When I received an invitation to contribute a monster story for a this anthology, I was excited and honoured. And then I had to choose a monster to write about. It had to be a European monster, which helped to narrow the choices. I made a list of fiendish beasts of myth and legend, and noticed that the north of Europe seemed less well represented on my list.
I researched some more and considered writing a kraken story, but there are already many of those. Everyone knows the kraken, a monstrous mythological squid creature said to live off the coast of Norway, but fewer are familiar with Hafgufa, an Icelandic giant sea monster. Iceland is rich in myth and has a long history of reverence for nature and the elements, much evident in their tales of huldufólk (hidden folk, i.e. elves). While the stories of elves and of Grýla, a child-eating, mountain-dwelling ogress, have gained a wider following, Hafgufa seems still to be shrouded in mist.
Hafgufa (Icelandic: sea mist), and Lyngbakr (heather back) were two sea monsters in the Greenland sea, disguised as a pair of islands, or some rocks and an island, first “reported” in an Icelandic saga* from the late 13th century. The hero, Örvar-Oddr, and his crew spotted them while sailing. In the saga, Hafgufa is the biggest monster in the entire ocean, and Lyngbakr, a giant whale. Oddr’s ship sails past the islands, and later, Oddr orders his men to turn back to investigate further, but when they return to the area, the islands are gone. One of his men explains that the islands were most likely the two sea monsters attempting to lure the crew to their deaths.
While often described as a huge fish, some say that Hafgufa was the original kraken. Indeed, Olaus Magnus, a Swedish historian of the 16th century, described the kraken in his Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, as a beast that was “a strange mix of fish and squid . . . quite different from those we find later in the literature, suggesting that his monster is likely a confusion of many sightings, including not only the giant squid but perhaps whales and cuttlefish as well.”
Hafgufa’s method of luring prey, both sea creatures and fishermen, was to swallow a huge mouthful of fish and then belch them out. The kraken is also said to lie in wait, disguised as an island, or to wait in the depths of the ocean, its location often marked by large schools of fish swimming above it. Either way, it tempts the fishermen to come closer.
Coincidentally, around the same time, news was coming out about the first ever live footage of the giant squid in its natural deep sea habitat, caught on film by a three-man crew led by zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera. They filmed the giant squid (Architeuthis dux) near the Ogasawara archipelago about 1,000 km south of Tokyo, in July of 2012, using a specially-designed camera system called The Medusa. The system, designed by oceanographer Edith Widder, involves using dim red light, invisible to giant squid, and bioluminescence to attract them.
The near-infrared light and silence of their submersible as the team drifted down appear to have been the secrets that allowed them to view the giant squid. Kubodera said: “If you try and approach making a load of noise, using a bright white light, then the squid won’t come anywhere near you. That was our basic thinking.”
The Japan Broadcasting Commission (NHK) and the US Discovery Channel funded the mission, and broadcast documentaries afterwards. While researching giant squid, I came across a fascinating TED Talk with Edith Widder, in which she explains her system. It includes some of the footage of the crew during their first sighting of the giant squid via the Medusa, and some even more exciting footage from inside the submersible, when Kubota shines a bigger light on the squid; instead of fleeing, it continues to hold onto the bait they used to tempt it into approaching their camera.
My contribution to European Monsters is a story entitled Hafgufa Rising. The setting is a tiny fictional island, called Hafgufa, off the eastern coast of Iceland. Between researching Icelandic food, culture and myth, and learning as much as I could about the real-life giant squid and the myths surrounding it, the story was a great pleasure to write. I leave you with this gorgeous illustration by Daniele Serra, which accompanies my story in the book.
European Monsters, published by Fox Spirit Books, was released on December 18 and is available on Amazon. Several of the authors have prepared special blog posts about their stories, collected under Fox Spirit Books’ European Monsters tag. The Table of Contents is also posted on their website, and includes a photo by Margrét Helgadóttir of a fantastic piece of Oslo street art featuring a giant squid.
*The Örvar-Odds saga is available here, collected by Dr. Zoe Borovsky, for those who can read Old Norse.