What Do We Know About the Kraken?
One October morning in 1873, two fishermen spotted something strange floating in the cold gray waters of Conception Bay, Newfoundland, Canada. The object looked big, like a lost sail or part of a shipwreck. But as the fishermen rowed their small boat closer, they found it to be something quite different. It was a mass, dark red in color, and quivering like a giant mound of Jell-O.
One of the fishermen, Theophilus Picot, picked up a long pole and poked at the large heap. Suddenly, it sprang to life. The men had disturbed a huge sea creature and it was now attacking them. The animal rose up from the water and rammed the boat with its sharp beak. As the men tried to steady themselves, two tentacles (long, thin armlike limbs) shot into the air and then twined around the boat. The tentacles were powerful and covered with round suckers. It was clear that the creature was trying to pull the boat under the water.
Reacting quickly, Picot grabbed a hatchet and began to hack at the tentacles. Although they were as big around as his arm, Picot completely severed the two tentacles. A thick, black fluid spewed from the creature and darkened the water around the boat. The mysterious animal slid back into the water and began to swim away. After a few moments, it slipped beneath the surface, leaving a black stream behind it. It was not seen again.
The two men returned to port with one of the greatest fishing stories of all time. And to prove what had happened was true, they brought with them a nineteen-foot-long tentacle! Unfortunately, the other captured tentacle had begun to stink so badly that the fishermen had complained and thrown it overboard.
But what kind of creature had the tentacles belonged to? Could this be the same animal that sailors had been describing for thousands of years: a massive, multiarmed monster that lurked deep beneath the surface and rose without warning to take down entire ships and their crews? Had the Newfoundland fishermen just come face-to-face with the legendary creature known as the “Kraken”? Chapter 1: The Ancient Kraken
It seems as if people have been scared of sea monsters since human history began. From the moment we set foot in the water, we could see it was full of strange creatures that we knew nothing about. Man-eating sharks, venomous stingrays, and slithering sea snakes were some of the dangerous animals that sometimes came close to the shore. Fishermen in boats told stories about even larger, lesser-known creatures. In the ancient world, sailors aboard oceangoing ships reported massive beasts seen in the wide-open waters. Some of these were described as large enough to sink large ships.
Thousands of years ago, stories about such creatures were repeated as songs and poems for entertainment. This is known as an oral history. But sea monsters even appeared in one of the world’s first written poems, the Odyssey, around 700 BCE. The Odyssey was composed by Homer. It tells the story of the hero Odysseus (say: O-DIS-e-us) traveling home after the Trojan War. On his ten-year journey, Odysseus sails through a stretch of water guarded by two terrifying sea monsters: Charybdis (say: CUH-rib-dis) and Scylla (say: SIL-uh).
Charybdis is a supernatural monster with flippers, instead of arms and legs, that sinks ships by creating whirlpools. Living opposite Charybdis is the monster Scylla, which is a serpent with six heads, and jaws full of sharklike teeth. Scarier still are Scylla’s twelve legs. These are giant tentacles, which it uses to snatch sailors off their ships to devour them. According to ancient Greek mythology, the sea god Poseidon controlled Charybdis and Scylla, and unleashed them on Odysseus as he sailed past.
The Odyssey is an ancient poem about mythical heroes and monsters. But several centuries later, sea creatures that resembled Scylla began appearing in texts written by scholars and historians. Pliny the Elder was one such historian, from ancient Rome.
In around 60 CE, Pliny wrote a book filled with facts about the natural world titled Naturalis historia. In this, Pliny described a sea creature he referred to as a “polyp,” with a head as big as a barrel and tentacles thirty feet long. Pliny wrote that polyps have “suckers spread over their arms” and “pour out a dark fluid which these animals have instead of blood, so darkening the water and concealing themselves.” Pliny said the polyps swam by shooting water through a tube in their back. They also had a terrible smell. Pliny wrote that polyps could be dangerous. He said that when a polyp attacks a person “it struggles with him by coiling around him and swallows him with sucker-cups and drags him asunder.” Pliny used the word “asunder” to mean “into pieces.”
Pliny was not the last person to describe such a creature. Stories about similar animals continued through the ages. They are even told today. The animals in these stories share many characteristics. They have long, thick, sucker-covered tentacles or arms; a terrible smell, often like urine; large eyes, sometimes as big as dinner plates; and aggressive and destructive personalities.
