Thursday, April 11, 2013


A kraken is a humongous sea monster that attacks ships and sailors and gobbles them up.  Luckily, the kraken is a mythological creature.  Except that maybe the kraken is a not-mythical giant squid that some sailors saw, and then they started to make up stories about it, and it got lots bigger and scarier in the stories.  But the giant squid is scary enough without the legends.  Because the giant squid can be as big as long as 40-50 feet, including the tentacles, and they have supposedly attacked ships.

Drawing by Pierre Dénys de Montfort, 1801, from descriptions
of French sailors reportedly attacked by a kraken off the coast of Angola

Anyway, the first records of the kraken are in old Icelandic and Norwegian stories.  Even scientists used to think that the kraken really existed.  Like for instance, Carolus Linnaeus, who was always busy classifying stuff, said that the kraken was a cephalopod.  A cephalopod has a head that evolved from a kind of mollusk-type foot, and then it also has a bunch of tentacles.  Or something like that.  I'm not much into marine biology because I don't like getting my feet wet!

Painting by Bob Eggleton

In 1735, Mr. Linnaeus gave kraken the scientific name Microcosmus marinus in the first edition of his book Systema Naturae.  But in later editions, the kraken got left out, so maybe by then Mr. Linnaeus decided that this creature wasn't real, after all.

Another person who studied the kraken was Erik Pontoppidan, who was the bishop of Bergen.  He published a book called The Natural History of Norway in 1752-53, and he had a bunch of things to say about the sea monsters.  For instance, he said was that a kraken was "incontestably the largest Sea monster in the world" since it was a mile and a half wide.  Sometimes it was mistaken for an island.  But the biggest danger to sailors was the whirlpool that a kraken created.  Also, Bishop Pontoppidan added 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."  If you fished above where a kraken was hanging out, though, you could catch a lot of the fish that the creature stirred up.  So sometimes Norwegian fishermen risked their lives to do this.

Illustration from original 1870 edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
by author Jules Verne

In the beginning, kraken were described as looking sort of like giant crabs or like whales.  But by the late 18th century, everyone was mostly saying a kraken looked more like an octopus.  The word kraken comes from Norwegian, and it means an unhealthy animal or something twisted.  The root word is the same as for the English words crook and crank.

Kraken have been very popular in literature and movies.  For example, they have appeared in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and several other novels; in a sonnet by Alfred Tennyson; and in the films Clash of the TitansPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and several others.  Also, kraken have shown up in video games, comic books, and in a set of 4 stamps showing legendary Canadian animals.  And for people who like to take a little drink now and then, there is The Kraken Rum, which is made in Trinidad and Tobago, and which was released in the U.S. in 2009.

Anyway, my advice to you would be not to get on any ships.  Because even though we are pretty sure the kraken is a myth, there's always a small chance that we're wrong!

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