[Text: Edgar Allan Poe, »A Descent into the Maelstrom (B),« Tales, 1845, pp. 83-99.]
A DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTRÖM.
The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways ; nor are the models that we frame any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness of
His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus.
Joseph Glanville. .
WE had now reached the summit of the loftiest crag. For some minutes the old man seemed too much exhausted to speak.
»Not long ago,« said he at length, "and I could have guided you on this route as well as the youngest of my sons ; but, about three years past, there happened to me
an event such as never happened to mortal man — or at least such as no man ever survived to tell of — and the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have
broken me up body and soul. You suppose me a very old man — but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to
weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves, so that I tremble at the least exertion, and am frightened at a shadow. Do you know I can scarcely look over this little
cliff without getting giddy ?"
The »little cliff,« upon whose edge he had so carelessly thrown himself down to rest that the weightier portion of his body hung over it, while he was only kept from
falling by the tenure of his elbow on its extreme and slippery edge — this »little cliff« arose, a sheer unobstructed precipice of black shining rock, some fifteen or
sixteen hundred feet from the world of crags beneath us. Nothing would have tempted me to within half a dozen yards of its brink. In truth so deeply was I excited by
the perilous position of my companion, that I fell at full length upon the ground, clung [page 84:] to the shrubs around me, and dared not even glance upward at the sky
— while I struggled in vain to divest myself of the idea that the very foundations of the mountain were in danger from the fury of the winds. It was long before I could
reason myself into sufficient courage to sit up and look out into the distance.
»You must get over these fancies,« said the guide, "for I have brought you here that you might have the best possible view of the scene of that event I mentioned —
and to tell you the whole story with the spot just under your eye."
»We are now,« he continued, in that particularizing manner which distinguished him — "we are now close upon the Norwegian coast — in the sixty-eighth degree of
latitude — in the great province of Nordland — and in the dreary district of Lofoden. The mountain upon whose top we sit is Helseggen, the Cloudy. Now raise
yourself up a little higher — hold on to the grass if you feel giddy — so — and look out, beyond the belt of vapor beneath us, into the sea."
I looked dizzily, and beheld a wide expanse of ocean, whose waters wore so inky a hue as to bring at once to my mind the Nubian geographer's account of the
Mare Tenebrarum. A panorama more deplorably desolate no human imagination can conceive. To the right and left, as far as the eye could reach, there lay
outstretched, like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff, whose character of gloom was but the more forcibly illustrated by the surf which
reared high up against its white and ghastly crest, howling and shrieking forever. Just opposite the promontory upon whose apex we were placed, and at a distance of
some five or six miles out at sea, there was visible a small, bleak-looking island ; or, more properly, its position was discernible through the wilderness of surge in
which it was enveloped. About two miles nearer the land, arose another of smaller size, hideously craggy and barren, and encompassed at various intervals by a cluster
of dark rocks.
The appearance of the ocean, in the space between the more distant island and the shore, had something very unusual about it. Although, at the time, so strong a
gale was blowing landward that a brig in the remote offing lay to under a double-reefed trysail, and constantly plunged her whole hull out of sight, still there was
[page 85:] here nothing like a regular swell, but only a short, quick, angry cross dashing of water in every direction — as well in the teeth of the wind as otherwise.
Of foam there was little except in the immediate vicinity of the rocks.
»The island in the distance,« resumed the old man, "is called by the Norwegians Vurrgh. The one midway is Moskoe. That a mile to the northward is Ambaaren.
Yonder are Islesen, Hotholm, Keildhelm, Suarven, and Buckholm. Farther off — between Moskoe and Vurrgh — are Otterholm, Flimen, Sandflesen, and Stockholm.
These are the true names of the places — but why it has been thought necessary to name them at all, is more than either you or I can understand. Do you hear
anything ? Do you see any change in the water ?"
We had now been about ten minutes upon the top of Helseggen, to which we had ascended from the interior of Lofoden, so that we had caught no glimpse of the
sea until it had burst upon us from the summit. As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of
buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived that what seamen term the chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly
changing into a current which set to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each moment added to its speed — to its headlong
impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea, as far as Vurrgh, was lashed into ungovernable fury ; but it was between Moskoe and the coast that the main uproar held
its sway. Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion — heaving, boiling,
hissing — gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except
in precipitous descents.
