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The Hafgufa

ISSUE:  Summer 2020


The Hafgufa is a giant fish or whale said in Old Norse writings to roam the seas.

In the Konungs Skuggsjá, a book of tactics and morality written by King Håkon Håkonsson for his young son, the king is loath to describe the creature—for no one, he says, will believe him without seeing it first with his own two eyes. As for him, he fears it, “for it is a massive fish, that looks more like an island than a living thing.”

In the Ödds-Ordlinger Saga, it is said to be “like a nest of floating hills.”

It is elsewhere called a mountain and a sea-meadow.

Helli Odvarsson says it is “as long as waiting.”

No one knows how long the Hafgufa has lived. But it is thought that it has been in the oceans since before men ever took to them.

Colors of the Hafgufa:

“Blue.”

“Gray-black.”

“Midnight.”

“As midnight.”

“Mead-ruddy.”

“Gray-dappled, like beaten tin.”

“A drowsy gray.”

“Of such hue as the rain is.”

“Opal-hided: Ale-colored when seen in the morning, cloud-pale when appearing before a storm.”


It is commonly supposed that the Hafgufa may only be seen in the form of two great nostrils protruding from the water. The reason for this misconception: It is only these that men typically observe before hurling things or fleeing in haste.

Hafgufa meaning “sea steam” or “sea mist” in Old Norse.


The Hafgufa floats, observing a school of fish. Again and again, a pulse passes through the bubbling host, and a thousand shimmering bodies wheel with a whoosh that in the sea is no louder than a heartbeat. How long has the Hafgufa watched them, the great mass turning, turning back?


It is agreed among those who have knowledge of the subject that the Hafgufa eats in this way: When it is hungry (this occurring not more than six or seven times a year) it will release an enormous belch, which disgorges from its mouth all manner of fish and feed trapped there by previous refection. All creatures within a wide swath of the sea then come, attracted by this expulsion, whereupon the Hafgufa simply closes its jaws and swallows them up.

This process is not without conflict for the Hafgufa. On the one hand, the Hafgufa is very big and, as a result, very hungry. But then also it is a joy to watch them all come in—to bask in the sundry colors and shapes that the ocean has made. The Hafgufa is almost like a magician, calling them forth. A brief moment to look on as this teeming life swirls above it—and then like a magician, the Hafgufa must make it all disappear.


From time to time, a boat will make landfall upon the Hafgufa, and its passengers—thinking themselves at rest upon some island—get out. This has occurred so often over the course of years that the Hafgufa has developed a remarkable sensitivity to who should set foot upon its length, and can now feel them debark, stretch their limbs and amble in circles, cast squinting looks at the sky.

It is not at all uncommon, in fact, for weary sailors to make camp there for the night. Hauling rations of salt pork and biscuit from the hold, they unfurl their bedrolls in the smooth places and set to building cookfires. The heat from these fires pricks the Hafgufa, so that if too bustling a ship should land and make camp, it can scarcely endure the torment. But such are the deep sighs breathed from their bodies reclining, such is the joy of their voices in bawdy song, that the Hafgufa bears the pain and keeps as still as it is able. The slightest movement, and this will all be lost.


Regarding the Hafgufa’s capacity of breath: There is none to match it. Regarding its size, what more can be said?

Regarding the Hafgufa’s faith, it is speculated:

The Hafgufa once was baptized.

The Hafgufa is of the Mussulman faith.

The Hafgufa’s fins are set far apart, so that as a result it may by no means bring them together to pray.

The Hafgufa may or may not be of the material of gods.

The Hafgufa is itself a god.

If it is so that an infinite number of angels may dance upon the head of a pin, how many dance upon the Hafgufa’s head?


Sometimes it will swim up beneath a great ship at night, when it cannot be seen, and float there for a while. If it gets close enough, the Hafgufa can hear the men talking, singing, coupling, crying themselves to sleep inside the hull.

