Squid Myths: From Kraken to Cthulhu
Giant Squids in Mythology and Reality
What has ten tentacles, a beak, a googly eye, and can crack a ship or create a powerful whirlpool when it dives? The kraken, Norse terror of the deep and stock monster of sailors' yarns for centuries.
In modern times, fantasy and horror writers, Hollywood filmmakers and internet hoaxsters have concocted new myths about the giant squid.
Best of all, the giant squid is not really a myth! Of course, like the giant furry ants of Herodotus, the giant squid is less carnivorous than its cryptid counterpart. Read on to learn about the mythical kraken and his real-world offspring.
A Giant Squid Sonnet
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 and secret cell
Unnumber'd and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the lumbering 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.
— "The Kraken" by Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1830
Giant Squids in Greek Mythology?
As far as I know, there are no ginormous man-eating squids in Greek mythology. However, there are a couple similar creatures.
The first is the Lernaean Hydra, a multi-headed water dragon (right, my photo of an eroded Greek sculpture) defeated by Herakles. Oddly -- well, not so odd, as their constellations are nearby -- Cancer the Crab is shown pinching Herakles' toes. It's an interesting coincidence, since some early kraken stories make it rather crablike.
The other kraken-like monster of Greek myth is Skylla, one of the perils that Odysseus has to pass on his way home. Mind you, I think Homer's description of a roaring beastie on the coast of Sicily is a fanciful echo of Mt. Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, but Skylla does bear some similarities to squid mythology: multiple legs, multiple long grasping necks (with dog heads) that pluck sailors of Odysseus' ship, and a nearby whirlpool.
The Greek know-it-all Aristotle first names the teuthos, or giant squid, in the fourth century BCE. His teuthos is eight to nine feet long, and is definitely a squid, since he distinguishes it from the "polypus" (octopus) by two extra feeler-tentacles in addition to the usual eight. The Roman naturalist Piiny described a giant squid up to 30 feet long which supposedly had started causing trouble at a fishing port by raiding salted fish from the pickling tubs!
But wait! Aren't I forgetting something? What about the god Hades' pet kraken?
Release the Kraken!
And launch the anachronisms!
In the movie Clash of the Titans, the Kraken is a monster created by Hades to battle the Titans. There's something fishy about this story. Hades is the god of the underworld, and Poseidon is the god of the sea. So why is Hades making sea monsters, and why is a beastie from Scandinavian mythology taking a vacation in the Greek isles?
The "Greek kraken" is actually the invention of brilliant filmmaker Ray Harryhausen. The original Greek myth of Perseus says the hero rescued Princess Andromeda from Cetus, apparently a whale. Harryhausen opted to replace it with the bastard offspring of The Creature From the Black Lagoon and a giant squid. Wouldn't you?
(For more info on Harryhausen's kraken, see this exclusive interview with a unique photo of Harryhausen working on his kraken model. CGI artists, eat your hearts out).
The Kraken of Norse Mythology
The word kraken (Norse: krake) was first recorded in the 1700s. Some depictions are more octopus-like than squid-like. Number of tentacles vary in artistic representations; it's not like the beastie would give you a chance to count while it's crushing your ship like a nutcracker!
Whlle "kraken" is a relatively new word, tales of the kraken may date to 12th century Snori Sturlason's Prose Edda, a collection of Norse myths which includes a knock-down drag-out fight between the god Thor and the Midgard Serpent. Some scholars argue from art that the Midgard Serpent is really a giant squid.
The kraken-myth really took off in the 18th century, when Bishop Erik Pontoppidan collected and published several sailors' accounts of the kraken in his book on The Natural History of Norway. His account is worth reading, since it was the source of many 19th century descriptions:
Pontoppidan's Account of the Kraken, 1755
Pieced together from two different translations:
"Our fishermen (says the author) unanimously and invariably affirm, that, when they are several miles from the land... and, by their distance...expect from eighty to a hundred fathoms depth, and do not find but from twenty to thirty, -- and especially if they find a more than usual plenty of cod and ling, -- they judge the kraken to be at the bottom: but if they find by their lines that the water in the same place still shallows on them, they know he is rising to the surface, and row off with the greatest expedition till they come into the usual soundings of the place; when, lying on their oars, in a few minutes the monster emerges, and shows himself sufficiently, though the whole body does not appear. Its back or upper part, which seems an English mile and a half in circumference, (some have affirmed, considerably more than this,) looks at first like a number of small islands, surrounded with something that floats like sea-weeds...."
