Jun 01, 2022 I Nick Redfern

Mega-Monster or Myth-Driven Folklore: The Mighty Kraken

A creature that features heavily in Scandinavian folklore and mythology, the Kraken was a terrifying beast, perhaps most reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s famous, fictional monster, Cthulhu. A beast of the mysterious deep, the Kraken is a definitive sea monster; albeit, not a sea serpent of the long-necked and hump-backed variety. In many respects, the Kraken sounds like a strange combination of giant octopus and gargantuan squid. Certainly, both animals have the ability to grow to significantly large proportions – with the Colossal Squid, reaching overall lengths, including tentacles, of up to forty-six feet. The Kraken, however, is said to grow much, much bigger – and to the point where, in centuries long gone, it supposedly dragged ships under the waves, drowning their crews in the process. The story of Orvar-Oddr, a renowned Scandinavian hero of old, whose adventures were chronicled in the 1200s, contains a description of a beast called the hafgufa, but which scholars of Scandinavian folklore and history believe, with hindsight, may well have been a Kraken. It states:

“Now I will tell you that there are two sea-monsters. One is called the hafgufa (sea-mist), another lyngbakr (heather-back). It (the lyngbakr) is the largest whale in the world, but the hafgufa 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 rocks 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 had already drowned (i.e. to the lyngbakr which wasn’t an island, and sank), 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.”

(Nick Redfern) What lurks below?

Then there is the 16th century tome, Konungs skuggsja, which translates into English as King’s Mirror and that also describes what is believed to have been a kraken: “There is a fish that is still unmentioned, which it is scarcely advisable to speak about on account of its size, because it will seem to most people incredible. There are only a very few who can speak upon it clearly, because it is seldom near land nor appears where it may be seen by fishermen, and I suppose there are not many of this sort of fish in the sea. Most often in our tongue we call it hafgufa. Nor can I conclusively speak about its length in ells, because the times he has shown before men, he has appeared more like land than like a fish. Neither have I heard that one had been caught or found dead; and it seems to me as though there must be no more than two in the oceans, and I deem that each is unable to reproduce itself, for I believe that they are always the same ones. Then too, neither would it do for other fish if the hafgufa were of such a number as other whales, on account of their vastness, and how much subsistence that they need. 

“It is said to be the nature of these fish that when one shall desire to eat, then it stretches up its neck with a great belching, and following this belching comes forth much food, so that all kinds of fish that are near to hand will come to present location, then will gather together, both small and large, believing they shall obtain there food and good eating; but this great fish lets its mouth stand open the while, and the gap is no less wide than that of a great sound or fjord, And nor may the fish avoid running together there in their great numbers. But as soon as its stomach and mouth is full, then it locks together its jaws and has the fish all caught and enclosed, that before greedily came there looking for food.” In addition, we have the words of a Swedish author, one Jacob Wallenberg. In the pages of his 1781 title, Min son på galejan (which translates as My son on the galley), we’re told the following:

(Nick Redfern) Massive monsters or legends?

“Kraken, also called the Crab-fish, which is not that huge, for heads and tails counted, he is no larger than our Öland is wide [i.e., less than 16 km]. He stays at the sea floor, constantly surrounded by innumerable small fishes, who serve as his food and are fed by him in return: for his meal, (if I remember correctly what E. Pontoppidan writes,) lasts no longer than three months, and another three are then needed to digest it. His excrements nurture in the following an army of lesser fish, and for this reason, fishermen plumb after his resting place. Gradually, Kraken ascends to the surface, and when he is at ten to twelve fathoms, the boats had better move out of his vicinity, as he will shortly thereafter burst up, like a floating island, spurting water from his dreadful nostrils and making ring waves around him, which can reach many miles. Could one doubt that this is the Leviathan of Job?”

And, we have The Kraken, an 1830 sonnet from the acclaimed Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson. It reads thus:

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

Unnumber'd and enormous polypi

Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.

There hath he lain for ages, and will lie

Battening upon huge 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.

Today, sightings and reports of the Kraken are not just rare; they are non-existent. This suggests a couple of possibilities: (a) that the Kraken was purely a mythical beast (a giant squid morphed by folklore into a monster is a good probability); or (b) it really did exist and it was hunted to extinction in centuries past. Whatever the truth of the matter (I firmly go with "A"), while the Kraken no longer endures, its legend most assuredly does. 

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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