In this way the Hafgufa learned the words:

stow
far-fetch’d
coil
promise
when


Smells of the Hafgufa:

“Putrid, as of mown grass rotting in a field.”

“Like a wet dog, or a hundred wet dogs.”

Strangely sweet—“in the spot where it emerges, the ocean is said to smell like cold milk poured into a bowl.”

“You cannot imagine the smell of it.”


Up ahead, the Hafgufa spies a welter of brown-black water. A forest of kelp, perhaps. Nearer, it is not a forest of kelp at all, but a shipwreck. Fresh, too—the galleon’s broken bulk still storms from the surface in nettled clouds of rope, rum, shattered timbers. Then, as it looks on, an enormous tendril recoils through the wreckage and vanishes into the murk, and a horrible tingle runs through the Hafgufa.

This is the Kraken.

It is true that the Hafgufa has no natural enemies here in the deep. But that does not preclude strong dislikes, and the Kraken is one of these. There is something unctuous, almost itchy, in the way the Kraken moves through the water—as if trying to flee from itself all at once. Many are the days the Hafgufa has happened upon some squalid scene of destruction wrought by its oily limbs. Sometimes, as now, the Hafgufa will arrive when the mischief is still afoot, and catch the Kraken’s winking eye as it tears through a topsail or cracks a burly mainmast in two.

To the Hafgufa, at least, it appears to be winking. The great circumference of the Kraken’s head means that only one of its eyes is ever actually visible, so that even a blink, it is true, would necessarily look like a wink.

Regardless, it gives the Hafgufa the heebie-jeebies. Best to stay away. How odd, how almost cosmically dismaying, that in all of creation there should be only one thing of a similar scale, and that it should be this. Where are the others? What was the world so busy making?


The Hafgufa circles slowly around a wooden spade that is puttering down through the sea’s middle depths like a child taking small, reluctant steps toward bed. A few scales of bright red paint still cling to the handle. The Hafgufa gives it a nudge with its nose, and the spade hurtles upward, then resumes its fall.


“I should like to see it,” says a child from within the hull of a seabound galley.

“Indeed my boy, no you should not.”

And the Hafgufa remembers the day St. Brendan landed upon its back and debarked with his men from their little skiff and there held a full Mass without knowing where they stood. And when they drove in a cross to bless the island, the Hafgufa spooked and tore away swimming, and the monks were sore afraid and cried out.

But St. Brendan held up his hand to them and said: “Why are you afraid? And why do you cry out? Has not this creature kept us from the sea? And if we know not its name, let us call it then by the name of Love.”

And the Hafgufa slowed, then stopped, and slowly the men gathered round and ate their supper and bedded down. In the night it could feel them still quivering from fear. But the Hafgufa maintained an immaculate stillness, and by and by their quivering stopped.


All the ancient authors agree:

The Hafgufa prefers colder waters.

The Hafgufa does not swim in pods.

A ploughman’s rig with a full team yoked could be sheltered inside the Hafgufa’s wink.

And how cold is too cold?

And how many make a pod?

And where will the Hafgufa be sheltered?


In that same Konungs Skuggsjá, the king notes that the Hafgufa is rarely seen, and only ever then in the same two places. From this he surmises that in all the ocean there are only two Hafgufa (and that these must be infertile, for else the oceans would be full of them).

This the Hafgufa overhears one night while listening at the keel of a small sloop picking its way across a starlit fjord. It senses the thought offered up in consolation—only two in all the sea, and how, then, should we encounter one? But to the Hafgufa, it does not seem a small number at all.

It hears the place mentioned—this home to the other Hafgufa. It is far. It is very far. But two is not a small number at all.


Flourishing kelp beds beard the headlands. A warm current ferries the Hafgufa around the cape.

It is good to swim so hard. The Hafgufa has not swum so hard for a very long time. It has had nowhere to go.


Bright shoals engulf the Hafgufa as it slips from the deep sea into warmer waters.

