The kraken (/ˈkrɑːkən/) is a legendary sea monster of giant size that is said to dwell off the coasts of Norway and Greenland. Authors over the years have postulated that the legend originated from sightings of giant squids that may grow to 12–15 meters (40–50 feet) in length. The sheer size and fearsome appearance attributed to the kraken have made it a common ocean-dwelling monster in various fictional works. It was first described by the Dane Erik Pontoppidan in 1752–3.
The English word kraken is taken from Norwegian. In Norwegian Kraken is the definite form of krake, a word designating an unhealthy animal or something twisted (cognate with the English crook and crank). In modern German, Krake (plural and declined singular: Kraken) means octopus, but can also refer to the legendary kraken.
In the late-13th-century version of the Old Icelandic saga Örvar-Oddr is an inserted episode of a journey bound for Helluland (Baffin Island) which takes the protagonists through the Greenland Sea, and here they spot two massive sea-monsters called Hafgufa (“sea mist”) and Lyngbakr (“heather-back”). The hafgufa is believed to be a reference to the kraken:
[N]ú mun ek segja þér, at þetta eru sjáskrímsl tvau, heitir annat hafgufa, en annat lyngbakr; er hann mestr allra hvala í heiminum, en hafgufa er mest skrímsl skapat í sjánum; er þat hennar náttúra, at hon gleypir bæði menn ok skip ok hvali ok allt þat hon náir; hon er í kafi, svá at dægrum skiptir, ok þá hon skýtr upp hǫfði sínu ok nǫsum, þá er þat aldri skemmr en sjávarfall, at hon er uppi. Nú var þat leiðarsundit, er vér fórum á millum kjapta hennar, en nasir hennar ok inn neðri kjaptrinn váru klettar þeir, er yðr sýndiz í hafinu, en lyngbakr var ey sjá, er niðr sǫkk. En Ǫgmundr flóki hefir sent þessi kvikvendi í móti þér með fjǫlkynngi sinni til þess at bana þér ok ǫllum mǫnnum þínum; hugði hann, at svá skyldi hafa farit fleiri sem þeir, at nú druknuðu, en hann ætlaði, at hafgufan skyldi hafa gleypt oss alla. Nú siglda ek því í gin hennar, at ek vissa, at hún var nýkomin upp.
Now I will tell you that there are two sea-monsters. One is called the hafgufa [sea-mist], another lyngbakr [heather-back]. It [the lyngbakr] is the largest whale in the world, but 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. Now, that sound we just sailed through was the space between its jaws, and its nostrils and lower jaw were those rocks that appeared in the sea, while the lyngbakr was the island we saw sinking down. However, Ogmund Tussock has sent these creatures to you by means of his magic to cause the death of you [Odd] and all your men. He thought more men would have gone the same way as those that had already drowned [i.e., to the lyngbakr which wasn’t an island, and sank], and he expected that the hafgufa would have swallowed us all. Today I sailed through its mouth because I knew that it had recently surfaced.
After returning from Greenland, the anonymous author of the Old Norwegian scientific work Konungs skuggsjá (circa 1250) described in detail the physical characteristics and feeding behavior of these beasts. The narrator proposed there must only be two in existence, stemming from the observation that the beasts have always been sighted in the same parts of the Greenland Sea, and that each seemed incapable of reproduction, as there was no increase in their numbers.
There is a fish that is still unmentioned, which it is scarcely advisable to speak about on account of its size, because it will seem to most people incredible. There are only a very few who can speak upon it clearly, because it is seldom near land nor appears where it may be seen by fishermen, and I suppose there are not many of this sort of fish in the sea. Most often in our tongue we call it hafgufa (“kraken” in e.g. Laurence M. Larson’s translation). Nor can I conclusively speak about its length in ells, because the times he has shown before men, he has appeared more like land than like a fish. Neither have I heard that one had been caught or found dead; and it seems to me as though there must be no more than two in the oceans, and I deem that each is unable to reproduce itself, for I believe that they are always the same ones. Then too, neither would it do for other fish if the hafgufa were of such a number as other whales, on account of their vastness, and how much subsistence that they need. It is said to be the nature of these fish that when one shall desire to eat, then it stretches up its neck with a great belching, and following this belching comes forth much food, so that all kinds of fish that are near to hand will come to present location, then will gather together, both small and large, believing they shall obtain their food and good eating; but this great fish lets its mouth stand open the while, and the gap is no less wide than that of a great sound or bight, And nor the fish avoid running together there in their great numbers. But as soon as its stomach and mouth is full, then it locks together its jaws and has the fish all caught and enclosed, that before greedily came there looking for food.
