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The colossal octopus (Pierre Dénys de Montfort, 1801, pen and wash drawing)

The colossal octopus (Pierre Dénys de Montfort, 1801, pen and wash drawing)

The kraken is a giant sea monster from Norwegian and Icelandic lore. Various sailors who wrote epics from the golden age of northern exploration along the coasts of Iceland and Greenland described vast beings, larger than whales. The Örvar-Odds saga from the 13th century describes a being so large that it could be mistaken for a land mass. Its jaws looked like headlands and its teeth like rocks, yet it was capable of submerging and rising. The monster was dangerous for causing great whirlpools which could swallow ships.

Such bizarre sightings might be attributable to the vagaries of weather (or the treacherous volcanic nature of Iceland—where lands do indeed rise and sink), yet sometimes whales would be seen fighting with giant arms. Indeed occasionally 269503these arms would wash ashore. Living in a dangerous and superstitious profession, sailors kept the stories of a huge boat-sinking monster alive.

Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and biological classification, took these sailor’s tales seriously enough to classify the kraken as a cephalopod in his first edition of Systema Naturae (published in 1735), however subsequent editions omitted the animal. Various eighteenth and nineteenth century armchair natural scientists kept stories of the animal alive, until modern marine biologists untangled the myth from the (even stranger) realities of the giant squid and the colossal squid.

Today the kraken has moved definitively into the realm of unicorns, leprechauns, quilins, and other mythical creatures, but its popularity has not been affected. The huge squid monster haunts pirate movies and fantasy oceans all while selling rum and fending off the latest Hollywood heroes in CG animation. In fact the beast has even scaled the pinnacles of literary fame. The Kraken by Lord Alfred Tennyson is an irregular sonnet which describes the benthic monster in language which a poetic merger of Victorian gardening and Lovecraft horror. The monster sleeps in the depths of the ocean awaiting the day of revelation! Here is the poem in its entirety:

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His antient, 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
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms 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.


Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2013