Its appearance throughout the Norse sagas adds to the richness of Norse mythology and may speak of the psychological fear of seafaring that many people in Viking societies had despite their maritime prowess.

Iceland before Instagrammers

Nowadays, Iceland is one of the world's most sought-after tourist destinations. Every year, hordes of tourists flock to experience the raw majesty of Iceland's stunning natural beauty. 

From its enchanting waterfalls and powerful volcanoes to the geysers and from the urban chic of Reykjavik to the allure of partying all night under the Midnight Sun, this small island nation certainly punches above its weight in global tourism.

The settlement of Iceland, however, was a far starker story. 

Luckily for us moderns, we have remnants of the very early years of the settlement of Iceland. Several sagas detail the very beginnings of the Norse settlement of Iceland from the late 9th century CE. 

Though these sagas were compiled in the later medieval period, around the 13th century CE, they draw on older works lost to time, and modern academics agree that much of what they entail about the beginnings of the settlement of Iceland has a great deal of truth. 

They detail not only who the settlers were and why they left Scandinavia to travel across the ocean to start new lives, but they also detail the trials and tribulations of the early years of the Norse trying to build an island community.

When the Norse arrived from Norway and its surrounding areas in the late 9th century, Iceland was uninhabited.

However, if we scour the sagas, there is mention of a mysterious and dangerous sea creature said to lurk off the coast of this rocky outcrop of the Norse world. This was the Hafgufa.

The rugged coastlines of Iceland were once believed to be the lurking grounds of the mythical Hafgufa. Photo: Valdemaras D. / Pexels

A ferocious and magical sea creature

The Hafgufa – whose name is believed to be Old Norse for something akin to "Sea Mist" - was said to be a giant sea creature that roamed the seas just off the coast of Iceland, what is now the Greenland Sea.

The Norse had reached what is now Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, sometime during the late 10th / early 11th century, establishing a settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows

The Hafgufa was said to ply the waters between the coasts of Iceland, the Norse settlements in Greenland, and the beaches surrounding L'Anse Aux Meadows.

The sagas often portray the Hafgufa as either a giant fish, a whale, or some sort of monstrous sea serpent. Its giant nature allowed it to swallow entire ships along with the crew easily. 

Aside from its monstrous size, it was also said to have the ability to create illusions. 

The sagas regale us with tales of how the Hafgufa would emit a sort of sweet and intoxicating smell that would lure poor sailors closer, somehow making them believe they were approaching the safety of an island or harbor. 

As they sailed close, however, the Hafgufa would engulf them, leading to their sudden death.

Modern interpretations

Whilst the Hafgufa may be a colorful addition to the Norse sagas, it is, thankfully, just a figment of Viking imagination.

Before we dismiss early medieval Europeans as superstitious cretins, it must be worth remembering that people from Viking societies created highly advanced (for the times) maritime technology. 

In an era before any sort of GPS and using only rudimentary naval technology, they were able to traverse great distances across the seas and oceans, from modern-day Canada to the eastern edges of the Black Sea and everywhere in between.

This was a world without our modern scientific knowledge; therefore, tales of fantastic sea creatures that lay beneath arose of what modern historians believe were blue whales or giant squid. 

People from Viking societies were not the only early modern societies to believe in sea creatures, and the Hafgufa was mentioned and referenced well into the 17th century in Icelandic and Danish literature.

Furthermore, the Hafgufa bears striking similarities to later Nordic Sea creatures, particularly the Kraken. The use of sensory trickery to lure sailors to their deaths also has some similarities with the sirens of Greek mythology.

Whilst it is often dangerous and foolhardy to try and understand the psychology of people from Viking societies who lived a millennium ago, the Hafgufa may well have symbolized the dangers and uncertainties of the sea. 

Sailing across vast oceanic distances, these people often put their lives at risk when they stepped on a ship. 

Given the vast size and scope of the northern Atlantic Ocean, there were a number of ever-present challenges for Norse seafarers, including dealing with giant sea life like whales or squids.

The Hafgufa's legendary method of attracting and consuming prey mirrors the feeding habits of both Humpback and Bryde's whales. Photo: Dwayne Reilander / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

New scientific insights bring the Hafgufa back to the surface

Though it was first described during the early medieval period, the Hafgufa has emerged back into the popular (scientific) imagination. 

According to a recently published scientific paper, a group of Australian scientists believe they have identified the origins of the Hafgufa.

Whilst many dismiss the early medieval peoples, including those in Viking societies, as scientifically backward, this is far from the truth.

Norse seafarers had an intimate knowledge of the oceans and seas and their bountiful maritime and aquatic life. 

The uniqueness of the Hafgufa feeding pattern – where it was said to lie in wait, with its mouth open for a hapless school of fish or an unfortunate ship to then engulf and consume, bears a striking similarity to how some whales have been recorded as feeding.

Further in the paper, it describes the similarities between the smell (often likened to "rotten cabbage") when whales feed and the sweet scent that the Hafgufa emitted to attract fish and sailors alike. 

Both Humpback and Bryde's whales produce a distinctive scent (though hardly sweet) when they regurgitate food to lure prey into their open jaws. 

It is more than likely that the myth of Hafgufa, these giant sea creatures, emerged from Norse seafarers witnessing the feeding habits of whales.

For more information on mythical Norse creatures, visit Sky History here.

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