From Devil-Fish to Demi-God: the Giant Squid in Romance and Fantasy of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century

Nineteenth Century Illustration for 'Toilers of the Sea' by Victor Hugo

‘If terror were the object of its creation, nothing could be imagined more perfect than the devil-fish.’

Victor Hugo ‘Toilers of the Sea’

The kraken and the devil-fish are but two archaic names for the cephalopod we now know as the giant squid. The nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the giant squid emerge from the legends of the Icelandic sagas and Homer’s odyssey into the scientific journals of the day. The natural scientist Carolus Linnaeus had in fact included kraken as cephalopods in the first edition of his taxonomy of the natural world ‘Systema Naturae’ as early as 1735 but had excised the reference from the second edition. It was not until the 1850s that the giant squid re-entered the scientific lexicon when Japetus Steenstrup, Professor of Zoology at the University of Copenhagen wrote a number of papers on the subject. In 1861 the French naval vessel the ‘Alecton’ obtained part of a giant squid and from the 1870s onwards many specimens washed ashore in Canada and New Zealand.  The giant squid also undulated its way into general culture via articles of the time such as this from ‘Popular Science Monthly’

“PERHAPS no better introduction to this chapter can be given than to recall to the minds of our readers the terribly vivid description of the devil-fish by that grand master of romance, Victor Hugo; for, though incorrect in several scientific details, the general description is the best we have had, though Jules Verne’s is almost as dramatic and nearer to Nature. In “Les Travailleurs de la Mer” M. Hugo says: “To believe in the existence of the devil-fish, one must have seen it. Compared to it the ancient hydras were insignificant…” In a letter addressed to me on this subject by Prof. Spencer F. Baird, under date of April 1, 1878, this distinguished naturalist says: “The giant squid in the New York Aquarium can only be designated as an infant or dwarf in comparison with the gigantic species of the Pacific Ocean— those upon which the sperm-whale is known to feed. Chunks of squid-remains are not infrequently found in the throat or stomach of the sperm-whale, apparently indicating specimens from ten to fifty times the size of the Newfoundland variety. I was informed that a considerably larger specimen than that at New York was cast ashore at Newfoundland later in the season. The arms of the latter, if I recollect right, were some ten feet longer than those of the other”.

‘The Devil-Fish and Its Relatives’ By W. E. Damon in Popular Science Monthly Volume 14 January 1879

As is alluded to in this article the giant squid also made notable appearances in Nineteenth Century works of fiction such as ‘Toilers of the Sea’ by Victor Hugo (1866) and ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seaby Jules Verne (1870) but there were earlier appearances such as in ‘Moby-Dick;’ or, The Whale’ (1851) by Herman Melville. I would further argue that imagery of the giant squid can also be found in the scientific romance ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1898), by H.G. Wells and is much in evidence in the Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft (1890 –1937).

Melville had direct experience as a mariner having served on two whaling ships including the whaler Acushnet in 1842 and may have been made aware of the existence of the giant squid on these voyages. Melville’s depiction of the creature in ‘Moby Dick’ is prosaic in the extreme – categorised as a mere snack for that mighty symbolic beast the white whale.

“What was it, Sir?” said Flask.

“The great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it.”

But Ahab said nothing; turning his boat, he sailed back to the vessel; the rest as silently following.

Whatever superstitions the sperm whalemen in general have connected with the sight of this object, certain it is, that a glimpse of it being so very unusual, that circumstance has gone far to invest it with portentousness. So rarely is it beheld, that though one and all of them declare it to be the largest animated thing in the ocean, yet very few of them have any but the most vague ideas concerning its true nature and form; notwithstanding, they believe it to furnish to the sperm whale his only food. For though other species of whales find their food above water, and may be seen by man in the act of feeding, the spermaceti whale obtains his whole food in unknown zones below the surface; and only by inference is it that any one can tell of what, precisely, that food consists. At times, when closely pursued, he will disgorge what are supposed to be the detached arms of the squid; some of them thus exhibited exceeding twenty and thirty feet in length. They fancy that the monster to which these arms belonged ordinarily clings by them to the bed of the ocean; and that the sperm whale, unlike other species, is supplied with teeth in order to attack and tear it.

