Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Creatures of the Deep: The Kraken - Part One

kraken Concept by bpsola
Below the thuners 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
Unnumber'd and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon hyge seaworms 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

The Kraken as we know it today is a legendary sea monster of huge proportions which is said to dwell off the coast of Norway and Greenland.  It is most often pictured as a giant Octopus or squid.  However, this is not how the kraken began.

Within the Harafnista Sagas of Norse mythology is the late-14th century Örvar-Oddr which details a journey to Helluland or Baffin Island.  During this journey, which takes the characters through the Greenland Sea, two giant sea-monsters are encountered: the hafgufa or sea-mist, and the lyngbakr or heather-back.  It is believed that the halfgufa later became the kraken.

 'Now I will tell you that there are two sea-mosters.  One is called the hafgufa (sea-mist), another lyngbakr (heatherback).  It [the lyngbakr] is the largest whale in the world, but the hafgufr is the hugest monster in the sea.  It is the nature of this creature to swallow men and ships, and even whales and everything else within reach.  It stays submerged for days, then rears its head and nostrils above surface and stays that way at least until the change of tide.  Now, that sound we just sailed through was the space between its jaws, and its nostrils and lower jaw were those tocks that appeared in the sea, while the lyngbakr was the island we saw sinking down.  However, Ogmund Tussock has sent these creatures to you by means of his magic to cause the death of you [Odd] and all your men.  He thought more men would have gone the same way as those that already drowned, and he expected that the hafgufa would have swallowed us all.  Today I sailed through its mouth because I knew that it had recently surfaced.'

Some have speculated that the two monsters mentioned in the Hrafnista Sagas, the hafgufa and lyngbakr originate with the description of the medieval aspidochelone, a monstrous whale which fed by opening its jaws and releasing a fish-attracting smell.  This can be found in the King's Mirror or Konungs skuggsja, a Norwegian text from around 1250.  In the following extract, aspidochelone has been translated to kraken.

Aspidochelone by JaniceDuke
There is a fish not yet mentioned which it is scarcely advisable to speak about on account of its size, which to most men will seem incredible.  There are, moreover, but very few who can tell anything definite about it, inasmuch as it is rarely seen by men; for it almost never approaches the shore or appears where fishermen can see it, and I doubt that this sort of fish is very plentiful in the sea.  In our language it is usually called the 'kraken.'  I can say nothing definite as to its length in ells, for on those occasions when men have seen it, it has appeared more like an island that a fish.  Nor have I heard that one has ever been caught or found dead.  It seems likely that there are but two in all the ocean and that these beget no offspring, for I believe it is always the same ones that appear.  Nor would it be well for other fishes if they were as numerous as the other whales, seeing that they are so immense and need so much food.  It is said, that when these fishes want something to eat, they are in the habit of giving forth a violent belch, which brings up so much food that all sorts of fish in the neighborhood, both large and small, will rush up in the hope of getting nourishment and good fare.  Meanwhile the monster keeps its mouth open, and inasmuch as its opening is about as wide as a sound or fjord, the fishes cannot help crowding in in great numbers.  But as soons as its mouth and belly are full, the monster closes its mouth and thus catches and shuts in all the fishes that just previously had rushed in eagerly to seek food.

Footnotes contained within the King's Mirror speculate that the kraken or aspidochelone myth 'probably came to the North with the legend of St. Brendan, an Irish abbot, who was believed to have made a journey into the Atlantic about the middle of the sixth century.

St Brendan, the Irish Breanainn, is a saint of the 6th century is known as a great founder of monasteries as well a great traveller, who is said to have visited Scotland, Wales, and Brittany.  For now all we need to know of Brendan is of a particular part of his voyage to Tir Tairmgire (the Land of Promise) which was adapted by an anonymous medieval scholar into the Navagatio.  This legend can be found in a collection of stories about the lives of Christian saints called The South English Legendary, and has been copied and added to throughout the 14th century.  However, it is believed that much of the story was borrowed from other Irish literature, including the 9th century Voyage of Maol Duin and the early 8th century Voyage of Bran.  During this voyage, Breanainn and his monks land on what they think is an island.  When they start to cook their food, the island begins to move and eventually sinks beneath the sea.

