Octopus meanings and symbolism include versatility, dexterity, selflessness, intelligence, awareness, regeneration, and infinity. Octopuses live in every ocean on Earth. Thus they are subjects in the mythologies and folklore of people around the world, particularly the cultures in coastal areas. In addition, many people feel a strong connection to these unique invertebrates, considering the octopus spirit animal one of their own.
In this post, you’ll learn about octopus symbolism and meanings, octopus mythology and folklore, the octopus spirit animal, and more.
Table of Contents
- Etymology of the Name Octopus
- What does the octopus symbolize?
- Detailed Octopus Symbols and Meanings
- Octopus Mythology and Folklore
- Octopus Meaning in Oceana
- Octopus Meaning in Japan
- Octopus Meaning in Buddhism
- Octopus Meaning in Hinduism
- Octopus Meaning in Greek Mythology
- Octopus in Norse Mythology
- Celtic Mythology
- Octopus Meaning in the Bible
- Native American Octopus Mythology
- Octopus Spirit Animal
- Octopus Power Animal
- Octopus Totem
- Octopus Dream Meanings
- Octopus Tattoo Meanings
- Organizations that Protect Octopuses
Etymology of the Name Octopus
The name octopus comes from the Greek word oktōpous, which translates loosely to “eight feet.”1 Indeed, many people think that octopuses have eight legs, or eight tentacles. However, recent studies reveal that they actually have what is more like six arms and two legs. While the octopus’ arms and legs resemble each other, the octopus uses them in slightly different ways. 2 All that being said, the octopus is still closely associated with the number eight because of their eight appendages. We’ll get into more details on this aspect of octopus meanings later in this post.
What does the octopus symbolize?
Considered the most intelligent of the world’s invertebrates, the octopus possesses a number of unique characteristics as well as displaying an array of fascinating behaviors. So, it’s no surprise that these dexterous animals intrigues people and have special meanings to many. Furthermore, the octopus is the inspiration for many cultural myths and legends. Here are qualities that the octopus symbolizes:
Detailed Octopus Symbols and Meanings
Like a chameleon, the octopus can change colors to match their environment. They do this to hide from predators but can also utilize this skill in hunting. An octopus can even mimic the colors and patterns of different plants or fish depending on the types of predators that are in the area. In addition to mimicking colors, they can also make themselves white or iridescent.3
Taking things even further, the octopus is a virtuosos of a contortionist. They can transform into a myriad of shapes and forms. This allows them to hide in hard-to-reach places or to disguise themselves to look like another creature. For example, the octopus might transform their shape and color to look like a sea snake to trick a predatory damselfish.4
Because of these extraordinary talents, the octopus is a symbol for versatility. If the octopus was an actor, they could not be easily typecast. They could play any role and be equally believable in each one.
The octopus is also known to regularly switch their den to evade predators. Furthermore, if they find themselves in a precarious position, they are master escape artists.
When the octopus is your spirit animal, you are a person who has an uncanny ability to adjust and handle any situation, no matter how challenging or threatening. Other people may find you fascinating and impossible to pin down.
If an octopus suddenly makes themselves known to you, whether in real life, the media, artwork, or somewhere else, it can be a sign for you to tap into your innate talents to better handle a situation or to make a big change in your life. You may have to remind yourself that you have what it takes to handle any situation and to make your life what you want it to be.
A mantra of the octopus is: I have what I need to succeed.
The octopus also reminds you that have a phenomenal ability to make changes when necessary. Where some people fear or resist change, you embrace it – with all eight limbs! The change might be something as superficial as your outward appearance, or it could be more profound, such a moving, changing careers, or reevaluating your life’s purpose.
In addition to their adept camouflaging skills, the octopus is also known for their nimble dexterity. To begin, they have complex mouths that have tool-like features that enable them to do things like break apart shells that hold prey. In addition, their arms (or tentacles) are not only strong, they’re extremely flexible. In fact, robotics engineers study octopus’ tentacles to model robots that can perform complex functions, such as difficult surgeries. 5 Even more intriguing, each of the octopus’ arms has the equivalent of a mini brain that enables it to understand what is happening on a sensory level.6
Because of these special features, the octopus is a symbol of dexterity. The octopus personifies the artist, craftsperson, healer (such as a massage therapist), or other person who uses their sense of touch and their manual dexterity to fulfill their purpose.
As a symbol of dexterity, the octopus reminds you to hone your craft, especially if you use your hands, or other sense of touch, in your work or a hobby. In addition, be mindful of protecting and caring for your hands and your sense of touch.
