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Beware the Kraken from the Deep

Giant eyes, rows of large teeth, and emitting a nasty stench, amorphous, ugly, enormous, and ravenously hungry, the kraken is the perfect antagonist, and makes many appearances in film and literature.

Sharks, whales, and their finned friends get all the love. Fish such as Moby Dick, Flipper, “Free” Willy, Jaws, and Nemo have captivated audiences for years because fins are in when filmmakers, cartoonists, or writers select their next oceanic hero or villain. However, that trend is changing due to these eco-friendly times, and one example of that shift is found in the popularity of SpongeBob Square Pants and his eclectic cadre of underwater buddies, which includes a snail, crab, lobster, starfish, and plankton. Exposing the ocean’s biodiversity is now commercially appealing to many.

One of the more legendary, peculiar, and elusive sea creatures that has infiltrated culture throughout history and defied that trend boasts no fins, but instead, tentacles the size of several-story buildings. It is the kraken, a creature recently resurrected in Parts 2 and 3 of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: in Dead Man’s Chest summoned by the notorious pirate Davey Jones to destroy rival ships, the kraken attacks Captain Jack Sparrow’s boat and sucks him into a watery grave; in At World’s End, under orders from Lord Cutler Beckett, Jones destroys the monster, and it washes ashore for his crew to scrutinize.

The kraken has been defying odds for decades, and its appearances in Pirates are unusual, reflecting the trend that finned characters may now be cliché, but also, since Pirates is based on a theme ride in Disneyland (the last major attraction Disney himself oversaw), this new twist: typically, the kraken has been portrayed in films based on literary classics. Although Jones delivers a knockout blow to the legendary beast, its shadow has for centuries loomed large in cultural history.

Originating in Scandinavian folklore and waters, the kraken is a giant cephalopod, better known as a giant squid or octopus. Because of its huge size --- according to some legends, it measures one mile long --- it has been mistaken for an island, and its ubiquitous tentacles can reach skyward to ships’ mast tops. The kraken has traditionally been found near large schools of fish, a dangerous paradox for fishermen. While copious amounts of fish may suggest the kraken’s presence, that attraction has proven fatal: rub the kraken the wrong way, and a boat and its crew are doomed. Through an impressive whirlpool it geneates known as the Skagarag, it can suck fishermen and their vessel into the ocean’s depths. With eight arms and two long tentacles used for capturing prey, the kraken is a formidable predator that stalks whatever it desires including various fish species and smaller squid. The Tree of Life Web Project offers more details about the mysterious giant squid.

Amorphous, ugly, enormous, and ravenously hungry, the kraken is the perfect antagonist. In Scandinavian languages, “krake” means "unhealthy animal", but in German, it simply means octopus. Nevertheless, with giant eyes, rows of large teeth, and emitting a nasty stench, reports from 18th, 19th, and 20th century sailors and watermen confirm its reputation for destruction and its reputation is carried on as it ravages four boats in the Pirates series. Due to its eccentric appearance, the beast has usually been portrayed as a monstrous villain; it’s too challenging to make a squid or octopus look cute in visual mediums such as film or television, and its nasty reputation, like the shark’s, is only now the focus of revisionists.

To understand the kraken’s allure in cultural history, one should start with marine biologist Richard Ellis’s The Search for the Giant Squid. Ellis examines many aspects of the kraken including its history, biology, etymology, sightings, and appearances in pop culture. The kraken’s roots trace back to the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis in Greek mythology. The Scylla, with its multiple heads, canine legs, and fish’s tail, was known to inhabit one side of the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily or Cape Skilla in northwest Greece. Along the other side was Charybdis, which originally was a sea nymph and daughter of Poseidon that became a giant, monstrous mouth creating whirlpools by consuming water and belching it back into the sea.

Given the behaviors and physical characteristics of these two creatures, it’s possible they derived from large squid or octopi. In the mid-16th century, Olaus Magnus, a Swedish writer, cartographer, and diplomat who traveled to Italy on behalf of Sweden’s king, wrote about a sea serpent similar to the kraken. In 1539, his popular map of the “Northern peoples”, Carta Marina which in Latin means “map of the sea”, outlined the Scandinavian countries and included illustrations of various sea beasts, the kraken among them. The Swede Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and ecology, first used “kraken” in print in his Systema Naturae. In 1752, Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan, a native of Denmark who became the Bishop of Bergen in Norway, also wrote in his The Natural History of Norway that the kraken was an enormous sea monster.