In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one,
disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and
entering into combination, took unto themselves the [page 86:] gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly
— very suddenly — this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt
of gleaming spray ; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and
jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and
sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.
The mountain trembled to its very base, and the rock rocked. I threw myself upon my face, and clung to the scant herbage in an excess of nervous agitation.
»This,« said I at length, to the old man — »this can be nothing else than the great whirlpool of the Maelström.«
»So it is sometimes termed,« said he. »We Norwegians call it the Moskoe-ström, from the island of Moskoe in the midway.«
The ordinary accounts of this vortex had by no means prepared me for what I saw. That of Jonas Ramus, which is perhaps the most circumstantial of any, cannot
impart the faintest conception either of the magnificence, or of the horror of the scene — or of the wild bewildering sense of the novel which confounds the beholder.
I am not sure from what point of view the writer in question surveyed it, nor at what time ; but it could neither have been from the summit of Helseggen, nor during a
storm. There are some passages of his description, nevertheless, which may be quoted for their details, although their effect is exceedingly feeble in conveying an
impression of the spectacle.
»Between Lofoden and Moskoe,« he says, "the depth of the water is between thirty-six and forty fathoms ; but on the other side, toward Ver (Vurrgh) this depth
decreases so as not to afford a convenient passage for a vessel, without the risk of splitting on the rocks, which happens even in the calmest weather. When it is flood,
the stream runs up the country between Lofoden and Moskoe with a boisterous rapidity ; but the roar of its impetuous ebb to the sea is scarce equalled by the loudest
and most dreadful [page 87:] cataracts ; the noise being heard several leagues off, and the vortices or pits are of such an extent and depth, that if a ship comes within
its attraction, it is inevitably absorbed and carried down to the bottom, and there beat to pieces against the rocks ; and when the water relaxes, the fragments thereof
are thrown up again. But these intervals of tranquility are only at the turn of the ebb and flood, and in calm weather, and last but a quarter of an hour, its violence
gradually returning. When the stream is most boisterous, and its fury heightened by a storm, it is dangerous to come within a Norway mile of it. Boats, yachts, and
ships have been carried away by not guarding against it before they were within its reach. It likewise happens frequently, that whales come too near the stream, and
are overpowered by its violence; and then it is impossible to describe their howlings and bellowings in their fruitless struggles to disengage themselves. A bear once,
attempting to swim from Lofoden to Moskoe, was caught by the stream and borne down, while he roared terribly, so as to be heard on shore. Large stocks of firs and
pine trees, after being absorbed by the current, rise again broken and torn to such a degree as if bristles grew upon them. This plainly shows the bottom to consist of
craggy rocks, among which they are whirled to and fro. This stream is regulated by the flux and reflux of the sea — it being constantly high and low water every six
hours. In the year 1645, early in the morning of Sexagesima Sunday, it raged with such noise and impetuosity that the very stones of the houses on the coast fell to the
In regard to the depth of the water, I could not see how this could have been ascertained at all in the immediate vicinity of the vortex. The »forty fathoms« must
have reference only to portions of the channel close upon the shore either of Moskoe or Lofoden. The depth in the centre of the Moskoe-ström must be immeasurably
greater ; and no better proof of this fact is necessary than can be obtained from even the sidelong glance into the abyss of the whirl which may be had from the
highest crag of Helseggen. Looking down from this pinnacle upon the howling Phlegethon below, I could not help smiling at the simplicity with which the honest Jonas
Ramus records, as a matter difficult of belief, the anecdotes of the whales and the bears; for it appeared [page 88:] to me, in fact, a self-evident thing, that the largest
ship of the line in existence, coming within the influence of that deadly attraction, could resist it as little as a feather the hurricane, and must disappear bodily and at
The attempts to account for the phenomenon — some of which, I remember, seemed to me sufficiently plausible in perusal — now wore a very different and
unsatisfactory aspect. The idea generally received is that this, as well as three smaller vortices among the Ferroe islands, "have no other cause than the collision of
waves rising and falling, at flux and reflux, against a ridge of rocks and shelves, which confines the water so that it precipitates itself like a cataract ; and thus the
higher the flood rises, the deeper must the fall be, and the natural result of all is a whirlpool or vortex, the prodigious suction of which is sufficiently known by lesser
experiments." — These are the words of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of the Maelström is an abyss
penetrating the globe, and issuing in some very remote part — the Gulf of Bothnia being somewhat decidedly named in one instance. This opinion, idle in itself, was the
one to which, as I gazed, my imagination most readily assented ; and, mentioning it to the guide, I was rather surprised to hear him say that, although it was the view
almost universally entertained of the subject by the Norwegians, it nevertheless was not his own. As to the former notion he confessed his inability to comprehend
it ; and here I agreed with him — for, however conclusive on paper, it becomes altogether unintelligible, and even absurd, amid the thunder of the abyss.
