I recently read the excellent Kraken by China Miéville. Set in and around London with a Natural History Museum curator as the central character sucked into an underworld of fantastical sects, I found it thoroughly entertaining. I won’t give too much away, except to say that the book would have had me at the mere mention of ‘Natural History Museum’, but throw in ‘giant squid’ and there’s some kind of mysterious enticing alchemy going on in my brain. While I’m not a big fan of bottled specimens – too many together make me feel a little queasy – I find watching sea creatures moving in water a decidedly hypnotic experience, particularly the jellyfish (and prawns as well, bizarrely).

Jellyfish being altogether more appealing, I had a foray into our library collection to see what I could find on them, and in amongst various items (including T H Huxley’s first Philosophical Transactions paper, ‘On the Anatomy and Affinities of the Family of the Medusae’, written during his time on the HMS Rattlesnake), I came across the collected papers from the Challenger expedition of 1872-76.  This voyage was a huge endeavour, an interdisciplinary expedition in surveying the ocean and the life contained therein, and resulted in some forty volumes of reports on subjects as diverse as zoology, the geology of the ocean floor, and experiments in magnetism undertaken at sea.  What caught my eye among these papers was the ‘Report on the Deep-Sea Medusae’ by Ernst Haeckel – or, more specifically, the pictures that Haeckel includes to illustrate these elegant creatures:

 

Periphylla mirabilis, by Ernst Haeckel, from the ‘Report on HMS Challenger: Zoology (IV)’, 1880, plate 18

 

This to-scale profile view of the Periphylla mirabilis is carefully detailed, and the report contains dozens of plates showcasing various images.  This, it transpires, is characteristic of Haeckel’s work, and his Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature) is full of vibrantly coloured and beautiful illustrations – the one below features another view of Periphylla mirabilis at its centre:

 

Ernst Haeckel ‘Kunstformen de Natur’ (1899-1904), plate 38 ‘Peromedusae’

 

So, alas, while there are no krakens (not even mistakenly-identified krakens), there are plenty of weird and wonderful images of creatures from the ocean depths lurking in the Royal Society archives.  There is one link between the Royal Society and krakens that I have found (no, not a secret society): one nineteenth-century Fellow – who you may have heard of – Alfred Tennyson, did write on the subject of the kraken:

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

– ‘The Kraken Wakes’ Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830)

 

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