There seems some ground to imagine that the great Kraken of Bishop Pontoppodan may ultimately resolve itself into Squid. The manner in which the Bishop describes it, as alternately rising and sinking, with some other particulars he narrates, in all this the two correspond. But much abatement is necessary with respect to the incredible bulk he assigns it.

By some naturalists who have vaguely heard rumors of the mysterious creature, here spoken of, it is included among the class of cuttle-fish, to which, indeed, in certain external respects it would seem to belong, but only as the Anak of the tribe”.

The white whale is arguably a central character of Moby Dick and described by Captain Ahab as his sworn enemy or nemesis-

 “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him…”

In contrast the squid is a mere footnote, clearing up an ancient mystery related by Bishop Pontoppodan or a curiosity of the naturalists along with the cuttle-fish.

The giant squid makes a more striking appearance in ‘Toilers of the Sea’ by Victor Hugo where it is described as a ‘sea vampire’ as it was believed to suck out the vital fluids of its victims. For Hugo the ‘devil-fish is so otherworldly it is best described in negatives-

“The whale has enormous bulk, the devil-fish is comparatively small; the jararaca makes a hissing noise, the devil-fish is mute; the rhinoceros has a horn, the devil-fish has none; the scorpion has a dart, the devil-fish has no dart; the shark has sharp fins, the devil-fish has no fins; the vespertilio-bat has wings with claws, the devil-fish has no wings; the porcupine has his spines, the devil-fish has no spines; the sword-fish has his sword, the devil-fish has none; the torpedo has its electric spark, the devil-fish has none; the toad has its poison, the devil-fish has none; the viper has its venom, the devil-fish has no venom; the lion has its talons, the devil-fish has no talons; the griffon has its beak, the devil-fish has no beak; the crocodile has its jaws, the devil-fish has no teeth…

What, then, is the devil-fish? It is the sea vampire”.

Hugo describes the giant squid as a creature so hideous its existence casts doubt on the idea of a benign creator. (In this regard the description appears something of a precursor of the tentacled horrors of Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos).

“It is difficult for those who have not seen it to believe in the existence of the devil-fish.

Compared to this creature, the ancient hydras are insignificant.

At times we are tempted to imagine that the vague forms which float in our dreams may encounter in the realm of the Possible attractive forces, having power to fix their lineaments, and shape living beings, out of these creatures of our slumbers. The Unknown has power over these strange visions, and out of them composes monsters. Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod imagined only the Chimera: Providence has created this terrible creature of the sea.

Creation abounds in monstrous forms of life. The wherefore of this perplexes and affrights the religious thinker.

If terror were the object of its creation, nothing could be imagined more perfect than the devil-fish”.

According to Hugo science can classify the giant squid but cannot define its meaning- it is left to philosophy to do this. Hugo even speculates that the existence of the giant squid is an argument for Manichean-style dualism: that is the existence of opposing poles of good and evil in the Universe.

‘These strange animals, Science, in accordance with its habit of excessive caution even in the face of facts, at first rejects as fabulous; then she decides to observe them; then she dissects, classifies, catalogues, and labels; then procures specimens, and exhibits them in glass cases in museums…This done, she leaves them. Where science drops them, philosophy takes them up…

‘…Philosophy in her turn studies these creatures. She goes both less far and further. She does not dissect, but meditate. Where the scalpel has laboured, she plunges the hypothesis. She seeks the final cause. Eternal  perplexity of the thinker. These creatures disturb his ideas of the Creator. They are hideous surprises. They are the death’s-head at the feast of contemplation. The philosopher determines their characteristics in dread. They are the concrete forms of evil. What attitude can he take towards this treason of creation against herself? To whom can he look for the solution of these riddles? The Possible is a terrible matrix. Monsters are mysteries in their concrete form. Portions of shade issue from the mass, and something within detaches itself, rolls, floats, condenses, borrows elements from the ambient darkness, becomes subject to unknown polarisations, assumes a kind of life, furnishes itself with some unimagined form from the obscurity, and with some terrible spirit from the miasma, and wanders ghostlike among living things. It is as if night itself assumed the forms of animals. But for what good?  with what object? Thus we come again to the eternal questioning.

