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!


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.

Know Your Words

The Vampire in the Library: A Dream Interpreted (Pt. 1)

vamp-booksA few years ago, when I was having some troubles and needed someone to talk to, I began seeing a psychiatrist and/or counselor (I’m still not sure which one of these she was). I had low expectations for what I’d get out of it (and my psychiatrist met every last one of them), but in one of our more memorable sessions, she “hypnotized” me to find out what was going on in my subconscious. Presumably, she wanted to use whatever she found there — my beliefs, drives, passions, fears, worries, and so on — as a way to better understand whatever problems were plaguing me at the time. It was a complete (and comical!) disaster, of course, but ever since that fateful day on her couch, I’ve been interested in dreams, and the symbols and stories they contain.

With that in mind, I’d like to share the contents of the following, recurring dream that I had for many years. I don’t have it any more (or at least I haven’t had it in a very, very long time), but I’ve never forgotten it, partly because I’m quite interested in figuring out what it means.

Here is the dream as I remember it:

I am in my middle school library, sitting a large table in the back of the room, far from the circulation desk. The surface of the table is covered with large books, all of which have the same brown covers, like those you’d find on bound volumes of periodicals or academic journals rather than a set of encyclopedias. I am going through the books one by one and, aside from the librarian — who looked just like the kind-hearted old woman who served as the librarian at my grade school — there is no one else in the room. The fact that I’m alone doesn’t bother me. I don’t seem thrilled to be there, but I’m content as I sift through the books, trying to find a specific piece of information. What that bit of information is I don’t know. There’s the sense that I’ll know it when I find it.

Suddenly, the lights go out and the nice old librarian turns into a ghoulish vampire (or zombie) who really seems to want to bite me. Stricken with terror, but able to keep my wits about me, I (somehow) know that the only way to get the lights back on and make the librarian return to her human form is to get the book I’m holding into the book return slot at the circulation desk.

Because I’m at the far end of the library, and there is a veritable sea of other tables and study carrels between me and the circulation desk, the room becomes something of a maze. The tables aren’t much of an obstacle, but the carrels are tall and hard to see around, which the librarian/vampire uses to her advantage.

I make a break for it and dash to the circulation desk. The vampire is stealthy and quick, but always seems a step too slow. However, knowing that doesn’t diminish my fear. I make it to the desk and slide the book through the return slot. The lights come back on and the librarian becomes a human again. Relieved, I saunter back to my table, sit down, and begin going through another book. Then, just when I’m finally able to relax, the lights go out again….

So what’s this dream all about? With the help of Theresa Chung’s Dream Dictionary from A to Z, and Tony Crisp’s Dream Dictionary: An A to Z Guide to Understanding Your Unconscious Mind, I plan to find out.

Step one is digging into the meaning of the symbols featured in my dream, which I’ll do now.


To dream of books can be symbolize knowledge, wisdom, intelligence. The search for knowledge and the ability to learn from the opinions of other people. If you are surrounded by books in your dreams, this might suggest that you are more concerned with theory than practice. Depending on the kinds of books that figure in your dream, they can also suggest the world of imagination and escape…. If the books are very old, this suggests learning an inherited wisdom.


The way we respond to anxiety and pressure in real life is typically manifested as a chase dream. Often in these dream scenarios, you are being pursued by some attacker who wants to hurt or possibly kill you. You may be running away, hiding, or trying to outwit your pursuer. Chase dreams may represent your way of coping with fears, stress, or various situations in your waking life.


In dreams, a library can represent a storehouse of your experiences in life as well as in your intellect. If someone distracts you in the library in your dream, it may suggest that the ideas being considered in waking life are not worth your attention. If you are working on your psychic and spiritual development, the library will have added significance as a place where the collective wisdom of human kind is collected.


A symbol of clarity and insight, and it can signify the light at the end of the tunnel.

Color Connections:

There is a clear difference between light and dark in a dream, especially if it features an indoor location. Darkness can mean that your situation is unclear or confused. It could also suggest being in unknown or difficult territory, or it may represent a secret part of yourself or a part that you do not know.


The most obvious image of a vampire is of a creature that is dead and sucks the blood of the living, rising from the grave at night to do so, then sleeping all day in a most inhuman-like fashion. Your blood is your life force, it carries with it everything you need to survive; if your blood drains away, you become weak and die…. Vampires are often repelled by simple, natural things like daylight; they are also turned away by religious symbols in mythology.

Dreaming of these parasitic creatures can signify a number of things: that a part of your existence is having the life sucked out of it, that you need to take a closer look at the most tiresome aspects of your life and dispel the worries connected with them or that you need to employ some kind of self-preservation or protection.

Step two is considering the meaning of these symbols and fitting them into an explanation that stays true to my feelings about the dream and makes sense in the context of my life.

I’ll do that next time. Stay tuned ….