A sea monster from the1621 Novi Orbis Indiae Occidentalis, representing the legend of St Brendan
'Saint Brendan and his brother monks went back to their ship and rowed strongly through the waves, enduring many storms, until the came to a great isle, and through our Lord's grace their ship drove onwards towards it; but before they could make landfall they came to some protuberance that prevented them from running the boat ashore.  One of Brendan's monks waded onto the land, but Brendan and the others remained in the ship.  This monk began to prepare a meal from the food he had brought with him; make a fire and boiled some fish in a cauldron.  But before it was cooked, before the fire had heated the water even, the island began to move up and down.  The monk was scared out of his wits and Saint Brendan watched in amazement as the island began to hurtle through the water, moving up and down like a living thing.  It swam for more than two miles before casting the fire into the sea.  The monks cried out to Saint Brendan to explain what was going on.
'Be still,' said this good man, 'and have no fear.  You think it is an island, but you are all wrong.  It is a fish of this great sea, the greatest that there is, and he tries by night and by day to put his tail into his mouth, but cannot because of his size

While the aspidochelone may be found in Norwegian texts, it is believed to be a compound of the Greek words aspis meaning either 'asp' or 'shield' and chelone meaning 'turtle'.  This monster appears in the Physiologus Latinus versio B, which is traditionally dated to the 2nd century, but is sometimes dated to the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, and was translated into Latin in around 700.  While I'm unable to translate Latin myself, I did manage to find the following translation for the Whale or asp-turtle:

The Whale (Asp-Turtle, Fastitocalon)by UrchinJoe
 'There is a monster in the sea which in Greek is called aspidochelone, in Latin 'asp-turtle'; it is a great whale, that has what appear to be beaches on its hide like those from the sea-shore.  This creature raises its back above the waves of the sea, so that sailors believe that it is just an island, so that when they see it, it appears to them to be a sandy beach such as is common along the sea-shore.  Believing it to be an island, they beach their ship alongside it, and disembarking, they plant stakes and tie up the ships.  Then, in order to cook a meal after this work, they make fires on the sand as if on land.  But when the monster feels the heat of these fires, it immediately submerges into the water, and pulls the ship into the depths of the sea.
Such is the fate of all who pay no heed to the Devil and his wiles, and place their hopes in him: tied to him by their works, they are submerged into the burning of Gehenna: for such is his guile

The asp-turtle can be found in the medieval Physiologus or Bestiary as a poem called The Whale (Asp-Turtle), believed to be written between 1022 and 1035 by Bishop Theobald and based on a 4th century Greek text, which you can read in full by following this link.

The poem tells us that the 'great asp-turtle...Fastitocalon...seems a bank of reedy grass along the shore, with rolling dunes behind.'  This appears to sailors like an island which the 'weary-hearted sailors mount...'  before 'they build a fire' and make 'their abode'.  However, the island, being a living creature 'plunges down, straight to the bottom deep he drags his prey', much like in the Physiologus Latinus versio B.

The famous Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in his 1735 edition of Systema Naturae gives the creature which has previously described as the hafgufa, the whale and the asp-turtle the scientific name Microcosmus marinus, meaning 'little world in the sea', no doubt because the accounts of this creature state that it fools sailors into believing it is an island.  However, Linnaeus later removed it from the list of creatures contained in his writings, probably because he had no real proof of its existence.
the Kraken by Fenster

 So, while we know the kraken as a monstrously huge squid or octopus, at its origin it was actually a huge whale or turtle which people often mistook to be an island.  It was known by many names - asp-turtle, aspidochelone, halgufa - and many of the kraken's traits are inherited from these creatures.  However, in none of these accounts is the word kraken used, nor are any of the creatures remotely squid or octopus-like.  So, when was the name 'kraken' first used and how was the link between the kraken and the giant squid or octopus derived? 

