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The Kraken: Norse Legend or Recently-Discovered Creature?

Animals in History | December 5, 2018

Circa 1650, A kraken attacking a ship. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Norse were accomplished sailors and navigators. But on their voyages, they often encountered things they could not explain, including sea monsters. One such sea monster, the Kraken, became firmly placed in Norse mythology because of its immense size and its habit of attacking ships and devouring sailors. There is good reason to believe that these legends are true…at least in part. 

Release the Kraken

The Norse and Viking legends describe the Kraken as a giant, tentacle creature with eyes the size of dinner plates. Most accounts compare the Kraken to a squid or octopus but note that it is much, much bigger. Some stories claim that the tentacles of the Kraken are more than a mile long. Others say that the sea monster is so large it can be mistaken for an island. 

Early Accounts of the Monster

The Kraken is first referenced in a 13th-century Icelandic work titled Orvar-Oddr. A hero saga, the literature makes mention of a sea monster named Hafgufa, which is described similarly to the Kraken. Another text of the time, a scientific journal dated around 1250 and titled the Konungs skuggsia work, describes the Kraken in great detail and even comments on the monster’s unique feeding habits. It claims that the Kraken would regurgitate food particles from its mouth into the sea. Fish would be attracted to the food and swarm to feed. The Kraken could then scoop up the school of fish in one gulp. 

Carl Linnaeus

The Kraken Appeared in Linnaeus’ First Taxonomy of Living Organisms

When Swedish botanist and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus first undertook the task of classifying all living creatures on Earth, he included the Kraken. The 1735 edition of his Systema Naturae has an entry for the Kraken, which he categorized as a cephalopod and named Microcosmus marinus. Subsequent printings of the respected scientific book omitted the Kraken entry. In another work, Linnaeus noted that the Kraken was a ‘unique monster that inhabits the seas of Norway, but I have not seen this animal.” 

The Kraken was Included on Ancient Sea Maps

The Kraken, according to the legends, was a dangerous sea monster. It could create whirlpools that could sink ships. It could also lure in sailors who mistook its great size for an island. But most of the Kraken attack stories are eerily similar. The giant beast would rapidly ascend from the depths to wrap its monstrous tentacles around a ship, pulling it under the waves where it could devour the sailors. Numerous drawings and etchings still exist showing a Kraken attacking a vessel. 

Kraken Legends Served as Cautionary Tales

In many cases, the myths and legends surrounding the Kraken serve as cautionary tales. For sailors in the 15th and 16th centuries, the oceans were a fearsome, inhospitable place filled with the unknown. Stories about sea monsters were intended to keep cowards on dry land and to keep seasoned seamen alert and vigilant while on the water. The Kraken was a reminder to men that they are intruders into the world of marine monsters…and that they should tread lightly. 

Are Krakens Real?

Based on the ancient descriptions of the Kraken, most biologists believe that what ancient sailors were describing were giant squids. A member of the squid and octopus family, giant squids are an elusive, deep-ocean animal that can grow as long as 45 feet in length. For such a large animal, researchers know very little about the giant squid. Only a few carcasses have washed ashore for scientists to study. It seems that the giant squid if it really is the fabled Kraken, became much shyer and more of an introvert since the days of the Viking sailing expeditions. The animal is rarely seen and even more rarely photographed. The first photograph of a live squid in the ocean was snapped by Japanese scientists in 2004. The first video of a giant squid was filmed in 2012. 

If One Monster Myth is Real, Could Others Be?

Since it seems likely that science has proven that the Kraken legend is true, that brings up serious debates among scientist, anthropologists, and crypto-zoologists. Could legends of other fantastical beasts and monsters also be true? 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.