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What is the Kraken?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 19, 2024
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The kraken is a mythological sea monster from Norway who features in legends from other Scandinavian countries as well. According to myth, krakens favor the waters off the coast of Norway and Iceland, although it is also possible to find stories about similar sea monsters who appear in other parts of the world. Some authors also found the tale of the kraken compelling enough to borrow it; H.P. Lovecraft, for example, wrote about a version of the kraken known as Cthulu. The monster also appears in poetry and literature by authors like Tennyson, Verne, and Tolkien, among others.

Numerous fairy tales and paintings depict the kraken, usually as a many-armed monster similar to an octopus or squid. In all myths, it is much larger than ordinary versions of these animals, although descriptions of its size vary. In some tales, the kraken could reach with ease to the top of a ship's masts, and it others it was so gigantic that its body could be mistaken for an island. Some stories actually describe ships anchoring next to the creature, ignorant to the danger.

In all stories, the kraken is a bloodthirsty creature which cracks ships open and devours the crew along with various sundries on board. The armed versions of the kraken could grip ships and manipulate them in the water with the assistance of their tentacles, while versions which took the form of giant crabs and lobsters could crack ships apart with their formidable claws. In any case, it was not a creature that a person wanted to encounter.

In most myths, the kraken prefers to lurk in the depths of the water, only periodically coming to the surface. Krakens surface when they are hungry or disturbed, as might be the case when a large ship sails or fishes overhead. The stories may have been used to explain why many ships failed to return home in historical eras when seafaring was extremely dangerous.

Some historians have suggested that the myth of the kraken may be based in actual fact. There are giant versions of both squid and octopi, and it is possible that seafarers encountered these creatures in their travels, and perhaps exaggerated their size and ferocity. Krakens were actually categorized at one point by Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, although later editions of Linnaeus' work lacked descriptions and classifications for this creature.

LanguageHumanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By manykitties2 — On Jun 25, 2011

I found that the kraken has made a huge cultural impact and it is such a staple of movies and books that it has almost become a must have if you need a mix of monsters for a project. I often see people with their 'release the kraken' t-shirts and wonder exactly when the kraken became such an icon.

I think some of the most interesting renditions of the kraken I have seen are ones that make it appear cute. I have even spotted a few stuffed animals for sale that take the vicious monster and make it cuddly. I wonder what's next for the kraken?

By animegal — On Jun 22, 2011

The kraken has always been a popular figure in video games, whether it is called by its name or not. I remember playing popular games like Zelda and most of the Final Fantasy games, only to come across an area with huge tentacles coming out from water, with a creature ready to devour me.

I think that the kraken is one of those iconic monster figures that will endure throughout time, as it is just horrifying to think about. What could be worse than being wrapped in slimy tentacles and pulled down to drown or be eaten?

Can you share what you think is the most memorable kraken moment that has happened in popular culture?

By jonrss — On Jun 22, 2011

I am a big Lovecraft fan and he often used the image of the Kraken. As a young man I used to have nightmare that feature probably the gnarliest Kraken even conceived doing terrible things to the ship I was sailing on. Now there is a prat of me that would kind of like to Have a Kraken. Its funny how one of you biggest fears can turn into something so harmless

By orangey03 — On Jun 22, 2011

@wavy58 - I read “The Natural History of Norway,” in which the author mentions the kraken as “incontestably the largest sea monster in the world.” He also states that fish were drawn to the kraken and would congregate around it. Fishermen in Norway knew of the danger, but the promise of such a good catch lured them into fishing right over the creature, regardless of the danger to their lives. Times must have been pretty hard for them to brave a dangerous monster!

By wavy58 — On Jun 22, 2011

Why would anyone anchor next to a kraken if it is so dangerous? Were these men unaware that the kraken was present, or did they perhaps want to get a good look at it?

By JaneAir — On Jun 22, 2011

@SZapper - Logically you're probably right. But it's certainly more fun to imagine maybe the kraken did exist in the past and now it's extinct. I mean, it's possible. There are probably all sorts of interesting sea creatures that scientists haven't discovered yet so why not a kraken?

By SZapper — On Jun 22, 2011

Ah, the mythical kraken. I think this beast is definitely based upon a giant squid or octopus. Sailors traditionally love to tell stories and a giant monster makes a great story.

Who can blame them though? People still love to tell stories with scary monsters in them and most of them aren't at all based on reality!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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