With eight legs, three hearts, blue blood, and an uncommonly high level of intelligence, the octopus is one impressive animal. This creature has been around for over 290 million years and has represented many traits during this time.
Octopuses primarily symbolize adaptability, intelligence, regeneration, and awareness – but they don’t stop there. From cultural folklore to spiritual significance, let’s dive deeper into what the octopus truly represents today.
Table of Contents
The General Symbolism of the Octopus
Octopuses are curious creatures with abilities that most other animals only dream of. Because of their dexterity and problem-solving skills, we can look to the octopus as a symbol of change and intellectuality, among other things.
Octopuses are all but stagnant when it comes to their level of dexterity, versatility, and adaptability.
To start, they will quickly match their colors to those of their environment. They can even change their texture to perfect their camouflage.
If a threat gets too close, they will make a quick escape by using their siphon as a water propellor. They do so by sucking water into one of their muscular sacs and then expelling it through their siphon. Some octopuses have been recorded as swimming away as fast as 25 miles per hour.
In their wake, they may also leave behind a cloud of black ink to confuse the predator in their midst. This cloud of ink is a combination of melanin and mucus that is stored in its ink sacs.
Lacking a skeletal system, octopuses also find and measure nooks and crannies, shifting their shape to easily squish into them. The only part of their body that has to “fit,” so to speak, is their beak.
With all of these traits, it’s no surprise that few others animals represent adaptability better than the common octopus.
When it comes to neurons, octopuses have as many as the average dog, but we dare to say they are much more cunning and thoughtful when dealing with complexity.
Octopuses have been observed solving mazes and puzzles, especially when it comes to escape tactics and finding food. In one laboratory, an octopus was recorded escaping its tank, traveling to another fish tank, opening it, eating some of the fish, closing it back up, and returning to its original tank.
In various aquariums and research centers, octopuses have been known to recognize humans, even showing a preference for the ones that feed them even though all staff wears the same uniform.
In the wild, octopuses use tools for protection and to build shelters. Using tools as an animal shows great insight into the animal’s ability to learn, and octopuses are the only known invertebrates known to do so apart from a few select insects.
Put all of these feats together and it seems apparent to use the octopus as a symbol of intelligence and cunningness.
Octopuses can also symbolize regeneration or growth during adversity. This is because they can fully regrow a severed arm in about 3-4 months.
In this case, an octopus shows resilience and healing after a traumatic event. It continues with its daily life, slowly regaining its strength until it heals completely and is once again considered whole.
Octopuses are known for their intense ability to camouflage, escape from predators or mazes, and jet propulsion.
Not only that, but their eights arms have a mind of their own. With over 2/3 of its neurons located on its tentacles – not in its head – the octopuses’ arms can open up shellfish or problem solve while the head of the octopus is busy doing or looking at something else.
It is always at one with its environment and on the lookout for changes, threats, or opportunities. This high level of spatial awareness makes the octopus an ideal representation of general awareness in life.
The Cultural Symbolism of the Octopus
While the octopus may symbolize positive attributes in modern-day society, most ancient depictions of this sea creature were associated with sea monsters and evil within the ocean. Let’s check out how octopus symbolism changes from one culture to another, from myths to beliefs and beyond.
1. Octopuses and Native Americans
Native Americans recognized the octopus’ intelligence and cunningness. Their stories regarded the animal as a trickster that was creative when it came to getting what it wanted.
The Tlingit, Haida, Nootka, and Tsimshian tribes revered the octopus. In the following story, we can see the octopus as a force not to be reckoned with.
In this tale, the octopus was on the shore in woman form with eight long braids instead of arms. Raven kept asking her what she was doing and bothered the octopus. When he got close enough, she grabbed him with one of her braids and tried to drown him while answering his question.
In another Native American tale, the sea god Kumugwe lived in a large underwater kingdom where all his riches were guarded by octopuses. Here the octopuses can represent protection.
2. Octopuses in Japan
The octopus in Japan is related to humor, delicacies, sex, and healing.
Japanese art usually funnily depicts the octopus, showing it with its tentacles in knots and a shocked look on its face.
In this country, octopus is also eaten as a delicacy and respected as traditional food.
Ancient Japanese tribes – especially those in the south –regarded this animal as a sex symbol, with each tentacle representing a sea maiden. They believed the octopus could shapeshift into human form to seduce women.
3. Octopuses in China
The Chinese word for octopus has had a political connotation since 1952. A speech from that era described the Western allies as trying to hack at the Chinese octopus, using the animal to represent the communist state.
4. Octopuses in Panama
A native group from Panama called the Kunas – commonly spelled the Guna in Western countries – use the swastika as part of their flag. Unlike the swastika in Europe, the Kuna people explain that it symbolizes the octopus as it created the world, with each “tentacle” pointing at one of the cardinal points.
5. Octopuses in Oceania
Oceania includes the regions of Polynesia, Micronesia, Australasia, and Melanesia. Within most of these islands, the octopus is viewed positively.
On the Gilbert Islands, for example, the octopus deity Na Kika helped to create the universe.
