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Squid Myths: From Kraken to Cthulhu

Updated on December 28, 2014
Kraken, © Hugo Award-Winning artist Bob Eggleton, used with permission. All Rights Reserved.
Kraken, © Hugo Award-Winning artist Bob Eggleton, used with permission. All Rights Reserved. | Source

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

Hercules vs. Hydra, Metope, Athens National Museum, © Ellen Brundige
Hercules vs. Hydra, Metope, Athens National Museum, © Ellen Brundige

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?

Kraken from 1981 Ray Harryhausen "Clash of the Titans"
Kraken from 1981 Ray Harryhausen "Clash of the Titans"

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).

Thor and Giant Hymir Go Fishing for Midgard Serpent
Thor and Giant Hymir Go Fishing for Midgard Serpent | Source

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:

Sometimes the kraken seems more like a giant octopus than a giant squid.
Sometimes the kraken seems more like a giant octopus than a giant squid. | Source

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

Giant Squid attacks Captain Nemo's Nautilus submarine, illustration from original edition of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Giant Squid attacks Captain Nemo's Nautilus submarine, illustration from original edition of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea | Source

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

Frozen Giant Squid, 12m long, Melbourne Aquarium
Frozen Giant Squid, 12m long, Melbourne Aquarium | Source

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.

Sucker marks of giant squid tentacles on sperm whale hide.
Sucker marks of giant squid tentacles on sperm whale hide. | Source


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

Colossal Squid
Colossal Squid

This DVD contains two Discovery Channel nature specials: Colossal Squid, covering the New Zealand crew's capture of a massive squid off the coast of Antarctica in 2007, and Squid Invasion, covering the large Humbolt Squid which have been making headlines the last few years after covering the beaches of California and elsewhere.

Yes, that is a real Squid eyeball!

 

Giant Squid Documentary (DVD) - 2008 - Narrated by New Zealand Marine Biologist Steve o'Shea

Chasing Giants: On the Trail of the Giant Squid
Chasing Giants: On the Trail of the Giant Squid

There aren't a whole lot of good documentaries on giant squids yet, because marine biologists have only caught a few photos, clips, and live specimens of these elusive deep-sea animals! This 2008 documentary should have information on the 2006 Japanese footage as well as the one captured in New Zealand.

 

Quick! What Do You Think of Giant Squids? - A Cephalopod Poll

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Giant Squid Guestbook - For all squids, from little ones to giants

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  • CYong74 profile image

    Cedric Yong 12 months ago from Singapore

    I know this sounds ridiculous, but I always felt squids looks terribly weird and frightening. The eyes! The tentacles! I think some ancient people shared my phobia and that's where all these squid legends came from.

  • profile image

    anonymous 4 years ago

    Great lens, I love catching the real squids and eating them. I have just written a lens on how to catch squids. If I am allowed I will add the link from this to it if thats ok.

  • profile image

    crstnblue 5 years ago

    Wonderful, complex lens! Thanks for sharing!

  • profile image

    bonelessdriedsquid 5 years ago

    nice... i can see your effort in making this lens

  • profile image

    bonelessdriedsquid 5 years ago

    interesting lens

  • cinefile profile image

    cinefile 5 years ago

    Excellent lens topic

  • profile image

    johan-kamper 5 years ago

    I do sure hope there is no Cthulu. In case he would ever see himself featured on a page about squids, you would be in a whole world of pain (or madness, given that's what he usually does do people according to the lore ;-)).

  • FreakyV profile image

    FreakyV 5 years ago from Canada

    Great stuff, used as reference for my own lens on the Kraken. Thanks for writing it.

  • profile image

    TopTenLists 5 years ago

    excellent lens! Wonderful blend of facts and folklore. thank you

  • Countryluthier profile image

    E L Seaton 6 years ago from Virginia

    My compliments to the squid lady. You know your monsters. Thanks for and awfully scary and interesting lens.

  • Countryluthier profile image

    E L Seaton 6 years ago from Virginia

    My compliments to the squid lady. You know your monsters. Thanks for and awfully scary and interesting lens.

  • caretakerray lm profile image

    caretakerray lm 6 years ago

    Greekgeek:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this lense! I know of stories about giant squid, but didn't realize how much they prevailed in folklore.

    thanx

    caretakerray

  • JeremiahStanghini profile image

    JeremiahStanghini 6 years ago

    I would be scared to see a giant squid in person... lol

    With Love and Gratitude,

    Jeremiah

  • profile image

    anonymous 6 years ago

    We just watched the Clash of the Titans a few weeks ago...wow that Kraken was something!

  • profile image

    anonymous 6 years ago

    Fascinating subject and well-presented. You have served squid mythology up with a flair!

  • profile image

    dannystaple 6 years ago

    These are truly fascinating myths - there was a scale model of one of these in the London Natural History Museum during an exhibition - intimidating knowing that this is not some historic creature from history, but creatures that are around now - albeit they are very illusive.

  • Philippians468 profile image

    Philippians468 6 years ago

    awesome. i better not be diving near it!