The octopus is also a symbol of selflessness and self-sacrifice. Both the male and female octopus make great sacrifices to pro-create. To begin, the male octopus dies within months after mating. And the female makes it her mission to protect her eggs until they hatch, even if it harms her. For instance, she will forgo food to avoid leaving her nest and will defend it fiercely, even to the death. 7 By sacrificing herself in this way, the female octopus gives her young the best chances for survival.8
In a world where too many people are in it for themselves, the octopus teaches us about over-riding our egos and selfish desires to give to causes that are greater than ourselves.
Octopus people are the types to protect those they love and that which they hold dear. They will commit to causes they believe in and are willing to sacrifice their own comforts and interests to serve a greater good.
At the same time, the octopus can also be a subtle reminder to not give so much of yourself that it drains you. As human beings, it’s important that we practice self-care so that we can show up for the people and situations in life that matter.
An octopus’s brain-to-body ratio is the largest of any invertebrate, which is a sign of their high intelligence. In addition, they have a lot of neurons in their brains – both the brains in their head and in their tentacles – an amount that is on par with a dog’s brain.
In addition, octopuses display complex behaviors that demonstrate planning and forethought, such as solving puzzles and finding their way through mazes.
Underscoring the octopus’ cleverness is a story told by a marine biologist working in a research lab:
The biologists noted that fish were beginning to disappear from one of the tanks in the lab. So, they set up a video camera to monitor the fish tank when they weren’t there. It turned out that one of the octopuses was climbing out of their tank, going to the tank with the fish, lifting the lid, going in, and eating some fish. Then, as if to not leave a trace of their actions, the octopus would leave the tank, close the lid, and return to their own tank.9
With large brains in their heads and additional brains in their tentacles, the octopus personifies the intelligent brainiac.
As a symbol of intelligence, and therefore wisdom, the octopus reminds you to use your wits and your life skills to make things happen. The octopus never sits around feeling incapable or unqualified. They figure out a way to get what they want. Another octopus mantra is: Obstacles are what you see when you take your eye off the goal. In this way, the octopus is similar to the raccoon spirit animal. Octopus and raccoon people never lament a lack of resources. Instead, they focus on resourcefulness.
The suckers on the octopus’ tentacles have up to 10,000 neurons, with which they gather a wide array of information. 10 As an extremely sensitive animal, the octopus is also a symbol of awareness, or enlightened consciousness.
Octopus people are the types who pick up on information that many other people miss. This might be in the subtle nuances of the way other people behave or even metaphysical phenomena. When the octopus is your spirit animal, you are the type of person who knows when other people are upset even though they aren’t saying anything, or you know when people are lying or telling the truth. You can also sense their people’s true intentions.
If an octopus rivets your attention or makes themselves known to you, it can be a sign that you need to tap into your extra-sensory powers more. In other words, listen to and trust your intuition. As the poet and philosopher Maya Angelou used to say, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” The octopus reminds us not to overrule our intuition about certain people or situations. If you feel that your intuition is not as powerful as it can be, seek our resources on how to hone it, such as meditation, prayer, visualization, and other practices.
As was shown in the award-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher11, the octopus can regrow their tentacles if one is injured or even bitten off by a predator. Like a starfish who can regrow an arm or an alligator who can regrow their tail, the octopus possesses the power of regeneration.12
Because of this, the octopus is also a symbols of renewal and rejuvenation. They remind us that physically, psychologically, and spiritually, we have the ability to heal our ourselves. The octopus may experience the pain and loss of their lost limb. However, they soon focus on regeneration and healing. When we go through loss in life, whether it’s loss of health, of a relationship, money, or even confidence, it’s important to remind ourselves that nature has hard-wired us to heal. And as we still breathe, there is always hope.
Infinity and the Number 8
As mentioned earlier, the octopus has six arms and two legs. However, because of their eight appendages, or tentacles, the octopus is named for and associated with the number 8. The symbol for the number 8 on its side is the symbol for infinity. While infinity is a mathematical concept, it is also a metaphysical one. It represents a universe without limits. So, the octopus symbolizes concepts such as imagination without limits as well as unconditional love.
In different cultures, the number 8 is a sacred number. Thus, an octagon shape, with its eight sides, is a sacred symbol. For example, in Hinduism, some mandalas incorporate the octagon shape or eight spokes. And in China, the octagon symbol is believed to ward off evil. Hence, in Feng Shui, an octagon-shaped mirror is believed to protect a space. Even the artist Leonard da Vinci was aware of the divinity in the number 8 and the shape of an octagon. Hence, he incorporated it into his artwork and architectural drawings.13
So, with their connection to the number 8 and the concept of infinity, many consider the octopus to have sacred associations.
