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Sep 08

The Kraken Sleeps

krakenBelow the thunders of the upper deep, the Kraken sleeps.

(Kraken is the definite article form of krake, a Norwegian word designating an unhealthy animal, or something twisted. Cognate with the English crook and crank. In modern German, Krake (plural: Kraken) means octopus, but can also refer to the legendary Kraken)

Once upon a time whilst working to become a poet laureate; I’d crossed Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem about the Kraken:

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 Unnumbered and enormous polypi Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green. There hath he lain for ages and will lie Battening upon huge sea-worms 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. —Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Not only had I adored the flow of lyric, I’d fallen deeper in love with the legend of the Kraken, and curiously wondered why a scribe like Tennyson would tackle such a subject in his now legendary poem so I did some further research on the creature …

The Kraken is a giant sea creature (said to be about 1 mile in length) who attacks ships and is generally described as an octopus or giant squid. According to some tales, the Kraken was so huge that its body could be mistaken for an island. This is first mentioned in the Örvar-Oddr, a 13th century Icelandic saga involving two sea monsters, the Hafgufa (sea-mist) and the Lyngbakr (heather-back). The Hafgufa is a believed reference to the Kraken. Around that time (circa 1250), another report about the Kraken was documented in the Norwegian scientific work of Konungs skuggsja who described in detail physical characteristics and feeding behaviors of the creatures. It said that only two existed because they could not reproduce and would need so much food that they could not survive. It goes on to describe the Kraken’s feeding habits, claiming that it would trap the surrounding fish by stretching its neck with a belch releasing food from its mouth. The fish would be lured by the food and would enter the Kraken’s mouth to feed. As a result, vast quantities of them would be trapped.

The Kraken was also mentioned in the first edition of Systema Naturae (1735), a taxonomic classification of living organisms by the Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus. He classified the Kraken as a cephalopod, designating the scientific name Microcosmus marinus. Although any mention to Kraken was omitted in later editions of the Systema Naturae, Linnaeus described it in his later work, Fauna Suecica (1746), as a “unique monster” that “is said to inhabit the seas of Norway, but I have not seen this animal”. Although the Kraken was usually described as a giant octopus or squid, it has also been described as a “crab-like” creature. It was believed to cause large whirlpools. The Swedish author Jacob Wallenberg described the Kraken in the 1781 work Min son på galejan (“My son on the galley”) as follows: “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?” The Kraken was said to lie at the bottom of the sea and surface in search of food or when disturbed, probably by a large ship. The myth of the Kraken is believed by many historians to have originated from the giant squid. The giant squid can reach 18 meters in length and has been rarely seen by humans as it lives in very deep waters. Some myths say that the Kraken was a monster created by Hades, the Lord of the Dead, from furious anger and hatred. This monster was much too powerful, similar to Typhon, and was imprisoned in a cave at the bottom of the sea.

When Cassiopeia, the Queen of Ethiopia, boasted that her daughter (or in other myths, herself) was more beautiful than Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty herself, Zeus ordered Hades to release the Kraken to attack the city. Zeus told the city that if Cassiopeia gave her daughter, Andromeda, as a sacrifice to the Kraken, he would go back to his prison and leave the city alone.

Cassiopeia refused to give her daughter as a sacrifice but the towns’ people kidnapped her and chained her to a rock right by the ocean. When the Kraken emerged from the sea, he was just about to consume Andromeda but Perseus returned with the head of Medusa and turned the Kraken to stone.

In 1802, French malacologist Pierre Dénys de Montfort had recognized the existence of two kinds of 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.

Pierre later proposed that ten British warships (including the captured French ship of the Ville de Paris ‘which had mysteriously disappeared in 1782’) must have been attacked and plunged because of the giant octopuses. The British had however known (courtesy of a survivor from the Ville de Paris) that the ships had been lost in a hurricane off the coast of Newfoundland in September of 1782. This resulted in a disgraceful revelation for Pierre Montfort.

In modern day (2011) a Paleontologist by the name of Mark McMenamin believes he has an explanation that starts at the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada. This park is famous for housing the remains of nine 45-foot Ichthyosaurs (an Ichthyosaur is a large marine reptile that resembled dolphins and died about 90 million years ago.)

Because of a curious, and purposefully arranged bones of the Ichthyosaurs—some vertebral disks in curious linear patterns with geometric regularity—some scientists weren’t really sure why exactly this was.

McMenamin suggests that “modern octopus will do this.” He went on to claim “I think that these things were captured by the Kraken and taken to the midden and the cephalopod would take them apart.”

Though fascinating, there still isn’t any current scientific proof that the Kraken exists. Its closest resemblance would be a modern-day giant squid, but you must wonder … what exactly does live deep in our oceans and seas? We have barely discovered the wonders of upper environment much less what lies beneath. In this author’s opinion; it is quite possible for bigger mysteries to exist just where we can’t reach and perhaps we may never know the truth but do we really want to go uncovering the hiding places of such a creature? Perhaps we weren’t meant to know for reasons that could take an entire vessel and drag her 20,000 leagues beneath the sea …

References:

  1. “The Kraken” (1830). The Victorian Web.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary (Second ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1989.
  3. Örvar-Odds saga (1888)
  4. Keyser, Rudolph, Peter Andreas Munch, Carl Rikard Unger. Speculum Regale. Konungs-Skuggsjá. Oslo: Carl C. Werner & Co. 1848. Chapter 12, p. 32.
  5. Microcosmus marinus in Systema Naturae
  6. [Anonymous] (1849). New Books: An Essay on the credibility of the Kraken. The Nautical Magazine 18(5): 272–276.
  7. Scientist says he’s found evidence for an ancient kraken. (2011, January 1). Retrieved August 30, 2014, from http://blog.chron.com/sciguy/2011/10/scientist-says-hes-found-evidence-for-an-ancient-kraken/
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