  • Michey LM profile image

    Michey LM 6 years ago

    Thanks, I had no idea that Giant Squids exist in Mythology

    Blessed by an Angel.

    I also like your presentation

  • tandemonimom lm profile image

    tandemonimom lm 6 years ago

    Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for this detailed look into a giant squid!

  • Addy Bell profile image

    Addy Bell 6 years ago

    I think me previous comment was eaten, possibly by a kraken, so I'll try again. This is my favorite addition to the to so far. I love mythology and I love the way you've tied it in with the Giant Squid meme. Rock on, GreekGeek!

  • Addy Bell profile image

    Addy Bell 6 years ago

    So far, I think this is my favorite lens in the Jenga challenge. I love mythology and I love the way you've tied it all together with the Giant Squid motif. Rock on, Greek Geek!

  • Kiwisoutback profile image

    Kiwisoutback 6 years ago from Massachusetts

    Ah thanks for reminding me I need to rent Clash of the Titans when it comes out on DVD (it's probably out now). A random cthulu reference, too - Metallica has an instrumental called "Call of the Kthulu" from their album "Ride the Lightning." Still wondering how the word "cthulu is pronounced!

  • ReemaSharma1 profile image

    ReemaSharma1 6 years ago

    It is really a lovely lens. Great creative work. Carry on :)

    P.S. I got Captcha challenge for this comment : "dragonpea" :)

  • ChemKnitsBlog2 profile image

    ChemKnitsBlog2 6 years ago

    A wonderful addition to the tower! *Blessed :)

  • Missmerfaery444 profile image

    Missmerfaery444 6 years ago

    Wonderful! As always with your lenses, a feast for the eyes and a wondrous read!

  • MikeEssex profile image

    MikeEssex 6 years ago

    So creative, the best Jenga lens so far!

  • FlynntheCat1 profile image

    FlynntheCat1 6 years ago

    @mythphile: The spaghetti monster god? OOoooh. You should. Do a 'other wiggly things' section!

  • giacombs-ramirez profile image

    gia combs-ramirez 6 years ago from Montana

    Wow fabulous lens. Now where's that recipe for sauteed squid??

  • GonnaFly profile image

    Jeanette 6 years ago from Australia

    What a brilliant lens! Thanks for all the research you put into this lens.

  • MagpieNest profile image

    MagpieNest 6 years ago

    Excellent stuff. Gosh I hadn't thought about the FSM in ages.

  • Sylvestermouse profile image

    Cynthia Sylvestermouse 6 years ago from United States

    Truly is a most excellent article! I happen to love Cthulhu and I find the others most interesting, even if they are a little scary!

  • mythphile profile image
    Author

    Ellen Brundige 6 years ago from California

    @FlynntheCat1: Oh shoot, I was going to give His Noodly Appendage a shout-out, and totally forgot. Of course, he's not exactly a squid.

  • BuckHawkcenter profile image

    BuckHawkcenter 6 years ago

    Ah, fantastic! Certainly enjoyed the mythology, but loved the info on Giant Squids (uh, the real ones, not the Squidoo ones). Jenga is growing beautifully!

  • jodijoyous profile image

    jodijoyous 6 years ago from New York

    Excellent job! Blessed by a squid angel.

  • evelynsaenz1 profile image

    Evelyn Saenz 6 years ago from Royalton

    Thank you so much for filling out the history of our species with such eloquent prose.

  • MargoPArrowsmith profile image

    MargoPArrowsmith 6 years ago

    Because of Disney and 20.000 Leagues Giant Squids were my first mythological beings.

  • FlynntheCat1 profile image

    FlynntheCat1 6 years ago

    I've seen the latest NZ one - it's in The Papa natural history museum in Wellington ^_^ http://squid.tepapa.govt.nz/

    Also, Leshp, city of the Curious Squid was mentioned in Pratchett's book, Jingo - it rose from the deep and had lots of strangely tentacley murals and architecture...

  • religions7 profile image

    religions7 6 years ago

    I guess you continued the 'marine biology' theme in our stack. Great work as usual. :)

  • MuskyJim LM profile image

    MuskyJim LM 6 years ago

    Very educational and entertaining. I love it!

  • mythphile profile image
    Author

    Ellen Brundige 6 years ago from California

    @Timewarp: Actually, I did it in 10 hours -- 2 Friday night, then from about 9AM to 8PM today with a lunch break :D

  • capriliz lm profile image

    capriliz lm 6 years ago

    Now I know much more about the Kraken Myths. Another great lens for the Jenga stack.

  • Timewarp profile image

    Paul 6 years ago from Montreal

    I would have been impressed even if I didn't know you did this in 48 hours, amazing!

  • mysticmama lm profile image

    Bambi Watson 6 years ago

    Wonderful!

    I always loved the Kraken Myths

    ~ Blessed by a Squid Angel >*

  • joanhall profile image

    Joan Hall 6 years ago from Los Angeles

    Love this! Great job!

  • HealthfulMD profile image

    Kirsti A. Dyer 6 years ago from Northern California

    This looks brilliant. Great image of the Kraken.