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Squid Myths: From Kraken to Cthulhu

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.


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

Good Giant Squid Links - Sources I consulted to Help Write This Page

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

mikejbrown32 on March 08, 2019:

During Japan Tsunami a strange creature was caught on camera - real footage..I've found my answer here https://youtu.be/E2WCj8-OTA8

Yong Kuan Leong from Singapore on September 02, 2016:

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.

anonymous on January 13, 2013:

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.

crstnblue on September 19, 2012:

Wonderful, complex lens! Thanks for sharing!

bonelessdriedsquid on May 16, 2012:

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

bonelessdriedsquid on May 16, 2012:

interesting lens

cinefile on April 29, 2012:

Excellent lens topic

johan-kamper on April 27, 2012:

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 from Canada on February 22, 2012:

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

TopTenLists on October 04, 2011:

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

E L Seaton from Virginia on September 23, 2011:

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

E L Seaton from Virginia on September 23, 2011:

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

caretakerray lm on February 28, 2011:

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 on February 16, 2011:

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

With Love and Gratitude,

Jeremiah

anonymous on January 17, 2011:

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

anonymous on January 17, 2011:

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

dannystaple on January 11, 2011:

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 on January 09, 2011:

awesome. i better not be diving near it!

Michey LM on January 07, 2011:

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

Blessed by an Angel.

I also like your presentation

tandemonimom lm on December 31, 2010:

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

Addy Bell on December 19, 2010:

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 on December 19, 2010:

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 from Massachusetts on December 13, 2010:

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 on December 12, 2010:

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

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

ChemKnitsBlog2 on December 12, 2010:

A wonderful addition to the tower! *Blessed :)

Missmerfaery444 on December 12, 2010:

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

MikeEssex on December 12, 2010:

So creative, the best Jenga lens so far!

FlynntheCat1 on December 12, 2010:

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

gia combs-ramirez from Montana on December 12, 2010:

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

Jeanette from Australia on December 12, 2010:

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

MagpieNest on December 12, 2010:

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

Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on December 12, 2010:

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!

Ellen Brundige (author) from California on December 12, 2010:

@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 on December 12, 2010:

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 from New York on December 12, 2010:

Excellent job! Blessed by a squid angel.

Evelyn Saenz from Royalton on December 12, 2010:

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

MargoPArrowsmith on December 12, 2010:

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

FlynntheCat1 on December 12, 2010:

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 on December 12, 2010:

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

MuskyJim LM on December 12, 2010:

Very educational and entertaining. I love it!

Ellen Brundige (author) from California on December 11, 2010:

@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 on December 11, 2010:

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

Paul from Montreal on December 11, 2010:

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

Bambi Watson on December 11, 2010:

Wonderful!

I always loved the Kraken Myths

~ Blessed by a Squid Angel >*

Joan Hall from Los Angeles on December 11, 2010:

Love this! Great job!

Kirsti A. Dyer from Northern California on December 11, 2010:

This looks brilliant. Great image of the Kraken.

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