“Squid experts have been debating for some time about whether the giant squid is a passive predator that just floats around in the water and waits to bump into something. I was never one to imagine it to be passive” – Edith Widder
When we think of the Kraken, most of us envision a many limbed nautical behemoth, scraping sailors off the deck and crushing ships with mighty tentacles. This is a nice piece of public relations for cephalopods designed to put us terrestrial critters at ease, imagining if we just have the wherewithal to stay on shore, our contacts with inky, head-footed leviathans can be kept to a minimum. Such precautions serve most of us well. Unless of course, you happen to be in the ancient Mediterranean pickled fish business.
Now, ancient Greek and Roman fish-mongers appear to have had a larcenous marine cephalopod problem, in particular with giant octopus and squid conducting midnight raids on their larder. What’s more, these monsters of the deep had the gall to slither out of the oceans in a most unseemly way given their aquatic nature in order to purloin their favorite snack foods. There’s nothing worse than a sea monster with the munchies, especially when they get uppity and invade our personal space, said personal space being dry land. And when confronted with their crimes, these anomalous cephalopods start knocking heads together in a murderous, tentacled tantrum.
Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) reported a squid-related crime spree in Carteia, an important Roman trading port at the head of the Bay of Gibraltar in Spain. This titan of a polypus liked him some salt fish, and was only brought down by the concerted effort of specially trained dogs and a whole lot of guys with spears.
The other particulars, which the same author has given, appear still more closely to border upon the marvelous. At Carteia, in the preserves there, a polypus was in the habit of coming from the sea to the pickling-tubs that were left open, and devouring the fish laid in salt there—for it is quite astonishing how eagerly all sea-animals follow even the very smell of salted condiments, so much so, that it is for this reason, that the fishermen take care to rub the inside of the wicker fish-kipes with them.—At last, by its repeated thefts and immoderate depredations, it drew down upon itself the wrath of the keepers of the works. Palisades were placed before them, but these the polypus managed to get over by the aid of a tree, and it was only caught at last by calling in the assistance of trained dogs, which surrounded it at night, as it was returning to its prey; upon which, the keepers, awakened by the noise, were struck with alarm at the novelty of the sight presented. First of all, the size of the polypus was enormous beyond all conception; and then it was covered all over with dried brine, and exhaled a most dreadful stench. Who could have expected to find a polypus there, or could have recognized it as such under these circumstances. They really thought that they were joining battle with some monster, for at one instant, it would drive off the dogs by its horrible fumes, and lash at them with the extremities of its feelers; while at another, it would strike them with its stronger arms, giving blows with so many clubs, as it were; and it was only with the greatest difficulty that it could be dispatched with the aid of a considerable number of three-pronged fish-spears. The head of this animal was shewn to Lucullus: “it was in size as large as a cask of fifteen amphorae, and had a beard” to use the expressions of Trebius himself, which could hardly be encircled with both arms, full of knots, like those upon a club, and thirty feet in length; the suckers or calicules, as large as an urn, resembled a basin in shape, while the teeth again were of a corresponding largeness: its remains, which were carefully preserved as a curiosity, weighed seven hundred pounds (Pliny, Natural Histories, Book IX, Chapter 48).
Well, that’s just the Spanish squid you say? Other cephalopods are less hot-headed, inclined towards modesty, and lacking in nefarious intent? Think again. Not much later, Roman rhetorician Claudius Aelianus (175-235 A.D., Aelian to his friends) confirmed that in Dicaearchia, Italy (modern day Pozzuoli, near Naples) similar predations had occurred at the hands of a the close cousin of squid, the octopus. Burglary appears to be a family business.
Octopuses naturally, with the lapse of time, attain to enormous proportions and approach cetaceans and are actually reckoned as such. At any rate I learn of an octopus at Dicaearchia in Italy which attained to a monstrous bulk and scorned and despised food from the sea and such pasturage as it provided. And so this creature actually came out on to the land and seized things there. Now it swam up through a subterranean sewer that discharged the refuse of the aforesaid city into the sea and emerged in a house on the shore where some Iberian merchants had their cargo, that is, pickled fish from that country in immense jars; it threw its tentacles round the earthenware vessels and with its grip broke them and feasted on the pickled fish. And when the merchants entered and saw the broken pieces, they realized that a large quantity of their cargo had disappeared; and they were amazed and could not guess who had robbed them; they saw that no attempt had been made upon the doors; the roof was undamaged; the walls had not been broken through. They saw also the remains of the pickled fish that had been left behind by the uninvited guest. So they decided to have their most courageous servant armed and waiting in ambush in the house. Well, during the night the Octopus crept up to its accustomed meal and clasping the vessels, as an athlete puts a strangle-hold upon his adversary with all his might gripping firmly, the Robber, if I may so call the Octopus crushed the earthenware with the greatest ease. It was full moon, and the house was full of light, and everything was quite visible. But the servant was not for attacking the brute single-handed as he was afraid, moreover his adversary was too big for one man, but in the morning he informed the merchants what had happened. They could not believe their ears. Then some of them remembering how heavily they had been mulcted, were for risking the danger and were eager to encounter their enemy, while others in their thirst for this singular and incredible spectacle voluntarily shut themselves up with their companions in order to help them. Later, in the evening the marauder paid his visit and made for his usual feast. Thereupon some of them closed off the conduit; others took arms against the enemy and with choppers and razors well sharpened cut the tentacles, just as vine-dressers and woodmen lop the tips, of the branches of an oak. And having cut away its strength, at long last they overcame it not without considerable labour. And what was so strange was that merchants captured the fish on dry land. Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be characteristics of this creature (Aelian, De natura animalium, 13:6)
I prefer my squid, should it find itself out of the water, bite-sized and deep fried, but as journalist David Grann said, “The giant squid is the perfect embodiment of a sea monster: it is huge, it has tentacles, it has big eyes, and it is absolutely frightening-looking. But, most important, it is real. Unlike the Loch Ness monster, we know it’s out there”. That’s why I keep my supply of pickled fish buried in the New Mexico desert. Safest place for them when giant squid are looking to muscle into the racket.
Aelian, 3rd cent. De Natura Animalium Libri XVII: Varia Historia, Epistolae, Fragmenta. Lipsiae: B.G. Teubner, 1864.
Pliny, the Elder. The Natural History of Pliny. London: G. Bell & sons, 1856.