What is the Kraken?
Off the coast of Norway, at the bottom of the ocean, the giant Kraken slumbers. When he wakes to an empty stomach, he heads up towards the ocean’s surface, bringing mighty ripples with him. Any ship who spots these ripples must flee or face destruction.
The earliest descriptions of the Kraken don’t give away too much information. They dwell on the creature’s size, claiming that he is “the hugest monster in the sea.” He is so large that he can swallow ships and whales. So large that his body can be mistaken for land, his mouth for a sound, and his teeth for boulders. So large that his movement can create whirlpools.
Despite the lack of detail about his appearance, the Kraken’s size was enough to secure him a place in Nordic legend. Over time, his appearance was fleshed out, giving people a complete image of this monstrous being.
He has a flat body, which tends to emerge from the water in humps like small islands, and dozens of long, flexible arms (sometimes called horns), which he can lift out of the water to the height of a ship’s mast. Giant circular waves and swarms of frightened fish usually appear in front of him. Today, he is generally imagined as a giant octopus, a giant crab, or some combination of the two.
With his whirlpool-making and ship-swallowing abilities, the Kraken is certainly a dangerous beast—but, unlike other sea monsters, he isn’t particularly interested in hunting humans. Most of the sailors who have gone down in the Kraken’s belly simply didn’t get out of the way fast enough.
In fact, the Kraken is a rather lazy creature. It spends most of its time sleeping on the ocean floor. Even when it rises from the ocean floor to hunt, its strategies are passive.
Of course, there are a few stories of the Kraken attacking ships, usually because it was disturbed by their passage. In these cases, the Kraken can be ferocious and merciless, tearing the ship to splinters without any regard for human life.
The Kraken may be lazy, but with his size, he couldn’t fail to be powerful.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this beast is his unique hunting strategy. The Kraken feeds on fish—thousands and thousands of fish—but rather than swimming around the ocean, snapping up fish one by one, he has devised a way to make dinner come to him.
After the Kraken digests a round of fish—which can take up to three months—he recycles the waste, spewing out so much vomit or excrement that the water around him is “muddied and turbid.” It may sound disgusting, but,
“this muddiness is said to be very agreeable to the smell or taste of other fishes, [and] they gather together from all parts to it, and keep […] directly over the Kraken: He then opens his arms […] seizes and swallows his welcome guests, and converts them, […] by digestion, into a bait for other fish of the same kind.”
This hunting method is so effective that ancient Nordic fisherman sought out the Kraken, braving his wrath to get in on the bounty of fish who swarmed above him.
The Kraken has other skills too, although none of them are quite as practical as his hunting strategy. When he moves, he can create whirlpools that suck ships to a watery grave. He can also make vocal calls that cause underwater earthquakes.
The Kraken was first described in 1180 by no less than the king of Norway. As decades passed, the beast’s legend grew larger and larger, with heroes in some of Norway’s first epic tales, like the Orvar-Oddr, having close encounters with the monster.
By the mid-thirteenth century, naturalists had begun looking into the legend. The Konungs Skuggsja elaborated on its appearance and feeding habits. Even into the eighteenth century, prominent scientists like Carl Linnaeus included the Kraken in their classification of sea creatures.
At the turn of the eighteenth century, the Kraken began to be relegated to works of fiction. It found a place in poems by Alfred Tennyson and in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Jules Vernes’ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and HP Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu.
Today, it remains one of fictions most popular sea monsters, appearing in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Clash of the Titans, and Game of Thrones.
While science has discarded the idea of a mile-long monster lurking at the bottom of the ocean, it has discovered a sensational, Kraken-like creature: the giant squid.
The giant squid, which does live in the waters off the coast of Norway, might have been encountered by early sailors. Giant squids can grow up to forty-two feet, the length of seven or eight men. Like the Kraken, they are bottom-dwellers who feed mostly on fish—although sperm whales often bare scars from their toothy tentacles. They are also capable of spewing dark ink, similar to the “muddy” substance that the Kraken was said to use to attract fish.