The last point is perhaps the most important. In the centuries after Pliny, sailors reported a giant monster rising up from the deep to attack their ships. Sometimes the monster would wrap its tentacles around the masts to sink the vessel. The creature was big—some said it was the size of an island.
No one knew exactly what this monster was, but many tried to find out. However, it would be many centuries after Homer’s Scylla and Pliny’s polyp that the creature was given its modern name. It was a name that struck terror in the hearts of sailors and fishermen who heard it: Kraken. Chapter 2: Scandinavian Sightings
For hundreds of years after Pliny, there were few written reports about a tentacled sea monster. When it next appeared, it was far away from the warm Mediterranean waters of ancient Greece and Rome. Instead, the new sightings emerged around the icy waters of Scandinavia, an area that now includes the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
Some of these sightings were recorded by Swedish historian Olaus Magnus in his 1555 history book, A Description of the Northern Peoples. In the book, Magnus described a creature that was a cross between a fish and a squid. It had huge eyes and “hairs like goose feathers, thick and long, like a beard hanging down.” It could easily drown sailors and sink ships, Magnus wrote.
Magnus included illustrations of this sea monster in his book. And because he was a respected scholar, the illustrations were copied and published in history books in other countries. This convinced people of the time that massive sea monsters were simply a fact of life. Sailors were not surprised. Some said they had seen such monsters during their time at sea.
But sailors were not the only people reporting strange sightings. In 1734, a Danish Norwegian missionary named Hans Egede saw a giant serpent-like creature. He said it had pulled up alongside his ship, near the coast of Greenland. According to Egede, the animal’s body was four times longer than the ship and its head higher than its mast! The creature did not attack Egede’s ship, but instead dived away beneath the waves.
Back on land, Egede discussed what he had seen with several Norwegian fishermen. They told him the creature was the monster they called Hafgufa. The missionary wrote about the creature in his book, A Description of Greenland: “A great ghastly sea monster now and then appears in the main sea, which they call Kracken, and is no doubt the same that the islanders call Hafgufa.”
Egede’s description is interesting because it is one of the first times that the word Kracken (later changed to Kraken) appears in a book. Kraken comes from the Norwegian word krake, which originally meant “pole” or “uprooted tree.” Over time, however, the word krake came to mean “fabulous sea monster.”
This is how Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus used the word in his famous 1735 book, Systema Naturae, which described a system of classifying the natural world. Later, Linnaeus identified the Kraken as “a unique monster” living in the seas of Norway. He also classified the Kraken as a cephalopod.
Cephalopods are the animals that include squid, octopuses, and cuttlefish. They are easy to recognize because they have multiple arms or tentacles. However, Linnaeus wrote that he had never actually seen a Kraken himself. This made it hard to believe he could classify it as a cephalopod or “a unique monster.” Perhaps Linnaeus also realized this, as the Kraken was removed from later editions of Systema Naturae. But in 1735, when the book was first published, many people began to believe that the Kraken was real and probably a cephalopod. A giant octopus or squid seemed most likely.
Around this same time, another Scandinavian made it his business to learn more about the Kraken. Erik Pontoppidan was a Danish bishop writing a book titled The Natural History of Norway. He was fascinated by the Kraken and wanted to include it in his book. To research the Kraken, Pontoppidan interviewed Norwegian fishermen and sailors who claimed to have seen it.
The fishermen’s and sailors’ descriptions of the Kraken were similar to those told to Hans Egede some years earlier. And although he was writing a history book, Pontoppidan repeated the descriptions as facts without questioning them. When Pontoppidan’s book was published in 1752, it said that the Kraken “seems to be about an English mile and a half in circumference (some would say more).”
Pontoppidan was just repeating what he had been told, but his calculations of the Kraken’s size were too big to be believed.
By the early 1700s, people had made great voyages of discovery around the entire world. Many extraordinary creatures had been found. But no one had ever found a sea monster a “mile and a half in circumference.” Many people were unconvinced by Pontoppidan’s account and some were very critical of it.
However, some aspects of Pontoppidan’s Kraken were more believable. He noted that the Kraken had a “strong and peculiar scent” and spewed out a black liquid which “appears quite thick and turbid.” If those criticizing Pontoppidan had paused for a moment, they might have realized that the bishop was describing a type of cephalopod, such as a squid, or octopus.
Even though people doubted Pontoppidan, they continued to believe in the creature known as the Kraken. And in the next century, new reports about the creature would help cement its place as a ship-attacking monster.
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