Eight ways of looking at an octopus

1. They are voracious predators, though they have no backbone – no hard parts at all, in fact. They often change color to match their prey, and when threatened, they attempt to hide in a cloud of ink. And sometimes, for no known reason, they go on a frenzy of self-consumption, ending in their own death. Republicans?

2. Octopuses (see here for a discussion of other plural forms) have long been known to commit autophagy – that is, to eat themselves, starting with the tips of their arms and working their way up. The precise reason isn’t known; stress and infection by some unknown virus are the reasons most often postulated. One of the few other creatures known to commit autophagy is the laboratory rat, so possibly a certain threshold of intelligence must be reached before a creature can attain this level of perversity.

3. Sometime in the late Renaissance, imaginative Christians began to associate the octopus with Christ. Whatever this may mean in evolutionary terms, it’s definitely a step up the food chain from the Jesus fish.

An on-line abstract of an article from a French journal discusses the persistence of this image of “The Autophagous Christ”:

Father Chesneau’s sixty-third Eucharistic emblem has the octopus as a symbol of Christ. This being justified by the fact both octopus and Christ are autophagous. So by the middle of the XVIIth century a theological treatise on the Holy Sacrament can put forward an extremely realistic proposition, thus resuming an astonishing point in the debate on the Eucharist: the autophagy of Christ. This article endeavours to seize [sic] how, after the Council of Trent, Catholics went on using the controversial figure of an autophagous Christ in their debates, and to question the way it came to be used in a book of emblems of Augustinian bent.

4. The Christ-as-octopus image is an interesting example of convergent mythological evolution. Samoans and Kiribatians believe in an octopus god named Na Kika, who assisted the trickster god Nareau the Younger in the creation of the world. In this case, the octopus’ ability to survive on land as well as in the water seems to have given rise to the conception of octopus as mediator between island and ocean.

5. Symbols, of course, have their separate evolutionary history; the ancestral symbol to the autophagous Christ is the ouroborus.

6. Philosophically, autophagy is the antithesis of autopoiesis, which any biological definition of life cannot fail to take into account. The capacity of systems to self-organize also constitutes the strongest argument for the viability of social anarchism. Note, however, that anarchists themselves, like Republicans, often resort to autophagy. Their inability to agree upon how to describe anarchism for the Wikipedia is typical, and also ironic, given that the Wikipedia is itself an outstanding example of a successful anarchistic system.

7. In my dreams about trees, whenever a tree walks, its roots move over the earth like octopus tentacles. Even waking, I’ve noticed that old yellow birch trees often seem on the verge of opening bloodshot eyes. Just look at the way their roots engulf the ground.

8. Of all their attributes, what I envy most about octopuses is their power to change color, and sometimes shape, to match the environment. If I could do that, I could sleep almost anywhere – the world would be my oyster bed.

Sleep in a state or national park and it’s called camping. Sleep in a town or city park and it’s called vagrancy. Sleep in a refugee camp and it’s called dispossession. In so many ways, it seems, one person’s vacation is another person’s prison sentence. And yet, when we sleep, don’t we all inhabit the same country?

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that this post was sparked by an e-mail exchange with my brother Mark, whose birthday is October 8. Happy birthday, buddy.

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