Release the Kraken!
“Architeuthis, the giant squid, is the quintessential sea monster, probably responsible for more myths, fables, fantasies, and fictions than all other marine monsters combined…[It] surely is the most remarkable unscheduled arrival in the history of zoology, crypto or otherwise. An animal that was believed by many to be mythological verified its existence…” (Ellis, 122, 133-34).
Science knows it by the name Architeuthis dux. For centuries, however, it was known by an altogether more infamous one – The Kraken.
The Kraken: A History
Aristotle first introduced us to the giant squid (which he called teuthos) in 350 BCE, and then, in AD 77-79, Pliny the Elder related a tale of a “polyp” that was killed during its attempt to steal salted fish from the fish ponds in Carteia (Ellis, pg. 123). Described as having 30-foot long arms, the beast has been identified as a squid.
Giant squids have been seen throughout the world’s oceans, but they are quite common in the seas around Norway and Greenland. Indeed, the word “kraken” comes from the Norwegian “krake,” meaning “fabulous sea monsters.” The late 14th century version of the Icelandic saga Örvar-Oddr gives an account of the Hafgufa (“sea mist”) and Lyngbakr (“heather-back”) – beasts occurring in the Greenland Sea. While Lyngbakr is credited as the “largest whale in the sea,” the Hafgufa
“is the hugest 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 surface and stays that way at least until the change of tide.”
Hafgufa, it has been suggested, is a giant squid. The thirteenth century Norwegian work Konungs skuggsjá describes the beast, saying that it appears “more like an island than a fish.” The 1917 translation identifies this “monster” as the Kraken.
|The Kraken. Magnus, Olaus. Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. 1555. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/41862917.|
Never missing a chance to tell a good monster tale, Olaus Magnus detailed the kraken as a “monstrous fish” within Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, describing them as having long sharp horns, huge red eyes, and “hairs like goose feathers, thick and long, like a beard hanging down.” He claims that “one of these Sea-Monsters will drown easily many great ships provided with many strong Marriners” – a characteristic reported in the earlier Icelandic work. Magnus’ depiction of the beast, as a strange mix of fish and squid, is quite different from those we find later in the literature, suggesting that his monster is likely a confusion of many sightings, including not only the giant squid but perhaps whales and cuttlefish as well.
|Kraken, after Magnus. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/42165838.|
In his first edition of Systema Naturae (1735), Carolus Linnaeus classified the kraken as a cephalopod with the scientific name Microcosmus marinus. Though it was removed from later editions of Systema, Linnaeus’ 1746 publication, Fauna Suecica, describes the kraken as “a unique monster” inhabiting the seas of Norway. He does, however, include a disclaimer that he has never seen the animal himself.
Erik Pontoppidan, bishop of Bergen, in his Det Forste Forsorg paa Norges Naturlige Historie “Natural History of Norway” (Copenhagen, 1752–3), added significantly to the kraken tale. Also writing extensively on mermaids and sea serpents, Pontoppidan describes the kraken as “the largest sea monster in the world…round, flat, and full of arms, or branches.” He writes that not only is the kraken sometimes mistaken for an island, but also that it is possible of pulling the largest ships down to the ocean’s bottom. The greatest danger to sailors he claims, however, is the whirlpool created when it sinks, capable of “draw[ing] everything down with it.”
|A very octopus-like Kraken. Montfort, Denys. Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière des mollusques : animaux sans vertèbres et a sang blanc. v. 2. 1801. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/35755564.|
One of the most famous illustrations associated with the kraken, and one in which we see it take a definite cephalopod (if not more octopus-like) persona, comes from French malacologist Pierre Dénys de Montfort’s 1802 book Histoire Naturelle Générale et Particulière des Mollusques. Advertised as an encyclopedic description of mollusks, Montfort describes two kinds of giant octopus in the work: the Kraken Octopus, so often described by Norwegian sailors, and the Colossal Octopus, which he claims attacked a ship off the coast of Angola. The besieged sailors, he reports, prayed to St. Thomas, and were subsequently saved from the creature. He asserts that a votive picture of a ship embraced by this monster octopus was displayed in the St. Thomas chapel at St. Malo, though its existence has not been proven.
Whether or not Montfort truly believed this tale, he apparently had no qualms about publishing fiction as fact. Henry Lee, author of The Octopus in 1875, quoted Montfort as stating, “If my entangled ship is accepted, I will make my ‘colossal poulpe’ otherthrow a whole fleet.” True to his word, soon after his Histoire Naturelle publication, Montfort claimed that this same giant beast attacked and sunk a fleet of six French man-of-wars and four British ships. His reports, apparently, were influenced by Magnus and Pontoppidan’s description of the kraken’s capabilities.
|“Kraken” attacking a fleet after a fashion described by Montfort. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. 1916. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/14187069.|
In the mid-1800s, the kraken took an authentic biological form as Architeuthis, passing from myth to science. Prof. Japetus Steenstrup, lecturer at Copenhagen University, introduced the giant squid in a paper that related the original description of the earliest record of a giant squid carcass washing ashore: Thingore Sand, Iceland, in 1639. The paper was read in 1849, and the official scientific name was later published in 1857.