-- Source: A Library of Wonders and Curiosities, I. Platt 1884; includes other kraken sightings
"...At last several bright points or horns appear, which grow thicker and thicker the higher they rise above the surface of the water, and sometimes they stand as high and large as the masts of middle-sized vessels. 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. After this monster has been on the surface of the water a short time, it begins slowly to sink again, and then the danger is as great as before, because the motion of this sinking causes such a swell in the sea, and such an eddy or whirlpool, that it draws down everything with it."
-- Source: The Kraken: Information at Mermaid's Retreat
19th Century Reports of the Kraken
Tales of the kraken spread as transatlantic travel increased. I wonder if my great-great grandmother heard stories of giant squids during her crossing from Europe to America in 1881? There are too many accounts to list them all, but here's a few famous ones.
In1802, French naturalist Denys de Montfort identified the kraken as a giant octopus in his own Natural History. Montform himself became a victim of his "kraken" after being thoroughly discredited; supposedly he died destitute (Source).
Herman Melville's colossal Moby Dick includes a two-page description of a giant squid sighting that is almost certainly based on eyewitness accounts. No doubt the 19th century whaling trade -- and possibly giant squid tentacles found in the stomachs of whales, or the sucker-mark scars seen on their hides -- were the source behind many 19th century giant squid myths.
Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) not only contains a dramatic battle between Captain Nemo and a large "cuttlefish" which snares his submarine. Verne slips in a few real-life accounts as well.
H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu: A Winged Giant Squid!
"A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful."
-- H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu, 1926
H.P. Lovecraft's horror novels spawned a modern mythology of tentacled blobby monstrosities, writhing across the canvases of a thousand horror/fantasy artists, appearing in countless spin-offs and homages, and cropping up for reelection every four years in the U.S., where bumper stickers and T-shirts proclaim Cthulhu the ideal candidate for those "tired of choosing between the lesser of two evils."
I think the "Mind Flayer" monster of Dungeons & Dragons fame, which itself has crept into numerous video games, probably goes back to Cthulhu, and, ultimately, the giant squid.
The Kraken Goes to Hollywood
Great myths never die; they're reborn in CGI. Naturally, the giant squid/kraken has become a Hollywood superstar, from the rubber-tentacle days of grade B movies to modern computer graphics. Here's four notable Hollywood Giant Squids.
Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) produced the first kraken megastar, a grade A version of the rubber monsters of that era. The mythological link between the kraken and a brooding captain playing a pipe organ derives from this story.
Clash of the Titans (1981) added the Kraken to the Perseus myth, as noted above. The 2010 version was a CGI remake of Harryhausen's unique humanoid squid-monster.
Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring portrayed Tolkien's "Watcher in the Water" outside the Gates of Moria as a beaky giant squid with teeth and tentacles, based on paintings of the Watcher by Tolkien artists John Howe and Alan Lee. It grabs Frodo with a tentacle (as in the book) and waves him about until Sam hacks him free (book) or Legolas performs a CGI William Tell kill shot over Frodo's head (movie). The Watcher then slams the doors shut behind the Fellowship (above) to send them on their way.
In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the Kraken is not only Davy Jones' secret weapon, but Davy Jones himself is rather squidlike. At the end of this film, Captain Jack Sparrow has a close encounter with the kraken's gullet after getting French kissed by Elizabeth.
Kraken Hoaxes on the Internet...Sort Of
The most persuasive hoaxes are based on something true.
