Squid and octopuses* are both cephalopods and they are very similar. Indeed, the names are used interchangeably by some people. But the are different. I’m going to be doing a separate post on octopuses** but when I’m looking at myths and legends its best to assume that they refer to a tentacled species and not make strict divides about whether it’s octopus or squid.
Squid or octopus?
|More bullet like shape and a more hydrodynamic body||Rounder in shape|
|More fixed shape||Very flexible, can change shape and squeeze into tiny spaces|
|Active swimmers||Tend to stick to the sea floor|
|Have two fins, a mantle, a head, eight arms and two tentacles, which are equipped with hooks and suckers or sucker rings||Have a mantle, a head, eight arms equipped with one or two rows of suckers but with no hooks or sucker rings|
|Have a stiff structure called a pen which acts like a flexible backbone||No bones or shell|
|Use tentacles to reach out and grab prey||Inject poison into their prey which paralyses it|
Today I’m going to look at the giant squid and sea monsters. Most cultures have a form of tentacled sea monster in their mythology. Sailors were terrified of the Kraken, a sea monster who, legend told, liked the taste of human flesh and who enjoyed sinking ships. These legends will have arisen from a number of different sea creature sightings but these almost certainly included the giant squid.
The stories from northern Europe tell us that the kraken would start swimming in circles around a ship, creating a deadly vortex into which the ship would be dragged. Larger creatures would just drag the ship down with their tentacles. Amber found on the beaches of the north sea were believed to be the Kraken’s excrement…
The giant squid’s main predator is the sperm whale so perhaps some of the reported kraken sightings came from whaling boats who were seeing the tangle between predator and prey at the same time as seeing the giant squid for the first time.
Today we see aspects of the kraken, or the tentacled sea monster, in literature and film where portrayals of aliens often have cephalopod features.
The giant squid lies in the murky waters between fiction and reality. Portrayed in literature as a monster lurking in the depths, this huge creature lives between 300 and 1000m down and isn’t actually the largest squid species. That honour goes to the colossal squid which weighs in about 500kg compared to the 275kg of the giant squid.
If we turn to literature, we find Tennyson’s kraken is a slumbering monster in the cold, dark depths of the ocean. In 20,000 leagues under the sea, a squid like beast tries to drag a ship underwater and devours the terrified crew. But the first known piece of literature to suggest a giant tentacled sea being was the Odyssey from ancient Greece where it was portrayed as a beast to be slain, or at least avoided. These depictions all suggest something creepy, scary and certainly Other.
In the giant squid, or the kraken, we find a scapegoat for our fears of the sea, like the shark. This creature lives in a world far from ours, a world beyond the reach of sunlight. And hence it embodies our fears of the dark, of the shadows, of the unknown.
There is also something around their bodily organisation that unsettles some people. They have clearly identifiable features – hands, arms, head etc – but they are clearly different. They are like us and yet not. They have a “grotesque suggestion of a face” (HG Wells). There is a parallel here with disability and bodily difference; the space between the self and other blurs and with it, the fear of becoming other rises. (NB, I’m not saying you should be uncomfortable or afraid of disability but bodily difference can and does create emotional reactions in people.)
They look unnatural to us and our encounters of them further confirm our predetermined opinions. When we see giant squid, it tends to be at the surface*** and these animals are almost certainly dying. We see them when they are fighting for their life, when they are scared and so it is no surprise that they lash out at boats.
To focus on their association with monsters is to deny the extraordinary beauty of the giant squid, and all the other squids by association. Far from being the terrifying killer from the deep, they are gentle and fascinating. They peck delicately at their food, not being able to swallow large pieces, and are scared of loud noises.
*yes, that’s correct.
***It wasn’t until 2012 that we got the first footage of a giant squid at it’s natural depth