Know Your Words · The Art of the Dictionary

The Bedeviling Symbol of the Octopus

0130181842Earlier today, while thumbing through some books in search of blogspiration, I found myself lazily flipping  the pages of The Dictionary of Symbolism, where I came across an intriguing entry for octopus.

After teasing us with a somewhat poetic description of the beast–“Its arms, depicted as rolled up in spirals, form an impressive symmetry around the body with its two eyes, the whole suggesting a head surrounded by snake-like hair”–goes on to suggest it might have been the inspiration for the mythical figures of Medusa and the Scylla, “the mythical sea monster who menaced Odysseus and his crew.” Then it goes on to talk about s cuttlefish, and how the ink emitted by both these animals was deemed a symbol of their ties to “mysterious and otherworldly forces.”

0130182215aAnd what “mysterious and otherworldly” forces might those be? It didn’t care to elaborate, but the implication was that, like the ink, they were dark.

Fortunately, there are other symbol references that are more willing to lay it on the line. Among them are the Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols, which declares “Even in earliest times, [the octopus] became a symbol of the spirit of the devil and of hell in general because of its eight tentacles.”

Okay, that’s dark, but what the hell does possessing eight tentacles have to do with the devil or hell? (Get it, possessing?)

Sadly, Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols doesn’t offer much more.

[The octopus] … has the same significance as the dragon-whale myth. As a decorative motif…. It is related to the spider’s web and the spiral, both being symbolic of the mystic Center and of the unfolding of creation. It also has been credited with a merely existential significance.

Clearly, Cirlot cares more about dragons than octopi, because one must read that entry to find out just what that significance is. (You’d think you could read the entry for whale as well, and I did, but that one is rather thin too.) I took the time to read the entry for dragon, and I was glad to find it wasn’t wasted.

The dragon … stands for ‘things animal’ par excellence, and here we have a first glimpse of its symbolic meaning, related to the Sumerian concept of the animal as ‘adversary,’ a concept which later came to be attached to the devil.

Now we’re getting somewhere! With it’s odd, alien form and serpent-like appendages for arms, no wonder the octopus was the inspiration for terrifying creatures like Medusa and sea monsters who emerge from the inky deep to imprison us or drag us off into the dark realm they call home. It’s the stuff of dreams, or better yet nightmares!

As it turns out, it is the stuff of dreams and nightmares (but mostly the latter). This is why, in addition to symbol references, it’s worthwhile to have a few dream dictionaries hanging around the shelves of your library, for the meaning of the images, icons, and symbols conjured by our minds at night often make themselves known in our dreams.

For example, consider the following excerpt from the octopus entry in The Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

In their positive form, [octopuses] reflect emotional depth and the ability to direct your energy in many directions without losing your center…. [They] may also be associated with a person or situation that has many ways of holding or affecting you, such as a mother or a debt.

0130181905The Watkins Dream Dictionary of Dreams offers a similar, albeit slightly more sinister interpretation of the dreamed octopus. According to this text, octopi in dreams are noteworthy because:

For a two-handed human, the idea of having eight legs, each with a different function, might suggest an inability to focus on one thing at a time, or a tendency to disperse one’s essential energies in unfruitful activities. Octopi may also be threatening, and indicative of emotional minefields—lunging unexpectedly at a human being from the depths of the ocean.

Crisp’s Dream Dictionary, after echoing the previous sentiments about mothers (what’s that about?), simply notes that an octopus in a dream can “symbolize any unconscious fear” capable of “dragging us into its realm of irrational terror.”

Sounds rather adversarial to me.

PS.) And what do octopuses have to do with hockey? Find out here!

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Note: This is the second version of this post. There was a GLARING error in the first–I completely misread a passage in one of the texts quoted here and built my post around that misunderstanding. Luckily, I was able to fix it but, boy oh boy is my face red. I’d like to chalk it up to staying up late or drinking too much coffee, but the sad truth is that I’m just a moron sometimes. My apologies.

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