The Kraken is one of the most famous sea monsters known to man, and probably no other monster was as horrifying. It has often been depicted as a huge octopus, a giant squid, or a dragon. According to stories this huge, many armed, creature could reach as high as the top of a sailing ship's main mast. Kraken's would attack a ship, wrap their arms around the hull and capsize it. The crew would drown or be eaten by the monster. What's amazing about the Kraken stories is that, of all the sea monster tales we have, we have the best evidence that these are real. The origin of the belief in the Kraken is uncertain, although tales of the beast devouring seafarers has existed before Columbus set sails for the Americas.
It is said that the Kraken is one of the mythical beasts that inhabit the fringes of the seas to the west of the known world during Columbus' time. Explorers into this realm have often come back with horrifying tales narrating close encounters with this beast. Because of the different descriptions of how the Kraken supposedly appeared, many naturalists have discounted their stories to be nothing more than tall tales.
Early stories about Kraken, from Norway in the twelfth century, refer to a creature the size of an island. Even in 1752, when the Bishop of Bergen, Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan, wrote his The Natural History of Norway he described the Kraken as a "floating island" one and a half miles across. He also noted: "It seems these are the creatures'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." Later Kraken stories bring the creature down to a smaller, but still monstrous, size.
On sailing ship days the kraken was a fearsome menace to navigation. Seamen aboard becalmed ships kept an uneasy lookout for the boiling water which heralded the ascent of a kraken, but once it broke the surface there was no escape. Its great cold eyes studied the screaming men, as they ran up the rigging in an effort to evade the giant tentacles, but it soon plucked them off one by one and gulped them down its gigantic maw.
Men who ran below decks lived only a little longer. The kraken simply wrapped its tentacles around the ship, squeezed until all her timbers burst open, and then picked out the tasty morsels.
Probably a great many sailing ships and fishing boats which frailed to return to port were destroyed by a kraken. One of the theories about the Marie Celeste, the ship found drifting in mid-ocean with nobody aboard, is that all her people were taken by a kraken.
The strenght, speed, and manoeuvrability of powered vessels protects them against krakens, but the occasional disappearance of a small sailing craft indicates that this monster still roams the deep.
There are, however, recent accounts of huge specimens of octopi and squids caught in the Atlantic Ocean, many dwarfing the shipping boats that caught them. It is possible that bigger sea creatures related to these specimens might have existed during ancient times.
The Kraken of legend is probably what we know today as the giant squid. While a colossal octopus might also fit the description, the squid is thought to be much more aggressive and more likely to come to the surface where it might be seen by man. Though giant squids are considerably less then a mile and a half across, they are large enough to wrestle with a sperm whale. On at least three occasions in the 1930's they attacked a ship. While the squids got the worst of these encounters when they slid into the ship's propellers, the fact that they attacked at all shows that it is possible for these creatures to mistake a vessel for a whale.
What if a large squid, say a hundred feet long and weighing two or three tons, attacked a small sailing ship? (Remember many early vessels, even those that crossed the Atlantic, measured much less than one hundred feet in length) It might well have been able to turn it over. Are these real animals the origin of the myth of Kraken?