Kraken, Demon of the Abyss

14 Feb

According to Scandinavian mythology, the Kraken is a horrifying giant sea creature said to be one mile long. Stories generally describe it as a terrifyingly enormous octopus or squid like creature that attacks ships. According to some tales, the Kraken was so huge that its body could be mistaken for an island. But is there any chance that a real animal exists behind these scary legends? The Kraken is first mentioned in the Örvar-Oddr, a 13th century Icelandic saga involving two sea monsters , the Hafgufa (sea mist) and the Lyngbakr (heather-back). The Hafgufa is believed to be a reference to the Kraken. In 1857, the kraken began to move from myth to reality, thanks to the Danish naturalist Japetus Steenstrup. He examined a large squid beak, about 8 cm (3 in) across, that had washed up on Denmark’s shores several years earlier. Originally he could only guess at the overall size of the animal, but soon he was sent parts of another specimen from the Bahamas. When Steenstrup finally published his findings, he concluded that the kraken was real, and it was a species of giant squid. He named it Architeuthis dux, meaning “ruling squid” in Latin. Only after Steenstrup had described the creature could scientists begin to unravel whether there was any truth to the old myths. Was this huge squid really as dangerous as the legends had led people to believe? Where did it come from, and what was it up to in the dark depths of the sea?

The Kraken is perhaps the largest monster ever imagined by mankind. In Nordic folklore, it was said to haunt the seas from Norway through Iceland and all the way to Greenland. The Kraken had a knack for harassing ships and many pseudoscientific reports (including official naval ones) said it would attack vessels with its strong arms. If this strategy failed, the beast would start swimming in circles around the ship, creating a fierce maelstrom to drag the vessel down. Of course, to be worth its salt, a monster needs to have a taste for human flesh. Legends say that the Kraken could devour a ship’s entire crew at once. But despite its fearsome reputation, the monster could also bring benefits: it swam accompanied by huge schools of fish that cascaded down its back when it emerged from the water. Brave fishermen could thus risk going near the beast to secure a bounteous catch. The history of the Kraken goes back to an account written in 1180 by King Sverre of Norway. As with many legends, the Kraken started with something real, based on sightings of a real animal, the giant squid. For the ancient navigators, the sea was treacherous and dangerous, hiding a horde of monsters in its inconceivable depths. Any encounter with an unknown animal could gain a mythological edge from sailors’ stories. After all, the tale grows in the telling.

The kraken may in fact be many beasts in one, a perfectly terrifying amalgamation of the worst sea monsters humanity has ever dreamed up. Perhaps the most detailed description of the kraken comes from the Danish historian Erik Pontoppidan in his Natural History of Norway from 1755. He notes that the beast is “round, flat, and full of arms, or branches,” and is “the largest and most surprising of all the animal creation.” He cites various fishermen “who unanimously affirm, and without the least variation in their accounts,” that if you row out several miles into the Norwegian Sea in the summer, you’re in serious danger of falling victim to the kraken and, appropriately enough, it uses the prey it has devoured to lure even more – by using its faeces. A “great many old fishermen,” Pontoppidan claims, say that its “evacuation” colors the surface of the water, which “appears quite thick and turbid.” These muddied waters are a glaring clue as to the real-life inspirations for the kraken, which is based, as you might have guessed by this point, on sightings of the giant squid, which can grow to an astounding 43 feet long. Such a creature is in no way capable of totally muddying up the waters around it with excreta, but it certainly is with a blast of ink. Almost all cephalopods, a family that in addition to squid contains octopuses and cuttlefish, will ink in self-defense if, say, hauled up by fishermen. Some species will quite cleverly also deploy mucus with the ink to create pseudomorphs, false bodies that distract would-be predators. The inking behavior of the giant squid, though, along with pretty much all of its other behaviors, remains mysterious. While they have long haunted folklore, only a precious few specimens have ever been known to science. But looking at other squid species, we can infer how giant squid operate.

Though no one has seen it first-hand, scientists speculate that the giant squid hunts by hanging motionless in the water column, with the tip of its mantle pointed up and its two long tentacles dangling below (all of its other much shorter tentacles aren’t actually tentacles, they’re referred to as arms). Here it simply waits for fish or other squid to meander into its grasp of suction cups, which are lined with tiny teeth. The giant squid then reels its prey to the beak that is its mouth—and to a pretty horrible death by being slowly pecked away, mouthful by mouthful. It’s this beak that reveals what the giant squid spends its life trying to avoid: the sperm whale. The stomachs of dead sperm whales can be positively packed with the beaks of giant squid—the only bit the whale has a hard time digesting. It’s also not uncommon to come across living sperm whales with circular scars around their mouths, the tell-tale signs of battles with enormous squid desperately flailing their arms and digging into their foes with serrated suckers. There is a squid, though, that makes the giant squid look downright cuddly. Stalking the waters of Antarctica is the colossal squid (let’s hope they don’t find an even bigger species, because we’re running out of adjectives at this point), which while measuring about the same length as the giant squid, has a far more robust mantle – and also swiveling hooks on its suction cups instead of serrated edges. But—and I hate to disappoint you here—the colossal squid is probably extremely lackadaisical, by one estimate using up to 600 times less energy than similarly sized predators. Like the giant squid, it likely sits in wait for prey instead of running them down. So the legend of the kraken is indeed a bit over the top, but it nevertheless serves as an enduring mishmash of a myth, borrowing from all manner of European tales.

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