These animals are indeed phantoms as much as monsters. They are proved and yet improbable. Their fate is to exist in spite of à priori reasonings. They are the amphibia of the shore which separates life from death. Their unreality makes their existence puzzling. They touch the frontier of man’s domain and people the region of chimeras. We deny the possibility of the vampire, and the cephaloptera appears. Their swarming is a certainty which disconcerts our confidence. Optimism, which is nevertheless in the right, becomes silenced in their presence. They form the visible extremity of the dark circles. They mark the transition of our reality into another. They seem to belong to that commencement of terrible life which the dreamer sees confusedly through the loophole of the night.

That multiplication of monsters, first in the Invisible, then in the Possible, has been suspected, perhaps perceived by magi and philosophers in their austere ecstasies and profound contemplations. Hence the conjecture of a material hell. The demon is simply the invisible tiger. The wild beast which devours souls has been presented to the eyes of human beings by St. John, and by Dante in his vision of Hell.

If, in truth, the invisible circles of creation continue indefinitely, if after one there is yet another, and so forth in illimitable progression; if that chain, which for our part we are resolved to doubt, really exist, the cephaloptera at one extremity proves Satan at the other. It is certain that the wrongdoer at one end proves the existence of wrong at the other.

Every malignant creature, like every perverted intelligence, is a sphinx. A terrible sphinx propounding a terrible riddle; the riddle of the existence of Evil.

It is this perfection of evil which has sometimes sufficed to incline powerful intellects to a faith in the duality of the Deity, towards that terrible bifrons of the Manichæans”.

(Once again I am struck by the likely influence of these passages on Lovecraft’s dystheistic worldview and the centrality of squid- like horrors in his imagery- a theme I will return to later).

Illustration from first English edition of 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea published 1870

In ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seaby Jules Verne the giant squid that famously attack the ‘Nautilus’ are described in terms which evoke horror- reference is made to the ‘ horned beak’ and ‘several rows of pointed teeth’.

“Nothing, my friends; at least of that which passes the limit of truth to get to fable or legend. Nevertheless, there must be some ground for the imagination of the story-tellers. One cannot deny that poulps and cuttlefish exist of a large species, inferior, however, to the cetaceans. Aristotle has stated the dimensions of a cuttlefish as five cubits, or nine feet two inches. Our fishermen frequently see some that are more than four feet long. Some skeletons of poulps are preserved in the museums of Trieste and Montpelier, that measure two yards in length. Besides, according to the calculations of some naturalists, one of these animals only six feet long would have tentacles twenty-seven feet long. That would suffice to make a formidable monster.

I looked in my turn, and could not repress a gesture of disgust. Before my eyes was a horrible monster worthy to figure in the legends of the marvellous. It was an immense cuttlefish, being eight yards long. It swam crossways in the direction of the Nautilus with great speed, watching us with its enormous staring green eyes. Its eight arms, or rather feet, fixed to its head, that have given the name of cephalopod to these animals, were twice as long as its body, and were twisted like the furies’ hair. One could see the 250 air holes on the inner side of the tentacles. The monster’s mouth, a horned beak like a parrot’s, opened and shut vertically. Its tongue, a horned substance, furnished with several rows of pointed teeth, came out quivering from this veritable pair of shears. What a freak of nature, a bird’s beak on a mollusc! Its spindle-like body formed a fleshy mass that might weigh 4,000 to 5,000 lb.; the, varying colour changing with great rapidity, according to the irritation of the animal, passed successively from livid grey to reddish brown. What irritated this mollusc? No doubt the presence of the Nautilus, more formidable than itself, and on which its suckers or its jaws had no hold”.

