents. But not only its nature is up for discussion, the length of it also seems to vary from account to account. For instance, Jon Gudmundsson restricts it to the neck. "The crest is a bright red on a coffee-brown body with a pink belly," he writes describing the Raudkembingu, while other accounts depict it as being reddish all over, or as having red cheeks or a red head. Sometimes there are red streaks from the mouth to the trunk, as if drawn in blood.


The head itself is also controversial. As depicted by Gudmundsson, is almost saurian in appearance, with sharp teeth in both jaws, but others describe it as that of an Orca, whit small conic teeth.


Body-wise, this whale either has a small dorsal fin or none at all and it may grow between 10-20 m in length. With an elongate, streamlined shape, they're very fast swimmers. Their movement is accompanied by massive amounts of foam formed by  the water moving along with the red mane, which makes the raudkembingur look like a hrosshvalur (i.e., Horse Whale). Hrosshvalurs, however, have a dappled coloration, a horse-like tail, and enormous eyes.


As mentioned before, there is no limit to the malice and evil of the raudkembingur. Its mere presence is enough to dissuade fishermen from an area. It will play dead for half a month, floating innocuously on the surface of the water until someone is foolish enough to approach it. Once a boat is within range, it will leap onto the vessel, putting its teeth to use by destroying the hull and drowning all aboard. Much like a shark is followed by pilot-fish, the raudkembingur regularly has beluga whales or narwhals following in its wake. These smaller, harmless whales clean up after the raudkembingur, feeding on its leftovers.


However, the whale’s single-minded obsession for destruction represents the best hope of foiling it for if a boat escapes it, and it does not manages to destroy another within the same day, it will die of frustration.


One raudkembingur destroyed eighteen boats in the course of one day, but a nineteenth boat managed to escape by dressing a piece of wood in clothes and tossing it overboard. The raudkembingur, believing it to be a human, kept trying fruitlessly to drown it while the boat made its escape.


Raudkembingurs will also overexert to death when pursuing prey. A boat captained by Eyvindur Jónsson off Fljót (northern Iceland) ran into a raudkembingur. Panicked, the crewmen rowed for land as fast as possible until they reached safety at the inlet of Saudanesvik. The sea then turned red as the raudkembingur inhaled its last breath. After the escape, the boat was nickname of Hafrenningur (Ocean Runner).


The demonic raudkembingur is also associated with sorcery and metamorphoses. One tale tells of a callous young man at Hvalsnes (a town known for its alluring landscapes) who was cursed by the elves (a local Ellerwoman was suspected) into becoming a monstrous red-headed whale. He wreaked havoc in Faxafjord and Hvalfjordur, until he tried to chase a priest up-river. The red-head died of exhaustion in Hvalvatn Lake (its bones, transfixed into rock) can still be seen near the edge of the water.




-Arnason, J.; Powell, G. E. J. and Magnusson, E. trans. 1864. Icelandic Legends. Richard Bentley, London.

Davidsson, O. 1900. The Folk-lore of Icelandic Fishes. The Scottish Review, October, pp. 312-332.

-Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. 2011. Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.


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