Hafgufa is a creature from Scandinavian fairy tales and legends, a huge fish or some kind of toothy whale, whose size was so colossal that it supposedly could easily swallow a large fishing boat or even a ship.
The Legend Of Hafgufa
Most of the hafgufa stories come from the Konungs skuggsjá (King’s Mirror), a 13th-century Norwegian text that dealt with royal topics of trade, hird (royal army), chivalrous behavior, strategy and tactics, and sea voyages. and strange sea creatures such as mermaids, mermen, and all sorts of monsters.
“There is a fish not yet mentioned, which it is hardly worth talking about because of its size, which to most people will seem incredible. Moreover, very few can tell anything definite about him, since people rarely see him, because he almost never approaches the shore and does not appear where the fishermen can see it, and I doubt that this kind of fish is very numerous in the sea …
I can’t say anything definite about its length, because on the occasions when people saw it, it looked more like an island than a fish. I have not heard of him ever being caught or found dead.
It seems probable that there are only two of them in the whole ocean, and that they do not produce offspring, since I believe that the same ones always appear. And other fish wouldn’t do well if they were as numerous as other whales, given that they are so huge and need a lot of food.”
So, Hafgufa is so big that it can be mistaken for an island (just like the miraculous yudo fish-whale from Yershov’s “Humpbacked Horse”). Sometimes it was simply called “kraken”, which was a common term for many sea monsters of the Middle Ages.
The most unique feature of the hafgufa, after its sheer size, was the way it fed. Most stories describe how this creature first opened its huge mouth, and then emitted a huge burp that threw pieces of half-digested fish into the water.
This served as a lure to attract all sorts of fish to the burping area, after which the hafgufa would again open its mouth, which is often described as being the size of a strait or fjord, fill it to capacity with fish, and then swallow it.
This is a rather specific type of “hunting” and until recently it was believed that neither ordinary whales, nor sperm whales, nor other large marine predators hunt in this way. But recently, a curious scientific paper was released that described how two modern species of whales use something very similar!
According to a study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science by scientists at Australia’s Flinders University, the humpback whale and Bryde’s whale use something very similar to a “hafgufa trap” to devour their prey – small fish.
Whales swim up to the place where there is a large school of the desired fish and freeze motionless at the surface, their mouths wide open. The fish swims around and willingly rushes to the open mouth, seeing in it, presumably, a suitable shelter from predators. And when the right amount of fish is in the mouth, the whale quickly closes it and swallows the prey.
Scientists believe that the observation of such hunting tactics served as a source of inspiration for the Scandinavians for the legends about hafgufa. As for the “additional descriptions” that hafgufa lures prey with pieces of half-digested fish, that it is the size of an island and easily swallows fishing boats, this is supposed to be simply a strong embellishment.
In fact, the original source of these legends was most likely even older and is assumed to be the stories of Greek sailors recorded in 150 AD.
Dr. Erin Sebo, an expert on historical manuscripts from Flinders University, says that when modern whale watchers saw this way of feeding, they thought it was something new that was invented by whales in our era, when the number of fish in the oceans is declining and the whales had to “invent” something else in order not to starve.
Now they believe that this method has been around for centuries, just rare, and quite likely seen by both Greek and Scandinavian sailors, they just didn’t describe it quite right.
Scientists note that, alas, this method of hunting is now being seen more often for whales, which probably still indicates that the whales are trying to adapt to difficult environmental conditions in this way.
This all sounds logical, but it’s still possible that ancient sailors might have seen some other sea creature that actually hunted with bait made from pieces of undigested fish and was capable of swallowing boats.
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