The name 'kraken' comes from Bishop Potopiddan who first use the name in his The Natural History of Norway, published in 1755 .  The word 'kraken' is probably dervied from the Norwegian and Swedish 'krake' meaning an unhealthy animal, or something twisted.  In modern German, 'krake' (pl. kraken) means octopus, deriving from the Middle high German word 'krol', meaning 'curly'. 

Potopiddan tells us: 'the largest sea-monster in the world; it is called Kraken, Kraxen, or, as some name it, Krabben...'  He particulary agrees with the name Krabben because the 'name seems best to agree with the description of this creature, which is round, flat, and full of arms, or branches.'  Other names include 'Horven, or Soe-horven, and some Anker-trold.'  While Potopiddan tells us that he has consulted many authors on the subject of the kraken 'not one of them seems to know much of this creature, or at least to have a just idea of it,' but that 'they say however of floating islands...'

Potopiddan goes on to say that 'fishermen unanimously affirm, and without the least variation in their accounts, that when 'they row out several miles to sea, particularly in the hot Summer days...' they encounter shallow areas where they should be deep and here they expect to 'find the greatest plenty of fish'.  When this happens, the sailors 'judge that the Kraken is at the bottom.'  If, while they fish, the sea seems to become shallower still 'they find that the Kraken is raising himself nearer the surface' and 'immediately leave off fishing, take to their oars, and get away as fast as they can.'  As the Kraken comes to the surface, 'he there shows himself sufficiently... its back or upper part, which seems in the appearance about an English mile and an half in circumference'.  At this point the Kraken 'looks at first like a number of small islands, surrounded with something that floats and fluctuates like sea-weed.'  Potopiddan then says that 'serveral 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-siz'd vessels.'  He believes these to be the Kraken's arms and that 'if they were to lay hold of the largest man of war, they would pull it down to the bottom.'  And the danger is not just the time that the Kraken is present on the surface of the ocean.  When the Kraken starts to descend below the surface 'the danger is as great as before; because the motion of his sinking causes such a swell in the sea, and such an eddy or whirlpool, that it draws every thing down with it...'

Kraken Attack by BenWootten
Potopiddan speculates that the Kraken is probably 'of the Polype, or of the Star-fish kind..,' stating that his reasons are drawn from 'the parts which are seen rising at its pleasure'; its arms which 'are properly the tentacula, or feeling instruments, called horns as well as arms.'  He tells us that the arms are used for the creatures to 'move themselves, and likewise gather in their food.'  On their eating habits, Potopiddan tells us that the Kraken has '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.'  He states that the Kraken, or Krabben, continually eats for months 'and in other months he always voids his excrements... [which] is said to be so very agreeable to the smell or taste of other fishes... that they gather together... and keep for that purpose directly over the Kraken.'  At this point the Kraken 'opens his arms, or horns, seizes and swallows his welcome guests,' which are then converted 'into a bait for other fish of the same kind.'

Potopiddan claims that the Kraken has not been known to do any real harm, at least not intentionally.  Any loss of life, he states, is because fishermen are unable to get out of the way of this creature in time.

So, what sources does Potopiddan use to reach these conclusions about the Kraken?

The Secret of Kraken Island by Kayman Studio
The first source that Potopiddan uses is 'Mr Luke Debes, in his Descriptopn of Faroe'  who speaks of 'islands which suddenly appear, and as suddenly vanish.'  These islands were believed to 'be inhabited by evil spirits.'  Potopiddan states that such islands 'are found here in Norway and in other places' and concludes that they can be 'nothing else but the Kraken, which some sea-faring people call Soe-draulen, that is Soe-trolden, Sea-mischief.'  Potopiddan says that the following quote from Baron Charles Grippenhielm confirms his opinion.

