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What is a Kraken?
In Scandinavian folklore, the Kraken is a legendary sea monster of enormous size with an octopus-like appearance. According to the Norse sagas, the Kraken dwells off the coasts of Norway and Greenland and terrorizes nearby sailors—with this, you may see a similarity to the Greek mythology sea monsters, Scylla, and Charybdis.
Our journey was finally coming to its end.
We had set out to discover the wonders of the sea, but instead, we were greeted only by hellish nightmares. I know now the sea cannot be tamed.
That night we would experience its final acts of cruelty most of the men were below deck in their beds, blissfully unaware of the horrors we had awoken.
Creatures you wouldn’t believe existed, but worst of all was the Kraken.
There is this misconception that the Kraken is a beast that originates from Greek mythology, but why? —Well, shiny Liam Neeson pretending to be Zeus doesn’t help in this case.
To say the ancient Greeks enjoyed sailing around is a colossal understatement, so naturally, they would have many stories of monsters at sea.
The works of Homer helped to popularize creatures such as Scylla and Charybdis, but neither one of these resembles a Kraken. The most terrifying of all these creatures was Cetus Aethionius—a giant fish whale shark sea monster thing—it doesn’t have a set appearance that we can easily identify. Its best known as the sea monster Perseus defeated when saving Andromeda.
The confusion thing comes when both the original Clash of the Titans and the 2010 remake refer to this creature as the Kraken. In neither of these movies does it resemble what we would expect a Kraken to be. So, why not just use the original name?
From a mythological standpoint, it doesn’t really make any sense, but if you’re in Hollywood’s position and you have this giant sea monster from the Greek myth that the average person doesn’t really know by name, then why not just call it a Kraken—more people will have heard of the name and it’s going to generate more excitement.
Also, the phrase ‘release the Kraken’ is infinitely cooler than ‘release the Cetus’—because it sounds too much like a foetus, but maybe that’s just me.
The Origins of the Kraken
If the Kraken isn’t from Greek mythology, then where do these stories originate from?
The stories of the Kraken originate from Scandinavian folklore in the early 12th century. The first written account of the beast was in 1180 from Sverre Sigurdsson, who would later become the king of Norway in 1184.
Sigurdsson believed a monster in the shape of a giant squid stalk the waters around Norway, Iceland, and Greenland. It terrorized sailors who crossed its path, dragging them into the depths of the ocean, destroying their ships and making their journey the voyage from hell.
Mentions of the Kraken can be found once again around 1250, in a Norwegian text known as the King’s Mirror. Here the narrator discusses all sorts of creatures found in Ireland, Iceland and Greenland, including Mermaids and Mermen, and of course, the Kraken.
Although at this stage it was referred to as the HAFGUFA—it’s described as a large fish or whale that resembles an island, more so than a living creature. The narrator concludes that it must be infertile, otherwise, there would be hundreds of them at sea.
A creature of the same name is mentioned again towards the end of the 13th century, in the Icelandic saga which details the journey of a hero as he travels through the Greenland Sea. On his journey, he encounters two enormous monsters—the world’s largest whale and then the world’s largest sea creature, the Hafgufa, a monster so big that it could swallow an entire ship, feed on an animal as large as a whale and creates a whirlpool by merely rotating its body.
The Name, Kraken
The term Kraken was first used by the Danish Norwegian author Erik Pontoppidan when he argued that the Kraken along with mermaids and sea serpents existed.
In his works, The Natural History of Norway published in 1752 and 1753, he believed it to be a great tentacled monster that would surface and attack ships at sea and then subsequently caused whirlpools when returning to the seabed.
Several authors and zoologists discussed creatures similar to the Kraken before Pontoppidan, but he was seen as the real driving force behind stories of the Kraken.
Because of the translation, we don’t know if it was meant to be a squid or an octopus. Some also thought these stories are inspired by the Leviathan—a sea monster mentioned in the Hebrew Bible—but that’s a discussion for another time.
Fictional Appearance of the Kraken
Up until the end of the 18th century, the Kraken and its appearance remained ambiguous. It went by several different names and the only constant was its enormous size. The start of the 19th century is when the Kraken was thrust into mainstream popular culture, and this is when the giant squid or octopus-liked appearance became the norm.
It would also be mentioned in countless works of fiction and still is even to this day. Some of the most famous pieces include,
The Kraken, a Sonnet by Alfred Tennyson
Tennyson describes the Kraken as sleeping in the depths of the ocean, so deep that no human could ever possibly know. When it eventually awakes from its ancient slumber, both man and Angel will witness only death and destruction.
