Part 2 of 2
Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman
An octopus’s mouth is in its armpit. You read that right. They usually grab prey with their suckers, passing it from smaller suckers at the tip of one of their arms, onward toward the next larger sucker, continuing toward its head until it reaches its mouth. Those suckers are constantly tasting the world around them. Chemoreceptors can pick up chemical information in the water from a distance of 30 yards.
Here’s how octopuses swim: it’s akin to jet propulsion, as a quantity of water is sucked into their fleshy mantles, and forcefully squirted out of a tube-like funnel called a siphon, when the mantle contracts. The mantle is a bag-shaped part of the octopus’s body from which the head protrudes, surrounded by its eight tentacles. It’s very rare for divers or owners of octopuses to ever see their shiny black beaks, because the beak is usually hidden inside at the confluence of their arms. The mantle contains octopus’s remarkably well-developed brain and nervous system. One measure of brain power is the number of neurons a species has, because neurons process information. We’re not really sure yet if an octopus brain works exactly like a human brain, but just for perspective, an octopus has 300 million neurons; a rat has 200 million; a frog – about 16 million. A human has 100 Billion neurons in the brain.
Their eyesight is extremely good. Octopus eyesight is similar to a human’s, aiding the octopus in feeding, camouflaging, and locating a mate. They have two large eyes above their brain, and octopuses like to look you in the face, even though sometimes it’s with one eye while the other stays hidden. Anyway, let’s talk about those brains – yes, that’s correct – brains plural! I’ll get to that in a minute. Octopuses can learn, remember, and even reason to some extent.
Back to the brains – each octopus arm contains a “mini” brain, which can act independently of its primary brain? To get what it wants, an octopus will go to extraordinary lengths. Experiments have been done where an octopus first learned to enter a jar through an uncorked hole. Then, it mastered knocking aside a stopper put loosely in the hole. Finally, it draped itself over a jammed-in plug, rocked it loose with its sucker-equipped arms, and slipped inside the jar. Studies show octopuses can discriminate between shapes, thread themselves through mazes, and remember events.
The question of the day, not only for those with octopus as a totem, but also for all humans is – how will we use our creativity and willpower? Using one’s will doesn’t have to be a destructive thing if we are in alignment with our highest values. Octopus Medicine encourages us to be curious and discreet; not imposing our will on others or causing harm, but turning our ability to be forceful toward producing acts of charity, kindness and good will.
Did you know that octopuses can regenerate their arms? They do this while mating. Talk about multi-tasking! Octopuses have the same mating hormones as people. Females have estrogen and progesterone, and even a form of oxytocin (the cuddling hormone) called cephalotocin. Males have testosterone. Most octopuses mate with the male atop the female, or side by side – to lessen the chance of cannibalism! The male places the specialized tip of his 3rd tentacle (ligula) that has been smeared with sperm cells, into the mantle of the female, where it then breaks off and remains there, fertilizing the eggs. Then, he grows a replacement. And yet, he dies soon after mating.
Though only a few from each batch of eggs survives to sexual maturity, the female can lay up to 100,000 eggs, securing them to a rock, empty shell, or other substrate. She faithfully and happily uses her siphon to keep her eggs clean and aerated until they hatch, which, in most species is from four to six weeks. (The Giant Pacific octopus incubates her eggs for 7 months.) Mating is an area of octopus life that shows us that happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive. There are many perils for a female octopus as she becomes reproductive, for during the time she is happily caring for the eggs in her nest, she does not eat, and some octopuses starve during this time. And even if she doesn’t starve, female octopuses die after their eggs hatch.
There are many references to Octopus in art and culture. The Nootka tribe of the Pacific Northwest say that Octopus controls the weather, as well as power over health and sickness. They have a teaching story for kids about Octopus and Raven. In it, Raven, the trickster goes down to the shore to bother Octopus by asking over and over if she’s digging for clams. Octopus doesn’t like that! Ultimately, Octopus lassoes raven with four of her braids, and fastens him with the other four braids to a rock. The rising tide drowns Raven. The moral of the story is that though asking questions is a good thing in moderation, asking the same question over and over to tease or aggravate someone can turn on the person asking the question.
In some Native American tribal cultures, Octopus is the servant of Kumugwe, the chief of the undersea world, and is a symbol of wealth. The Hawaiian god Kanaloa takes the form of an octopus and is the god of the Ocean. In her book, Soul of An Octopus, Sy Montgomery transports us to the Gilbert Islands between New Guinea and Hawaii, where the Octopus god, Na Kika, the son of the first beings, shoved the islands up from the bottom of the Pacific with his 8 strong arms. Octopuses also appears frequently in ceramic art from Crete signifying that with spiraling tentacles wrapped around its mantle, Octopus is a totem of the unfolding of creation – the sacred spiral of life.
Prominent among mythical beasts is the Kraken, a giant octopus in Norse mythology. The Kraken was an octopus with a taste for human flesh, capable of devouring an entire ship. Its actual existence was accepted as true by Nordic naturalists up to, and including Linnaeus, the originator of taxonomy, in the late 18th century. Thus, the use of a giant octopus as a monster to be battled by the protagonist in Victor Hugo’s 1866 novel, Les Travailleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea), was not an original storyline. In his novel Twenty thousand Leagues Under the Sea, (1870), Jules Verne mentions the Kraken. The monster he called “poulpe” (octopus in the French original) attacks the crew of the Nautilus submarine.
So, why do people historically have so much fear and loathing about creatures from the deep, dark ocean, especially octopuses? Maybe their brain power is too much like ours? Maybe the ocean is unfamiliar and strange to most people compared to environments where we can breathe without the assistance of equipment. Being 75 feet down in dark water can be scary. Perhaps it would behoove us to understand the ocean and its inhabitants, considering the planet is 70% water.
When an octopus, like a human, feels threatened, it will often resort to any means to protect its life, home, and way of life. Sound familiar? It doesn’t take an octopus long to figure out who is friend and who is foe? Eventually, to survive, humans must learn to respect all the intelligences and species on the planet, for each has something to offer and is exquisitely designed to fulfill its purpose, and fit with all life on earth.
The Beatles song, Octopus’s Garden came out in 1969 after drummer, Ringo Starr ate squid for the first time at lunch on comedian Peter Sellers’ boat in Sardinia. I especially like the lines that go: “We would be so happy, you and me. No one there to tell us what to do. I’d like to be under the sea, in an Octopus’s garden with you.”
While I was writing about Octopus, I saw a wonderful Netflix documentary which I highly recommend, called My Octopus Teacher, filmed in 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa. Over a period of about a year, a photographer named Craig Foster slowly but surely befriended a female Common octopus while diving in a kelp forest, and spending time photographing her and her world. After 100 days, he gains her trust, and she uses him as her strategist, putting him between her and the predatory pyjama shark. In a remarkable intimacy, Foster sees how she lives, sleeps, eats, recovers from a shark attack, and mates. I teared up the first time she tentatively extended a tentacle to gently touch his hand. Foster is a wonderful example of the connection it is possible for humans to have with Nature. And to top it all off, Foster’s son follows in his footsteps as a marine biologist and diver. The story and the beautiful photography show us the kind of symbiotic bond we can have with Nature. Business, economics, and materialism will not help our planet survive, unless we use these things to improve our world, instead of greedily grasping for power and land.
Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for over 45 years; author of this column for 23 years.
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