There are three techniques for whaling in Mythic Europe. Covenants might participate in each.
Whales beach themselves, or die in the Atlantic and are washed onto the western shores of Europe. Beached, living whales can be eaten. Sometimes the frigid sea keeps dead whales fresh enough to harvest their meat and oil. Often they have decayed, so that they are filled with noxious gasses. Characters harvesting whales need to remember that bad air and terrible smells cause disease in Mythic Europe, by unbalancing the humours.
Some fishermen are simply lucky. They see a whale near the surface and strike it with a spear, then manage to track it.
Whale drives are, similarly, a matter of luck. Whale drives are community affairs, as they work best with a flotilla of boats. The goal is to force the whales toward a beach, in the hope that they will strand. Norwegian whalers tend to use this method, on an impromptu basis. If a group of fishermen spot a pod of whales, they try a drive: there’s not a lot of evidence for professional whaling expeditions among the Norse.
Whale meat is considered a “fish” for the purposes of fasting. This makes it particularly welcome during the lengthy periods of Lent and Advent, when meat is frowned upon. The tongue of a whale is considered a particular delicacy, and although the whalers of Biarritz, near Bayonne, are tax exempt, they deliver all whale tongues to the bishop, as a voluntary levy.
Blubber is a mixture of fat and collagen. It is flensed from the whale, and oil is rendered from it by a process called “frying out”. This involves heating strips of blubber in big cauldrons called try pots in English. A place where try pots are used is called a try works. In some places, the crispy residue of fried blubber is eaten.
Whale oil is a wonderful light source. In “Brilliant”, Jane Bronx notes that the widespread use of whale oil reduced the cost of lighting a house remarkably, making artificial light far more practical. Whale oil has a strong, fishy odour, made worse by burning, so it was never as popular as candles among the wealthy.
Confusingly, whale bones are used for various tasks, much as ivory would be, but Mythic Europeans seeking “whale bone” are seeking baleen. Baleen is a type of keratin, found in the mouth of whales. It supports a sieve of hair, used to filter water for food. Baleen softens when boiled in water, which makes it easy to mould.
The final way of catching whales used in Mythic Europe is to skewer each whale with an arrow or spear, to which has been attached a line and a drogue (a thing that drags and, generally, floats). This allows the hunters to follow the injured animal until it dies, then secure it and tow it to shore. The drogue method is used by Basque whalers in 1220, but is not known in many of the other whaling nations. It appears in the Sixteenth Century in England, the Netherlands, and Norway. There is some argument if the vikings used it, but if they did, they didn’t pass it on to anyone but the Basques.
The trade can be traced back about 120 years, but only during the game period is it spreading through the Basque territories, with royal charters to warehouse whale products being issued to various port towns by the French and Spanish crowns The Basques have watchtowers along the coast of the Bay of Biscay, which look out for the right whale (literally, the “correct” whale). It has a distinctive waterspout. They also take the, closely related, bowhead whale. These two species swim slowly and contain a lot of fat, which is valuable not only for sale, but because it makes the cadavers buoyant. Basques might also take grey and sperm whales.
Baleen, called whalebone, is used to make things that need to be both strong and flexible. This is why it was used it clothes, in the real world, until steel underwiring became a cheaper alternative. Baleen is mentioned in some early Welsh and Irish folklore. It is sometimes called “whale eyelashes” and is used to make accoutrements, like belt buckles. In this form it is carved, resulting in products like scrimshawed ivory.
There’s a tiny amount of realworld archaeology which indicates baleen armour in Powys in Wales. This style of armour is found in the New World. In Inuit examples, it’s a composite of leather and moulded plates, each plate being made with multiple layers of baleen. It’s a laminar armour that is, it’s made of overlapping plates, like Imperial Roman lorica segmentata. In Europe it would probably be lammelar (non-overlapped plates) because that was the common technology until the rise of plate armour.
To model baleen armour, a troupe should choose how realistic they want such an exotic substance to be. It could be as protective as leather or metal scale armour. A covenant that uses baleen to mould suits could make something with as much coverage, but less durability, as metal plate. Like tailored metal plate, such baleen suits could not be swapped between wearers. Whale baleen is generally white or ivory coloured, although many baleen items darken to brown through use. The baleen of the right whale, which is the preferred species for harvest, is black. Either’s a great colour for fantasy armour.
Myths about whales
There are various myths about whales. Many of them suggest they are demons. That aside, there are two main myths. Whales are reputed to summon fish to their mouths with a sweet perfume. This is a significato: a hint on the meaning of life embedded in Creation by God. The whale represents the devil, or the mouth of Hell. The sweet perfume is temptation. Whales are also said to impersonate islands, floating on the surface until trees grow on them. When a ship lands, the whale submerges, they then eat the sailors.
Faith and Flame describes the Basques, who are the premiere whalers in period. Whales are described, under a variety of names, in the bestiaries for earlier editions of the game. The most comprehensive book I’ve found on whaling in the period is “Monstrous Fishes and the Mead-Dark Sea: Whaling in the Medieval North Atlantic” by Vicki Szabo.
Form and material bonuses for whale products
Ambergris: The name means “grey amber”. I’m not sure that in 1220 people knew the grey blobs that wash up in beaches come from sperm whales. Sperm whales aren’t a hunting whale in 1220, but sometimes wash ashore. If it’s amber, then +3 controlling people* and Corpus*. If its role as a perfume fixative is taken into account, +3 Imaginem.
Baleen: As the medieval version of spring steel +3 Muto.
Blood: Have you seen a meme about the number of your enemies you need to kill to get enough iron to make a sword from their blood? What happens if you make a sword from the blood of a whale?
Bones: Some medieval people used whale bones as structural elements in huts. This may have had religious significance, as bad archaeologists used to say when they couldn’t understand things. Harm animals +4*, which is important for harpoons, creating sacred architecture +3.
Candle made of whale fat: Summoning merrow +6
Oil: Light +6 (for rarity).
Skin: transform into a whale +7* Teeth (ivory): Healing wounds +5*
Tongue: Attracting fish +9^, Speech +6*
* from published sources.