As far as giant sea creatures of legend go, I think it's fair to say that none are as well-known, well-liked, or well-moviefied as the eight-tentacled parrot-beaked behemoth known as The Kraken. He's on rum bottles, the silver screen, the minds of horror novel writers everywhere, and he's even on this glass paperweight I have on my desk. The Kraken is as mainstream as ancient beasts get. But maybe there's something we don't know about him. Perhaps there are still some hidden Kraken treasures to discover. Well if there are, we're going to find them in this blog entry.
Here's what most of us already know
The Kraken is a big ass sea monster who is usually depicted as an octopus or squid. It's not frequently suggested that there's more than one Kraken, but it makes a lot more sense to believe that the Kraken is just one member of a large species of cephalopod mollusc (oh the terror). In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest it was suggested the the Kraken was controlled by Davy Jones; however this is strictly movie mythos and no such connection has ever been referenced in traditional Pirate Lore.
But what about that name? Kraken? Turns out the original name was the Norse word "sjökrakjen" meaning Sea Kraken, which doesn't really tell us what "Kraken" means. Perhaps it is a word meant to mimic the sound a ship makes when it is snapped under the immense pressure of The Kraken's coiled tentacles. Nay. "Krake", in Norwegian, means something twisted in shape, and a giant tentacle is certainly that. Kraken is the "definite form" of Krake, so Krake became Kraken.
I'll leave it to you grammar nuts to understand what a "definite form" is, because I surely do not.
So what don't we know about the Kraken?
Well, to start, he wasn't originally an octopus or a squid or anything remotely similar. In the earliest accounts The Kraken was described more like a giant whale or crab. Explained as a sea creature who was "up to a mile long" and whom could easily be mistaken for an island by unwary and foolish sailors. Still, for whatever reason, the giant octopus thing stuck.
First mentioned in the Orvar-Oddr, a 13th century Icelandic Saga involving two sea monsters (Hafgufa and Lyngbakr, with Hafgufa being the Kraken), stories of this ferocious ocean-monster are certainly ancient; Orvar-Oddr was written over 800 years ago! Adding further credence to The Kraken's existence was its mention in a scientific paper entitled "Konungs Skuggsja" or "Kings Mirror" in Old Norse. The paper was an educational text dealing with politics and morality mainly but, given that it was a piece of Speculum literature, it included many other subjects and ideas. The Konungs Skuggsja goes into relatively in-depth explanations as to the animal's feeding, sleeping, and surfacing habits. The Kraken section of the Konungs Skuggsja concludes, based on their size and how much they'd have to eat, that only two Krakens could possibly exist and that they don't reproduce.
That last part is clearly wrong as it is common knowledge that tsunamis are caused by Krakens having sex. Norwegian pseudo-science be damned!
So persistent were the legends of the Kraken that he actually did make it into an honest-to-goodness scientific textbook. In the 1735 publication of System Naturae, perhaps the most major work of Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician Carolus Linnaeus's career, the Kraken was scientifically classified as a Cephalopod and designated the name "Microcosmus Marinus". Linnaeus said of the beast "It is a unique monster which inhabits the seas of Norway." Later editions of System Naturae did not include the Kraken; likely because there was no real evidence for its existence.
This corrective edit didn't stop the stories though. In fact, they may have been seen as an attempt to cover up the creature's existence; perhaps to calm the public or to bring ease to the fearful hearts of fishermen whom the country depended so heavily upon.
In 1781, Jacob Wallenberg described the Kraken in his book "My Son on the Galley". He writes:
"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?
His book was a work of non-fiction and still included this account.
Even the poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote about the Kraken; in a poem bearing the monster's very name:
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.
Could a Kraken-like beast exist?
Here's what we know is true. Millions of years ago there was a higher level of oxygen in the atmosphere. This enabled animals to grow much larger than they grow today. I believe it then follows that millions of years ago, with more oxygen in the atmosphere, there would have been more oxygen in the oceans. Squids and Octopodes have existed for hundreds of millions of years so it was at least possible for an incredibly large squid or octopus to exist, surely. But Norwegians weren't around hundreds of millions of years ago and neither were stories of the Kraken. I suspect the chances of a Kraken-like creature still roaming the oceans of modernity are as good as the chances of a big-footed hominid roaming the Pacific northwest or a prehistoric long-neck swimming the lochs of Scotland.
All very unlikely...