The Kraken: when myth encounters science

The Kraken: when myth encounters science

By Rodrigo B. Salvador and Barbara M. Tomotani

História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos Vol. 21, no. 3 (2014)

Kraken Octopus - Denys Montfort in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière des mollusques: animaux sans vertèbres et a sang blanc

Abstract: Hundreds of years ago, sailors were terrified by the Kraken, a dreadful sea monster capable of sinking ships and with a taste for human flesh. Today we know the legends of this monster were based on sightings of giant squids. This animal belongs to the genus Architeuthis and was the subject of many scientific studies. Despite its enormous size (up to 18m), the giant squid is astoundingly elusive and much of its biology remains unknown. Thus shrouded in mystery, Architeuthis is almost a mythological creature and has a place both in science and in myth: the very last of the legends to persist to this day.

For the first navigators, the sea was a great unknown, treacherous, unstable, and above all, dangerous; yet, it was the only way to reach certain places. For these men, the sea seemed to hide in its inconceivable depths a horde of lurking monsters. Even the bravest seafarers showed a respectful dread of the sea, and the stories they told gradually became legends, for, as the saying goes, “the tale grows in the telling.” An encounter with any unknown animal in the open sea had the potential to gain a mythological edge. For a monster worthy of its tales, gigantic size was not enough; it should also have some means to attack a ship and kill its crew.

Over the centuries, many sea monster legends were born and forgotten; only a few have reached our days. The Kraken, one of these “survivors,” is perhaps the largest monster ever imagined by mankind. Its legend was also born from seamen’s stories, but it was much modified and strengthened over the years. Right from the start, the Kraken was universally incorporated into Nordic mythology and folklore. According to an obscure, ancient manuscript of circa 1180 by King Sverre of Norway, the Kraken was just one of many sea monsters. Still, it had its own peculiarities: it was colossal in size, as large as an island, and capable of sinking ships; it haunted the seas between Norway and Iceland, and between Iceland and Greenland.

Two other Nordic sea monsters have records almost as old as the Kraken, appearing in the “Saga of Örvar-Oddr” (an Icelandic story from the thirteenth century by an anonymous author); their names are Hafgufa (“sea-mist”) and Lyngbakr (“heather-back”). The habits of theses monsters were later described in the Norwegian encyclopedia Konungs Skuggsjá (from circa 1250, also by an anonymous author). They shared many features with the Kraken, namely their gigantic size (as big as an island or mountain) and their inclination to attack ships and their crews. Therefore, these monsters have been considered as references to the Kraken and are treated as the same monster.

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