Krakens: Monsterpedia

Contents:

THE MANY FIRSTS OF THE KRAKEN

The kraken first appeared as a fabulous creature in stories told to excite wonder and fear, but certainly not reality. Over the millennia it was described in increasing numbers of isolated reports, slowly growing more accurate and more convincing. Yet still such reports remained firmly ridiculed by both science and the public at large. The first few half-hearted attempts at scientific credulity resulted in career suicide—until, within a short span of years, they did not. Thus the kraken became the first-ever legendary monster to graduate from fiction to fact. Indeed, its list of firsts is most impressive:

1539: Featured on the first map of Scandinavia, by Olaus Magnus.

1558: Featured in the first book of zoology, Historiae Animalius, by Conrad Gessner.

1735: Featured in the first book of taxonomic classification, Systema Naturae, by Carolus Linnaeus.

1861: The first mythological creature to be officially entered into scientific canon (architheuthis dux), in a paper by Japetus Steenstrup.

1906: Recurring feature in the first movies of the silent film era, particularly by cinematic special effects pioneer George Méliès in his film Under the Seas.


THE CONTRADICTORY APPEARANCE OF THE KRAKEN

The kraken is found under many guises in art and literature and myth, from a misshapen mass to a humanoid sea giant, a sea serpent to a huge lobster-like crustacean. The kraken’s figure began to stabilize during the Enlightenment’s messy divorce of science and myth, steadily taking on the shape of a giant cephalopod until it officially became one.

The man generally accepted as being the first to document the description of the kraken, Erich Pontippidan, focuses first upon the creature’s great size. “The back… seems to be in appearance about an English mile and an half in circumference, (some say more, but I choose the least for greater certainty) and looks at first like a number of small islands, surrounded with something that floats and fluctuates like sea-weeds.” He goes on to emphasize that the beast is so large and island-like, in fact, that fish frolic not just around it as they would a coral reef, but also atop it: “small fishes… continually leaping about till they roll off into the water from the sides of it.” (Pontippidan, 1755).

Pontippidan then piles on descriptions that lay more in line with a modern view of the kraken—namely, a tentacled cephalopod. “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 up as high and as 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.”

Of size, men of exalted reasoning have attempted to downplay the more exaggerated claims. Aristotle reported on a kraken-like creature five ells in length—fifteen to twenty feet. Pliny the Elder told of a giant tentacled monster crawling out of the sea to steal salted tunnies from the curing depot near the shore in Grenada (Lee, 1875). This beast was equally within reason, with a head the size of a barrel and arms measured thirty feet in length (Cousteau, 1973). Alas, with the fall of civilization such rational thinking became circumspect, an unforgivable rebuke of the Bible which featured such exaggerated sea beasts as Behemoth and Leviathan. Thus when encountering undocumented sea life sailors were quick to latch onto labels granted by what they perceived to be an authority. As a wonder granted by God, the Kraken became as long as an English mile and a half—as Pontippidan, a Protestant Bishop, attested. Such behavior continued as late as the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries—long after the Enlightenment which, as illiterates, the mariners who encountered it were unlikely to apprehend.

Indeed, for centuries our knowledge of these monsters was based upon reports from fishermen and sailors. Their descriptions were long on terror and short on details. The general impressions of witnesses to the kraken pointed to a squid, but, maddeningly, whenever details were attempted they all too often described an octopus. Quite likely this was because where the myths originated—the ancient cultures surrounding the Mediterranean Sea—the octopus, as a dietary staple, was far better understood than the squid. Even great thinkers were prone to mistaking the two animals, such as Pliny when he described his sea beast using octopus anatomy but giant squid size. Modern readers should refrain from frustration at the mixed results of ancient, or even modern, accounts. Even the great Jacque-Ives Cousteau himself, inventor of the aqualung, admitted the challenges of differentiating an octopus from a squid:

“It should be noted that it may be difficult, especially in open water, to tell the difference between an octopus and a squid. The anatomical differences between the two, which are readily discernible on dry land or in an aquarium, are not obvious to the untrained eye, especially when the animal is only glimpsed in the sea. These differences reflect very different ways of life. Octopuses, with few exceptions, live on the bottom and feed on crustaceans and bivalves. The squid, on the other hand, is an active swimmer and pursues fish, which it captures by means of its two tentacles armed with sucker disks.” (Cousteau, 1973).