»You have had a good look at the whirl now,« said the old man, "and if you will creep round this crag, so as to get in its lee, and deaden the roar of the water, I will
tell you a story that will convince you I ought to know something of the Moskoe-ström."
I placed myself as desired, and he proceeded.
"Myself and my two brothers once owned a schooner-rigged smack of about seventy tons burthen, with which we were in the habit of fishing among the islands
beyond Moskoe, nearly to Vurrgh. In all violent eddies at sea there is good fishing, at proper opportunities, if one has only the courage to attempt it ; [page 89:] but
among the whole of the Lofoden coastmen, we three were the only ones who made a regular business of going out to the islands, as I tell you. The usual grounds are a
great way lower down to the southward. There fish can be got at all hours, without much risk, and therefore these places are preferred. The choice spots over here
among the rocks, however, not only yield the finest variety, but in far greater abundance ; so that we often got in a single day, what the more timid of the craft could
not scrape together in a week. In fact, we made it a matter of desperate speculation — the risk of life standing instead of labor, and courage answering for capital.
"We kept the smack in a cove about five miles higher up the coast than this ; and it was our practice, in fine weather, to take advantage of the fifteen minutes'
slack to push across the main channel of the Moskoe-ström, far above the pool, and then drop down upon anchorage somewhere near Otterholm, or Sandflesen, where
the eddies are not so violent as elsewhere. Here we used to remain until nearly time for slack-water again, when we weighed and made for home. We never set out
upon this expedition without a steady side wind for going and coming — one that we felt sure would not fail us before our return — and we seldom made a
mis-calculation upon this point. Twice, during six years, we were forced to stay all night at anchor on account of a dead calm, which is a rare thing indeed just about
here ; and once we had to remain on the grounds nearly a week, starving to death, owing to a gale which blew up shortly after our arrival, and made the channel too
boisterous to be thought of. Upon this occasion we should have been driven out to sea in spite of everything, (for the whirlpools threw us round and round so violently,
that, at length, we fouled our anchor and dragged it) if it had not been that we drifted into one of the innumerable cross currents — here to-day and gone to-morrow —
which drove us under the lee of Flimen, where, by good luck, we brought up.
"I could not tell you the twentieth part of the difficulties we encountered 'on the grounds' — it is a bad spot to be in, even in good weather — but we made shift
always to run the gauntlet of the Moskoe-ström itself without accident ; although at times my heart has been in my mouth when we happened to be a minute
[page 90:] or so behind or before the slack. The wind sometimes was not as strong as we thought it at starting, and then we made rather less way than we could
wish, while the current rendered the smack unmanageable. My eldest brother had a son eighteen years old, and I had two stout boys of my own. These would have
been of great assistance at such times, in using the sweeps, as well as afterward in fishing — but, somehow, although we ran the risk ourselves, we had not the heart
to let the young ones get into the danger — for, after all is said and done, it was a horrible danger, and that is the truth.
"It is now within a few days of three years since what I am going to tell you occurred. It was on the tenth day of July, 18—, a day which the people of this part of
the world will never forget — for it was one in which blew the most terrible hurricane that ever came out of the heavens. And yet all the morning, and indeed until late
in the afternoon, there was a gentle and steady breeze from the south-west, while the sun shone brightly, so that the oldest seaman among us could not have foreseen
what was to follow.
"The three of us — my two brothers and myself — had crossed over to the islands about two o'clock P. M., and had soon nearly loaded the smack with fine fish,
which, we all remarked, were more plenty that day than we had ever known them. It was just seven, by my watch, when we weighed and started for home, so as to
make the worst of the Ström at slack water, which we knew would be at eight.
"We set out with a fresh wind on our starboard quarter, and for some time spanked along at a great rate, never dreaming of danger, for indeed we saw not the
slightest reason to apprehend it. All at once we were taken aback by a breeze from over Helseggen. This was most unusual — something that had never happened to
us before — and I began to feel a little uneasy, without exactly knowing why. We put the boat on the wind, but could make no headway at all for the eddies, and I was
upon the point of proposing to return to the anchorage, when, looking astern, we saw the whole horizon covered with a singular copper-colored cloud that rose with the
most amazing velocity.
