Science Channel’s new series, Mythical Beasts, started off with a high-flying episode about dragons last Sunday. Will the rest of the series stay true to the premise of unraveling the origins of these mythological monsters and exploring the depths of their impact?
Episode two tackles the feared and renowned Norwegian mythical sea monster known as the kraken, a colossal creature that emerges from the sea to pick sailors from their vessels and drag entire ships into the darkness of the ocean waters below.
“Behold, the kraken”
The episode begins by trying to pinpoint if the kraken could have a basis in biology. Most of the depictions we see today in pop culture are of a giant octopus with its arms curled around a ship. Unfortunately, the giant octopus is mentioned, but not investigated.
In 1857, the kraken was actually classified zoologically as a giant squid. Comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg provides a scaled down look at smaller squid to examine their anatomy. She says, though quite large and pretty scary to bump into, she doesn’t think a giant squid would be strong enough to capsize a ship.
The specimen examined in this episode of Mythical Beasts backs up her claim and shows that it just isn’t large enough to wreak the kind of chaos and damage the kraken is known for. Though the giant squid can’t be the original, monstrous kraken, it still may account for some of the reports.
Early accounts could provide clues
The writings presented in this episode are some of the earliest known texts that hint at the existence of a large sea monster in the Norwegian Sea. But the Old Icelandic saga Orvar-Oddr and Old Norwegian educational text King’s Mirror (Konungs skuggsja), both of the 13th century, differ in their descriptions of the kraken. Similarly, they describe the creature resembling land rising up from the sea, which is easily explained by the geography.
Norway and Greenland are riddled with drastic peaks and jagged stone, due to glaciation from the previous Ice Age. The investigating scientists use sonar to explore the seabed, something that hasn’t been possible until very recent times. It becomes clear that the land below the water is extremely rugged, and small changes in tide could
easily cause a shipwreck.
Another interesting point that came from the text of King’s Mirror is the mention of the kraken belching up smelly muck that caused fish to flock to the area to feed, then darting away so quickly it caused great whirlpools to form. Traditional stories talk of fisherman “fishing the kraken,” heading to these areas where the monster supposedly laid waiting to feed.
As our leading expert, biologist Charles Paxton, sits quietly in a small boat in the middle of the sea, he notes the feeling of smallness and how overwhelming the fear of death by kraken must have felt to those fishermen that had the guts to crash its feast.
It’s most likely that the phytoplankton bloom was the kraken belch witnessed in old times. We now understand that whirlpools are caused by tides and opposing currents. In fact, some of the largest maelstroms in the world are found in near Norway and neighboring Scotland.
My mind is playing tricks on me
Various maritime records paint the kraken in many different shapes and sizes from across the world, so how could plankton blooms and craggy seabeds near Norway explain the phenomena? It can’t, but this is where the cultural values and myths of the traveler themselves comes in to play.
According to neuropsychologist Alexander Olsen, the mind will play tricks on a stressed, frozen, and exhausted seafarer. Whether they’re actually hallucinating from psychosis (induced from illness, exhaustion, dehydration, etc.) or simply irrational due to fear of the unknown during, a creature from their collection of homeland lore could appear as a seemingly logical explanation.
The whole is greater
It’s obvious by the end of the episode that no one single being or geographical explanation can to account for the existence of the kraken. The kraken appears to be made of several ideas, with biological, geographical, and psychological origins .
Scottish folklore expert Tony Bonning suggests the kraken was described so differently because it was molded by storytellers over time to prevent people from stumbling into danger. Similar to Celtic kelpies, sea monsters that shapeshifted into horses, mermaids, and even
handsome men, the kraken was a way to control the actions of some, explain the natural world, and to examine the tragic deaths of others.
It’s true, we don’t know everything that lives in the ocean. Mythical Beasts ends with a three foot wide, brown-streaked, gelatinous ball floating around Norwegian waters. It has never been seen before and is yet to be classified.
Marine biologists are still working to get tissue samples, but propose that these may have been seen centuries ago and mistaken to be “kraken eggs.” Though it’s likely they’re actually squid eggs, the unknown origin only serves to remind that much of what lies beneath the surface of the ocean is still a mystery. Until those mysteries become clear, legends like the one of the kraken will remain.
There are a few things missing from this episode. One is the conversation about being near the edge of continental shelf and possible seismic activity. Earthquakes and terrain changes do happen in Norway, but even more frequently under the waters separating Greenland and Norway. Another issue that would have been interesting to consider is the impact, if any, that the icy methane hydrate that forms in the area may have had. And some giant octopus research would have been neat.
Starting to see the theme
After watching this episode of Mythical Beasts, the theme began to unfold. To clarify, what makes this series special is that it isn’t the typical “throwaway show” that tries to convince you that maybe these creatures were more than a myth. This series is to be seen with the understanding that these creatures were not real, even though there is typically some sort of basis for them in reality.
Definitely, the impact they’ve had on people is very real — likely more so than the entities themselves. The point of this show is to explore what these creatures meant to us and their importance in historical context. These monsters kept people safe from unseen dangers, and provided explanations that helped shape our understanding of how the natural world works. It’ll be interesting to see what the next installment will bring.
The kraken episode of Mythical Beasts debuts tonight, October 21, at 10:00 eastern time on the Science Channel.