05 March 2013


©Trustees of the British Museum
As was recently pointed out on Twitter by Dave Gray, star presenter of Radio Orkney, 'Folk under the age of 50 are reading Walrus tweets containing the phrase "Coo-coo-ca-choo" and wondering what's going on'. Has John Lennon been reincarnated? I refer of course to the young male walrus that had a brief holiday on North Ronaldsay in Orkney the other day, just as I did almost a year ago.

Walruses are iconic in Norse and Viking culture. My esteemed colleague in Aarhus Else Roesdahl has written extensively about the export of ivory from their tusks from Greenland and across medieval Europe, and of course this ivory is the material of the Uig playing pieces or everyone's favourite 'Lewis chessmen'. But walruses are iconic in early medieval texts, too, such as the account of Ohthere, a Norwegian at King Alfred's court in the late ninth century, who said he travelled north for þæm horshwælum because they had such excellent bone in their teeth. Walruses rarely appear in Iceland (let alone North Ronaldsay), but the place-name Rosmhvalanes in the south-west of the country confirms some archaeological finds which suggest that the early Icelandic immigrants found and exploited breeding colonies.

There seem to be three different words for this creature in Old Norse. Rosmhvalr is an old word which survives mainly in the place-name and in legal provisions, in which it is sometimes confused with hrosshvalr. The Old English horshwæl mentioned above seems to be a calque on Old Norse hrosshvalr, which does occur in some texts, though there wasn't always a clear distinction between walruses and whales, and the Old English loan is perhaps the best evidence for this word meaning 'walrus' in Old Norse. Snorri, in his Edda (trans. Faulkes, p. 162), lists 27 different creatures which include various kinds of whales, including both hrosshvalr, which Faulkes translates as 'horse-whale' and rostungr, the more common term for walrus. The thirteenth-century Norwegian author of Konungs skuggsjá 'King's Mirror' is aware of the problem - he notes that the Greenlanders consider the rostungr to be like a whale, while he considers it more to be like a seal. And some Icelandic legal provisions also make a clear distinction between whale, which can be eaten along with fish on meat-free days, and walrus (and seal), which cannot. Rostungr is also a common nickname, and one can easily imagine the corpulent, buck-toothed or mustachioed chaps who would deserve such a nickname!


  1. The Vikings exhibition currently on in Edinburgh has a photograph of the Alfredian Orosius open at the 'walrus' passage - unfortunately the caption calls it the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle...

    1. :-( That's the trouble with us academics, we like to get things right. But no one else seems to care.