In fact, a handful of the world’s greatest authors have found the kraken worthy of their attention. Its first grand appearance in modern literature occurred in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1830 sonnet "The Kraken”. At the sonnet’s conclusion, the kraken is linked with the Apocalypse, and Tennyson suggests that only a cosmological force like “the latter fire” can destroy the kraken. The poet writes,

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.

In his 1851 classic Moby-Dick, Herman Melville also alluded to the creature. In Chapter 59, Captain Ahab’s vessel, the Pequod, is approaching the island of Java when it encounters a sinking and rising “phantom” that resembles the white whale. Melville writes,

Almost forgetting for the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct; but undulated there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life. As with a low sucking sound it slowly disappeared again, Starbuck still gazing at the agitated waters where it had sunk, with a wild voice exclaimed -- Almost rather had I seen Moby Dick and fought him, than to have seen thee, thou white ghost!

Melville concludes the chapter with the narrator explaining that sperm whales consume giant squid as prey, and that the creature Pontoppidan observed was likely a humongous squid. With only a “cameo” appearance to its credit, that the kraken is referenced in such an acclaimed novel and perceived as formidable a foe to man as the great whale mark an important stage in its evolution as a cultural icon and character in adventure literature.

In 1866, Victor Hugo’s lesser known novel Toilers of the Sea features a protagonist, Gilliatt, who journeys to save the woman of his dreams whose ship has crashed upon a reef. During his odyssey, Gilliatt wrestles a large cephalopod, this time, an octopus. More popularly, in Jules Verne’s 1870 classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo and his crew on the Nautilus, in arguably the novel’s most dramatic scene, combat a group of giant squid; consequently, one crew member dies. Verne writes,

Before my eyes was a horrible monster, worthy to figure in the legends of the marvelous. It was an immense cuttlefish, being eight yards long. It swam crossways in the direction of the Nautilus with great speed, watching us with its enormous staring green eyes. Its eight arms, or rather feet, fixed to its head, that have given the name of cephalopod to these animals, were twice as long as its body, and were twisted like the furies' hair. One could see the 250 air-holes on the inner side of the tentacles. The monster's mouth, a horned beak like a parrot's, opened and shut vertically. Its tongue, a horned substance, furnished with several rows of pointed teeth, came out quivering from this veritable pair of shears.

What a freak of nature, a bird's beak on a mollusk! Its spindle-like body formed a fleshy mass that might weigh 4,000 to 5,000 lbs.; the varying color changing with great rapidity, according to the irritation of the animal, passed successively from livid gray to reddish brown.

Verne’s descriptive, scientific details summon, through the magic of literature, what was once myth into existence: contemporary readers of Melville’s “phantom” and Verne’s “horrible monster” could visualize the giant squid’s evolution. Armed with a more specific vision of the nightmare that is the kraken, it was no longer a beast to be observed, as in Melville, but an adversary to be defeated.

In the '50s, the kraken returned with a vengeance in print and celluloid. John Wyndham’s 1953 sci-fi classic The Kraken Wakes reveals an apocalyptic world that presciently forecasts the dangers of global warming. Although only one reference to the kraken occurs, besides the title, it alludes to Tennyson’s sonnet, and Wyndham nevertheless adopts the kraken’s image, after aliens invade, to convey the fear plaguing this new world.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), a creature known as the Watcher in the Water is believed to be a kraken-like monster. Ralph Bakshi’s (1978) and Peter Jackson’s (2001) film versions of this first installment of the author’s famous trilogy include footage of kraken-like beasts. The stop-motion animation wizardry of Ray Harryhausen helped bring the kraken to life, literally, on the big screen. In 1955’s sci-fi cult classic It Came from Beneath the Sea, a giant octopus attacks San Francisco. And in the 1981 sci-fi, fantasy flick Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen breathes new life into the kraken by designing it more anthropomorphically as the last titan who Perseus must destroy to save his people. By bringing the head of Medusa to the kraken, Perseus, played by Harry Hamlin, does exactly that and saves society.

