When I finished my degree at the University of Edinburgh, I kept a promise to myself and travelled to Crete. My dream was to see the excavated palaces and artworks of the Ancient Minoans, the remnants of a culture thought to be matriarchal and peace-loving. I had studied the images of the sculpted wasp-waisted goddess who holds a serpent in either hand; the androgynous Prince of the Lilies; and the murals of the blue dolphins, and of the young female and male gymnasts vaulting over horned bulls. All these, and more, I saw at the palace of Knossos in Heraklion and in the city’s museum.
What I had not expected to see, and equally captivated me, were the round-eyed enigmatic octopi, arms a-swirl, featured on many of the Ancient Minoan vases. They seemed to constitute their own floating world on the ceramic surface, and their eyes, which gaze at us so directly, are full of astonished wonder. It is as if they are privy to some secret of existence that has left them amazed, and which they would impart to us if they could.
The Ancient Minoans may well have been enthralled by the octopus’ transformative powers: its ability to change shape and colour at will. Through a revealing and often poignant essay by Amia Srinivasan in the London Review of Books, I recently learned that even the largest octopi, weighing 100 pounds, can shape-shift their boneless mass of soft tissue to pass through an inch-wide opening. Octopi can not only change colour for protective camouflage, but also put on flamboyant displays of flashing rings, rippling hues and stripes. They are exceptionally strong; the Giant Pacific octopus can pick up 30 pounds with each of its 1,600 suckers.
The Ancient Minoans who immortalized the octopus perhaps intuited how intelligent these animals are. Octopi are readily able to navigate mazes, and repurpose objects in their environment for use as tools. In laboratory situations, scientists have observed them opening child-proof jars and evolving all kinds of ways to escape. They make these attempts often, flooding laboratories by plugging up the valves in their tanks with their arms, for example. Srinivasan tells of an octopus at the University of Otago that shot jets of water at the aquarium’s light-bulbs, short-circuiting the entire electrical system so often that the scientists released it back to the sea. One wants to cheer this animal for the ingenuity and persistence that enabled it to reclaim its freedom.
In heartbreaking contrast to the plight of captive octopi is Srinivasan’s description of how those in their natural habitat will greet deep-sea divers they encounter with a probing arm and sometimes lead them on a tour of their environment. Octopi most certainly feel pain. she tells us, and nurse wounded body parts. Thankfully, in 2010 the European Union issued a directive classifying cephalopods with vertebrates because of their “ability to experience pain, distress and lasting harm.”
The revelation in her essay that most shook me is the sheer brevity of the octopus’ lifespan. Most species live only a year or two, and the longest-living, the Giant Pacific, dies after four years at most. After the male and female mate, which occurs only once in their lifetimes, they go into a swift and sudden decline, losing interest in food and becoming disoriented. The females die of starvation while tending their eggs, and the males fall victim to predators as they meander in a daze.
Srinivasan tells us that early in its evolutionary history, the octopus gave up its protective shell “in order to embrace a life of unboundaried potential.” With its excellent eyesight, acute senses of taste and smell, and the half a billion neurons distributed in its arms, as well as in its brain, the free octopus leads a life of richly varied experience. This comes at the cost of extreme vulnerability to sharp-toothed predators. In making itself deliberately vulnerable so as to be wide-open to experience, the octopus brings to mind the all-consuming dedication and risk-taking of certain great artists. Perhaps this is why the Ancient Minoans depicted the octopi with such wide-open eyes and the swirling arms that speak of infinite transformative possibilities, albeit inside a lifespan of stark brevity.