In Hawaii, Kanaloa, the god of healing and the underworld (connected to the sea), usually takes the form of an octopus. The name Kanaloa itself means great stillness or peace. Its eye – which also has eight spokes much like an octopus’ eight tentacles – represents the web of life and how we can weave our destiny.
The Symbolism of the Octopus in Religion
Octopuses have also been incorporated into some religions and beliefs around the world, including Shinto, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
1. Octopuses and the Shinto Faith
Shinto, translated from way of the gods, is the native belief system of Japan. Those of the Shinto faith, including the indigenous Ainu People, used to tell a story about the benevolent spirit Akkorokamui. He was half human and half octopus and could regenerate injured limbs.
Because of this tale, many Shinto people believed that Akkorokamui had healing powers, much like the octopus.
2. Octopuses in Buddhism
A Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, has been called the Octopus Temple. It shares a legend from the 13th century.
During this time, a monk in the temple named Zenko’s mother was sick. One day, his mother craved octopus to eat because she believed it would make her feel better. Her son, the monk, could not kill another animal due to his beliefs, but he went to buy an octopus at the market nevertheless.
Upon arrival at the temple, inside the box, the octopus transformed into scrolls and back into an octopus. It then escaped into a pond and transformed into Buddha himself. The light Buddha emitted touched the monk’s mother and healed her.
3. Octopuses in Hinduism
Hindus do not have an octopus deity, but many of their deities are depicted in a form similar to an octopus. You may see them with multiple octopus-like arms or even multiple heads.
The Octopus in Folklore & Mythology
We can find octopuses or creatures derived from the octopus in different folklore and mythology. In most of these legends and myths, the octopus has negative connotations or is surrounded by mystery, with a few exceptions.
1. Octopuses in Celtic Mythology
The Celts regarded octopuses as evil. In one legend, an octopus is described as able to suck a knight in armor straight into its beak as a meal. The Celts also blamed these animals for floods, storms, and other dangerous oceanic situations.
2. Octopuses in Greek Mythology
Octopuses in Greek mythology were regarded much like they were by the Celts. Portrayed as villains or evildoers, one myth describes how the god Dagda kills an octopus much like you would a dragon. After fighting, killing it, and ordering it to retreat with the sea, the god felt peace on land.
Some stories in Greek mythology also derive from the octopus. For example, many believe that Medusa’s hair was originally tentacles instead of snakes. The Hydra, a Greek sea monster, also had multiple snake heads that regenerated much like octopus tentacles after they were cut off.
3. Octopuses in Norse Mythology
Norse mythology includes the mythology of Scandinavians and the North Germanic peoples. Composed mainly of Vikings, this group was no novice when it came to marine life.
One of their most famous mythical creatures was surely the Kraken, likely inspired by the octopus or the giant squid.
The Spiritual Symbolism of the Octopus
Octopuses can represent different tribes, individuals, and circumstances as spirit animals, power animals, totem animals, and even in dreams and tattoos.
1. The Octopus Spirit Animal
When you find your spirit animal, this creature should guide you in your decisions and actions. The octopus spirit animal is no different, although it pays particular attention to creativity, intelligence, and flexibility. Those with this spirit animal may need to express themselves even when told not to by society and those around them.
2. The Octopus Power Animal
A power animal is similar to a spirit animal, but this phrase comes from neo-shamanic beliefs. The power animal protects you alongside providing guidance.
You may connect with the octopus power animal when you have a lot on your plate and need many hands to get the job done. It may also help you leave a situation where you feel uncomfortable, threatened, or overexposed.
For those struggling with their health, the octopus power animal can promote regeneration and healing. Focus on this power animal to let go of worrisome or negative thoughts, instead looking toward the renewal and strength that you want to build up internally.
3. The Octopus Totem Animal
Totem animals represent groups, tribes, clans, or families. This animal stays with you and your group throughout your lineage.
Octopuses as totem animals focus on renewal and healing. For those trying something new, they can also be seen as good luck or as representing upcoming good fortune. This is especially true if your new endeavor requires extensive use of your limbs or expressive creativity like dancing or designing.
4. Octopus Dreams
A negative dream about an octopus could describe that you’re feeling lost and perplexed. Since these creatures have so many facets, you may feel that you’re in a complicated situation that cannot be solved.
A positive octopus dream, on the other hand, could manifest positive outcomes in your real-life situation. With eight arms and a clever mind, this symbolizes that you are ready to handle whatever comes your way with confidence.
5. Octopus Tattoos
Octopus tattoos can symbolize:
- Infinite possibility
- A creative artist
- A survivor who escaped a dangerous situation
- Intelligence and adaptability
- Marine life or a sailor
- One who can camouflage themselves in a variety of social situations
- Someone who is always changing
While sea monsters and legends may bring fear into our minds, the octopus is much more than an eight-legged strange creature. It can represent adaptability, intelligence, regeneration and healing, and awareness, among other things.
Whether you come from a culture where octopuses are respected, eaten, or feared, surely you can find personal symbolism within this unique animal to call your own.