You may have seen photos of "mysterious" animals washed ashore by the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami. By and large, the photos are real, but the story behind them is fabricated: they are invariably lifted from various marine biology websites on discoveries that happened elsewhere and have no connection to the tsunami. Most (including one of a large, though hardly giant squid) are from one particular New Zealand/Australian scientific expedition.
My other favorite giant squid internet hoax is one of "Ten Mythical Beasts" added to China's version of Wikipedia, Baidu Baike, in a subversive attempt to thumb collective noses at Chinese censorship. The name of this imposter giant squid is an obscene bilingual pun, and the description of this "deviant" squid is also suggestive.
And of course, there is the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which is not a squid, but His Noodly Appendages are a bit Cthulhuoid.
The REAL Giant Squid, Architeuthis Dux
With an Eyeball the Size of a Dinner Plate
Of course, the giant squid, Architeuthis dux, is real, although it took a while for solid evidence of this deep-sea dweller to surface. Sailors' sightings are all very well, but it wasn't until 1873, when two dead giant squid washed ashore in Newfoundland, that the scientific community could declare, "confirmed." Squid parts in sperm whales' stomachs, scars on whales' hides, and washed-up bits and pieces had to content marine biologists for over a century, until finally, in 2006, a Japanese team filmed and then caught a small 24-foot squid. Furthermore, scientists have discovered a new species, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni), that dwarfs even giant squids.
There is some debate about sizes. Some estimate that giant squids reach lengths of up to 60 feet. National Geographic cites the largest squid recovered at 59 feet. Other estimates put the giant squid at an average of 33 (male) to 43 (female) feet, with colossal squid averaging 46 feet. A detailed press release from Octopus Magazine cites the mantle length (butt end, not including head or tentacles) of giant squid at 2.25m (7+ feet), colossal squid at 4m (13 feet). The problem is that these beasts do not hold still, stretch out their arms on camera, or pose next to a measuring tape. So we can only measure those few which have washed up or been caught (juveniles so far), and their tentacles shrink significantly postmortem. Beaks and bony parts found in whale stomachs are larger than those of the colossal and giant squid specimens which have been recovered so far.
Besides the size, the main difference between the two species is that the colossal squid comes armed with swiveling hooks on the ends of its two "club" tentacles, in addition to the saw-toothed, bony suckers that the giant squid uses as a defense against sperm whales (leaving distinctive rasp marks and sucker marks on their hides.) Either way, OUCH!
Giant Squid Discoveries - 2010 DVD - Two episodes: Colossal Squid, Squid Invasion
Giant Squid Documentary (DVD) - 2008 - Narrated by New Zealand Marine Biologist Steve o'Shea
Quick! What Do You Think of Giant Squids? - A Cephalopod Poll
Giant Squids are...
Good Giant Squid Links - Sources I consulted to Help Write This Page
- The Colossal Squid Exhibition - New Zealand
The Official Exhibition Website for The Colossal Squid, Museum of New Zealand. This is a fantastic, detailed, and easy-to-read museum website on this amazing animal.
- Smithsonian Institute - About the Giant Squid
Excellent 4-page article on the myths, search for, and facts about the Giant Squid.
- Giant Squid and Colossal Squid Fact Sheet - Octopus News Magazine
A comparison of Giant and Colossal Squids.
- Ocean Planet: Popular Science - He seeks the giant squid
Article on a 2005-2008 traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian about the Giant Squid.
- Giant squid - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Give up and check Wikipedia, not so much for its facts (although it puts the Giant Squid at ~33 feet for males, 43 feet for females, and the Colossal Squid around 46), as for its footnotes to reputable sources.
- Kraken - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Lots of information on kraken myth sources and sightings, plus a few more good engravings.
- The Kraken, information file in Mermaids Retreat At Lair2000
Personal webpage about the kraken and early giant squid reports, including interesting evidence from World War II. Warning: auto-play music (it can be turned off).
- Twenty-five-foot-long Giant Squid Found off Florida's Coast : Discovery News
[June 2011] Recreational fishermen on Monday found a rare 25-foot-long giant squid floating off the Florida coast, according to a University of Florida press release.