Usually when you see a sea monster rocketing toward your ship, his head thrashing, teeth dripping with the blood of the innocent, the first thought in your head isn’t, “Would he pair well with a nice Chianti?” Unless of course you’re a Viking sailing the North Atlantic in the 11th century, where food is scarce and there’s desperation aplenty!
Nordic folklore is rife with scary sea cryptids, but especially notable are Iceland’s incredible inedible sea monsters.
A striking detail specifically woven into the lore of many of Iceland’s mythological sea monsters is whether or not you can eat them. However, this culinary detail is not emphasized as often in folklore related to aquatic monsters that aren’t Iceland-specific, like the Kraken, Tsuchinoko, or Loch Ness Monster.
One explanation for this is that Icelandic sea monster stories were invented as cautionary tales. Historically, food options were scarce in the frigid North Atlantic waters, so sailors often had to take risks in the hopes of triumphing over noxious sea victuals. So many people died from testing poisonous seafood that when they didn’t keel over, it was cause for celebration.
In fact, Icelanders take so much pride in figuring out how to consume toxic sea creatures that once a year at a festival called Porrablót, they ritualistically eat the poisonous Greenland shark!
Because the shark lives in freezing waters (minus two degrees Celsius), it develops a way to withstand the cold with a chemical makeup of toxins that function essentially as the equivalent of antifreeze. So when the Vikings managed to kill and chow down on this sea monster, they either got very sick or died miserably. But those plucky Icelanders didn’t give up! With a series of trial and death errors, they discovered that the Greenland shark can in fact be eaten. They must simply bury it in the ground or hang it up on hooks and let it rot for six months so all the poisons ooze out. Then they put it through a complex fermenting process and voila! Gather around the dinner table kiddies for Grandma’s classic Greenland shark dish, Hákarl! A delicacy Icelanders say tastes and smells like pee. Yes. Pee! Is it any wonder that the name sounds like a heave when you barf? HAKARLLLLLLL. To help exorcise the putrid taste from their mouths as they eat it, they even chase it with Brennivin, a potent palette-cleansing spirit candidly referred to as “The Black Death.” Icelanders know how to party!
Anyway, feast upon this collection of Iceland’s most potent and toxic sea monsters, but only with your eyes! Approach with a fork and spoon at your own peril.
The name skeljaskrímsli translates generally to “shell monster” and refers to not just one creature, but many unidentified shell beasts roaming the Icelandic shores. These creatures are usually described as having thick shells, plates, or scales covering their bodies, with an armored ball attached to the ends of their tails, much like that of an Ankylosaurus. They’re said to be as big as horses with red eyes and glowing mouths.
Why you can’t eat it: The skeljaskrímsli’s blood is extremely poisonous. According to the lore, one farmer managed to wound the usually unbreakable skeljaskrímsli, causing its blood to erupt and splatter all over his exposed skin. The result? The farmer’s immediate, agonizing death. Pro tip: apparently a way to kill this toxic beast is by pelting it with silver buttons, grey willow catkins, or lamb droppings. Thank me later?
A fish with demonic flair, the öfuguggi is coal-black with a speared tail and it swims backwards. Its fins face in the reverse direction and its teeth are pointed and sharp for scavenging and tearing into the flesh of dead sailors. Such a loathed abomination is the öfuguggi that Icelanders use the name to refer to weirdos, jerks, and perverts in parlance today.
Why you can’t eat it: According to lore, in cases where the öfuguggi was caught and eaten by humans, the fish caused people’s stomachs to swell up and burst, leaving a wound in the shape of a cross behind. The öfuguggi caused the death of many innocent Icelanders over the years starting in the 17th century.
According to the lore, some wizard in Iceland with nothing better to do once resurrected a half-rotted, dead eel–which then manifested and transformed into the terrifying and malicious hrökkáll or “coil-eel.” The beast lies still in water until an unsuspecting victim dips their toe in, then it twists its snake-like body, which is covered in blades, around the victim’s leg, squeezing and slicing through the flesh until the limb is amputated.
Why you can’t eat it: The hrökkáll excretes a venom that can eat through your bones in a heartbeat, and its meat is just as corrosive. Rumor has it that when a hrökkáll is captured, it will just use its body composition to melt its way through rock and earth and wiggle back into the first body of water it finds.
The name raudkembingur actually translates to “red comb” or “red crest,” and you can identify the creature by its tuft of bright red hair atop its head and neck. Nothing says danger like a bright red mohawk!
Though smaller than other Icelandic whales, researchers say that the raudkembingur has almost an unmatched salacity for attacking boats at high speeds while making booming neighing noises. These creatures are so dedicated to making a kill that they’ll float half-dead in the ocean for two weeks waiting for a ship to approach so that they can flop aboard and kill everyone. A sensitive evil whale, if a raudkembingur fails to properly pillage and murder, it gets so depressed that it dies of disappointment and irritation.
Why you can’t eat it: The raudkembingur is considered to be an abomination and to chew upon its flesh is forbidden! Plus, should you ever try to boil its meat for consumption, it just vanishes from the pot, anyway. Poof!
The loðsilungur is the Icelandic version of the North American fur-bearing trout, though it is deadlier and much more sinister in appearance (and not just because of its reported black teeth and pronounced overbite). Some loðsilungur are said to have red beards and patchy tufts all over them, while other accounts report that the fish’s fur is fluffy and white like mold.
Why you can’t eat it: While some have claimed that the North American fur-bearing trout is edible, watch out for the loðsilungur! You can only see the fur of the trout when it’s in the water, but as soon as it washes up on dry land, the fur lies flat and becomes suddenly invisible to any hungry human strolling by. This makes it nearly impossible to tell the difference between the loðsilungur and a regular, edible fish.
Cautionary tales of the loðsilungur’s toxicity abound, including a 1692 incident where two brothers died with plates of cooked loðsilungur resting on their knees, as did an entire household some years later. Only a young girl in the household who wasn’t hungry managed to live to tell the tale.