The Kraken is a legendary cephalopod-like sea monster of giant size in Scandinavian folklore.
According to the Norse sagas, the Kraken dwells off the coasts of Norway and Greenland and terrorizes nearby sailors.
Authors over the years have postulated that the legend may have originated from sightings of giant squids that may grow to 13–15 meters (40–50 feet) in length. The sheer size and fearsome appearance attributed to the Kraken have made it a common ocean-dwelling monster in various fictional works.
The Kraken has been the focus of many superstitious sailors passing the North Atlantic and especially sailors from the Nordic countries due to their proximity and its Scandinavian origin.
After returning from Greenland, the anonymous author of the Old Norwegian natural history work Konungs skuggsjá (circa 1250) described in detail the physical characteristics and feeding behavior of these beasts.
The narrator proposed there must be only 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 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 (“kraken” in e.g. Laurence M. Larson’s translation). 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 their 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 bight, And nor 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.
The famous Swedish 18th-century naturalist Carl von Linné included the Kraken in the first edition of its systematic natural catalog Systema Naturae from 1735. There he gave the animal the scientific name Microcosmus but omitted it in later editions.
Kraken was extensively described by Erik Pontoppidan, bishop of Bergen, in his Det første Forsøg paa Norges naturlige Historie “The First Attempt at [a] Natural History of Norway” (Copenhagen, 1752).
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 a 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 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.
Appearance and origins
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.
The Kraken is also depicted to have spikes on its suckers. 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.