'Amongst the rocks about Stockholm there is sometimes seen a certain tract of land, which at other times disappears, and is seen again in another place.  Buraeus has placed this as an island in his map.  The peasants, who call it Gumarsore, say that it is not always seen, and that it lies out in the open sea, but I could never find it.  One Sunday, when I was out among the rocks, sounding the craft, it happened that, in one place, I saw something like three points of land in the sea, which surpris'd me a little, and I thought that I had inadvertently passed them over before.  Upon this, I called to a peasant to enquire for Gummars-orem but when he came we could see nothing of it; on which, the peasant said all was well, and that this prognosticated a storm, or a great quantity of fish.'

The Kraken. Magnus, Olaus. Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. 1555
This, Potopiddan says, 'cannot possibly be anything else but the Kraken, Krabben, or Soe-horven.'  Potopiddan's next source is Olaus Magnus who, in his Historia gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the People of the Northern Regions), printed in 1555, writes of 'the horrible monsters which are found on the coast of Norway' and describes 'black, whale-sized, horrible beasts that look like uprooted trees,' whose heads are surrounded by 'sharp points in all directions, and of long horns.'  Magnus goes on to say that their eyeballs are more than 5ft in diameter, with the diameter of their glowing red pupils being 24 inches.  'The length of the head and outstretched arms of one of these monsters total 23ft', with the body being up to 29.5ft long, making the total length 52.5ft or 16 metres without the tentacles.  Magnus also claimed that these creatures were capable of pulling large boats down into the depths of the ocean and that they can appear like islands in the sea.  Magnus' account links well with Potopiddan's theory that the Kraken is an 'English mile and an half in circumference'; that the Kraken is  'full of arms, or branches' like an uprooted tree; and that  'if they were to lay hold of the largest man of war, they would pull it down to the bottom.' 

After this Potopiddan quotes Pliny the Elder's Natural History, where Pliny first speaks of Pritis and Balsena, the largest creatures in the world. 

'THE largest Creature in the Indian Sea is the Pristis and Balsena (Whale). In the Ocean of Gaul the largest is the Physeter, which lifteth itself up in the Manner of an immense Pillar, higher than the Sails of Ships ; and spouteth forth almost a Flood. In the Ocean of Gades there is a Tree spreading abroad with mighty Arms, to such an extent that it is believed to be the Cause why that Arm of the Sea is never entered. There are to be seen also what from their Shape are called Wheels, distinguished by four Rays ; with their two Eyes closing over the Naves on each Side.' 

Kraken by erenarik
This links with Potopiddan's assertion that the Kraken's arms sometimes 'stand up as high and as large as the masts of middle-siz'd vessels.'  Potopiddan also claims that that Pliny's description of the creature 'seems to agree with the accounts of the Kraken... with his many large horns or branches, as it were springing up from its body, which is round.'  He goes on to say that 'both these descriptons confirm my former suppositions... that this sea-animal belongs to the Polype or Star-fish species,' having heard 'that certain kinds of Polypus's grow to a monstrous size.'  Here, Potopiddan speaks of Athanas Kircher who, in his Mundus Subterranean, published in 1664, says that a particular starfish found in the Sicilian seas 'have ten rays, or branches, and a body as big as that of a man,' and again he quotes Pliny on a 'Polypus or a monstrous size, by the name of Ozaena [or Ozcena], because it diffuses a strong smell; for which reason the other fish follow.'  This, Potopiddan says, 'agrees exactly with what has been said already about the Norwegian Krake.'

