In Norwegian sea folklore, the Kraken is an enormous sea monster which would sometimes attack ships and feed upon the sailors. It was supposed to be capable of dragging down the largest ships and when submerging could suck down a vessel by the whirlpool it created. It is part octopus and part crab, although others refer to it as a giant squid or cuttlefish. It was first described by Pontoppidan in his History of Norway (1752). The sheer size and fearsome appearance attributed to the beasts have made them common ocean-dwelling monsters in various fictional works (see Kraken in popular culture). The legend may actually have originated from sightings of real giant squid that are estimated to grow to 13 metres (46 feet) in length, including the tentacles. These creatures normally live at great depths, but have been sighted at the surface and reportedly have “attacked” small ships.
Kraken is the definite article form of krake, a Scandinavian word designating an unhealthy animal, or something twisted. In modern German, Krake means octopus, but can also refer to the legendary Kraken. Although the name kraken never appears in the Norse sagas, there are similar sea monsters, the hafgufa and lyngbakr, both described in Örvar-Odds saga and the Norwegian text from c. 1250, Konungs skuggsjá. Carolus Linnaeus included kraken as cephalopods with the scientific name Microcosmus in the first edition of his Systema Naturae (1735), a taxonomic classification of living organisms, but excluded the animal in later editions. Kraken were also extensively described by Erik Pontoppidan, bishop of Bergen, in his “Natural History of Norway” (Copenhagen, 1752–3).
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. 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. 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 (depicted in the above image), 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 that had mysteriously disappeared one night in 1782 must have been attacked and sunk by giant octopuses. Unfortunately for Montfort, the British knew what had happened to the ships, resulting in a disgraceful revelation for Montfort. Pierre Dénys de Montfort’s career never recovered and he died starving and poor in Paris around 1820 (Sjögren, 1980). In defence of Pierre Dénys de Montfort, it should be noted that many of his sources for the “kraken octopus” probably described the very real giant squid, proven to exist in 1857.