Pick from the Past
Natural History Magazine, June 1941

Scylla Was a Squid

Charybdis may have been a whirlpool, but modern science now recognizes
the other half of Homer's legendary partnership in maritime disaster
as possibly the first mention in literature of the giant squid.

T was on the last day of November, 1861, that the lookout man on duty on the French corvette Alecton announced: “a large body, partly submerged, on the surface.” The vessel’s position was about 120 miles northeast of Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands; the sea was calm in the oppressive heat of a clear sky, and the commander of the corvette decided that the object should be approached and investigated. It turned out to be a gigantic squid of a bright brick-red color, with immense black eyes that were not easy to look at. The body of the monster was about eighteen feet long, the tentacles at least another eighteen feet and the weight was estimated to be about two tons. The squid was drifting lazily at the surface but was unmistakably alive.

The commander of the Alecton knew that the existence of such gigantic squids was still disputed, although only recently a few dead and mutilated monsters of that or a very similar type had been washed ashore, one off Zeeland, Denmark, in 1847 and another at the Skaw in the same region in 1854. This encounter with a live animal afforded an excellent opportunity to settle that disputed question once and for all and to furnish a belated vindication for the commander’s compatriot, Denys-Monfort, who had published a complete collection of all reports referring to such animals in his Histoire naturelle . . . des Mollusques in 1802 without earning anything but ridicule for all his work.

Since the Alecton was a war vessel, there was no lack of armament. Cannon balls were shot at and through the lazy kraken (to use the old Scandinavian word for the fabulous sea monster); and harpoons were thrown at it. But it seemed as if no projectile could seriously or even perceptibly damage the flabby flesh of the squid. Nor did the creature seem much disturbed by the belligerent attention paid to it. It disappeared under the surface three or four times, only to come up again each time after intervals of a few minutes at most.

After three hours of intensive naval warfare, the squid suddenly vomited (one of the canon balls must have hit a vital spot). And soon after, one of the sailors succeeded in throwing a noosed rope around the body. The rope slid along the slippery sides and finally caught at the large rear fins. The men tried to haul the gigantic cuttlefish aboard, but its weight was so great that the rope cut through the body, severing the hind part. This part was salvaged but had to be thrown away soon after. Thus the Alecton reached port with empty holds, but captain and crew brought an exciting tale to tell.

As has been said, the existence of giant squids was not generally recognized at that time. (They came to be recognized between 1870 and 1877, when not less than a dozen of the monstrous creatures were washed ashore at Newfoundland, some of them still living.) Therefore some armchair explorers quickly and gravely informed the captain and ship’s company that they must have been the victims of a mass hallucination.

To those who put that interpretation on the adventure it sounded perfect. But to the men who had worked for hours under a tropical sun to secure a heavy and repulsive specimen, being in various kinds of danger all the time, that explanation did not seem so correct. It is regrettable that history has the habit of recording only the sayings of politicians and diplomats—the remarks the French sailor made when suspected of mass hallucination were never printed.

Before those gigantic squids were seen and examined by zoologists—the one that was battled by the Alecton is by no means the largest on record-, knowledge about the existence of such animals rested mainly with the writings of two Scandinavian authors, both of them famous, both immensely learned, but both also given to exaggeration and a peculiar credulity. The older of them is Olaus Magnus, “Archbishop of Upsal and Primate of Sweden,” who delivered a vivid description of the kraken (the common use of this Norse term goes directly back to these two authors) in his Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes, Vandals and Other Northern Nations. He said that the kraken had “long horns round about like a Tree rooted up by the Roots.” And he did not forget to mention the large eyes, telling that they “are red and fiery colored and in the dark night appear to Fishermen afar off under Water as a burning fire.”

The other, Bishop Erik Pontoppidan, wrote about the kraken in the second volume of his weighty Natural History of Norway. The book was written in 1753, and an English edition appeared in London in 1755. Since “none of the authors, both classic and modern,” consulted by Pontoppidan, “seemed to have much knowledge of this animal,” he had to rely on tales of Norse fishermen and on their folklore. The tales were sensible, as we now know. One of them relates that a kraken, “perhaps a young and careless one,” was caught between cliffs and trees near Alstahong in 1680 and died when the tide receded. The folklore part was less sensible, speaking of a kraken a mile in circumference, appearing above the waters like a group of small islands.

It was because of this story that the existence of giant squids was doubted and ridiculed for more than a century after the first printing of Bishop Pontoppidan’s book.

It is, incidentally, not true that the works of the classic authors do not contain references to the existence of gigantic squids. The best known reference in classical times (and probably the most reliable one) is that in the Historia Naturalis of Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder. He reported that “more than a century ago,” (which would be around, say, 100 B.C.), a gigantic cuttlefish was caught in the strait between the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). Its head was “as large as a keg holding fifteen amphorae of wine, and the arms were 30 feet long and so thick that a man had difficulties to reach around them.”

But even that is not the oldest literary mention of a giant squid. There exists one of much greater age, and it can be found in one of the most famous books of the world’s literature, in Homer’s Odyssey. It is certain that this poem did not undergo even small changes from the time of Peisistratus (530 B.C.), though Homer is usually thought to be an approximate contemporary of Hesiod, which means that he probably lived around 750 B.C. Now it is rather unimportant whether Homer is to be regarded as an historic person or not, or whether he is thought to be the author of the Odyssey or only the compiler of older material. The wording of the poem is at least 2,500 years old, the material two or three centuries or older; and no matter who wrote certain passages, they convey to us what was known or at least believed 2,500 years ago.

The mention of a giant squid occurs in the Twelfth Song, where Circe describes to her hero the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis. Again, it is of little importance in this connection whether Scylla and Charybdis are thought to refer to the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy or to the Strait of Gibraltar. The older school of thought asserted that the Greeks of that period did not sail the Mediterranean farther west than to Sicily, while more recent commentators point out that more extensive geographical knowledge may be embodied in the poem.

But there can be no mistaking the identity of the creature called Scylla. Circe’s careful description of it could only be misinterpreted at a time when the existence of giant squids was denied. In speaking of Scylla, Circe says:

. . . but her form is sight portentous that no one
E’er would gladly behold, not even a god if he met her
Round her a dozen of feet she is always waving suspended
Six long sinuous necks outstretching before her and each one
Beareth a head terrific with teeth in a threefold order
Many and thickly arrayed, where gapes death’s cavernous blackness.
Up to the midmost part she is hid in the depth of the cavern
Whilst from her lair in the fearful abyss six heads she extendeth
Hunting for fish at the foot of the rock and peering around it,
Dolphins to catch or dogfish, or haply another and greater Beast . . .

 

(Odyssey XII, 96)  

It is to be assumed that the Phoenicians experienced an adventure with a gigantic squid about which they told widely and often, possibly with the added purpose to frighten sailors of other nations away from that dangerous spot—which happened to be on a very lucrative trade route. Needless to say, the description does not satisfy our present-day ideas of zoological accuracy—an octopus, as the name implies has eight arms, and a squid ten. But a couple of tentacles more or less would not be a matter of crucial importance in Homer’s day, especially to a dismayed sailor. And terrible Scylla, with her dozen feet always waving suspended, could scarcely be other than one of these gigantic invertebrates. The “mythical” animal that has become immortal in literature had “teeth in threefold order,” which are surely the lines of sucking disks; and if the locality in question is actually the Strait of Gibraltar it is a section where giant octopuses were encountered again and again from the times of Pliny until recently.

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