Kraken by delic
'Other things which this author hath related may seem rather like something monstrous; for he affirmeth, that at Carteia there was one which used to go from the Sea into their open Cisterns, among their ponds, and there rob them of their salt fish; and this thievery was so enormous and long continued, that it gat itself the great displeasure of the keepers.  Fences were erected to stop the Passage, but these it passed over by means of a tree; nor could it have been taken but by the sagacity of the dogs: for as it was returning one night, they set upon it on all sides, and so raised the keepers, who were affrighted at the strange sight.  For, first of all, it was of unheard-of bigness; then its colour was covered over with the pickle, and the stink was horrible.  Who would have looked for a Polypus there, or have known it in such a condition?  They thought they had to encounter with some monster: for with its terrible vapour it drove away the dogs; and with the ends of its long tendrils it would lash them; sometimes with its stronger arms it knocked them, as with clubs; so that it was with difficulty they were able to kill it with several three-pronged spears.  Its head was... as big as a barrel that would contain fifteen Amphorae; and its beards a man could scarcely encompass with both his arms; they were full of protuberances like clubs, and thirty feet long.  The cavities or cups, and hollow vessels, were like great basins; and the teeth were conspicuous for their size.  The remains were preserved for a wonder, and weighed seven hundred pounds.'

Kraken by LozanoX
Let us now review the origin of the Kraken legend.

  • We begin with Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD in his Natural History.  Here Pliny speaks of the largest creature in the ocean, which can stand higher than the sails of ships.  This creature is like 'a tree spreading abroad with might arms'.  Pliny also speaks of a thieving Polypus which has a 'terrible vapour' which frightens the dogs and 'its long tendrils' or tentacles which it uses like clubs.  This creature was huge, weighing 'seven hundred pounds.'
  • Next we have the 2nd or 3rd to 4th century Greek asp-turtle from the Physiologus Latinus versio B which speaks of a great whale which 'raises its back above the waves of the sea, so that sailors believe that it is just an island'.  Sailors land upon it and try to cook food, but 'when the monster feels the heat of these fires, it immediately submerges into the water, and pulls the ship into the depths of the sea.'
  • This is followed by the medieval Bestiary poem of the asp-turle [whale] named Fastitocalon by  Bishop Theobald, which is based on a 4th century Greek text, possibly the Physiologus Latinus versio B.  This follows the same lines as the description found in the Physiologus Latinus about the great whale.
  • Then, in 1250 we have King's mirror, which tells us of the aspidochelone, which appears   'more like an island that a fish' which attracts fish by 'giving forth a violent belch'.  The aspidochelone then simply sits there with its mouth open until it fill with fish and then 'as soons as its mouth and belly are full, the monster closes its mouth and thus catches and shuts in all the fishes that just previously had rushed in eagerly to seek food.'
  • In the 14th century we have the Norse myth of the lyngbakr which is 'the largest whale in the world' and the halfgufa, which is 'the hugest monster in the sea.'  The halfgufa swallows 'men and ships, and even whales and everything else within reach,' while the lyngbakr appears like an island.
    kraken unleashed by PaperCutIllustration
  • Again in the 14th century we have the tale of Saint Brendan the Navigator who encountered a great fish which appears to be an island.  When they attempt to cook food, the great fish which hurtles 'through the water, moving up and down like a living thing,' before casting the fire into the sea and submerging itself.  This legend draws on texts from the early 8th and the 9th centuries.
  • In 1555, Olaus Magnus writes of horrible monsters which are sometimes found off the coast of Norway.  These creatures are said to 'look like uprooted trees' which sometimes appear like islands and are capable of pulling large ships down into watery graves.
  • In 1735, these creatures are given the scientific name Microcosmus marinus, meaning 'little world in the sea', by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. 
  • And, finally, we reach Bishop Potopiddan who seems to draw upon all of these sources in his creation of the Kraken.
That's all for today.  Next time we will look at the modern theories of the Kraken which begin after Potopiddan's naming of the Kraken and its traits.  As always, do check out some of the artists which create the spectacular images.  Just follow the links beneath the images.

Attack of the Kraken by VegasMike

Useful Resources

The Hrafnista Sagas by Ben Waggoner
Kraken: Fact or Fiction by Rick Emmer
The King's Mirror
The Legend of Saint Brendan
Latin Medieval Bestiary: Whale
Natural History by Pliny
The Natural History of Norway by Bishop Potopiddan
No Turtle Is an Island, Except for the Fastitocalon Called Aspidochelone