Course #1 / Mythological Creatures
For the centuries, stories about various sea creatures inspired fear in the hearts of sailors and ocean explorers. Here is a closer look at one of the most popular beasts of the sea depths.
Appearance & character
Scandinavian folk tales describe kraken as an immense size sea creature with mixed characteristics of octopus and squid. Kraken has a dark red body, well-developed eyes, and senses. It is capable to capture the ship with its long testicles that have two rows of large suckers and take the ship deep down into the sea. Descriptions of kraken’s size vary quite significantly – from 30 meters in diameter up to a few kilometers and equal to a size of a small island (this might be inspired by the legendary story about the journey of the Irish Saint Brendan and his encounter with sea monster Jasconius).
The nature of kraken is relatively mysterious. It can be deadly to the ships and its crew in case of an encounter, but the motive, why kraken attacks those remains unclear. One of the versions is that kraken protects the treasures of the sunken ships and it causes the attacks on the ships that invades his territory. When it gets angry, it can splash a poisonous liquid to make the water muddy and gain the advantage in attack. After kraken tries to disappear under the water, because of its size, it can cause a large whirlpool and this brings great danger to drawn everyone around him. Yet, sailors and fishermen rarely had to meet this scary sea beast. Krakens usually stay in the deep of the sea.
Origins of kraken
It is likely that legends about Saint Brendan played some part in the creation of kraken myth; however, this creature is heavily linked with Scandinavia. In particular, with Old Icelandic sagas and early Old Norse literature, where the sea beasts are believed to live in the Greenland Sea. What is interesting about these tales is the fact that they describe kraken-like beings as very rare creatures, as only two sea beasts lived in the Greenland Sea and there were no signs that their number could increase.
Nevertheless, Norwegian and Icelandic sailors remained superstitious for centuries and time after time, there were recorded new stories about krakens. Fishermen were cautious when they went deeper into the sea. They were fishing in groups of several boats and constantly observing the depth of a particular area to avoid the danger. If they saw that depth starts to change and it is getting smaller, fishermen quickly stopped fishing and left the area as much as they could. This was because those superstitious men believed that kraken is quietly sitting under them and as depth starts to decrease, he rises to the surface of the water.
Myth versus reality
Unlike many other mythological creatures, krakens are the ones that have an existing natural prototype. Since there exist giant and colossal squid species that can be up to 15 meters in their size, there is an easy logic why those myths about this sea monster were born. Imagine the relatively small-sized fishing boats and ships 1000 years ago, when fishermen and sailors were cruising around the seas. Back then, people had a limited amount of information around them – only as much, as they received from their ancestors. Nature was a well-respected and unpredictable force – superstitions surrounding it was a norm. Every encounter with an unknown creature could easily turn into a legend that would be carried for the centuries.
People often tend to exaggerate their stories. In case of squids, a 15-meter tall and more than 300 kilograms heavy creature easily could cause trouble to a boat or even a ship of the Viking era. There are Norwegian tales that tell about Vikings, who thought that they were on an island, but it actually was a kraken. The creature tried to sink the ship, but the brave warriors managed to cut his tentacles and save themselves. Moreover, this is just one small example of many folk tales.
New tales about krakens from the sailors continued to appear even in the late 19th century, despite the fact that naturalists and explorers brought a lot of new knowledge about the sea and its creatures. In 1810, the crew of schooner Celestine that was traveling in the North Sea saw a huge medusa-like object in the water. After closer observation, captain described this creature’s size as huge – 70 meters in diameter. A more realistic version came up fifty-one years later when a French corvette Alecton had an encounter with kraken near Tenerife Island. The crew tried to capture the sea creature, but kraken was too heavy to get it onto the ship and only its tale was captured. This encounter inspired the famous French novelist Jules Verne to add a story about giant squids attacking the submarine to his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
When naturalists finally got a chance to see the dead bodies of the giant squids, it was clear that kraken-like creatures do exist and there was a clear background for the creation of the myths and legends. Squids are far from the size described in the folk tales, but they still look terrifying enough to understand why sailors carried that fear and superstitions throughout the centuries. Add to this fact that our planet and its history is not 100% explored, there is a possibility that many centuries ago, those sea creatures were larger than the ones discovered in the last 100 years. This makes the existence of krakens even more possible.
Sources | William Blackwood & John Murray. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1818) | Vicki Ellen Szabo. Monstrous Fishes and the Mead-Dark Sea: Whaling in the Medieval North Atlantic (2008) | Eliza Robbins. Tales from American History (1833) | Halldor Hermannsson. Jon Gudmundsson and his natural history of Iceland (1924)