Giant squid—clearly the culprit behind the myth of the kraken—are now documented by modern science, even if still not very well known. The first live one was only captured in photograph in 2004 and in video by Japanese researchers T. Kubodera and K. Mori, in 2005. It wasn’t until 2012 the first video caught the real-life kraken, the giant squid, on film in its native deep-water habitat, courtesy of the Discovery Channel and Japan’s NHK TV.* Whether or not an octopus can reach the same extreme size as a squid has not yet been resolved in the scientific community, despite one such specimen being conclusively identified (sort of—for more on that, see Monsterpedia: St. Augustine Monster)

*Monster Squid: The Giant is Real, aired January 27, 2013 on Discovery

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THE CONFUSING ORIGINS OF THE KRAKEN

Every child knows the dark plays tricks on the imagination, be it between leafless oaks or beneath your own bed. But it is not the absence of light that kindles fear so much as the absence of knowledge, experience, or perceived authority—and when it comes to the watery depths, man has been in the dark since the beginning. For millennia no man knew just how deep was the sea, or how far it extended; no man knew what otherworldly creatures lurked therein. Imagination was stoked red-hot by encounters with fantastical creatures straight from a nightmare: water-spurting monstrosities larger than a house (whales), hungry beasts with multiple rows of sharp teeth (sharks), curiosities wielding eight or more snake-like arms (octopuses). And so the lack of understanding allowed fear to trump rationale, exaggerating the size and nature of a perceived threat.

With enough time—in this case, millennia—any given sea beast adopted characteristics from other great sea beasts. As cultures intermingled and knowledge was consolidated the sea beast adopted other names, as well. Thus the histories blur between Kraken, Behemoth, Leviathan, Scylla, and Charybdis, let alone the oft-used and generic term ‘sea serpent’. No matter; man’s fears of the sea are not ameliorated with a proper label any more than they were by science mapping the breath and depth of it.

Of origin, there is much confusion because numerous sea monsters from numerous cultures have names borrowed, or adapted, or mistranslated (usually all three). The very brief and truncated description that follows is still quite a ride. While the name kraken was given by the Norse, the beast was described with characteristics from both of the Old Testament’s sea monsters, Behemoth and Leviathan (particularly in reference to its great size). The Old Testament sea creatures draw from the Jewish Tanakh, which draws from the Canaanite monsters Lotan and Tannin. Both beasts were servants of the sea god Yammu, which the Canaanite’s borrowed from the Mesopotamian sea god Tiamat. Complicating the paper trail—or in this case, mythos trail—is that most of these gods and monsters continued to change on their own, oblivious to having been plagiarized by both concurrent and subsequent cultures. Tiamat moved on to also be known as a dragon, while her appropriated backstory became the root of the Greek word thalassa, meaning ‘sea’, and an entire host of Greek and Roman myths.

Of name, words and roots play havoc in the origin of the kraken. Tannin has come to mean ‘crocodile’ in modern Hebrew, as does Leviathan courtesy of the Revised Standard version of the Bible, wherein a footnote to the Book of Job also bequeaths Behemoth the lowly status of ‘hippopotamus’. That’s not even entering in the standard practice of conflating most of these creatures with whales, as the King James Bible did to the tannin in Genesis 1:21 and modern Hebrew has done with the word leviathan. Yet to modern cinema fans, the very opposite happened to the Greek legend of Perseus, who did not in fact fight the kraken, but the Cetus (the Latin root of cetacean, or whale).