Tennyson published in this work in 1830 predates Lovecraft and the popularization of cosmic horror but there is an uncanny resemblance between Tennyson’s Kraken and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu—both are enormous creatures that slumber the bottom of the ocean, waiting for the day they wake to destroy everything we think we know.
What connects both these stories and much of the fictional work surrounding the Kraken is the fear of the unknown.
We as humans even to this day like to think that we know almost everything there is to know about the earth, which is why we look to other planets and stars to explore. The truth is that the ocean is the one place on earth that we’ve barely explored, and at the time these tales are created we knew next to nothing.
Throughout history, whenever we are unable to explain something, we make up stories based on what we can see. So, is it possible that someone just saw a giant squid and thought it may have been a monster? Yes, it’s entirely likely that’s how the story started in the first place.
The giant and colossal squid are types of squid that do exist. They may not grow to the size of a Kraken, but they are still big. The colossal squid can grow as big as 33 feet in length and weigh up to 700 kilograms, but most of them are found in the stomachs of sperm whales.
The giant squid can grow bigger in the size, but an overall mass is considered smaller than the colossal squid. That, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy food for a sperm whale. Its tentacles are aligned with hundreds of teeth that can do some serious damage. When we examine sperm whales, it’s common to find scars from their encounters with the giant squid.
There is still so much about these species of squid that we don’t know. To put that into perspective, the number of giant squids we’ve studied and measured is only about 600, which as a sample size doesn’t give us anything definitive. There may be squid or other creatures out there even bigger.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
The famous French writer Jules Verne mentions a group of a giant squid in his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which was published in 1870. In this, you can see Captain Nemo in the crew of the Nautilus struggle against this giant squid in the 1954 film version, which had a lot of its marketing geared towards promoting the giant Kraken-like creature.
Both the 1916 silent film and the 1954 version made sure their movie posters and promotional art showed us the giant squid, and I guess that’s an insight into our obsession with the Kraken and creatures that lurk in the depths of the ocean.
Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville
Perhaps the most famous piece of literature to feature something that resembles a Kraken is Herman Melville’s novel The Whale or more commonly known as Moby Dick; Chapter 59 is titled Squid.
The crew mistake a giant specked had figured for a whale, but instead, it’s a giant squid. They go on to explain that the giant squid is found at the very bottom of the ocean and server’s not much more than food for sperm whales. When these sperm whales are under duress or being pursued, they would disgorge or throw up the food in their stomach, which is why these giant live squid float to the surface.
The chapter ends with the narrator discussing rumours of the great Kraken mentioned by Pontoppidan, potentially taken the form of a giant squid.
The works of Alfred Tennyson and Co inspired several 20th-century authors from HP Lovecraft to John Wyndham, and the idea of this slumbering monster at the bottom of the ocean is one that several authors attempted to adapt.
Kraken in Movies and Televisions
In terms of movies and television, it’s only become more popular. If you have something that’s loosely based at sea or even just has some kind of water in it, then why not just throw in a Kraken—Clash of the Titans, release the Kraken; Pirates of the Caribbean, throw in a Kraken; Davy Jones, Kraken face; House of Greyjoy, Kraken; King Kong, Yami Kraken; Hotel Transylvania 3, clearly what this movie needed was a giant singing Kraken voice by one of the Jonas Brothers.
Kraken in Video Games
Moving swiftly on, our giant squid/octopus’ friend also appears in countless video games. It’s crazy how many games I’ve played that have a Kraken and as some kind of boss or just the random monster that you kill, but what’s even crazier is the number of games I’ve played where there is no Kraken, at least in terms of a giant monster.
Instead, there’s a mission a symbol, a character, or even in the item named after the Kraken, and I guess I never really thought about how common it was until making this article. It’s honestly weird how it’s everywhere.
In Conclusion to the Kraken
The idea of the Kraken has become so common it appears outside of fiction to market products to the public. You have Kraken Spiced Rum, Razer Kraken Headsets, the Kraken roller-coaster, and even Old Spice had a scent named Krakengard, so I guess the idea of the Kraken just excites some people.
Despite how much of our planet we’ve explored, the deep sea is still a mystery to us. The fact that we truly don’t know what lurks at the bottom of the ocean is what makes tales of the Kraken and other sea monsters so compelling.
As much as we would love to rule out the possibility of their existence, there may be monsters at the bottom of the sea and one day we may just wake them from their slumber, and that my friends, is truly terrifying!
Image Sources: Aaron Sims Creative, Russell Marks.