Fast forward into the 21st century, and we return to two contemporary blockbusters: Pirates of the Caribbean and SpongeBob Square Pants. Perhaps the former’s greatest contribution to the kraken mythos is Hans Zimmer’s song of the same name, which like Jaws previously, introduces viewers to the arrival of the kraken as it thwarts sailors. With dramatic flair, Zimmer’s almost seven-minute epic composition replicates the kraken’s behaviors with demonic riffs and frequent crescendos that undulate through the darkness like the beast itself. The song is a fantastic tribute to an animal that has haunted legions for years. Furthering the phenomenon of “giant squid as antagonist", Squidward in SpongeBob, although not monstrous, does serve as the sponge’s nemesis.


While Squidward is no kraken, he is a drab, boring character that is often annoyed at SpongeBob and his best friend, Patrick the starfish. Squidward doesn’t like anything, is a horrible clarinet player, and serves as the antithesis to SpongeBob and Patrick’s freewheeling fun.

As a testament to its monstrous status, the kraken appears in many popular mediums beyond literature and film. Kraken is a popular Spanish comic book series, and a roller coaster in Orlando’s Sea World is named Kraken and is the tallest, and therefore “meanest”, in the city. Stamps from Antigua, Australia, Canada, Dominican Republic, France, Guyana, New Zealand, Palau, and Togo have all been issued to depict the giant squid’s ferocious demeanor. And the U.S.S. Kraken was a submarine commissioned during World War II.

Notwithstanding the beast’s popularity, as should be the case, reality stands guard at the crossroads where mythological beasts clash with cryptozoologists’ dreams. Little doubt exists about the veracity of giant squid and octopi: the devil lurks in the details. Whether they’ve destroyed ships, and just how large and lethal they are, remains a mystery clouded with controversy.

The giant Pacific octopus is a real species that in 1967 weighed in at 156 pounds, but that is unusually large; typically, giant Pacific octopi are less than 100 pounds. In November 2005, according to the CBC of Canada , one attacked salmon researchers in a small submarine examining the ocean floor off the coast of Vancouver Island; footage of that attack became available in early 2006. The online version of Strange Magazine reports about late 19th century sightings of giant cephalopods, most notably the 1896 discovery of a giant octopus along the shores of St. Augustine, Florida, which helped spark scientific interest in the animal. However, octopi are subordinate to giant squid, which are the Earth’s largest invertebrate, and since the latter can grow larger, attack whales, and are more aggressive, ultimately, it’s possible that reports of attacks on ships are attributed to them.

Squid that mistakenly perceive a small boat as a whale may explain such attacks. Regardless, giant squid sightings, although rare, are verifiable. One of the most popular sightings occurred in 1861 when, according to various reports, a French steamer, the Alecton was traveling near the Canary Islands when crewmembers noticed a many-armed sea monster rising to the surface. Attempts to harpoon the beast failed because the points couldn’t pierce the squid’s body, but eventually, a noose was used to wrangle it aboard. Before the crew could land it, the rope cut through the squid’s body, and most of it escaped into the depths, but not one of its tails. The captain reported the incident to the French Academy of Sciences and gave scientists the tail. Curiosity and skepticism reigned. However, similar reports of giant squid sightings have been reported ever since. Wikipedia has compiled a list of giant squid sightings that is a good starting point in investigating this phenomenon.

More recently, the giant squid has been experiencing a resurgence in popular consciousness due to several vivid encounters. Since 1998, the American Museum of Natural History has offered an exhibit featuring the giant squid. According to BBC News, in 2003 a French sailor reported that a giant squid attacked the hull of his boat. Also in 2003, National Geographic News reported that fisherman in the Ross Sea off the coast of Antarctica discovered a 40-foot creature that rekindled another debate among squid experts: a separate species, the “colossal squid” (known specifically as Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is even larger and more aggressive than the giant squid (known scientifically as Architeutis dux: Arch – “first”; teuthis – squid; dux - “leader”). Several experts dispute these claims of both species’ aggressiveness. Scientific American reported that in September 2004 Japanese scientists captured underwater photographs of a giant squid attacking bait lines. And in February 2007, National Geographic News reported about an enormous colossal squid weighing in at almost 1,000 pounds, caught once again in the Ross Sea.

The kraken’s hallowed chair in the pantheon of monsters is well documented. As more mysterious creatures emerge from the ocean’s depths onto celluloid and into the pages of society’s most popular narratives, the kraken itself will dictate how revered that spot becomes. After all, he has been calling the shots for centuries and has merged myth and reality into one fantastic story.

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