What is a Kraken? And Who Are Its Friends?

At Kraken, we’re pretty dedicated to marine conservation and we don’t really like to perpetuate the idea of the scary sea monsters. But we’ll readily admit that there’s something mysterious and sometimes scary about the depths of the ocean. And we’re not the only ones who feel that way.

If you’ve ever seen old maps, you might’ve noticed that there are a lot of strange looking creatures guarding the world’s oceans.

1592 Map of Iceland from Theatre of the World by Abraham Ortelius

Some of them vaguely resemble creatures we know and love. Whales made frequent appearances on these maps, although they don’t quite look the way we’re used to.  In his 1539 nautical chart, Carta Marina, Olaus Magnus depicted whales as having two distinct blowholes on the tops of their heads and long, teeth extending from the jaw (see image below). And this is, in fact, biologically correct. Almost.

Some whales, like the right whales actually do have two blow holes which make a distinctive “V” shape. And these whales also have very long tooth-like projections called baleen plates extending from their jaw. So while Magnus’ illustrations weren’t completely accurate, they did emphasize some of the characteristics we see in real marine species.

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Other “sea monsters” are harder to explain. Consider the humble sea pig.

sea pig monster
Sea pig, as illustrated in Olaus Magnus’s 1539 Carta Marina.

It turns out that there was a commonly-held belief thought to have originated in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, that every land animal had an equivalent marine species. Thus we have animals named sea lion and sea cow. And it turns out there actually is a sea pig, though it’s not quite what Magnus imagined. Sea pigs are a type of sea cucumber living in at the bottom of the deep ocean.

And some “sea monsters” are familiar creatures, magnified to a size we are unfamliar with. Like this giant lobster, pictured grasping a man in his claw.

lobster monster
Sea monster from Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (1539)

So now we know a bit about its friends. But what is a kraken?

Well, to answer this, I defer to the expertise of the Kraken Spiced Rum public relations team:

All joking aside, its tale likely stemmed from an old Norse myth about a massive sea monster called hafgufa, which would disguise itself as a floating island in the sea. In his 1750s book The Natural History of Norway, Bishop Erik Pontoppidan described an octopus-like creature so large that when at the surface it could be mistaken for an island. Interestingly, his account also noted that kraken poop was so delicious-smelling, that it served as bait to attract fish for its next meal.

For hundreds of years, controversy surrounded the idea of the kraken. Indeed, Carl Linnaeus, the creator of the modern system of naming organisms actually included the krakne in his 1735 Systema Naturae. On the other hand, Sir Richard Owen, the man who coined the term dinosaur, got into a well-publicized debate with the captain of the ship Daedalus, who reported seeing a 60 foot long sea creature, had merely seen a large seal.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s, when the leading squid expert Professor Japetus Steenstrup concluded that giant squids were, in fact, real, did the legend of the kraken become more fact than fiction.

first giant squid photo
In late 1873, amateur naturalist Reverend Moses Harvey of Newfoundland bought the first recorded complete giant squid specimen from a fisherman for $10. In this 1874 photo, Harvey’s giant squid is draped over a bathtub. Image: Verrill, A.E., 1882, Report on the Cephalopods of the Northeastern Coast of America

Now, we’re releasing the kraken in all its nerdy glory here at Kraken and Friends!

To learn more fun tidbits about the kraken, check out this Mental Floss article.

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