Myths And Legends: Kraken

Kraken are legendary sea monsters of giant proportions.

In the late 14th century version of the Old Icelandic saga “Örvar-Odds Saga” is an inserted episode of a journey bound for Helluland (Baffin Island) which take the protagonist through the Greenland Sea, and here they spot two massive sea-monsters called Hafgufa (“sea mist”) and Lyngbakr (“heather-back”). The hafgufa is believed to be a reference to the kraken:

“Now I will tell you that there are two sea-monsters. One is called the hafgufa (sea-mist), another lyngbakr (heather-back). It (the lyngbakr) is the largest whale in the world, but the hafgufa is the hugest monster in the sea. It is the nature of this creature to swallow men and ships, and even whales and everything else within reach. It stays submerged for days, then rears its head and nostrils above surface and stays that way at least until the change of tide. Now, that sound we just sailed through was the space between its jaws, and its nostrils and lower jaw were those rocks that appeared in the sea, while the lyngbakr was the island we saw sinking down. However, Ogmund Tussock has sent these creatures to you by means of his magic to cause the death of you (Odd) and all your men. He thought more men would have gone the same way as those that had already drowned (i.e. to the lyngbakr which wasn’t an island, and sank), and he expected that the hafgufa would have swallowed us all. Today I sailed through its mouth because I knew that it had recently surfaced.”

 After returning from Greenland, the anonymous author of the Old Norwegian scientific work Konungs skuggsjá (circa 1250) described in detail the physical characteristics and feeding behaviour of these beasts. The narrator proposed there must only be two in existence, stemming from the observation that the beasts have always been sighted in the same parts of the Greenland Sea, and that each seemed incapable of reproduction, as there was no increase in their numbers.

“There is a fish that is still unmentioned, which it is scarcely advisable to speak about on account of its size, because it will seem to most people incredible. There are only a very few who can speak upon it clearly, because it is seldom near land nor appears where it may be seen by fishermen, and I suppose there are not many of this sort of fish in the sea. Most often in our tongue we call it hafgufa. Nor can I conclusively speak about its length in ells, because the times he has shown before men, he has appeared more like land than like a fish. Neither have I heard that one had been caught or found dead; and it seems to me as though there must be no more than two in the oceans, and I deem that each is unable to reproduce itself, for I believe that they are always the same ones. Then too, neither would it do for other fish if the hafgufa were of such a number as other whales, on account of their vastness, and how much subsistence that they need. It is said to be the nature of these fish that when one shall desire to eat, then it stretches up its neck with a great belching, and following this belching comes forth much food, so that all kinds of fish that are near to hand will come to present location, then will gather together, both small and large, believing they shall obtain there food and good eating; but this great fish lets its mouth stand open the while, and the gap is no less wide than that of a great sound or fjord, And nor may the fish avoid running together there in their great numbers. But as soon as its stomach and mouth is full, then it locks together its jaws and has the fish all caught and enclosed, that before greedily came there looking for food.”

Carolus Linnaeus classified the kraken as a cephalopod, designating the scientific name ‘Microcosmus Marinus’ in the first edition of his “Systema Naturae” (1735), a taxonomic classification of living organisms. The creature was excluded from later editions. Linnaeus’s later work, “Fauna Suecica” (1746) calls the creature singulare monstrum, “a unique monster”, and says of it Habitare fertur in mari Norwegico, ipse non dum animal vidi, “It is said to inhabit the seas of Norway, but I have not seen this animal”
Kraken were also extensively described by Erik Pontoppidan, bishop of Bergen, in his Det Forste Forsorg paa Norges Naturlige Historie “Natural History of Norway” (Copenhagen, 1752–3). Pontoppidan made several claims regarding kraken, including the notion that the creature was sometimes mistaken for an island and that the real danger to sailors was not the creature itself but rather the whirlpool left in its wake. However, Pontoppidan also described the destructive potential of the giant beast: 
“it is said that if the creature’s arms were to lay hold of the largest man-of-war, they would pull it down to the bottom”.
According to Pontoppidan, Norwegian fishermen often took the risk of trying to fish over kraken, since the catch was so plentiful (hence the saying “You must have fished on Kraken”). Pontoppidan also proposed that a specimen of the monster, “perhaps a young and careless one”, was washed ashore and died at Alstahaug in 1680. By 1755, Pontoppidan’s description of the kraken had been translated into English.

Swedish author Jacob Wallenberg described the kraken in the 1781 work Min son på galejan (“My son on the galley”):

… Kraken, also called the Crab-fish, which is not that huge, for heads and tails counted, he is no larger than our Öland is wide [i.e., less than 16 km] … He stays at the sea floor, constantly surrounded by innumerable small fishes, who serve as his food and are fed by him in return: for his meal, (if I remember correctly what E. Pontoppidan writes,) lasts no longer than three months, and another three are then needed to digest it. His excrements nurture in the following an army of lesser fish, and for this reason, fishermen plumb after his resting place … Gradually, Kraken ascends to the surface, and when he is at ten to twelve fathoms, the boats had better move out of his vicinity, as he will shortly thereafter burst up, like a floating island, spurting water from his dreadful nostrils and making ring waves around him, which can reach many miles. Could one doubt that this is the Leviathan of Job?

