Classic octopus

Adam Cuerden sent me a scan of this interesting article from the 1871 Illustrated London News, and I decided I was being terribly selfish keeping it to myself, so here you go — don’t say I never share. The image that accompanies it is a wonderful example of old-time illustration; click on it for a larger version.

As the media usually does, it plays up the horrible danger of this alien creature.



The aquarium at the Crystal Palace now contains, with many other interesting objects, several specimens of the poulpe, or eight-armed cuttle, Octopus vulgaris, obtained from the sea on the Devonshire and North Wales coasts. This is the animal which has been made famous under the names of devil-fish or man-sucker, by the sensational descriptions of it in Victor Hugo’s Guernsey romance “Toilers of the Sea”, and in other works of imaginative writers. But as Mr. W.A. Lloyd, the superintendent of the aquarium, remarks in his protest against such exaggerations, “it is but wanton ignorance and vulgarity to call the octopus a ‘devil-fish,’ when it has about it nothing diabolical or fishlike. It is simply a mollusc, very high up in the scale of the mollusca, with its viscera and other internal organs contained in an egglike sac, which is surmounted by a pair of prominent and sometimes staring eyes placed on protuberances; and below, set on obliquely, is a series of eight stout, raditating, tapering arms, provided in all with about 2000 round projecting suckers, on the lower surfaces of the arms. Such a creature is in itself wonderful without being invested with fictitious attributes.” It is a fact, however, says Mr. Lloyd, that these cuttles will, if alarmed, catch hold of a man within their reach in the water, though they cannot grasp him out of the water. “The specimens here under my care will, if I permit them, as I have done, firmly affix themselves to my submerged bare hand and arm by the crowds of sucking discs beneath each of their long flexible legs, arms, or tentacles, and then they will draw themselves on till they get to a convenient position, and give a severe bite with their hard, horny pair of beaks or mandibles (not unlike those of a parrot), which are placed below, in the centre of the body, at the point whence the legs or arms radiate; but they soon leave go and drop off when I raise them above the water’s surface. There are no cuttles in Sark, where Victor Hugo places his narrative, or elsewhere in Britain, so large that even a child could not easily kill or disable one of them at one grasp or kick. On the other hand, if an enormous angry cuttle in the tropics, with arms measuring, as they sometimes do, from five to fifteen feet long, provided with thousands of suckers, each nearly an inch in diameter, and additionally provided, as many foreign species are, with a strong and sharp hook in the centre of each, in order to take a firmer hold, armed also with a terribly crushing pair of beaklike jaws – should such a creature encounter a swimming man it would go hard with the man, without any spitefulness on the part of the cuttle.”

It seems probable, on the whole, that the common dread of these creatures, among the seafaring people of the Channel shores, and in the south of Europe, is founded upon some instances of persons being drowned, or put in danger of drowning, by entanglement with their long pliant arms. The eyes are blank and expressionless, and are furnished each with a pair of greyish lids, one closing downwards from above and the others upwards from below, till they meet at the centre of the pupil. “At night, or in much shade,” says Mr. Lloyd, “the eye is wholly uncovered, but in light the lids are seperated according to the amount of illumination. If it be considerable, the seperation is such as only to leave a very narrow horizontal slit for the creature’s vision; but if very strong, their edges are brought into complete contact. These motions of the lids have not the instantaneous character of the lid of the human eye, but are slow enough to be seen. The manner in which the eyelids of the octopus constantly vary in distance from each other when the creature moves about, and thus varies the amount of the shade through which it passes, is most interesting to witness. For instance, as it begins to enter the shadow of an overhanging rock in the Crystal Palace aquarium, the lids gradually seperate and expose the eye beneath them, and they as gradually close again as the animal emerges into light.”

– Illustrated London News, December 2, 1871 (pages 535-6)


  1. llewelly says

    I enjoyed the bit about the eyelids being used to regulate light going into the eyes.
    However – is it accurate?

  2. The Dude says

    PZ – figure you might see this before an email, but wondering if you could recommend some good books on Evolution for the non-professional. Just looking for some good, fun books on the subject.

    Maybe a post with a recommended reading list?

    I’m actually hoping someone will write an “Incompetent Designer” or “the Blind & Incompetent Watchmaker Book”

  3. afterthought says

    What lovely creatures they are. I can see why PZ finds them so interesting.

  4. JBL says

    The Dude: search through the archives. I think PZ makes yearly book recommendations.

  5. DCB says

    “There are no cuttles in Sark…”

    That is quite possibly the most poetic thing I’ve ever heard.

    Say it out loud, matter-of-factly, with a hint of sadness.

  6. jpf says

    If you liked that, you might also want to dig through Google Books, which has lots of old treasures waiting to be found. Here are a couple interesting cephalopod-related ones I found on cursory inspection:

    * Aquarium notes. The octopus; or, The ‘devil-fish’ of fiction and of fact by Henry Lee, 1875. It has old-timey illustrations, and how can you miss with a chapter titled “Octopods I Have Known” which includes the line:

    For in the state of public feeling then existing, an aquarium without an octopus was like a plum-pudding without plums.