The above is a mere fraction of the complications so, in summary, the kraken’s origins are as murky as the depths in which it lives. What is certain is that all of these cultures are ancient and many were concurrent. All told their myths and legends orally long before written language, making them literally prehistoric. The Greek poet Homer wrote The Odyssey around 2800 years ago, which featured kraken-substitutes Scylla and Charybdis, but he was just the guy who put pen to paper—rather, quill to parchment. And religious codification is even less reliable: the Hebrew Bible wasn’t codified until about 2100 or so years ago (Davies, 2001)—and that is still debated—and the Christian Bible as late as the fifth century.

f1-norse-mythology

Because the name kraken is from Norse mythology, perhaps we should focus there. King Sverre of Norway wrote the oldest surviving reference to the kraken in a document from 1180. He didn’t have much to say, other than equating its great size to that of an island (Lee, 1883). The kraken was also mentioned by the anonymous author of the Norwegian encyclopedia Konungs Skuggsjá, from around 1250. The earliest surviving attributable writing about the kraken dates from the middle of the seventeenth century, by one Olaus Magnus, a Swede and Roman Catholic archbishop. He wrote that the kraken “will drown easily many great ships provided with many strong mariners… their forms are horrible, their heads square, all set with prickles, and they have sharp and long horns round about, like a tree rooted up by the roots.” (Magnus, English ed., 1658). Now that’s a kraken we can all agree upon!

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THE KRAKEN’S UNGAINLY PATH FROM MYTH TO SCIENCE

Henry Lee, who wrote extensively on sea creatures and monsters, emphasized early on that many classical monsters—such as the Icelandic Hafgufa or the Norse Kraken—were not simply pure myth. In his 1883 publications for London’s International Fisheries Exhibition, Sea Fables Explained and Octopus: Or, the Devil-fish of Fiction and of Fact, Lee wrote “… the descriptions by ancient writers of so-called ‘fabulous creatures’ are rather distorted portraits than invented falsehoods, and there is hardly any of the monsters of old which has not its prototype in nature at the present day.” (Lee, 1883). Below is a list of the key players in the kraken’s journey from fiction to fact; some noble, others misguided, and some downright criminal.

Olaus Magnus and Conrad Gessner

The earliest recorded image of a kraken is arguably scientific, in that it’s from cartography. Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, drawn between 1527 and 1539 (Costantino, 2014), is arguably the earliest map ever created of Scandinavia. Unlike the only known two maps to precede it, the Carta Marina labelled actual place names. It did not, however, label all the fantastical creatures shown inhabiting the seas. It wasn’t until 1558 that he explained the images, in his book Historiae de Gentibus Septentrionalibuspublished in English a century later under the thrifty title A Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes and Vandals and other Northern Nations. His explanation of the kraken was not one many modern readers would recognize: long sharp horns, huge red eyes, and “hairs like goose feathers, thick and long, like a beard hanging down.” He then referred to the 14th-century Icelandic saga Örvar-Oddr, which features the Hafgufa, “the hugest monster in the sea.” If that sounds familiar, it should: it’s the exact phrase pilfered later by Erik Pontippidan and thusly spread throughout the world.

Magnus, a historian and Catholic Archbishop of Sweden, was so well respected that widespread acceptance of his writings was a given. Indeed, his description of the kraken was quoted nearly verbatim as late as 1816’s edition of the Universal Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, and Literature (Vol. XII, 1816). However, such widespread dispersal may have more to do with Conrad Gessner, who appropriated Magnus’s information for his contemporaneous Historiae Animalium. This great work is considered to have been the beginning of modern zoology. Of course, zoology has come a long way. In the sixteenth century it was presumed by many that any given animal on land must surely have a counterpart in the sea. Thus the oceans were filled with snouted sea swines, horned sea rhinoceroses, shaggy sea rams, and more (Time-Life: Water Spirits, 1985).