In 1802, the French malacologist Pierre Dénys de Montfort recognized the existence of two kinds of giant octopus in Histoire Naturelle Générale et Particulière des Mollusques, an encyclopedic description of mollusks. Montfort claimed that the first type, the kraken octopus, had been described by Norwegian sailors and American whalers, as well as ancient writers such as Pliny the Elder. The much larger second type, the colossal octopus, was reported to have attacked a sailing vessel from Saint-Malo, off the coast of Angola.

Montfort later dared more sensational claims. He proposed that ten British warships, including the captured French ship of the line Ville de Paris, which had mysteriously disappeared one night in 1782, must have been attacked and sunk by giant octopuses. The British, however, knew courtesy of a survivor from the Ville de Paris that the ships had been lost in a hurricane off the coast of Newfoundland in September 1782, resulting in a disgraceful revelation for Montfort.

Since the late 18th century, kraken have been depicted in a number of ways, primarily as large octopus-like creatures, and it has often been alleged that Pontoppidan’s kraken might have been based on sailors’ observations of the giant squid. In the earliest descriptions, however, the creatures were more crab-like than octopus-like, and generally possessed traits that are associated with large whales rather than with giant squid. 

Some traits of kraken resemble undersea volcanic activity occurring in the Iceland region, including bubbles of water; sudden, dangerous currents; and appearance of new islets.

In 1830 Alfred Tennyson published the irregular sonnet “The Kraken”, which described a massive creature that dwelled at the bottom of the sea:

Below the thunders of the upper deep;Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleepThe Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights fleeAbout his shadowy sides; above him swellHuge sponges of millennial growth and height;And far away into the sickly light,From many a wondrous grot and secret cellUnnumber’d and enormous polypiWinnow with giant arms the slumbering green.There hath he lain for ages, and will lieBattening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;Then once by man and angels to be seen,In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Pontoppidan’s description influenced Jules Verne’s depiction of the famous giant squid in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea” from 1870.

Although the subject of myth, the legend of the kraken continues to the present day, with numerous references existing in popular culture, including film, literature, television, video games and other miscellaneous examples (e.g. postage stamps, a rollercoaster ride, and a rum product).

The Kraken appears in the 1981 film “Clash Of The Titans” as a giant, four-armed humanoid with scales and a fishtail. A 2006 tele-movie called Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep featured a different variation, while the film “Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” included a more cephalopod-like creature that followed the commands of the similarly mythic Davy Jones. In the 2010 version of “Clash Of The Titans”, the Kraken featured as a servant of the Olympian Gods.

The television series “Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea” featured an episode called “The Village Of Guilt”, in which a failed experiment creates a giant octopus which then terrorizes the population of a Norwegian fjord. In Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby Dick” (chapter 59) the crew of the Pequod encounter a “vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length”. Starbuck calls it ‘The great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it.’ Melville attributes this to Bishop Pontopiddan’s “the great Kraken”.
H.P. Lovecraft’s novel “The Call Of Cthulhu”, written in 1926, according to Cthulhu Mythos scholar Robert M. Price, has been inspired by Alfred Tennyson’s sonnet. Both reference a huge aquatic creature sleeping for an eternity at the bottom of the ocean and destined to emerge from his slumber in an apocalyptic age.

John Wyndham’s 1953 novel “The Kraken Wakes” features the sonnet written by Alfred Tennyson. The story itself refers to an invasion by sea-dwelling aliens. The title is a play on Tennyson’s line “The Kraken sleepeth”. Jack Vance’s 1966 science fiction adventure novel “The Blue World”, based on an earlier 1964 novella “The Kragen”, depicts a world where natives must beware the kragen, giant, semi-intelligent squid-like predators which roam the ocean.

Terry Brooks’ 1985 novel “The Wishsong Of Shannara” features a Kraken as a giant sea creature summoned by dark magic to join an assault on a Dwarf fortress. China Miéville’s 2010 novel “Kraken” features a cult devoted to the worship of the creature.

Versions of the Kraken appear in the video games Final Fantasy (1987), EarthBound (1994), The Ocean Hunter (1998), Fable: The Lost Chapters (2004), Age of Mythology (2002), Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (2006), God of War II (2007), Tomb Raider: Underworld (2008), Darkfall Online (2009), Heroes of Newerth (2010),World of Warcraft (2004), Darkfall: Unholy Wars (2013) and Smite (2013).

A floating-point bug in the space flight simulator Kerbal Space Program which caused vessels at high speed and/or far away places to be disassembled and destroyed was named “Space Kraken” by the community. This name was adopted by the developers who named the fix for this bug “Krakensbane”. In 1990 a set of four postage stamps displaying legendary Canadian animals were released, one stamp in the set featured the Kraken. “The Kraken” is a steel floorless roller coaster manufactured by Bolliger & Mabillard. It opened in 2000 and is located at SeaWorld Orlando, in the United States. The Kraken Rum is a 94 proof rum manufactured in Trinidad and Tobago. The Cassini probe has detected a huge body of liquid on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. It has since been named the Kraken Mare.

The Kraken maybe a fictional tale, a mistaken giant squid that stirred the imaginations of sailors but you’d be surprised to know how many people believe it to be true. But only 5% of the World Ocean has been explored…..

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