Octopus Mythology and Folklore
As recently as a century ago, the underwater world was very misunderstood. For many, its mysteries were something to be feared. However, thanks to modern-day marine biology as well as nature photography, TV, and film, such as Jacques Cousteau’s TV show in the ’70s and documentaries like My Octopus Teacher, we understand the world’s oceans and its magnificent creatures better than ever before.
In ancient times, however, creatures like the octopus were viewed more as sea monsters than sentient, intelligent beings. Thus, many of the ancient myths that depict octopus-like creatures are filled with fearful constructs. Even as recently as modern times, the octopus symbolizes chaos and entanglement, even things like government over-reach. Some ancient cultures, however, did see the beauty in the octopus. Here are some of those stories, the good and bad.
Octopus Meaning in Oceana
In the Polynesian Islands and other Oceanic cultures, the octopus is generally viewed positively. In fact, they are associated with a number of benevolent ocean deities.
For example, in the Gilbert Islands, they tell stories of an octopus deity they call Na Kika. According to local cosmology, Na Kika helped the great spider deity, Nareau, to create the universe. (In other Oceanic legends, the spider is called Areop-Enap.)
Octopus in Hawaiian Culture
In Hawaii, the god Kanaloa takes the form of an octopus or squid. Kanaloa is a god of healing and is associated with the Underworld, which is connected to the sea. Kanaloa is consort of the creator deity Kane. Together they represent a balance of power.
The Eye of Kanaloa
Kanaloa has an associated symbol, which is the Eye of Kanaloa. Some believe that if you look into Kanaloa’s eyes, you will see this symbol. The name Kanaloa means “great peace” or “great stillness.” It can also mean being one with the universe. Thus, like a spider’s web, the symbol represents the web of life and the interconnectedness of all things. Another interpretation is that that Eye of Kanaloa symbolizes the ability that we all have to be the weavers of our own lives, or dream weavers.14
The Eye of Kanaloa symbol is comprised of eight spokes, which represents the infinite power of love to branch out, or expand. The eight spokes of the symbol tie back to the eight tentacles of the octopus, and the octopus as a symbol of infinity.
Octopus Meaning in Japan
West of Oceana in Japan, the Indigenous Ainu People and others of the Shinto faith tell stories of a giant octopus-like creature called Akkorokamui. A benevolent spirit, Akkorokamui is part-human and part-octopus. According to local legends, Akkorokamui lurks in the waters of Funka Bay in Hokkaidō. Like an octopus, he can regenerate his limbs if they are injured. Thus, the Ainu believe the Akkorokamui has healing powers. They believe that making offerings to Akkorokamui can help especially with healing wounded limbs.15 (The Ainu are also known for their worship of bears, which you can read about in my post about bear meanings and mythology.)
Octopus Meaning in Buddhism
Also in Japan, there is a Buddhist temple in Kyoto called Tako Yakushi, which has an interesting legend. In the 13th century, a monk named Zenko lived in the temple. Zenko’s mother had become extremely ill. Although the monk took great care to heal her, even bringing her to live with him in the temple, he was not successful in curing her. One day his mother said she was craving octopus meat, which she ate as a child. She was certain that if she had it again, her illness would improve.
Zenko was torn because, as a Buddhist monk, it was against his teachings to kill a sentient being, even for food. However, worry for his mother overruled his conscience, so he went to the market to find some octopus meat. When he purchased the octopus and was then carrying it back to his mother in a box, the local villagers cast disparaging looks at him. They looked down on him for being a monk who was willing to eat octopus. Feeling guilty, the monk prayed for help in dealing with his internal conflict.
A Surprise in the Octopus Box
When the monk got this his mother, he opened the box that contained the octopus. However, instead of an octopus, the box contained eight sutra scrolls. Zenko and his mother looked at the scrolls in awe. The scrolls then transformed back into the octopus. Then, the octopus crawled up to the edge of the box and jumped out of it and into a pond in the temple gardens. When he was in the pond, he transformed into the Buddha, emitting a glowing green light. This light emanated all around, spreading to Zenko’s mother. As it did, Zenko’s mother rose from her bed and declared she was healed. Since then, the temple has earned the name the Octopus Temple.16
Octopus Meaning in Hinduism
In Hinduism, there is not an octopus deity in the way there are other animal gods, such an elephant deity in Ganesh or monkey deity in Hanuman. However, Hindu deities are sometimes depicted in octopus-like forms in that they have multiple arms (and sometimes multiple heads.) Often these features emerge when the deities battle great cosmic forces. Like the versatile and dexterous octopus, the deities are depicted in such a way as to demonstrate their enormous power.17
Octopus Meaning in Greek Mythology
As island-dwelling mariners, the ancient Greeks lived closely with the sea and were very familiar with its creatures, as their stories, artwork, and artifacts attest. To begin, the goddess Aphrodite (Venus in Roman myths) was born from the sea. She emerged from the white sea foam that appeared after the Titan Cronus (goddess Gaia’s son) severed the genitals of Uranus (another Gaia’s sons) and threw them into the sea. As Aphrodite was born of the sea, she is associated with many sea creatures, including the giant scallop (and its shell) as well as the octopus.