Carolus Linnaeus and Japetus Steenstrup

The name Carolus Linnaeus is well-known by science enthusiasts the world over, for he was the creator of the taxonomic classification of living organisms still in use to this day. The Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist published the monumental work Systema Naturae in 1735. Here he classified the kraken as a cephalopod with the scientific name Microcosmus marinus, thus beginning the beast’s flirtations with fact. Alas, he removed the entry in later editions. In 1746 he published Fauna Suecica, wherein he admitted that he’d never personally seen a kraken, which was a “unique monster” inhabiting the seas of Norway.

The scientific life of the kraken was emboldened by a lecturer at Copenhagen University, Japetus Steenstrup. He introduced the giant squid in his 1849 reading of a paper regarding a carcass washing ashore in Thingøre Sand, Iceland, in 1639. The creature’s official scientific name, Architeuthis dux, was published in 1857.

The Dubious Pontippidan

For being the man generally given credit as the first to “fully” document the kraken in print—and erroneously, as Christian Francis Paullini beat him by fifty years (Lee, 1875)—the beast he described is rather different from how it has since come to be known. He described it as round and flat (Pontippidan, 1755). He then regaled readers with more names for the beast—alas!—such as Krake, Korven, Kraxen, and Krabben, not to mention Horven, Soe-horven, and Anker-trold.

Pontippidan proceeded to compliment himself on his “industrious enquiry and examination into every particular” of the kraken despite admitting that of everybody with which he spoke “not one of them seems to know much of this creature.” Regardless, he had no issue accepting such claims as the kraken being large as “floating islands” as entirely credible. He glided past this glaring contradiction by quoting Ecclesiastes, Chapter XLIII: “Who hath seen him, that he might tell us? And who can magnify him as he is? There are yet hid greater things than these be, for we have seen but a few of his works.”

Pontippidan went on to state that these fishermen—the ones who he just admitted know little about the kraken—are unanimous in describing the kraken when hunting. “Twenty boats or more” were known to congregate above a kraken during its hunt, for “the Creator has… given this creature a strong and peculiar scent, which it can emit at certain times, and by means of which it beguiles and draws other fish to come in heaps about it.” As was “known by the experience of a great many old fishermen”, the source of the scent was its own feces.

“During this evacuation the surface of the water is colored with the excrement, and appears 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 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.” To be fair regarding Pontippidan’s mistakes, his motivations were less in the name of science and more in “a desire to extend the popular knowledge of the glorious works of a beneficent Creator.” Erik Pontippidan was, after all, a bishop in the Protestant church.

The Outrageous Montfort 

While Pontippidan may have been overzealous in God’s glory, Denys de Montfort was far more so in his own. He began highly credentialed, working as assistant in the geological department of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. In this capacity he wrote a well-received work on conchology. But upon discovering a description of an eight-meter long tentacle found in the mouth of a sperm whale, he became positively inspired. He boldly championed not one sea monster, but two: the kraken octopus and the colossal octopus.

The manner in which Montfort differentiated the two sea beasts was something less than scientific: the colossal octopus, he said, “was an evil beast which nature has given a propensity for destruction and slaughter” and which he thought capable of sinking entire ships. The kraken octopus, however, “had more peaceful habits.” (Heuvelmans, 1968). Clearly enamored with his own sensationalized colossal octopus, Montfort published an illustration of such a creature outrageously attacking a three-masted ship. The image has since spawned a thousand duplicates throughout the globe, from animated GIFs to Caribbean rum.

b5-montfort-color

Alas, from the beginning it appears his aim was to mislead the public about the kraken. He claimed to one M. Defrance, “If my entangled ship is accepted, I will make my ‘colossal poulpe’ overthrow a whole fleet.” (Lee, 1875). As the illustration did indeed catch the fancy of the world, he proceeded to make good on his boast. Montfort pounced upon an embarrassing naval defeat suffered by the French in April 1782 by their chief rival, Great Britain. Rather petulantly, he claimed that the six French men-of-war captured by Admiral Rodney, as well as the four British ships sent to safeguard the prizes, were destroyed by colossal octopuses. More than just making a bold claim, he fabricated a staggering number of details to support his ‘theory’.

