Back in the days when the edges of most maps were blank, it was traditional to decorate these blank places with drawings of sea monsters. Though the practice died away with the advent of modern cartography, many of the sea monsters retained their places in the human psyche. Among these was the Kraken.
The Kraken is most usually defined as a giant squid or octopus, but has also been described as crab-like, whale-like, or even as a giant serpent.
The earliest reference to this monster may a monster told of in the 13th century Old Icelandic saga Orvar-Odds, the lyngbaker (heather-back). This is believed to be a reference to the legendary Kraken.
“Whales are the biggest of everything in the world, but the hafgufa is the greatest monster occurring in the water. It is its nature that it swallows both men and ships and whales and everything that it can reach. It is submerged both by day and night together, and when it strikes up its head and nose above the surface, then it stays at least until the turn of the tide. Now, that sound we sailed through? We sailed between its jaws, and its nose and lower jaw were those rocks that appeared to you in the ocean.”
Carolus Linnaeus, author of the Systema Naturae, a natural history cataloge published in 1735, classified the Kraken as a cephalopod (the same as octopi and squid.) He gave it the scientific name Microcosmus marinus (microcosm of the ocean.)
The creature was also extensively described in The Natural History of Norway, written by Erik Pontoppidan in 1752. He was the first to tell us that the creature was sometimes mistaken for an island. He noted that "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". But the real danger the Kraken posed to sailors was not the creature itself, but the whirlpool that was formed when it dived below the surface.
Pontoppidan also told that Norwegian fishermen made an effort to fish over a submerged Kraken, since catches there were plentiful, because huge schools of fish came to feed off the monster’s excrement. He records a saying, “You must have fished over a Kraken,” used by sailors to denote unusually good luck at fishing.
In 1781 the Kraken was again described,
“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 existence of the giant octopus was recognized by science. Soon the legends of the Kraken were attached to these animals. It was claimed that ten British warships had been sunk by Kraken, although when survivors testified that at least one of the ships had gone down in a hurricane, the claim was dismissed.
Modern science recognizes the giant or colossal squid as the probable inspiration for the Kraken, but some of the characteristics of the Kraken may be explained by undersea volcanic activity (especially prevalent in Iceland) which may produce sudden dangerous currents, mysterious bubbles of water, and the sudden appearance of new islets
Whatever the origins or actual nature of the Kraken, its place in legend is assured. Alfred Tennyson published a sonnet on the subject.
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber'd and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening 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.
Even more famous, Jules Verne included a Kraken (or at least giant squid) attack in his novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The inspiration for the tentacle-faced god of HP Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu Mythos is said to be the Kraken. The monster has been featured in novels, comic books, video games and cartoons. “Release the Kraken!” was arguably the best line in both versions of “Clash of the Titans.” Its connection to pirates was mentioned by Michael Crichton’s “Pirate Latitudes,” and cemented by Davy Jones’ pet in the Pirates of the Caribbean.
It is also the mascot for a pleasant vanilla infused black rum. So pour yourself and toast the king of sea monsters, the Kraken, lord of the deep!