Carl Linnaeus classified the kraken as a cephalopod, designating the scientific name Microcosmus marinus in the first edition of his Systema Naturae (1735), a taxonomic classification of living organisms. The creature was excluded from later editions. Linnaeus’s later work, Fauna Suecica (1746), calls the creature singulare monstrum, “a unique monster” water bottles for sale, and says of it Habitare fertur in mari Norwegico, ipse non dum animal vidi, “It is said to inhabit the seas of Norway, but I have not seen this animal”.
Kraken were also extensively described by Erik Pontoppidan, bishop of Bergen, in his Det første Forsøg paa Norges naturlige Historie “The First Attempt at [a] Natural History of Norway” (Copenhagen, 1752). Pontoppidan made several claims regarding kraken, including the notion that the creature was sometimes mistaken for an island and that the real danger to sailors was not the creature itself but rather the whirlpool left in its wake. However, Pontoppidan also described the destructive potential of the giant beast: “it is said that if [the creature’s arms] were to lay hold of the largest man-of-war, they would pull it down to the bottom”. According to Pontoppidan, Norwegian fishermen often took the risk of trying to fish over kraken, since the catch was so plentiful (hence the saying “You must have fished on Kraken”). Pontoppidan also proposed that a specimen of the monster, “perhaps a young and careless one”, was washed ashore and died at Alstahaug in 1680. By 1755, Pontoppidan’s description of the kraken had been translated into English.
Swedish author Jacob Wallenberg described the kraken in the 1781 work Min son på galejan (“My son on the galley”):
Kraken, also called the Crab-fish, which is not that huge, for heads and tails counted, he is no larger than our Öland is wide [i.e., less than 16 km] … He stays at the sea floor, constantly surrounded by innumerable small fishes, who serve as his food and are fed by him in return: for his meal, (if I remember correctly what E. Pontoppidan writes,) lasts no longer than three months kids basketball uniforms, and another three are then needed to digest it. His excrements nurture in the following an army of lesser fish, and for this reason, fishermen plumb after his resting place … 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?
In 1802, the French malacologist Pierre Dénys de Montfort recognized the existence of two kinds of giant octopus in Histoire Naturelle Générale et Particulière des Mollusques, an encyclopedic description of mollusks. Montfort claimed that the first type, the kraken octopus, had been described by Norwegian sailors and American whalers, as well as ancient writers such as Pliny the Elder. The much larger second type, the colossal octopus, was reported to have attacked a sailing vessel from Saint-Malo, off the coast of Angola.
Montfort later dared more sensational claims. He proposed that ten British warships, including the captured French ship of the line Ville de Paris, which had mysteriously disappeared one night in 1782, must have been attacked and sunk by giant octopuses. The British, however, knew—courtesy of a survivor from Ville de Paris—that the ships had been lost in a hurricane off the coast of Newfoundland in September 1782, resulting in a disgraceful revelation for Montfort.
Since the late 18th century, kraken have been depicted in a number of ways, primarily as large octopus-like creatures, and it has often been alleged that Pontoppidan’s kraken might have been based on sailors’ observations of the giant squid. The kraken is also depicted to have spikes on its suckers. In the earliest descriptions, however, the creatures were more crab-like than octopus-like, and generally possessed traits that are associated with large whales rather than with giant squid. Some traits of kraken resemble undersea volcanic activity occurring in the Iceland region, including bubbles of water; sudden, dangerous currents; and appearance of new islets.
The legend of the kraken continues to the present day, with numerous references existing in popular culture, including film, literature, television, video games and other miscellaneous examples (e.g. postage stamps, a rollercoaster ride, and a rum product).
In 1830 Alfred Tennyson published the irregular sonnet The Kraken, which described a massive creature that dwells at the bottom of the sea:
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
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.
In Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick (Chapter 59. Squid.) the Pequod encounters what chief mate Starbuck identifies as: “The great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it.” Narrator Ishmael adds: “There seems some ground to imagine that the great Kraken of Bishop Pontoppodan [sic] may ultimately resolve itself into Squid.” He concludes the chapter by adding: “By some naturalists who have vaguely heard rumors of the mysterious creature, here spoken of, it is included among the class of cuttle-fish, to which, indeed, in certain external respects it would seem to belong, but only as the Anak of the tribe.”
Pontoppidan’s description influenced Jules Verne’s depiction of the famous giant squid in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea from 1870.
John Wyndham’s apocalyptic science fiction novel The Kraken Wakes depicts humanity locked in an existential struggle with ocean-dwelling aliens.