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September 2021

Release the Kraken

By Elevenses, Kraken, Talking art

Last week was all about Behemoth and Leviathan, but is the Kraken the same as Leviathan? In some mentions in popular culture, they are interchangeable but I did some digging and as you can see from these images, they are indeed similar but not quite the same…

Leviathan

Behemouth, Leviathan and Ziz, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Kraken

Kraken, 2011, Wasted Talents Blogspot at wasted-talents.blogspot.com

As you can see from these images, they are indeed similar but not quite the same.

Leviathan (the ‘fish’ to the right of the first image) is wrapped around an island, the Kraken IS an island.

The image of the Kraken is from a website called wasted talent – the strapline is ‘Corporate Artists wasting their talent by day, and unleashing their art super powers by night’. Love it!

The story goes that in around 1,000 AD a bishop was travelling from Norway to Greenland, spotted an island, celebrated mass on it and was very surprised to find that, after returning to his boat, he turned to take a last look but it had disappeared.

Anyway, said bishop was lucky to escape because this island was, in fact, what King Sverre of Norway termed in 1180 AD, ‘The Kraken’.

So the story of the Kraken is a Norse myth that actually has nothing to do with ancient Greece at all, no matter what you were led to believe in the Clash of the Titans.

The Kraken was described as a huge creature with tentacles and eyes the size of dinner plates. Some stories claim that the tentacles of the Kraken are more than a mile long which would make sense if it was mistaken for an island.

Kraken 1650 image of creature devouring boat

A kraken attacking a ship, c. 1650, getty images

Accounts of what the Kraken liked to eat were varied. According to the more bloody thirsty legends, the giant beast would rapidly ascend from the depths to wrap its monstrous tentacles around a ship, pulling it under the waves where it could devour the sailors.

Or it would swim around and around the vessel to create a maelstrom and sink the ship that way. Is that reminiscent of anything? Remember Charybdis?

Some say that it was more interested in fish which was such a terrifying prospect for the fish that they would swim near to the surface of the water, basically trying to escape. All that did was enable brave sailors to profit by making an easy catch. Nice choice, the Kraken or the fishing net! But the real kicker for the fish was that once the Kraken had eaten and digested them, it would poo out its waste but this waste would be so irresistible to the fish (seriously who came up with this theory?) that they were attracted back to the vicinity of the Kraken so that the cycle was put on repeat.

Much of this was noted, albeit rather less sensationally, when the Kraken made an appearance in scientific journals, which it did quite frequently. The first is dated to around 1250 and describes the Kraken in great detail. It also comments on the monster’s unique feeding habits but has a slightly different twist; it claims that the Kraken would regurgitate food particles from its mouth into the sea. Fish would be attracted to the food and swarm to feed. The Kraken could then scoop up the school of fish in one gulp. Is that less disgusting? Not sure.

When Swedish botanist and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus first undertook the task of classifying all living creatures on Earth, he also included the Kraken. The 1735 edition of his Systema Naturae has an entry for the Kraken, which he categorized as a cephalopod and named Microcosmus marinus. Subsequent reprints omitted the Kraken entry which was a shame. Perhaps that’s because, in another work, Linnaeus noted that the Kraken was a ‘unique monster that inhabits the seas of Norway, but I have not seen this animal.’

Nonetheless, it appears again in a description by the Danish historian and bishop, Erik Pontoppidan in his Natural History of Norway from 1755 which includes, by the way, mention of a ‘strong and peculiar’ scent that is particularly alluring to fish.

Pontoppidan didn’t go overboard (pardon the pun) in his claims about the terrifying nature of the Kraken, which, unfortunately cannot be said for Pierre Denys de Montfort. Granted he had figured out that, surprise, surprise, the Kraken was either a giant squid or octopus, and indeed he is known today for his pioneering inquiries into the existence of the gigantic octopuses.

Montfort turned out, however, to be a bit of a sensationalist. He claimed that ten British warships that had mysteriously disappeared one night in 1782 must have been attacked and sunk by giant octopuses. Unfortunately for Montfort, the British knew what had actually happened to the ships, and called him out on his claims. Suffice to say, his career went down the pan and never recovered.

de Montfort giant octopus attacking ship

Pierre Denys de Montfort, a colossal octopus, 1801

Not so for Jules Verne who’s original edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea included this illustration which pays homage to the Kraken.

