As ‘Kraken’ Covid variant looms, from where did the legendary sea beast it is named for originate?
- The legendary kraken lives on – geneticists have unofficially named a new Covid-19 variant, thought to be the most transmissible yet, after the creature
- Originating in Scandinavian folklore, the kraken haunted the sea from Norway through Iceland to Greenland, and was first brought to general notice in 1752
It is the most terrifying monster imagined by man, portrayed as a multi-limbed sea creature that lurks in the ocean’s depths, creating fierce maelstroms of whirlpools, whose tentacles reach to the top of a sailing ship’s masts, dragging vessels down to their watery doom.
This is the legendary kraken.
Originating in Scandinavian folklore, the kraken haunted the sea from Norway through Iceland to Greenland.
Its name derives from the Old Norse kraki, meaning something crooked, which subsequently, from a special use of krake “pole, stake, post”, referring also to a crooked tree, stunted animal or person, gave the Norwegian dialectal krake (the -n is the definite article as a suffix).
Also related is the Old Norse verb kraka, meaning “to drag under the water”.
The word “kraken” did not initially occur in Scandinavian medieval writings. Two 13th century texts feature a bottom-dwelling sea monster called hafgufa, meaning “sea-mist” – described as a creature that, open-mouthed, regurgitates food and engulfs attracted fish, as well as one sent by an evil sorcerer to sink the hero’s ship.
The name kraken was first brought to general notice by Danish antiquary Erik Pontoppidan’s Det første Forsøg paa Norges naturlige Historie (1752), which in describing the country’s history, landscape, flora and fauna, also notes the existence of sea serpents, mermaids and: “Amongst the many great things which are in the ocean […] is the Kraken. This creature is the largest and most surprising of all the animal creation.”
Carl Linnaeus included the kraken among the cephalopod mollusks in his groundbreaking Systema Naturae (1735).
The 19th century reinforced the concept of the kraken as a monstrous cephalopod, for example in Jules Vernes’ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869).
We know now that, in reality, the kraken was most likely based on the giant squid.
The meaning of a kraken has taken on different casts over time. In medieval folklore, it was an undefeatable danger to be feared; few who encountered the kraken lived to tell the tale. In contemporary film and gaming culture, it is a monster to be slain in action adventures.
In this Covid era, the beast lives on. XBB.1.5, a recent variant of Sars-CoV-2, is considered the most immunity-evasive escape variant to date, spreading much faster than earlier variants, with the potential of becoming globally dominant in the coming months.
Little wonder that geneticists have unofficially named it “kraken”.