Mythic Creatures: The Kraken

Name: Kraken

Appearance: The earliest legends sometimes depicted kraken as somewhat crab-like, with enormous claws, but kraken swiftly assumed an appearance more resembling a giant squid or octopus. These creatures grew to enormous dimensions—many tales suggest they resembled islands and achieved a size of up to a mile and a half long. Later stories brought them down in size a little, but still suggested their proportions far exceeded that of a ship, with long tentacles ready to grasp and destroy.

Unique qualities and traits: Though a creature of myth, kraken possessed no mythic qualities, merely size and strength far greater than any known creature. Legends state it drew fish in huge quantities around it, and therefore, despite the known risk, men fished right near it—keeping a close eye out for signs of the monster rising from the depths. This coined a saying that when a fisherman drew in an excellent catch he must have “fished on kraken.”

Its strength permitted it to wrap its arms around a ship, crush and sink it, and then eat the crew at leisure. But the danger didn’t only come from its direct attacks. It also created a treacherous whirlpool when it dove back into the ocean deeps which could easily ensnare and sink a ship. Moreover, unwary sailors might mistake it for an island, and going “ashore,” end up devoured by the beast.

Quick facts:

  • Kraken’s territory was widely believed to be the sea regions off the coast of Norway and Iceland.
  • Despite distinct differences in their description, 18th century author Jacob Wallenberg suggested that kraken were in fact Leviathan as described in the Bible.

Sources from myth and legend: Though the name kraken didn’t emerge until the early 18th century, kraken were early figures in Norse sagas, dating back to the 12th century. Sailors also reported sightings of this creature, said to be a grave danger to all sea-faring folk. Most likely, the origins of kraken came from sightings of the giant squid or the colossal squid (which can grow to over 40 feet), but regardless of the source, the stories became wide-spread and kraken well known as a distinct sea monster. Some legends suggested that only two kraken existed and that these have lived since the creation of the world and will endure until its end, as Tennyson’s famous poem The Kraken alludes. Aside from all sorts of early legends and works, kraken appear in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and also show up in assorted fantasy and speculative novels—always as the villain or at least a dangerous creature, to my knowledge.

Overview: One of the more terrifying of the sea monsters, in lore kraken were the bane of sailors and fishermen, and may actually have had some real life origins. Life at sea held enormous risk for sailors and fishermen, and many ships disappeared without a trace. It’s little wonder that sea monsters like kraken came to life as a possible explanation for these losses.

Your opinions: What do you think about kraken’s origins? Squid? Octopus? Some giant creature that we’ve yet to discover or may have gone extinct?

Do you have a favorite mythic creature or one you would particularly like to see featured here? Please share!

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9 Responses to Mythic Creatures: The Kraken

  1. Emily says:

    Wow! That’s extraodinarily interesting! I personally don’t believe that the kraken ever existed, though it would be an extremely terrifying creature to encounter. I am quite glad I shall never run into one, as I don’t go on sea voyages, and, as I said, I don’t particularly think they are here on earth. I found it quite exciting to here about the kraken though!

  2. Jeff Chapman says:

    I vote for the giant squid origin. Some squid are extremely aggressive when feeding. If fishermen had experience with the smaller, aggressive squid then encountered a giant squid washed up on a beach, you can imagine the terror they might feel. What was the source for the legends about kraken drawing fish to them and fishermen fishing near them?

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      I tend to agree with the squid as the most likely explanation, though it’s interesting to speculate on what they may have encountered. But the natural habits of the squid coupled with the way legends grow make it a sensible source for the tale.

      The I ran into stories about fish accompaning kraken and drawing fishermen in quite a few places, but the primary source was an 18th century book “My Son on the Galley” written by Jacob Wallenberg, a traveler’s account of sea voyaging. He said, “[Kraken] 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 …” The book by Pontoppidan that Wallenberg refers to is “Natural History of Norway,” written in 1752, which described kraken in some depth.

      It’s pretty interesting stuff. 🙂

  3. Fascinating post, Sarah. It does sound like the kraken myth could have some origin in the existence of giant squid. Ew, makes my skin crawl, but in a fun way, if you know what I mean.
    When I need ideas for my fantasy, I get out my mythic creature encyclopedias and just lose myself in imagining “What if this thing were real?”
    I hope you have more posts like this one in store for your readers. =)

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks, Evangeline! I certainly do. 🙂

      I know what you mean about this sort of thing jump-starting the imagination! And a mythic creature encyclopedia? I think I need to get one of those. Any recommendations?

  4. cody says:

    i had to do a project on the kraken this was helpful

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