Here vessels abound, alive with chatter:

luscious
rum cake
burgundy
Harfleur
pity
stable
message
price

A merchant vessel overturns off the coast, and for one whole day the Hafgufa sports 1,800 ladies’ hats.

The Hafgufa floats ardently alongside a small island for almost a week before eventually realizing what it is. It is a dark moment for the Hafgufa, and one of much searching.

The Hafgufa follows westward a sober galleon, its cabins woolly with murmur and hush. Muted fear, confiding, assurance.

In this way the Hafgufa learned the words:

comfort
savior
landfall
cleanse


“Aye, golden hills farther than you could walk in a lifetime. And not your birth but your life known. And everlasting peace.”

“I should like to see it.”

“You shall, John. You shall.”


A curdled bloodred stain streaks the waterline of a man-o’-war, and the smell of gunpowder rankles the air. The Hafgufa turns north into colder waters.

There are fewer ships here, and wending northward along the surface, it watches the ocean shade cobalt, then a dusky woad. League by league, the Hafgufa succumbs to the feeling of swimming not in the sea, but in the sky. As though here, amid the water’s bright boreal gleaming, it has passed somehow into the wider universe, and floats equally now among salt and stars, wave-swells and eddying galaxies.

What is it the Hafgufa feels, here in this place? What does it know? A sense of being enormous, unbounded. And at the same time, a sense of being very small. Space travels outward in all directions, until the Hafgufa begins to feel that it might disappear altogether. But then the Hafgufa remembers it is not alone. And suddenly, the water itself seems to sing.


“Have you seen him, then?”

“You don’t see God, Cawley.”

“Well then how do you know he’s there?”

“Do you see your willie?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Well then, but sometimes it wakes you in the middle of the night all the same.”


Green soapstone sea. The surface cobbled with spume. Off a rocky coast, the Hafgufa encounters a carrack limping out into open water. The boat travels slowly out, as if drawn back toward the land by some force. Onboard, all is silent but for someone singing.

In this way, the Hafgufa learned the words:

thistle
headwind
Molly
farewell


A sea cut in coarse bands of graywacke flows around islands brawling with shale. How long now? How long?


The sea pale green and smooth as the skin of a drowned man. Far out in the waste, a madman paddles a ragged dinghy—smirking, singing, weeping, laughing—steadily out into nowhere.


And then one evening near sunset, with a weird light bucking on the edge of the horizon, the Hafgufa enters a shallow strait. Nothing stirs, and the water has an eerie ring as of a thing just struck. Ahead in the distance, it spies the dark hulls of a fleet of merchant ships. The Hafgufa makes for them, thinking to listen there awhile. But as it comes on, a strange thing happens. The lines of each hull, instead of growing sharper, begin to waver, then blur, then seep shapelessly outward, until the Hafgufa can hardly tell one vessel from the next.

Closer still, it begins to pass through a field of scattered detritus, which grows denser and denser until at last it arrives beneath the vessels and finds itself engulfed in a blizzard of evening dresses, fine linens, barrel staves, turmeric, eyeglasses, books, clouds of cotton. A knot of drowning rats clamber up sinking snarls of rope with dreamlike slowness. Farther down, an old mare, eyes bulging in panic, kicks wildly at the bedclothes entangling her legs, churning the water furiously to no avail.

The Hafgufa has barely begun to take in this strange scene when a faint roar reaches its ear. At the surface, the ships begin to pitch and sway, shaking loose their burdens faster than before. The Hafgufa follows the sound upward toward the ships and breaks the surface, passing into mayhem. Whatever tempest had left this graveyard behind has turned back again, and lashes wrathfully at the water. The air is cut blind with rain, and waves heave like muscle beneath the ocean’s skin. The Hafgufa dives back under as the wrecked ships shudder, spraying splinters aloft.