"In the meantime the breeze that had headed us off fell away, [page 91:] and we were dead becalmed, drifting about in every direction. This state of things,
however, did not last long enough to give us time to think about it. In less than a minute the storm was upon us — in less than two the sky was entirely overcast — and
what with this and the driving spray, it became suddenly so dark that we could not see each other in the smack.
"Such a hurricane as then blew it is folly to attempt describing. The oldest seaman in Norway never experienced any thing like it. We had let our sails go by the run
before it cleverly took us ; but, at the first puff, both our masts went by the board as if they had been sawed off — the mainmast taking with it my youngest brother,
who had lashed himself to it for safety.
"Our boat was the lightest feather of a thing that ever sat upon water. It had a complete flush deck, with only a small hatch near the bow, and this hatch it had
always been our custom to batten down when about to cross the Ström, by way of precaution against the chopping seas. But for this circumstance we should have
foundered at once — for we lay entirely buried for some moments. How my elder brother escaped destruction I cannot say, for I never had an opportunity of
ascertaining. For my part, as soon as I had let the foresail run, I threw myself flat on deck, with my feet against the narrow gunwale of the bow, and with my hands
grasping a ring-bolt near the foot of the fore-mast. It was mere instinct that prompted me to do this — which was undoubtedly the very best thing I could have done —
for I was too much flurried to think.
"For some moments we were completely deluged, as I say, and all this time I held my breath, and clung to the bolt. When I could stand it no longer I raised myself
upon my knees, still keeping hold with my hands, and thus got my head clear. Presently our little boat gave herself a shake, just as a dog does in coming out of the
water, and thus rid herself, in some measure, of the seas. I was now trying to get the better of the stupor that had come over me, and to collect my senses so as to see
what was to be done, when I felt somebody grasp my arm. It was my elder brother, and my heart leaped for joy, for I had made sure that he was overboard — but the
next moment all this joy was turned into [page 92:] horror — for he put his mouth close to my ear, and screamed out the word 'Moskoe-ström ! '
"No one ever will know what my feelings were at that moment. I shook from head to foot as if I had had the most violent fit of the ague. I knew what he meant by
that one word well enough — I knew what he wished to make me understand. With the wind that now drove us on, we were bound for the whirl of the Ström, and
nothing could save us !
"You perceive that in crossing the Ström channel, we always went a long way up above the whirl, even in the calmest weather, and then had to wait and watch
carefully for the slack — but now we were driving right upon the pool itself, and in such a hurricane as this ! 'To be sure,' I thought, 'we shall get there just about the
slack — there is some little hope in that' — but in the next moment I cursed myself for being so great a fool as to dream of hope at all. I knew very well that we were
doomed, had we been ten times a ninety-gun ship.
"By this time the first fury of the tempest had spent itself, or perhaps we did not feel it so much, as we scudded before it, but at all events the seas, which at first
had been kept down by the wind, and lay flat and frothing, now got up into absolute mountains. A singular change, too, had come over the heavens. Around in every
direction it was still as black as pitch, but nearly overhead there burst out, all at once, a circular rift of clear sky — as clear as I ever saw — and of a deep bright blue
— and through it there blazed forth the full moon with a lustre that I never before knew her to wear. She lit up every thing about us with the greatest distinctness —
but, oh God, what a scene it was to light up !
"I now made one or two attempts to speak to my brother — but, in some manner which I could not understand, the din had so increased that I could not make him
hear a single word, although I screamed at the top of my voice in his ear. Presently he shook his head, looking as pale as death, and held up one of his finger, as if to
say 'listen ! '
"At first I could not make out what he meant — but soon a hideous thought flashed upon me. I dragged my watch from its fob. It was not going. I glanced at its
face by the moonlight, and then burst into tears as I flung it far away into the ocean. [page 93:] It had run down at seven o'clock ! We were behind the time of
the slack, and the whirl of the Ström was in full fury !
