Mythical Creature of the Week: The Kraken

For many years ships have gone missing at sea. A ship full of sailors and passengers will leave the port, only for no vessel to ever arrive at its destination. Sometimes pieces of shipwreck will wash ashore, but no one will be able to identify from which ship they come. Ships can vanish with no trace.

Before the advent of modern technology, there were very few ways to explain why a ship would vanish out on the open sea, but many people who had experience with the dangers of open water would return to tell tales of impossibly long tentacles, sunken ships, and vanished comrades. Thus sprang the myth of the kraken.

A kraken devouring a sailing vessel.

An impossibly large species of octopus, the kraken was blamed for all sorts of disasters out on the open waves. Sailors believed it could snatch sailors off the deck during the night and create weather and ocean phenomena such as whirlpools and swarming schools of fish. The sailors also would describe the kraken as strong enough to pull a full boat of sailors and supplies under the water, a near impossible feat of strength.

Where did the kraken come from? Well it probably arose as a confluence of different ideas as well as the appearance of scant evidence. Because of the depths that real giant squids swim, their only natural predators is the sperm whale. Oftentimes these titanic creatures fight and those fights leave marks. It is no coincidence that the rise of whaling in the 11th century coincided with the first historically-documented appearance of a kraken in literature. The giant scars left on sperm whales killed by sailors probably fueled the myth of this creature, as well as the appearance of dead giant squids on shores or seen floating in the ocean.

A giant squid caught on video in the Gulf of Mexico.

 The kraken appeared primarily in the sagas of Norse heroes but truly entered popular culture in the 19th century when the kraken became the subject of a sonnet by Lord Alfred Tennyson and featured in novels such as Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. Some historians believe that Tennyson’s portrayal was a reference to the Leviathan in the Hebrew Bible and that the creature became conflated with the kraken because of Tennyson’s poem.

As a result, the kraken became a mythological figure of similar stature to the dragon or the vampire: it became a staple of nautical fantasy stories and settings and appeared most recently in the films Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Hotel Transylvania 3. The kraken has also featured in the novel Kraken by China Miévelle and Emily Windsnap and the Monster from the Deep by Liz Kessler. So get your fishhooks out, readers, because it is time to go kraken-hunting!


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