Unlike the ‘Devil-fish’ of Victor Hugo, although terrifying these giant squid are acknowledged as creations of God admired for their natural vigour and objects of interest to the amateur naturalist.

“Yet, what monsters these poulps are! what vitality the Creator has given them! what vigour in their movements! and they possess three hearts! Chance had brought us in presence of this cuttlefish, and I did not wish to lose the opportunity of carefully studying this specimen of cephalopods. I overcame the horror that inspired me, and, taking a pencil, began to draw it”.

Martian tripod illustration from the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds".

The Martian invaders and their tripods in ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells are described in very squid-like terms as ‘a sort of metallic spider’ with ‘clutching tentacles’ and having a kind of ‘fleshy beak.’

 “The mechanism it certainly was that held my attention first. It was one of those complicated fabrics that have since been called handling-machines, and the study of which has already given such an enormous impetus to terrestrial invention. As it dawned upon me first, it presented a sort of metallic spider with five jointed, agile legs, and with an extraordinary number of jointed levers, bars, and reaching and clutching tentacles about its body. Most of its arms were retracted, but with three long tentacles it was fishing out a number of rods, plates, and bars which lined the covering and apparently strengthened the walls of the cylinder. These, as it extracted them, were lifted out and deposited upon a level surface of earth behind it.

They were huge round bodies–or, rather, heads–about four feet in diameter, each body having in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils–indeed, the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell, but it had a pair of very large dark-coloured eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak. In the back of this head or body–I scarcely know how to speak of it–was the single tight tympanic surface, since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our dense air. In a group round the mouth were sixteen slender, almost whiplike tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each. These bunches have since been named rather aptly, by that distinguished anatomist Professor Howes, the hands”.

Perhaps the unease that H.G. Wells vision provokes is that earthly squid may be a type of ‘sea vampire’ but they are clearly some way down the food chain from human beings.  On the other hand extra-terrestrial squid have superior technology and drink human blood on an industrial scale…

“Strange as it may seem to a human being, all the complex apparatus of digestion, which makes up the bulk of our bodies, did not exist in the Martians. They were heads–merely heads. Entrails they had none. They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins. I have myself seen this being done, as I shall mention in its place. But, squeamish as I may seem, I cannot bring myself to describe what I could not endure even to continue watching. Let it suffice to say, blood obtained from a still living animal, in most cases from a human being, was run directly by means of a little pipette into the recipient canal. . . “.


In the works of H.P. Lovecraft the giant squid achieves its (possibly) final apotheosis into the gods and demi-gods of the Cthulu mythos. Note the squid imagery from the following passages where references are made to ‘The awful squid-head with writhing feelers’  ‘a huge, formless white polypous thing with luminous eyes’ and ‘cuttlefish head’.

“Then, bolder than the storied Cyclops, great Cthulhu slid greasily into the water and began to pursue with vast wave-raising strokes of cosmic potency. Briden looked back and went mad, laughing shrilly as he kept on laughing at intervals till death found him one night in the cabin whilst Johansen was wandering deliriously.

But Johansen had not given out yet. Knowing that the Thing could surely overtake the Alert until steam was fully up, he resolved on a desperate chance; and, setting the engine for full speed, ran lightning-like on deck and reversed the wheel. There was a mighty eddying and foaming in the noisome brine, and as the steam mounted higher and higher the brave Norwegian drove his vessel head on against the pursuing jelly which rose above the unclean froth like the stern of a daemon galleon. The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bowsprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly. There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler could not put on paper. For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething” astern; where–God in heaven!–the scattered plasticity of that nameless sky-spawn was nebulously recombining in its hateful original form, whilst its distance widened every second as the Alert gained impetus from its mounting steam.

