Kraken—sailors’ superstition survivor

Words about words

Image: Edgar Etherington
Imagined view of giant octopus seizing a ship, 1887.

Asker, Norway

The word kraken is among the more durable words in the bilingual vocabularies of the Scandinavian languages and English. The word remains unchanged from its first appearance in Old Norse, in which it initially was the definite form (letter “n” suffix) of the word krake, the term for the Octopus vulgaris, the common octopus found ’round the world.

But at an unknown time before the 15th century, when Old Norse ceased to be the everyday lingo of the peoples of Scandinavia, kraken acquired another meaning, that of an enormous mythical sea monster, believed to have been seen off the coast of Norway. It was in that sense that kraken first appeared in print, in Det første Forsøg paa Norges naturlige Historie (A first attempt at Norway’s natural history), a monograph published in 1752 in Danish by the Bishop of Bergen, Norway, Erik Pontoppidan (1698-1764).

Pontoppidan’s monograph is the most comprehensive work of topographic literature of the Enlightenment in Norway. It’s also the largest one, published in two volumes, in all 975 pages set in Gothic typeface. Subsequently, it was published in German in 1753 in Flensburg under the title Versuch einer natürlichen Geschichte von Norwegens, and in English in 1755 in London under the title The Natural History of Norway. The publications in German and in English spread awareness of kraken.

In 1810, French naturalist Pierre Denys de Montfort (1766-1820) created the first-ever color drawing of kraken attacking a ship. In 1830, Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) published a poem entitled “The Kraken.” Other writers were inspired by Tennyson’s poem, including French novelist Jules Verne (1828-1905), who, in 1870, published the science fiction classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which described the voyage of the Nautilus, a submerged vessel. In one of its drawings, Nemo, the captain of the Nautilus, is shown viewing kraken through an underwater window of the Nautilus.

Today, kraken is an ordinary word in English, routinely listed in English dictionaries, including the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (United Kingdom) and the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (United States).

Notably, the mythical sea beast has reared its head in Seattle as the mascot of the city’s new National Hockey League team. Read about the “release” of the Seattle Kraken here!

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.