Legend, literature, cinema, manga, comics, video games: the kraken gets around. In 1831 Lord Tennyson was inspired to write a sonnet called The Kraken. More importantly, since 1981 generations of geeks were inspired by Clash of the Titans to gruffly command, “Release the kraken!” Read below for five rare and fun facts about the sea monster everybody loves.
1. NOBODY KNEW WHAT THE KRAKEN LOOKED LIKE FOR MILLENNIA
It was an island that sank beneath helpless sailors, like Behemoth. It was a whirlpool that sucked hapless mortals to a watery grave, like Charybdis. It was a serpent with snakelike heads, like Scylla. It was a giant crab to the Norsemen who first named it kraken. It wasn’t merely a monster, but a metaphor for fear of the vast, merciless sea.
Generations of telling, retelling, and plagiarizing have kept its appearance shrouded in confusion for millennia. Such adaptations continue to the present era. In his 1928 masterpiece The Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft updated the kraken to embody fear of the vast, merciless universe. Perhaps the most widely known anthropomorphized kraken is from the Ray Harryhausen classic Clash of the Titans. Sadly that, too, was contradictory: in Greek mythology Perseus didn’t fight the kraken, but a sea beast known as the Cetus—a whale-like monstrosity and the root of the Latin cetacean.
For a deeper look into the kraken’s egregious plagiarisms, see Krakens Monsterpedia.
2. THE KRAKEN KILLS IN A UNIQUELY HORRIFIC MANNER
Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was most expressive about the horror of the kraken in his 1866 Toilers of the Sea:
“The tiger can only devour you; the devil fish inhales you. He draws you to him, into him; and, bound and helpless, you feel yourself emptied into this frightful sack, which is a monster. To be eaten alive is more than terrible; but to be drunk alive is inexpressible.”
3. THE KRAKEN IS REAL
Unlike nearly every other monster, the kraken is a real and living creature. Several attempts to scientifically accept the creature were made long before any living specimen was verified. The first attempt was made by none other than Carolus Linnaeus, the very man to formalize the scientific classification system in use to this day. His taxonomy book Systema Naturae, published in 1735, listed the kraken in the class of cephalopoda. Later editions excised the reference.
In 1755 Danish historian Erik Pontoppidan wrote more extensively about the kraken in his The Natural History of Norway, including its unique manner of hunting using its own feces.
While it can be debated whether or not Pontoppidan should have self-censored his work on krakens in the manner of Linnaeus, there is no doubt Pierre Denys de Montfort should have done so. For more on him, see the Monster High-Five Bonus below. His outrageous claims were soon disregarded, but science did accept the giant squid [not octopus] as a reality in 1877, dubbing it Architeuthis.
4. THE KRAKEN DOMINATED EARLY CINEMA SPECIAL EFFECTS-IN HILARIOUS FASHION
In 1870 Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which featured a decidedly kraken-like horror beneath the waves. This is yet another contradiction however, in that it wasn’t a single beast but a gang of large squids. Regardless, the novel had a profound effect upon the world’s imagination, such that the earliest cinema—the silent film era—liberally featured his book.
Some of the earliest special effects in cinema were devoted to portraying the kraken in action. Loosely based on Verne’s novel, the 1906 Georges Méliès film Under the Sea featured an underwater ballet of naiads. Of more importance was its “kraken”: a live octopus filmed in a bathtub playing with a toy boat. Sadly, the film only exists in fragments, denying us this most charming of krakens.
To explore the kraken’s impact on cinema, see Krakens Monsterpedia.
5. THE KRAKEN HUNTS USING POO
Even Victor Hugo’s fertile imagination failed to conceive of the unique way in which the kraken hunts: by using its own feces. For many months at a time the creature [that is, the monster] is devoted to continually eating. Likewise, when the time is nigh, it devotes an equal number of months solely to “evacuating”. One can only presume this is immensely satisfying.
Pontippidan explains how two fishermen came upon waters full of the creature’s thick, slimy excrement, which appeared “quite thick and turbid. This muddiness is said to be so very agreeable to the smell or taste of other fishes, or to both, that they gather together from all parts to it, and keep for that purpose directly over the kraken: he then opens his arms, or his horns, seizes and swallows his welcome guests, and converts them, after the due time, by digestion, into a bait for other fish of the same kind.”
Strangely, this was omitted from Disney’s 1954 film depicting the kraken on the hunt.
6. MONSTER HIGH-FIVE BONUS
By far the most famous image of the kraken was from Pierre Denys de Montfort, who wrote Histoire Naturelle Générale et Particulière des Mollusques and Conchyliologie systématique, et classification méthodique de coquilles, in 1802 and 1810, respectively. This image we associate with the kraken is, in fact, a giant octopus. It has been used ever since for just about everything, most recently for a brand of rum in which you’re encouraged to “release the kraken”. Montfort’s outrageous and utterly bogus claims about the creature to academia trashed his career and he died penniless in a Parisian gutter. For the bizarre details on the pitiful fate of Pierre Denys de Montfort, see Krakens: Monsterpedia.