Weird and Wonderful Classics: The Octopus

A pale coloured stirrup jar with a swirly brown painted octopus.This is going to be a series in which, basically, I post (hopefully) entertaining stories/quotes about any theme I happen to feel like at the time.  If you’ve got a favourite funny story/quote – or have just always wanted to know what the Greeks and Romans said about, say, volcanoes, or mushrooms, or anything, really – feel free to suggest it for future posts! In the meantime – octopuses:*

The Mycenaeans seem to have been rather fond of octopuses, judging by the number of jars they painted them on – for example this stirrup jar in the Met

In fact, they liked them so much they even decorated furniture with them: one Linear B tablet lists

“a footstool inlaid with a man and a horse and an octopus and a griffin (or palm tree)** in ivory”

Move on a few hundred years, though, and for some reason Homer doesn’t talk about octopuses much; he’s a bit busy going on about stuff like heroism and tragic deaths. Clearly the Mycenaeans had a better sense of priorities. He does manage to get an octopus into a simile in the Odyssey, though, when Odysseus has been shipwrecked and is swimming for shore; he grabs a rock, but the waves tear him away:

ὡς δ᾽ὅτε πουλύποδος θαλάμης ἐξελκομένοιο
πρὸς κοτυληδονόφιν πυκιναὶ λάιγγες ἔχονται,
ὣς τοῦ πρὸς πέτρῃσι θρασειάων ἀπὸ χειρῶν
ῥινοὶ ἀπέδρυφθεν

Just as when an octopus is dragged from its lair, and pebbles cling to its suckers, so pieces of skin were torn from his strong hands on the rocks

The best thing about this simile is that it’s not Odysseus who’s clinging on like an octopus; it’s the bits of skin that are left sticking to the rocks like octopus-suckers. Which is a bizarre/grotesque enough image to make this one of my favourite Homeric similes ever.

The ‘Weird and Wonderful’ prize, however, has to go to Pliny the Elder, who tells the story of an octopus which used to climb out of the sea and into the fish-pickling tubs on the shore, and eat all the fish. To stop it, the fish-picklers built a fence around the tubs – which the octopus promptly climbed over with the aid of a handy tree. Eventually they set a pack of dogs on it, but the fight was pretty much going the octopus’ way until the watchmen finally finished it off with their spears. According to Pliny, it weighed 700 pounds, and its tentacles were 30 feet in length.

A brown octopus sitting in a fir tree.I’m not entirely sure why a 700-pound, 30-foot long octopus needed a tree to get past a fence, but perhaps it felt a more inventive method than simply squashing the fence was needed to ensure its place in the (natural) history books. Another possibility is that this is the first recorded sighting of a Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, in which case this might provide evidence of a Mediterranean origin for this (unfortunately poorly-understood) species.

* The Greek and Latin words πολύπους and polypus can actually refer to squid and cuttlefish as well. I’m sticking with ‘octopus’ since it’s more convenient than ‘unspecified marine animal with tentacles’.

** You get this kind of thing a lot reading Linear B. At least it gives us Mycenologists plenty to argue about.

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Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

10 thoughts on “Weird and Wonderful Classics: The Octopus”

  1. It’s a pretty good Homeric simile isn’t it? I love that pot, though! Especially the little extra fish in the corner. And that little tree octopus is so cute…

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  2. Update: it seems that Tree Octopuses were more common in the ancient world than one might think; there are other stories about octopuses climbing trees in order to eat olives or figs (I suppose these are the vegetarian octopuses who can’t eat pickled fish). Full details at http://zapatopi.net/blog/?post=200903256550.more_on_old_world_tree_octopuses (written by the man behind the campaign to save the – unfortunately highly endangered – Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus)

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    1. That is so bizarre to think about… But I’m definitely enchanted by that blogger’s little narrative of the octopuses getting interested in what happened to the fish the humans were taking out of the sea!

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      1. absolutely – after all, we know octopuses are pretty smart, Paul the Octopus proved that! So naturally they’d get curious – plus it’s pretty unfair if the humans get all the good fish and don’t leave any for the octopuses. I just feel sorry for the ones that get pulled off the trees and eaten when all they’re trying to do is get some fruit into their diet…

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  3. The octopus’ incredible ability to change its skin colour and texture (seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDCYe_-Je2g&feature=related)
    was noted by Greek poets.
    Theognis uses it as a metaphor for how a man should act socially, adapting himself to to the manners of whoever he’s conversing with (1.213-18), while Pindar advises that a praise-poet should be like an octopus, adapting himself to whatever city and ruler he’s employed by.
    Apropos Pindar’s story, it’s entirely credible (well, maybe not the tree): at the Vancouver Aquarium, the octopus was found to be climbing out of its tank, hauling itself into the next tank, eating the crabs in it, and then going back.

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      1. re: the Vancouver Aquarium’s octopus: amazing! 🙂 That makes me more inclined to believe there might have been a grain of truth in Pliny’s story…though until someone proves there were giant redwoods in ancient Italy I shall remain sceptical about it being 30 feet long!

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