So what was reported by the bishop who took mass on the island all those years ago? The description of the ‘emissions’ and the numerous tentacles suggest that it might well have been an octopus or a squid, and indeed several have washed up on northern shores over the centuries. As they are soft-bodied cephalopods, however, they wouldn’t leave behind fossil evidence so who knows?

Jules Verne giant squid

The crew of Nautilus battles a giant squid in Jules Vernes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, illustration from original 1870 edition

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Behemoth and Leviathan

By Behemoth and Leviathan, Elevenses, Talking art

I bet you’ve heard of Behemoth and Leviathan but who are/were they?

Here they are depicted as an ox (Behemoth) and as a huge fish (Leviathan) in a 13th century manuscript that was created in northern France but is written in Hebrew. The story of the pair is found in the book of Job but is far more developed in the Jewish tradition than Christian.

Behemoth British Library

Behemoth, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library

Leviathan British Library

Leviathan, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library

So it’s a story about an ox and a fish? Sort of but the ox is an animal so large that it covers the earth and the fish is of a similar size in the oceans.

The myth of Behemoth and Leviathan goes back to the beginning of time.

God created Leviathan on the fifth day and then Behemoth on the sixth. In some stories they both have wives created at the same time but in others only Leviathan gets female company. This doesn’t last long as Chaos comes along (like many things created at the beginning of time, chaos was both a concept and a living entity) and corrupts Leviathan. This means that Leviathan is now capable of evil intent and therefore God, quite sensibly, got rid of Mrs L. to avoid double trouble. As the pair were more powerful than any other creatures on land or earth, but equal in strength to each other, the world was held in equilibrium; evil existed but couldn’t prevail.

Ziz, British Library

Ziz, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library

If you’re wondering whether the sky was represented in the same way, say hello to Ziz, the original big bird. According to a tale in the Babylonian Talmud, a bird was seen by sailors standing up to it’s ankles in water. They assumed that the water wasn’t deep but a voice warned them that they were very much deceived. Apparently a carpenter had dropped his axe seven years previously and it STILL hadn’t reached the bottom! I don’t, however, know how they knew it hadn’t reached the bottom?! If you watch the video, you will notice that I get this tale somewhat wrong but the essence is correct. These animals are massive.

So how do you represent animals of unfathomable size pictorially? You take your cue from written descriptions and think of animals that would garner the appropriate amount of respect and fear within your society.

The book of Job describes Behemoth as a strong herbivore with a tail like a cedar tree (to give some sense of scale). Leviathan is a scaly, twisty creature with sharp teeth.

Here they are again in a 13th century German manuscript. Ziz is a griffin type animal this time, Leviathan is huge enough to encircle an island and Behemoth is frankly just a happy ox chewing on a (presumably) very tall tree.

Behemoth, Leviathan, Ziz, Ambrosiana Bible

Behemouth, Leviathan and Ziz, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana

I wonder, though, whether this mosaic from the House of the Faun references the same myth? It can’t refer to a Christian context as it was created late in the 1st century BC. The hippopotamus and crocodile in the centre are certainly engaged in a little contretemps but don’t seem to be about to take it to the next level!

The mosaic depicts scenes from the Nile and these were the most feared of the animals to be found there. They also correspond with later tradition in that the hippo is a giant herbivore and the crocodile is known for its teeth and ability to twist. Could this particular creation myth have ancient roots?

House of the Faun Nile Mosaic

 Late 1st century BC mosaic, Scenes from the Nile, House of the Faun, Pompeii

So that’s what happened at the beginning of time, but how does it end? With a feast of course!

This is the image directly below Behemoth, Leviathan and Ziz from the Ambrosiana Bible. The story goes that at the end of the world, God will command Behemoth and Leviathan to engage in combat. But as they are equally matched, it will be a fight to the death for both of them. Once dead, they will join the mother of all roast birds (Ziz – aww!) on the banquet table for all the righteous. And what a banquet this will be as it will herald the beginning of the Messianic Age when everyone will live in a world without evil.  At least this what the Jewish tradition states. The book of Job in the bible is quiet on the matter but the apocryphal Old Testament tells the same tale.

Ambrosiana Bible end of the world feast

Feast of the Righteous, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.