“the region now entered by the police was one of traditionally evil repute, substantially unknown and untraversed by white men. There were legends of a hidden lake unglimpsed by mortal sight, in which dwelt a huge, formless white polypous thing with luminous eyes; and squatters whispered that bat-winged devils flew up out of caverns in inner earth to worship it at midnight”.

“The crouching image with its cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings, and hieroglyphed pedestal, was preserved in the Museum at Hyde Park; and I studied it long and well, finding it a thing of balefully exquisite workmanship, and with the same utter mystery, terrible antiquity, and unearthly strangeness of material which I had noted in Legrasse’s smaller specimen”.

‘The Call Of Cthulhu’

Unlike the ‘devil-fish’ of ‘Toilers of the Sea’ or even the Martians of ‘The War of the Worlds’ whose simple aim is to digest their victims ‘great Cthulu’ has no such dietary requirements. It simply exists as a kind of metaphysical threat to the sanity of humankind, bringing to mind Victor Hugo’s description of the ‘devil-fish’

“These animals are indeed phantoms as much as monsters. They are proved and yet improbable. Their fate is to exist in spite of à priori reasonings. They are the amphibia of the shore which separates life from death. Their unreality makes their existence puzzling. They touch the frontier of man’s domain and people the region of chimeras”.

Lovecraft acknowledges his debt to Victor Hugo, writing in ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’

“Victor Hugo, in such tales as Hans of Iceland, and Balzac, in The Wild Ass’s Skin, Seraphita, and Louis Lambert, both employ supernaturalism to a greater or less extent; though generally only as a means to some more human end, and without the sincere and dæmonic intensity which characterizes the born artist in shadows”.

Squid imagery is also apparent in Lovecraft’s ’Old Ones’ a race of sentient extraterrestrial demi-gods who are credited with creating the human race (by accident). Note the references to ‘five main head tentacles’ and ‘The many slender tentacles into which the crinoid arms branched’

“Of the life of the Old Ones, both under the sea and after part of them migrated to land, volumes could be written. Those in shallow water had continued the fullest use of the eyes at the ends of their five main head tentacles, and had practiced the arts of sculpture and of writing in quite the usual way–the writing accomplished with a stylus on waterproof waxen surfaces. Those lower down in the ocean depths, though they used a curious phosphorescent organism to furnish light, pieced out their vision with obscure special senses operating through the prismatic cilia on their heads–senses which rendered all the Old Ones partly independent of light in emergencies. Their forms of sculpture and writing had changed curiously during the descent, embodying certain apparently chemical coating processes–probably to secure phosphorescence–which the bas-reliefs could not make clear to us. The beings moved in the sea partly by swimming–using the lateral crinoid arms–and partly by wriggling with the lower tier of tentacles containing the pseudofeet. Occasionally they accomplished long swoops with the auxiliary use of two or more sets of their fanlike folding wings. On land they locally used the pseudofeet, but now and then flew to great heights or over long distances with their wings. The many slender tentacles into which the crinoid arms branched were infinitely delicate, flexible, strong, and accurate in muscular-nervous coordination–ensuring the utmost skill and dexterity in all artistic and other manual operations.

At the Mountains of Madness’

According to these scraps of information, the basis of the fear was a horrible elder race of half-polypous, utterly alien entities which had come through space from immeasurably distant universes and had dominated the earth and three other solar planets about 600 million years ago. They were only partly material–as we understand matter–and their type of consciousness and media of perception differed widely from those of terrestrial organisms. For example, their senses did not include that of sight; their mental world being a strange, non-visual pattern of impressions”.

‘The Shadow Out of Time’

All in all quite an evolution for a cephalopod, from whale-bait in ‘Moby Dick’ through sinister ‘Devil-Fish’ and Martian invader to star-borne demi-god in less than one-hundred years of fiction.


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