Alas, the ships in question hadn’t sunk at all, but were sent to Jamaica for a refit. While it is true that some of the ships in question did subsequently sink on their return voyage to England, this was due to a violent storm that was documented by the other hundred ships scattered by the inclement weather. Montfort’s reputation never recovered and he died impoverished in a Parisian gutter sometime around 1820.

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THE KRAKEN’S DRAMATIC ACCEPTANCE BY SCIENCE

History was made on the 30th of November, 1861, aboard the French despatch steamer, Alecton—rather, just overboard. In the seas between Madeira and Teneriffe the Alecton encountered, and engaged with, a giant squid. According to the ship’s commander, Lieutenant Bouyer, the beast was of a deep red color and measured 16 to 18 feet in length—not including the longest part of the animal, the arms.

“The harpoons thrust into it drew out of its soft flesh; so they slipped a rope with a running knot over it, which held at the juncture of the fins; but when they attempted to haul it on board, the enormous weight caused the rope to cut through the flesh, and all but the hinder part of the body fell back into the sea and disappeared.” (Lee, 1875)

Luckily, the fins and posterior portion of the beast remained on board and, two days later, was investigated by the French Consul at Teneriffe, a M. Berthelot. His report to the Paris Academy of Sciences, as well as the testimony of French naval officers, were highly credentialed and thusly accepted without question. Even so, many naturalists and the public at large were not so keen to believe. And to be fair, contradiction did sneak in: the illustration of this occurrence given in M. Louis Figuier’s book, La Vie et les Moeurs des Animaux, or rather in the English translations of it, the size of the squid is so exaggerated that undeserved discredit has been brought by it on the narrators of the incident.

Any wants of higher standards of evidence were sated by 1873, when two specimens were encountered on the coast of Newfoundland. A portion of one and the whole of the other were preserved for examination by competent zoologists. The scenario in which the first specimen was obtained is suitably dramatic for full inclusion in this Monsterpedia:

As reported by the Rev. M. Harvey of St. John’s in a letter to McGill College, “Two fishermen were out in a small punt on the 26th of October, 1873, near the eastern end of Belle Isle, Conception Bay, about nine miles from St. John’s. Observing some object floating on the water at a short distance they rowed towards it, supposing it to be the debris of a wreck. On reaching it one of the men struck it with his gaff when immediately it showed signs of life, and shot out its two tentacular arms, as if to seize its antagonists. One of the men severed both arms with an axe as they lay on the gunwale of the boat, whereupon the animal moved off, and ejected a quantity of inky fluid which darkened the surrounding water for a considerable distance.” One can’t help but wonder if a squid’s ability to emit ink is the origin of the ‘hunting with poop’ legend…

As fishermen are wont to do, they returned home and magnified their adventure. They “estimated” the creature’s body to have been 60 feet long and 10 feet across the tail fin. When the beast attacked them, they claimed, it reared a parrot-like beak as big as a six-gallon keg. Not particularly reassured by fishermen’s tales in the tavern, Rev. Harvey asked to see the tentacles they claimed to have chopped off with an axe. No doubt to his surprise, the men provided exactly that. The tentacles were examined by Professor Verrill, of Yale College before finding a home in the St. John’s Museum. Professor Verrill, it should be noted, was also consulted in the strange case of the St. Augustine Monster. (For more on that, see Monsterpedia: St. Augustine Monster)

As fate would have it, M. Harvey’s role was not yet complete. A mere three weeks later, in November 1874, another giant squid came into his possession. This time it was not two fishermen, but three, who caught the beast in their herring net. This occurred about three miles from St. John’s in Logie Bay. Despite being thoroughly ensnared in their net, the three men had extreme difficulty in slaying the beast. They were compelled to cut off its head before they could haul it into their boat. Though this specimen was smaller than that of its brethren in Conception Bay, being seven feet long of body and 24 feet long in the arms, it was complete. Once again Professor Verrill of Yale was called in, and finally Steenstrup’s Architeuthis dux was given its scientific due.