"When a boat is well built, properly trimmed, and not deep laden, the waves in a strong gale, when she is going large, seem always to slip from beneath her — which
appears very strange to a landsman — and this is what is called riding, in sea phrase. Well, so far we had ridden the swells very cleverly ; but presently a gigantic
sea happened to take us right under the counter, and bore us with it as it rose — up — up — as if into the sky. I would not have believed that any wave could rise so
high. And then down we came with a sweep, a slide, and a plunge, that made me feel sick and dizzy, as if I was falling from some lofty mountain-top in a dream. But
while we were up I had thrown a quick glance around — and that one glance was all sufficient. I saw our exact position in an instant. The Moskoe-Ström whirlpool
was about a quarter of a mile dead ahead — but no more like the every-day Moskoe-Ström, than the whirl as you now see it is like a mill-race. If I had not known
where we were, and what we had to expect, I should not have recognised the place at all. As it was, I involuntarily closed my eyes in horror. The lids clenched
themselves together as if in a spasm.
"It could not have been more than two minutes afterward until we suddenly felt the waves subside, and were enveloped in foam. The boat made a sharp half turn to
larboard, and then shot off in its new direction like a thunderbolt. At the same moment the roaring noise of the water was completely drowned in a kind of shrill shriek
— such a sound as you might imagine given out by the waste-pipes of many thousand steam-vessels, letting off their steam all together. We were now in the belt of
surf that always surrounds the whirl ; and I thought, of course, that another moment would plunge us into the abyss — down which we could only see indistinctly on
account of the amazing velocity with which we wore borne along. The boat did not seem to sink into the water at all, but to skim like an air-bubble upon the surface of
the surge. Her starboard side was next the whirl, and on the larboard arose the world of ocean we had left. It stood like a huge writhing wall between us and the
"It may appear strange, but now, when we were in the very [page 94:] jaws of the gulf, I felt more composed than when we were only approaching it. Having
made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great deal of that terror which unmanned me at first. I suppose it was despair that strung my nerves.
"It may look like boasting — but what I tell you is truth — I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to
think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God's power. I do believe that I blushed with shame when this
idea crossed my mind. After a little while I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the
sacrifice I was going to make ; and my principal grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see. These, no
doubt, were singular fancies to occupy a man's mind in such extremity — and I have often thought since, that the revolutions of the boat around the pool might have
rendered me a little light-headed.
"There was another circumstance which tended to restore my self-possession ; and this was the cessation of the wind, which could not reach us in our present
situation — for, as you saw yourself, the belt of surf is considerably lower than the general bed of the ocean, and this latter now towered above us, a high, black,
mountainous ridge. If you have never been at sea in a heavy gale, you can form no idea of the confusion of mind occasioned by the wind and spray together. They
blind, deafen, and strangle you, and take away all power of action or reflection. But we were now, in a great measure, rid of these annoyances — just us
death-condemned felons in prison are allowed petty indulgences, forbidden them while their doom is yet uncertain.
"How often we made the circuit of the belt it is impossible to say. We careered round and round for perhaps an hour, flying rather than floating, getting gradually
more and more into the middle of the surge, and then nearer and nearer to its horrible inner edge. All this time I had never let go of the ring-bolt. My brother was at the
stern, holding on to a small empty water-cask which had been securely lashed under the coop of the counter, and was the only thing on deck that had not been swept
overboard [page 95:] when the gale first took us. As we approached the brink of the pit he let go his hold upon this, and made for the ring, from which, in the agony of
his terror, he endeavored to force my hands, as it was not large enough to afford us both a secure grasp. I never felt deeper grief than when I saw him attempt this act
— although I knew he was a madman when he did it — a raving maniac through sheer fright. I did not care, however, to contest the point with him. I knew it could
make no difference whether either of us held on at all ; so I let him have the bolt, and went astern to the cask. This there was no great difficulty in doing ; for the
smack flew round steadily enough, and upon an even keel — only swaying to and fro, with the immense sweeps and swelters of the whirl. Scarcely had I secured
myself in my new position, when we gave a wild lurch to starboard, and rushed headlong into the abyss. I muttered a hurried prayer to God, and thought all was over.
"As I felt the sickening sweep of the descent, I had instinctively tightened my hold upon the barrel, and closed my eyes. For some seconds I dared not open them —
while I expected instant destruction, and wondered that I was not already in my death-struggles with the water. But moment after moment elapsed. I still lived. The
sense of falling had ceased ; and the motion of the vessel seemed much as it had been before, while in the belt of foam, with the exception that she now lay more
along. I took courage, and looked once again upon the scene.
"Never shall I forget...(see next page!)