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The Kraken: Legendary Monster or Something More?

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Henry Lee, a 19th century expert in the field of sea serpents, said: “Eric Pontoppidan, the younger, Bishop of Bergen, and member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Copenhagen, is generally, but unjustly, regarded as the inventor of the semi-fabulous Kraken, and is constantly misquoted by authors who have never read his work, and who, one after another, have copied from their predecessors erroneous statements concerning him.” Let’s see what Pontoppidan had to say about all of this, himself: “Amongst the many things, which are in the ocean, and concealed from our eyes, or only presented to our view for a few minutes, is the Kraken. This creature is the largest and most surprising of all the animal creation, and consequently well deserves such an account as the nature of the thing, according to the Creator’s wise ordinances, will admit of. Such I shall give at present, and perhaps much greater light on this subject may be reserved for posterity. Our fishermen unanimously affirm, and without the least variation in their accounts, that when they row out several miles to sea, particularly in the hot summer days, and by their situation (which they know by taking a view of different points of land) expect to find eighty or a hundred fathoms of water, it often happens that they do not find above twenty or thirty, and sometimes less.”

Pontoppidan added: “At these places they generally find the greatest plenty of fish, especially cod and ling. Their lines, they say, are no sooner out than they may draw them up with the hooks all full of fish. By this they know that the Kraken is at the bottom. They say this creature causes those unnatural shallows mentioned above, and prevents their sounding. These the fishermen are always glad to find, looking upon them as a means of their taking abundance of fish. There are sometimes twenty boats or more got together and throwing out their lines at a moderate distance from each other; and the only thing they then have to observe is whether the depth continues the same, which they know by their lines, or whether it grows shallower, by their seeming to have less water.”

He continued: “If this last be the case they know that the Kraken is raising himself nearer the surface, and then it is not time for them to stay any longer; they immediately leave off fishing, take to their oars, and get away as fast as they can. When they have reached the usual depth of the place, and find themselves out of danger, they lie upon their oars, and in a few minutes after they see this enormous monster come up to the surface of the water; he there shows himself sufficiently, though his whole body does not appear, which, in all likelihood, no human eye ever beheld. Its back or upper part, which seems to be in appearance about an English mile and a half in circumference (some say more, but I chuse [sic] the least for greater certainty), looks at first like a number of small islands surrounded with something that floats and fluctuates like sea-weeds.”

There was more to come: “Here and there a larger rising is observed like sand-banks, on which various kinds of small fishes are seen continually leaping about till they roll off into the water from the sides of it; 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 up as high and as 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 his sinking causes such a swell in the sea, and such an eddy or whirlpool, that it draws everything down with it, like the current of the river Male. As this enormous sea-animal in all probability may be reckoned of the Polype, or of the Starfish kind, as shall hereafter be more fully proved, it seems that the parts which are seen rising at its pleasure, and are called arms, are properly the tentacula, or feeling instruments, called horns, as well as arms. With these they move themselves, and likewise gather in their food.

“Besides these, for this last purpose the great Creator has also given this creature a strong and peculiar scent, which it can emit at certain times, and by means of which it beguiles and draws other fish to come in heaps about it. This animal has another strange property, known by the experience of many old fishermen. They observe that for some months the Kraken or Krabben is continually eating, and in other months he always voids his excrements. During this evacuation the surface of the water is colored with the excrement, and appears quite thick and turbid. This muddiness is said to be so very agreeable to the smell or taste of other fishes, or to both, that they gather together from all parts to it, and keep for that purpose directly over the Kraken; he then opens his arms or horns, seizes and swallows his welcome guests, and converts them after due time, by digestion, into a bait for other fish of the same kind. I relate what is affirmed by many; but I cannot give so certain assurances of this particular, as I can of the existence of this surprising creature; though I do not find anything in it absolutely contrary to Nature. As we can hardly expect to examine this enormous sea-animal alive, I am the more concerned that nobody embraced that opportunity which, according to the following account once did, and perhaps never more may offer, of seeing it entire when dead.”

Today, sightings and reports of the Kraken are not just rare; they are non-existent. This suggests one of three possibilities: (a) that the Kraken was purely a mythical beast; (b) it was hunted to extinction in centuries past; or (c) the legends were provoked by sightings of giant squid that became exaggerated – a theory I go with. Whatever the truth of the matter, while the Kraken seemingly no longer endures, its legend most assuredly does.

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