0077 (pre): Pliny the Elder’s Giant Squid

Pliny the Elder [23-79 CE] was the Roman author of the thirty-eight volume Natural History, published around 77 CE, which makes him author of one of the best preserved historic records of ancient times. His volumous set contains not only intriguing and useful notes on Roman culture and belief of the time, as well as studies of the different cultures and places around the world that Rome was then exploring (and likely capturing), the Natural History is also the source for a number of truely strange stories. Many modern experts on the topic of giant squids will enthusiatically note that Pliny's Natural History contains one of the earliest mentions of giant squids in history; but what they don't tell you is even more interesting!

        The story that Pliny recorded tells that in Spain something was stealing fish from pickling tubs on land. The keepers of the tubs, discovering the thefts, put palisades in place to keep their fish in the tubs; but the troublesome thief used a tree to climb over the palisades. Next the keepers employed guard dogs, which caught the crook in its pilferous pursuits one night and surrounded it. When the keepers came to see what the noise was about, they were not prepared for the sight they met!

        The thief was a 'polypus' -- either a squid or an octopus -- of a gigantic size, and was covered in dried brine and exhaled a hideous and foul breath. The guard dogs were put off by the smell, making it difficult to get them to attack. The beast lashed the dogs and the keepers with its tentacles and clubbed them with its thickest limbs, making the fight fearful to say the least. At last, and with great difficulty, the odeous creature was dispatched with the aid of a number of three-pronged fish spears.

        The head of the creature alone was said to be equivalent in size to a cask of fifteen aphorae (equivalent to 135 gallons of fluid), and could hardly be encircled by a man with both arms. The tentacles were upwards of thirty feet long, covered with knots -- "like those upon a club" -- and the suckers were said to be as large as an urn with equally large teeth (which implies a squid, as they have a tooth in each sucker). The body was carefully preserved as a curiosity, and weighed seven hundred pounds. Pliny noted that the author of this account stated that other squids and octopai of an equal size were known to occasionally wash ashore, and that the animals did not live beyond two years.

        So if you believe a 700-pound squid came ashore to steal salted fish, climb a tree, and fight a pack of dogs, then, yes, you can claim this to be one of the earliest giant squid sightings on record... but historians forget to mention the details, don't they?