If you were to create a Venn diagram of ‘where the humans live’ and ‘where the Pacific Octopus lives’, I would be sitting in the middle of the overlap, and yet I’ve never seen one in the wild. I’ve seen bears, and wolves, and even the famously-elusive cougar, but despite entire summers spent submerged in the ocean, I’ve never seen an octopus.
I know the octopus is out there but I can’t see it, no matter how hard I try, and I think that’s where the fascination and fear of the Kraken gets its power. After all, the sea is full of secrets — what if there is something even bigger lurking in those dark depths, a beast that science has yet to catalogue? What if that creature has a hunger for human flesh? Pacific octopuses can get big, but they don’t seem to nurture a vendetta against humanity (thank goodness for that). I might not be so eager to get in the water if I knew there was a monster of vast proportions swimming under my feet, able and eager to pull down entire ships into its lair.
The Kraken is of Norwegian origin, with the most detailed description coming from the Erik Pontoppidan’s Natural History of Norway , published in 1755. Doubtlessly the tales are far older, passed down from fisherman to fisherman, and maybe growing a little with each telling. Erik claimed the Kraken was “the largest and most surprising if all the animal creation” and was a serious danger to successful anglers. You see, if you were able to reel in a large catch, the temptation of all that fish would be too great for the Kraken to ignore, and it would rise from the depths to feast on your fish, and probably you, as well.
To me, that sounds a bit like a warning against being too successful. Or maybe it’s a way of moderating against over-fishing.
Either way, the Kraken was considered to be a very real threat, and only ignored at your peril.
I think there has always been a wariness of cephalopods because, with their intelligence and multitude of limbs, they look simultaneously alien and familiar to us. We can marvel at their ability to open jars and escape tanks, but they don’t follow that pattern of other creatures — two forearms, two legs, a solid shape, a single colour. For a long time, octopuses were terribly misunderstood and considered stupid, even though they are actually just shy.
Perhaps, the Kraken wasn’t just strong and invisible; it was cunning, too. It used camouflage to creep close, and an enviable dexterity to snake around a ship to steal the catch. If you add its immense size to the mix — smart, flexible, and as big as an island? — suddenly the Kraken becomes a monster.
I can’t help but wonder if, like the humble Pacific Octopus, the Kraken was sadly misjudged. It can’t be easy, being a behemoth of the deep abyss, living a lonely life in the sunless dark. Maybe it didn’t want anything more than an easy meal. Maybe it was eager to join the fishermen in telling wild tales, and it was only looking for a bit of camaraderie. What if those snaking tentacles that surrounded and crushed the ships were, in actuality, just giving the generous fisherman a big, powerful, and over-enthusiastic hug?