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THE KRAKEN IN LITERATURE

Ignoring the numerous—nay, countless—creatures of antiquity that resemble the kraken in either appearance or behavior, does not deny us its presence in masterworks of literature. While arguably not literature, per se, numerous comic books from both DC and Marvel have featured the kraken over the decades. The Japanese manga hit One Piece also featured a kraken named Surume. While clearly inspired by the kraken, H.P. Lovecraft’s masterpiece The Call of Cthulhu is definitely worthy of note, even if not included in this list. Below are the most impactful of the kraken’s appearances in modern western literature.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Kraken, 1830 

  • 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 grot and secret cell
  • Unnumbered and enormous polypi
  • Winnow with giant arms the slumbering 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.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, 1851

“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 colour, 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 object within reach.”

Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, 1866

“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.”

Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1870

hetzel-edition-1870-of-20000-lieues-sous-les-mers

The spectacular novel by Jules Verne is considered by many to have the most relevant inclusion of the kraken. This is an erroneous assumption, in that there is not a single kraken, but a host of seven cephalopods. Verne describes the beasts as each with arms twenty-five feet long, twisting “like the tresses of the Furies.” He estimated their weight at upwards of 50,000 pounds, which is absurdly high. This is a reminder that at the time the novel was written little was understood about such creatures. Indeed, Verne described his squid as having eight arms (as does an octopus), despite squid being decapods (that is, ten-armed cephalopods). Despite such errors, Verne’s descriptions continue in a squid-like vein, narrating how one of the attacking creatures halted the ship’s engines by grasping the propellers “with its horned beak.”

The action continues with a sailor being asphyxiated by one of the beasts. In the struggle Captain Nemo is painted red with the creature’s blood. It is now known that the blood of cephalopods contains a respiratory pigment hemocyanin, which has a base of copper and is thusly not red, but green (Cousteau, 1973).

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THE KRAKEN IN CINEMA

It is tempting to lump a great many sea monsters in with the kraken—certainly pop culture and B movie cinema have done so—but that is equivalent to lumping octopuses with squid. At this point in the Monsterpedia, such an error would be unfathomable! The following list is not exhaustive, nor would anyone desire such with the volume of 20,000 League adaptation being churned out continually and globally—1997 saw two made-for-TV movies alone. The following are those films since the beginning of cinema that have featured the kraken to the greatest effect:

krakens-100years

Under the Seas, 1906

Georges Méliès was a pioneer of cinematic special effects, creating numerous fantastical films using a variety of innovative methods, including the first-ever science fiction film—1897’s Gugusse et l’Automate, or The Clown and the Automaton (Menville, 1977). His 1906 film Under the Seas (the actual French title is Deux Cents Milles sous les mers ou le Cauchemar du pêcheur) supposedly contained a kraken—supposedly because the film only exists in fragments—using film of an actual octopus in a bathtub playing with a toy ship. While this footage is lost, a catalogue from the film’s distributor, Star Films, does list a wide variety of fantastical creatures, from sea nymphs and medusas to hand-to-hand combat with a giant octopus, wherein the kraken scene may have once lurked (Méliès, 1905).

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1916

Interest in Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was high enough to warrant another first in cinema. This time it was Stuart Paton who pushed the envelope, by filming the first-ever—and grossly expensive*—underwater scenes for his 1916 film, distributed by what became known as Universal Studios. The battle with the kraken is a highlight of the book, but Paton avoided inclusion of the scene despite the ‘octopus in a tub with a toy’ being readily available stock footage used commonly throughout the silent film era.