    * Sketches of Creation, by Alexander Winchell, 1870. Cephalopod illustrations start on page 110, chapter XI “The Fairy Sailors and his Cousins”.

  7. jpf says

    Some more…

    * Denizens of the Deep, By Frank Thomas Bullen, 1904. The chapter titled “The Cuttle-fish or Squid” (pp. 127-145) has alarmist subchapter headings like “The Horrible Octopus” and “Insatiable Nightmares”, includes a recount of the author’s knife fight with a small octopus, and sums up octopuses thusly:

    To sum up, the Octopus is like the rest of his appalling family, a fellow of whom no one can conscientiously say much that is good; but as with the alligator, the mosquito, and the louse, since the Lord has seen fit to create him and place him in his present position, it does not become short-sighted man to question that Supreme Wisdom.

    (…lest ye be suckered by His Noodly Appendage?)

    * Illustrated Natural History of the Animal Kingdom, By Samuel Griswold, 1859. Has lots of nice period technical illustrations of cephalopods pp. 494-504. And then there’s p. 498 which illustrates the danger giant cave octopods pose to innocent beachcombers.

  8. SEF says

    My 1867 Chambers’s dictionary, ie published prior to that report, doesn’t even have the word “octopus” in it. There’s just “octopod” as a generic term for any 8-footed/legged thing.

  9. jpf says

    My 1867 Chambers’s dictionary, ie published prior to that report, doesn’t even have the word “octopus” in it. There’s just “octopod” as a generic term for any 8-footed/legged thing.

    “Cuttle-fish” and “squid” seem to be used interchangable as generic terms for all cephalopods in the 1800s. Interesting to note this quote from the 1904 book above:

    We now come to the consideration of one of the most widely distrubuted, most useful, and withal most extraordinary of all the denizens of all the seas, the curious shell-less mollusc known generall as the Squid. For some strange reason, which I do not pretend to fathom, an enormous number of otherwise well-read people profess knowledge of him under the name of Octopus.

    So “octopus” seems to be catching on by the beginning of the 20th century, but still viewed as not a “well-read” term.

    Another odd cephalopod mention: on p. 246 in (of all places) Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration (1891), there’s a weird digression about the Potomac Naturalists Club discussing what animal to use as a model for the Union’s army (Lincoln doesn’t actually play into this, it’s the author’s recollection). The popular press was using the anaconda, but this animal was deemed a “sluggish, cowardly race”. Someone then suggested the rattlesnake. Finally the giant octopus was suggest, only to have its existence questioned. One Count Pourtalis, an expert in deep-sea sounding, then stood up and declared “I believe in the giant octopus” and proceeded to give an impromptu dissertation into its undoubted existence and potential as a war model:

    “Gentlemen,” he began, “I think I shall be able to show you that the cuttle-fish is not to be ridiculed. He belongs to the squid family, and has a lot of names. He is called a cephalopod, an octopus, a loligo, a teuthis, as well as a cuttle-fish and a squid.”

    The author ends with his own account of battling a squid that tried to steal his walking stick and how his Ecuadorian companion told him about four hundred pound squid hiding two or three fathoms up a rock face in San Francisco that ate a “Chinaman”.

  10. jpf says

    Not to monopolize the comments, but… Holy Crap! an 1881 reference (p.51) to Japanese tentacle porn!

    The octopus, or devil-fish (tako), is also frequently depicted, especially in the quaint ivory netsuke or humorous carvings of the Japanese; and one sometimes finds that the artist has indulged in very broad humour indeed, not altogether free from indecency; but it is unnecessary for us to dwell upon this questionable phase of Oriental art-thought.


  11. Joe says

    You can still see the really big hole in the ground where the Crystal Palace aquarium used to be, in Crystal Palace park in south London… It’s not quite as exciting as the dinosaur sculptures.

  12. jpf says

    Ok, one last one, I promise…

    Sea Monsters Unmasked, by Henry Lee, 1883, has nice illustrations in its section on the Kraken (which touches on cephalopods other than just the mythical ones). I particularly like the octopus on p. 18, which is rendered very realistically in its natural setting (or, more likely, an aquarium) and the gruesome remains of a “great calamary” on p.44. There’s also neat non-cephalopodan images too, like the crude woodcut on p.58 of a gigantic lobster dragging a man from a ship.

  13. ChemBob says

    jpf mentioned treasures on Google. Well, searching for diagrams and pictures of Burgess Shale creatures on Google I came across something entirely the opposite of “treasure.” Has anyone else run across this evidently anti-science site ( I read the title at the top of the page and thought I might read and respond to the author but I decided I didn’t want to get depressed and came over to pharyngula instead.

  14. says

    Talking about Blue Rings…beepbeepitsme.
    When I live in Coogee- Sydney beach side suburb, the American In Laws visited and were staying in a hotel up the road.
    There was a booklet telling of all the exciting things to do in Sydney. The Sydney Aquarium (awesome place,go visit)had a blurb about their ‘touch pool’ directly under a picture of a Blue Ring Octopus. Total classic and I wish I kept the page. For the naughty tourists I guess.