For centuries, tales of a ginormous cephalopod lurking in the ocean and rising from the deep to crush ships with its gargantuan tentacles have been used to scare sailors and explain missing ships. Crypto-zoologists will tell you that the oceans are deep, and unexplored, and that there could still be any number of ‘mythical’ creatures waiting to be discovered – even the dreaded Kraken. But where did these myths come from? And is there any truth behind them?
In its earliest form, stories of the Kraken come from Scandinavian mythology, specifically the areas around Norway and Greenland. Its name derives from the Norse word, Kraki, meaning twisted, and in its earliest iterations it was often described similarly to either a whale, or a giant crab.
It was said that there are only two Kraken in the world, and that these Kraken are infertile and immortal. They are described as being large enough to be mistaken for land, with spiky, crab-like limbs. The danger of the Kraken came not from its hunger for human flesh and its ability to attack ships, but rather the large whirlpools that were created when it fed.
In later myths, the Kraken shifted to become the humongous squid-like creature that we think of today. With its eight tentacles – each one lined with sharp hook, and a hunger for human flesh, the Kraken would seize ships and crush them with its unnatural strength. The vessel would be destroyed, and the crew plunged into the sea to be devoured at its leisure.
Unlike many mythological creatures, which frequently have a plethora of animals thought to have inspired their mythos, there is one real contender for the Kraken – the giant squid.
The giant squid is one of the largest invertebrates on Earth, and also one of its most elusive creatures. In 2004, it was filmed for the first time in its natural habitat, but before then much of its behaviour remained unknown. The squid has been found all around the world, and the largest squid on record measured 59 feet, and weighed almost a ton. But if the creature was so elusive, how could it have inspired the myths of the Kraken?
While living giant squid may be elusive and rare, there are historical accounts of dead squid washing up on beaches centuries ago, with the first recorded in the 1800s. With even more of the sea undiscovered than today, it is easy to see why people in the past may have imagined even larger creatures, lurking in the depths. Another clue that would have historically hinted at the existence of giant squid would have been sperm whales, who will dive deep into the ocean to hunt giant squid in the depths. However, giant squid are never willing to go down without a fight, and so many sperm whales bear scarring from the suckers and beak of the squid that they hunt. With the whale measuring up to 16 meters, any creature large enough to attack it must be huge – feeding into the Kraken mythos.
In more recent times however, there has been another contender put forward as inspiration for the Kraken myth – the colossal squid. Living in the depths of the Arctic ocean, the colossal squid is even more elusive than the giant. In size, it is similar to the giant squid, although it is often exaggerated as much bigger (possibly due to its name). In terms of scientific discovery, it is almost a full century behind the giant squid and was first categorised in 1925. While its elusive nature, and deep habitat means that it has largely been rejected as a source behind the Kraken mythology, it does have one advantage on the giant squid. Much like the Kraken, the colossal squid has 25 hooks in its tentacles, though unlike the Kraken it’s unlikely that the colossal squid would use them to grab hold of ships.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective) tales of the giant or colossal squid attacking ships are mostly either exaggerated or disproved altogether. The squid which does have a justly deserved reputation for attacking humans is the Humboldt squid. While nowhere near as large as the giant or colossal squid, the Humboldt does grow as large as two feet and is promisingly nicknamed the diablos rojos (red devil). They rarely attack swimmers as they prefer deeper waters, but multiple divers have described terrifying encounters. Though they are more similar in temperament to legends of the Kraken, this squid tends to prefer the waters around South America making it unlikely (but not impossible) that they would inspire a creature from Scandinavian myth.
Still, although the oceans are unlikely to boast a hidden, ship-destroying Kraken, large as an island and hungering for human flesh – there are still huge squid living in the ocean, perhaps not the terrifying beasts from nautical myth, but just as fascinating as the legendary creature.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed it and would like to see more, please consider leaving us a tip on Ko-fi.