Although the giant squid was finally taxonomically official, physical evidence of the creature remained scarce. A near-catch of a specimen in November, 1861, by the Alecton off Tenerife in the Canary Islands ended with only a detached piece of the squid’s tail as any evidence of the encounter. In 1871 and 1872, two giant squid carcasses were collected on the Grand Banks and at Coombs’ Cove, Fortune Bay, Newfoundland, respectively, the latter of which was a reported 52 feet long.
|Near-catch of Giant Squid by crew of the Alecton, 1861. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. 1916. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/14187077.|
Finally, in December 1873, science caught a break. Four fishermen in Logy Bay, Newfoundland caught a giant squid in their fishing nets. The in-tact specimen was brought to Reverend Moses Harvey, an amateur naturalist, who draped it over a sponge bath for display. He then contacted Addison Emery Verrill, professor of zoology at Yale University, who conducted a full study of the specimen, which measured in at 32 feet long.
|Giant Squid specimen draped over a sponge bath, 1873. Verrill, A.E. The Cephalopods of the North-eastern Coast of America. pt. 1. 1882. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/11826545.|
Verrill collected information on every known specimen of Architeuthis and published his findings in a paper entitled The Cephalopods of the North-eastern Coast of America. Part I. The Giant Squids (Architeuthis) and their Allies; with Observations on Similar Large Species from Foreign Localities.
|“In 1855, Danish zoologist Japetus Steenstrup proposed that the fabled sea bishop [another mythical monster often associated with mermaids] was actually a giant squid. He offered a picture illustrating how the misunderstanding could have occurred.” Learn more in the American Museum of Natural History’s Mythic Creatures online exhibit, from which this quote is derived. This image: Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/42166070.|
The Giant Squid in Science
But while the giant squid’s acceptance into the scientific canon established the cephalopod as fact, Architeuthis’ habitat, life history, breeding habits, and even definitive size remain shrouded in mystery. It currently holds the record as the second-largest mollusk and extant invertebrate (exceeded only by the colossal squid). Recent studies have revealed that it feeds on deep-sea fish and other squids, but its hunting methods and reproductive cycle are still unknown. While it was long believed that there were many species within the Architeuthis genus, recent genetic analysis suggests there is only one: Architeuthis dux. Claims of lengths reaching 150 -200 feet have been reported, even by scientists, without evidence to justify such claims. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History suggests maximum lengths of nearly 60 feet.
Until recently, no images of the giant squid in its natural habitat had ever been taken. But, on September 30, 2004, Tsunemi Kubodera (National Science Museum of Japan) and Kyoichi Mori (Ogasawara Whale Watching Association) changed this, capturing 500 photographs of a 26 foot giant squid using a camera attached to a baited line. From 2006-2012, in three separate incidents, the giant squid was reportedly filmed, though two of the specimens were less than twelve feet long.
|This female giant squid, caught in a net by a Spanish fisherman in 2005, is on display in the Smithsonian’s Sant Ocean Hall. Image Credit: Don Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution, CC:BY-NC-SA. http://eol.org/data_objects/27480683. Learn more about the Giant Squid from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.|
While our knowledge about this species is increasing, we still have much to learn. Considering its size, the Giant Squid remains a surprisingly elusive creature. It demonstrates just how much we still have to learn about the ocean.
A World with a Kraken
So, does the kraken really exist? Most definitely. It is the species Architeuthis dux, the giant squid (possibly with some giant cuttlefish, colossal squid, and octopus sightings thrown into the mix).
Is it a warship-sized beast, capable of pulling entire ships to the ocean floor and indiscriminately devouring helpless sailors? No.
Yet again, inexperience and sensationalism turned reality into fiction. And to some degree, this continues to this day. Our research about this animal is still in its infancy, and much misinformation abounds. There is still much we have to learn about the “Kraken.”
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- Browse historic illustrations of octopi and squid-inspired monsters and the animals that they’re based on in Flickr.
- Browse the books that portray these historic monsters in BHL.
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- See some of our favorite monsters come to life on the Smithsonian Libraries’ Tumblr!
|“Release the Kraken!” In H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” Cthulhu (a part man, part dragon, and part octopus monster) attacks a ship. The sailors try to kill the beast by ramming it repeatedly, but Cthulhu simply turns into green mist and reassembles. See more fantastic historic monsters come to life on the Smithsonian Libraries’ Tumblr. GIF created by Richard Naples (Smithsonian Libraries), based on Montfort, Denys. Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière des mollusques : animaux sans vertèbres et a sang blanc. v. 2. 1801. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/35755564.|
- Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopp, Inc., 1994. Print.
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