drawing depicting a ship reportedly attacked by a kraken
off the coast of Angola.
Probably no legendary sea monster was as horrifying
as the Kraken. According to stories this huge, many armed, creature
could reach as high as the top of a sailing ship's main mast.
A kraken would attack a ship by wrapping their arms around the
hull and capsizing it. The crew would drown or be eaten by the
monster. What's amazing about the kraken stories is that, of all
the sea monster tales we have, we have the best evidence that
this creature was based on something real.
Tales of a huge, many armed, headed or horned sea
creatures exist from ancient times. The Greek legend of the Scylla,
a monster with six heads that Odysseus must sail past during his
travels, is an example of this tradition. In 1555 Olaus Magnus
wrote of a sea creature with "sharp and long Horns round
about, like a Tree root up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve
cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes..."
Although the term kraken is first found in
print in Systema Naturae (Carolus Linnaeus - 1735), stories
about this monster seem to date back to twelfth century Norway.
These tales often refer to a creature so big that it is mistaken
for an island or series of islands. Even as late as 1752, when
the Bishop of Bergen, Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan, wrote his The
Natural History of Norway he described the kraken as "incontestably
the largest Sea monster in the world" with a width of one and
a half miles. The Bishop also noted that the animal had starfish
type protuberances: "It seems these are the creature's arms, and,
it is said, if they were to lay hold of the largest man-of-war,
they would pull it down to the bottom." Despite this Pontoppidan
says that the most danger the kraken represented to ships came
from the disturbance it made as it came to the surface or whirlpool
as created as it descended below. Because fish were attracted
to the vicinity of the kraken, he also notes, Norwegian fishermen
would often fish over the creature, despise the risk to their
ship and their lives.
octopus-like kraken attacks a sailing ship.
Later Kraken stories bring the creature down to
a smaller, but still monstrous, size. Though early descriptions
of the animal give a more crab-like appearance, by the 18th century
it started showing up in drawings as a giant, many armed cephalopod
(like an octopus or squid). In 1802 the French scientist Pierre
Denys de Montfort stated in his book on the natural history of
mollusks that the creature encountered by Norwegian sailors was
the kracken octopus. Montfort even suggested that there
was even a larger type of octopus than this, the colossal octopus
that had been known to attack sailing vessels.
The Kraken of legend is probably what we know today
as the giant squid. While a colossal
octopus might also fit the description, the squid is thought
to be much more aggressive and more likely to come to the surface
where it might be seen by man. Though giant squids are considerably
less then a mile and a half across, some are thought to be large
enough to wrestle with a whale. On at least three occasions in
the 1930's they reportedly attacked a ship. While the squids got
the worst of these encounters when they slid into the ship's propellers,
the fact that they attacked at all shows that it is possible for
these creatures to mistake a vessel for a whale.
it a Kraken or a Giant Squid?
Could a large squid, say a hundred feet long and
weighing two or three tons, attack a small ship by accident and
capsize it? Given that some ocean crossing vessels at the time
were very small (for example, Columbus's Pinta was only
60 feet in length), it certainly seems a possibility. Allegedly
this is what occurred to sailing ship of the coast of Angola in
the 17th century and the incident inspired the drawing at the
top of the page.
Copyright Lee Krystek 1996-2006.
All Rights Reserved.