But even here, just beneath the surface, all is chaos. The storm combs its long fingers through the water, scraping wood from the wrecks and whipping the down-drifting flotsam into a flurry, so that the Hafgufa can hardly tell up from down. In the midst of it all, a bright glint catches the Hafgufa’s eye. A figure, an image, at once intensely familiar and unrecognizable flashes clear for a moment and then is gone. The Hafgufa follows after, loses sight of it amid saddles, broadcloth, gold brocade. When it appears again it seems to the Hafgufa to be a piece of something living, which now slips away once more among maps, chests of letters, wedding gowns. And reappearing now it is a face.

And reappearing now it is an eye. It is the Hafgufa’s eye, which now splits into two, then ten, then a hundred. Dislodged by the storm, a shipment of mirrors cascades down among the disjecta—full-length mirrors bordered in gilt flora, pocket glasses the size of a woman’s palm, gently curved and polished panes cut clear enough to observe the stars. These and others slip glinting down into darkness as the Hafgufa, frenzied, pursues its reflection across a thousand twisting fragments. But contort as it may, it cannot perceive the whole. There is no mirror that can tell the Hafgufa. Here an eye, here a flash of fin as it all sinks down, down, into black.


When the Hafgufa emerges, it is night, the sea calm and bright and moon-quiet.

No ships for a while now. Only the faraway sounds of dolphins’ chatter, the flush of fish schools, the tiny glottal thump of scallops firing themselves along the ocean floor. The hiss of waves cross-breaking on the surface. And faintly, at the benthic vents, the deep reverberations of the core.


The great Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, in the first edition of his Systema Naturae, gives the creature that he notes is elsewhere known as the whale, the asp-turtle, the leviathan, the Hafgufa, a new, scientific name: Microcosmus marinus, meaning “little world in the sea.”

And once St. Brendan said a Mass.


Food scarce. Water frigid. Few fish to be seen, and those that pass do so with a skittering crackle, as though the ocean’s heart has grown brittle, its beating almost stopped. Up ahead, looming icebergs hem in a ring of milky water. This is the place. The Hafgufa enters cautiously, and there it is.

The other Hafgufa staring back.

The Hafgufa does not move, lest the vision vanish. But the excitement is too strong, and it banks in a cumbersome, joyous circle, then returns to stare. What a creature is this other Hafgufa, when seen all at once! What strange proportions, and yet how wonderful in its strangeness! The Hafgufa is mesmerized. Another gleeful wheeling and it stops to stare again. It is so very tired, but this is all too much! And this is only the front! What are the flanks of the other Hafgufa like? And what of the rear? The Hafgufa tilts its massive bulk sideways, but the other Hafgufa does too. The Hafgufa rights itself, and the other Hafgufa does too. The Hafgufa winks.

The other Hafgufa does too.

The joy goes rigid in the Hafgufa’s gut, then slowly begins to curdle as it looks around, at surroundings that seem more and more familiar—the green water, the pearly menhirs of ice. Very familiar, in fact. It realizes now that it has been here before.

It is the other Hafgufa.


Sound of the Hafgufa: no sound.

lamplight
peril
oath
forswear

shallop
oarlock
kindle
stoke

furrow
gloaming
roadside
while

dewfall
footfall
tallow
loaf

swindle
bosom
precious
fiend

wheelwright
Gloucester
mercy
stain

berth
companion
faithless
damnyoureyes

infant
thimble
supper
sleep


The Hafgufa is trapped by two equally huge things: the sea and time. Often it wonders which, if either, is larger. For to its view, they both extend infinitely, and seem to bend back on themselves and renew. One could also say: The Hafgufa is free in the sea and in time. There are no known boundaries put upon it—it can go where it wishes, and there does not appear to be any limit to the time it will live.

And so, in this way, the Hafgufa is free. The Hafgufa is trapped and the Hafgufa is free.


The Hafgufa floats, observing a school of fish. How long has the Hafgufa watched them there, the great mass turning, turning back? 

1 Comments

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Tom Brown's picture
Tom Brown · 1 month ago

So the creature is real and I didn't dream it after all. Well told. Bravo.

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