Reap the Wild Wind, 1942

This swashbuckling adventure set off the coast of Florida explodes with star power: John Wayne and Susan Hayward, among others, and directed by none other than Cecil B. DeMille (of The Ten Commandments fame). The climax involves a diving team being attacked by a giant squid, evoking the dread of monsters inhabiting sunken wrecks. The film was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction at the Academy Awards, and took home the Oscar for Best Effects.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954

Disney’s 1954 film by Richard Fleischer is as much a classic as Jules Verne’s original novel. The film was a huge hit, starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason. In this adaptation the kraken appears as a giant squid in an epic battle with the crew of the Nautilus. The scene is indisputably one of Hollywood’s greatest and influenced entire generations of tributes. Ironic, then, that in Jules Verne’s book there is no kraken at all, but rather an attack from numerous large squid.

Clash of the Titans, 1981

A contender for the most well-known cinematic sequence involving the kraken was from Ray Harryhausen’s fantasy classic Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen avoided the incorrectly-used Jules Verne kraken in favor of a new, anthropomorphized—and equally incorrect—version. In Greek mythology Perseus does not battle the kraken at all, but a giant sea creature known as the Cetus. Regardless, this is the source of Sir Laurence Olivier commanding the iconic line, “Release the kraken!” So who cares. The film was updated in 2010 with greater effects to lesser effect, so to speak, starring Liam Neeson in the role of Zeus.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2006

In the hit sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, we see the enchanting and befuddled Captain Jack Sparrow do battle with a CGI kraken of immense dimensions. The battle is imaginative and quite simply spectacular. Of particular import for this entry is that the kraken depicted depicts nearly all of the legendary kraken’s descriptors: large as an island, tentacled, and with a voracious appetite. The only thing it’s missing is Olaus Magnus’ beard.

*Erikson, Hal, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916) AllMovie.com review

FUN BITS

  • Amber (fossilized tree resin) found on the beaches of the North Sea was believed to be the kraken’s excrement.
  • Krakens (Architeuthis dux) are unpalatable due to the ammonium in their muscles.
  • The blood of krakens has a base of copper and is thusly not red, but green.

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CITATIONS AND SOURCES

  1. Costantino, Grace: Five “Real” Sea Monsters Brought to Life by Early Naturalists, Smithsonian Institute (2014)
  2. Cousteau, Jaques-Ives; Diole, Philippe, Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence, Doubleday (1973) pp.214-215, p.217
  3. Davies, Philip R., The Jewish Scriptural Canon in Cultural Perspective (2001)
  4. Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the Sea. Guilford: Lyons Press. 2004.
  5. Heuvelmans, Bernard, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968) p.57
  6. Lee, Henry, The Octopus; Or, The Devil-Fish of Fiction and of Fact (1875) pp.99-100
  7. Lee, Henry: Sea Fables Explained, International Fisheries Exhibition, London (1883)
  8. Magnus, Olaus, A Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes and Vandals and other Northern Nations, English edition, London (1658)
  9. Matthews, John; Matthews, Caitlin. The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. London: Harper Element. 2005.
  10. Méliès, Georges, Complete Catalogue of Genuine and Original “Star” Films (1905) pp.123–128
  11. Menville, Douglas; Reginald, R., Things to Come: An Illustrated History of the Science Fiction Film, New York Times Books (1977) p.3
  12. Pontippidan, Erik, The Natural History of Norway (1755) pp.210-212
  13. Salvador, Rodrigo B.; Tomotani, Barbara M., The Kraken: When Myth Encounters Science. Rio de Janeiro. 2014
  14. Time-Life Books, The Enchanted World: Water Spirits (1985) pp.18-21
  15. Universal Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, and Literature, vol. XII, Edinburgh (1816) p.541
  16. Fun bits sources: (Matthews, Matthews, 2005) (Rodrigo, Tomotani, 2014) (Cousteau, 1973) (Ellis, 2004).

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