Given the intimate connection between Faroese identity and the pilot whale hunt, it’s not surprising that the Faroese are cautious when talking to outsiders about the tradition. Those Faroese who are opposed to the practice are willing to discuss the issue with foreigners, but they do so in hushed voices. I met one girl in her twenties, a clerk at a Tórshavn bookstore, who spoke passionately about the suffering of the whales during the killing. But as we talked she lowered her voice, and kept looking over her shoulder to make sure we were not overheard. “A lot of people react to my views by accusing me of being disloyal to Faroese culture,” she explained.
Despite the cultural prohibition against criticizing the grindadráp, local opposition to the hunt appears to be on the rise. During my second visit to the Faroe Islands, I was approached by locals who oppose pilot whaling and are not afraid to say so publicly. One of them is Ingi Sørensen, a professional diver and underwater photographer who is fiercely against the slaughter. Sørensen has created a Facebook group called Faroese Against Pilot Whale Hunting. So far, the group has about 220 members. “I wanted to create a forum where those in the Faroe Islands who oppose the pilot whale slaughter can gather and share their thoughts freely and without fear,” he told me. “There is no justification to wipe out entire schools of pilot whales, and the much-used argument of maintaining the hunt as a Faroese tradition has no validity.”
According to Sørensen and other opponents of the hunt, there is a generational divide among Faroese on the issue. Older people cannot imagine the Faroe Islands without the pilot whale hunt. Many younger people are ambivalent about the tradition; to them it seems an anachronism. “Pilot whales have kept us alive for centuries,” Sørensen, 52, said. “They have saved us from starvation. Today, their meat is so toxic our own health authorities tell us it’s too dangerous to eat.”
A woman in her twenties who wanted to remain anonymous told me: “I feel that pilot whaling is becoming a huge cultural burden on the young people here. We are told that pilot whaling is an important part of our culture, and one that we need to keep alive. But pilot whaling is not a cultural aspect that I have an interest in maintaining.”
Beyond the generational divide, there is also a gender gap when it comes to the hunt. Women, especially young mothers, are not enthusiastic about feeding their families meat known to contain dangerous toxins. Dr. Pál Weihe, coauthor of the 2008 statement about contaminants in whale meat, is convinced that the hunt will end in the not-too-distant future.
“Women make up a significant part of the family, and as soon as they limit their intake of pilot whale, things will start to happen,” Dr. Weihe told me during a conversation in his office. “Women carry the tremendous responsibility of ensuring the health of children to come and therefore filter out any arguments of history, culture, and politics. They have a lot to say about a family’s diet, and we will see a drastic reduction in the consumption of pilot whale overall.”
Aggi Ásgerð Ásgeirsdóttir is one of those women who refuse to serve pilot whale meat to her family. An artist and a mother of three, Ásgeirsdóttir lives in a classic Faroese wooden house on a hill overlooking Tórshavn – the kind of place that could be a postcard for Faroese culture. But she has no interest in participating in the tradition of the grindadráp. “We don’t depend on pilot whaling for survival any longer,” she said. “The opposite is true: To ensure our own health, and the health of generations to come, we need to stop viewing pilot whales as a food source.”
Ásgeirsdóttir told me she has many friends who share her views. “In the Faroe Islands, we often ask each other, ‘Do you eat pilot whale?’ in much the same way others might ask, ‘Do you smoke?’” She then added: “The pilot whale slaughter is not a part of my identity. Times have changed. Our habits, our culture, and how we perceive Faroese identity need to reflect that.”
Listening to Ásgeirsdóttir and other young women, it seemed that a quiet rebellion is occurring in the Faroe Islands. There is no open, organized boycott against whale meat. But an underground, unheralded dinner table revolt is happening across the archipelago as young women refuse to eat whale meat themselves or feed it to their children. This reminds me of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata. In that story the women of Greece refuse to have sex with their husbands as a way of protesting the never-ending Peloponnesian War. A similar gender-based revolt is occurring in the Faroes – only in this case it is a protest against the war on whales, and in place of a sexual revolution there is a culinary one. Once again, women hold the key to halting the killing.
Traditions are like chains: It only takes a break in one link to demolish the whole thing. This is about to happen to the whaling tradition in the Faroe Islands. During my time there, I spoke to many people – both men and women – who eat whale meat and blubber themselves but won’t feed it to their children. Eventually, then, a new generation will come of age that does not have a taste for pilot whale meat. It is to be hoped that they will lose a taste for the killing as well.
This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.
Top photo: CaptainOates/flickr
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