For centuries humans across the world have been fascinated by cryptids. From the mythical Yeti and Bigfoot to water-based creatures such as the Loch Ness Monster, these legendary creatures often have their origins in genuine science and amongst some of the true fantastical beasts hidden across our planet. However, one creature may eclipse all other cryptids in its legend and its ferocity — the Kraken. From tales of folklore recanted by old sailors to the epics of cinema, the Kraken has developed a fearsome reputation as perhaps the most deadly danger on all the seven seas.
The origins of the Kraken are Norse, with the sagas telling of how the creature lurks in the waters around Norway and Greenland. The monster harassed shipping in the area and was noted for its immense size, possibly being one of the largest cryptids ever conceived in folklore. Described as octopus or squid-like, the creature’s traditional horrific image tells of it attacking ships with its arms or swimming around them to create a whirlpool effect, pulling all aboard to a watery grave. As if this wasn’t enough to strike fear into even the hardiest of sailors, the Kraken was additionally said to be a man-eater, devouring entire crews whole.
The earliest known record of the Kraken is from 1180 and King Sverre of Norway, listing the beast as one of many sea monsters in seas around Scandinavia. By 1250, the story has developed further. The unknown author of Konungs Skuggsjá, an extensive work on natural history, politics, and morality, describes the monster as “more like land than like a fish” and speculates that there are only two in existence.
“There is a fish that is still unmentioned, which it 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.
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.”
It would be far from the only account of such a creature, with a 13th century telling of the saga Örvar-Oddr recanting a journey to “Helluland,” which many scholars believe to be Baffin Island in Canada. The tale features a journey through the Greenland Sea where two creatures are spotted, Hafgufa (sea-mist) and Lyngbakr (heather-back).
“Now I will tell you that there are two sea-monsters. One is called the hafgufa, another lyngbakr. It is the largest whale in the world, but the hafgufa is the largest monster in the sea. It is the nature of this creature to swallow men and ships, and even whales and everything else within reach. It stays submerged for days, then rears its head and nostrils above the surface and stays that way at least until the change of tide.”
In the early days of sail, the sea was a frightening prospect even for the most experienced sailor, with all respecting it as both friend and foe alike. With ships made of wood and powered by oars or sail, they were fragile and prone to disaster. Coupled with a lack of modern understanding of oceanography and marine biology, the sighting of unknown creatures could often take on mythical proportions. Sailors would often look to explain away the disappearances of ships and the emergence of wrecks, blaming the supernatural or divine. Today, we would explain these incidents through bad weather, poor construction, or simple human failure.
Over hundreds of years, these tales would only grow wilder, with the Kraken eventually said to be several kilometers in length and as large as an island. Later developments in the legend shrunk the creature to a more realistic size, confirming that it was, in fact, a giant cephalopod rather than an unknown form of monster.
These tales were not limited to an age we might consider more ignorant of science either, persisting through the enlightenment and well into the Victorian age. Such was the firmly held belief in the creature that the Kraken was even included in the first modern scientific surveys in the 18th century, with the noted Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus including the Kraken in the Systema Naturae. This book introduced binomial nomenclature to science, and Linnaeus would give the monster the scientific name of Microcosmus.
In 1752, the Danish-Norwegian historian, author, and Bishop of Bergen Erik Pontoppidan wrote in his Det første Forsøg paa Norges naturlige Historie (The First Attempt at [a] Natural History of Norway) on the legendary size of the Kraken. He added that the whirlpools the creature allegedly created were the real danger to sailors rather than the fearsome arms, saying that the creature’s presence was a double-edged sword and that fishers would often risk approaching due to the number of fish that traveled alongside the beast.
It’s easy to scoff at the ignorance of our ancestors for believing in such legends, being obvious that sightings of “Kraken” were merely giant squid. However, this was known way before the legends. In his Ton peri ta zoia historion (Inquiries on Animals), Aristotle writes that there are two kinds of squid, the common teuthis and the lesser found teuthus, a giant in comparison. Meanwhile, the Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote in Naturalis Historia (Natural History) that the giant squid had a body like a barrel and had tentacles with a reach of 9.1 meters. Neither linked the creatures to myth and legend, treating them as any other creature, and the knowledge was seemingly lost to history like much Roman and Greek wisdom.
In the 1850s, the Danish zoologist, biologist, and professor Japetus Steenstrup wrote several influential papers on giant squid, utilizing a piece of such a creature found in 1853. He designated it as “Architeuthus,” later “Architeuthis.”
The French corvette Alecton recovered an intact 7.5-meter giant squid close to Tenerife in 1861. The existence of the creature would then pass from myth and speculation into the realm of science. There would be more examples, with many giant squid washing up at Newfoundland Island in Canada from 1871 onwards. The area continues to see the creatures wash up on the shoreline, with scientists unsure as to exactly why, the best speculation being that the distribution of deep, cold water has been altered.
It is far from the only existing mystery about the creatures, and scientists still have much to discover about the giant squid, with debate raging about whether they are one species or as many as 20. Living at a depth of up to 2000 meters, the largest ever recorded was 18 meters in length, yet most are considerably smaller and far from the island-sized monsters that tall-tales would suggest. The discrepancy indicates some level of exaggeration from sailors, undoubtedly attempting to impress others with their false bravado in facing down the monstrosity. Yet, not everything that the old tales said of the “Kraken” is untrue. In 2005, the Japanese researchers T. Kubodera and K. Mori filmed stunning footage of the giant squid in its natural habitat. The videos show the creature to be fast and powerful, using its tentacles to capture prey just as the legends told of the Kraken using them to ensnare a ship.
While long debunked as a case of mistaken identity and tall tales, the fearsome legend of the Kraken has provided excellent fodder for writers and storytellers across the globe. The monster is mentioned in the classics Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, inspiring the likes of HP Lovecraft and JRR Tolkien. In film, the Kraken appears in, amongst others, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Clash of the Titans, where the monster is erroneously inserted into Greek myth.
While we have long discovered that the legendary Kraken was likely a giant squid, the creature remains one of some mystery to science. Many people are still unaware that the beast exists, all be it far from the ship destroying monster of ancient myth. The legends that once frightened generations of sailors live on in our popular culture, existing to inspire awe and horror in an entirely new way. From the Norse sagas to Liam Neeson’s meme-worthy cry of “Release the Kraken,” there is no doubt that the most famous sea-monster of all holds a high place in the long history of world folklore.
The Kraken (Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1830)
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
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms 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.
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