A “Savage” Animal…
However, the Greeks (and Romans) didn’t always associate the octopus and other cephalopods, like the squid, with love and romance. Far from it. In fact, in the 1st century, the Roman natural history philosopher and writer Pliny the Elder shared his observations of the octopus in his writings published in 79 AD. He wrote: “No animal is more savage in causing the death of man in the water, for it struggles with him by coiling round him and it swallows him with sucker-cups and drags him asunder.” 18
So, the octopus was likely the inspiration behind some of the Greeks’ and Romans’ scariest monsters.
Medusa, the Gorgon
To begin, some say that the gorgon Medusa’s hair was comprised of octopus’ tentacles instead of snakes.19
Another monster, the Hydra, was most likely inspired by the octopus as well. The hydra was a sea monster, like the leviathan. However it had multiple snake heads. Where the hydra is similar to the octopus is that when one of its heads was chopped off, the head regenerated like an octopus’ tentacles.
Octopus in Norse Mythology
Like the Greeks, the Vikings were also seafaring people. Thus, they were also aware of the ocean’s diverse marine life. And what they did not understand had a big impression on their imaginations.
The infamous Norse sea monster, the Kraken, was also most likely inspired by the octopus or another cephalopod – a giant squid. According to Scandinavians sagas, the kraken was a malevolent creature who lurked in coastal waters, waiting to sink ships and eat the sailors.
The ancient Celts didn’t venture into the sea as much as the Greeks or Vikings did. However, they also seemed to view the octopus as a malevolent creature. In fact, in one legend, the octopus is described a capable of sucking a knight in armor into its mouth and devouring him. Octopuses were also be blamed for floods and other catastrophic oceanic events.
As in Greek mythology, the Celts portrayed octopuses as villains and foils to the story’s heroes. In one story, the Celtic Druid-god Dagda is described as killing an octopus the way another hero might slay a dragon: “The Dagda came with his ‘mace of wrath’ in his hand, and plunged it down upon the octopus, and chanted these words: ‘Turn thy hollow head! Turn thy ravening body! Turn thy resorbent forehead! Avaunt! Begone!’ Then the magic sea retired with the octopus; and hence, may be, the place was called Mag Muirthemne.” 20
Octopus Meaning in the Bible
The octopus isn’t mentioned directly in the Bible, other than to be grouped with sea creatures that are different from fish. As such, they were considered unholy and therefore inedible. In Leviticus 11:9-12, God says: “Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. But anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses.” 21
Native American Octopus Mythology
The Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest view the octopus as a clever creature and a bit of a trickster. In addition, tribes from this region tell stories of a sea god called Kumugwe. According to the legend, he has a vast undersea kingdom that is full of riches that are guarded by octopuses. 22
In legends told by the Haida, Tligit, Tsimshian, and Nootka tribes, the octopus is an intelligent creature who is not to be trifled with. In one story, an Octopus Maiden with eight long braids is digging for clams at the seashore. As she did so, Raven Brave hopped up to her and asked her what she was doing – repeatedly.
Annoying Octopus Maiden at His Own Peril
After ignoring his repeated, annoying questions for some time, the Octopus Maiden paused from what she’s doing, then wrapped one of her braids around Raven’s neck. She then held him down in the water. As the tide was coming in, Raven begged her to release him. Instead of doing so, Octopus answered Raven’s question that she is digging for clams. She repeated the answer the same number of times that he had asked her the question.
Raven drowned as the sea enveloped him. However, local villagers watching the exchange did not take pity on him. They knew he was actually the trickster Crow, and that he would come back to life. Indeed he did. However, he never pestered Octopus Maiden again. 23
Octopus Spirit Animal
When the octopus is your spirit animal, you are a person who has a myriad of natural talents and special skills that you can tap into to manifest your dreams. You might not always feel this way, but the octopus is here to remind you of this truth.
Your octopus spirit animal also reminds you that while you may be a natural caregiver, it’s important to take time for regeneration, to heal your depleted resources so that you can be renewed.
Furthermore, the octopus spirit animal reminds you that you should never focus on your limitations. There are infinite ways you can transform your life to achieve your dreams.
Octopus Power Animal
A power animal can help to empower you when you focus on their most dynamic traits. Thus the octopus power animal can be a helpful symbol in certain situations where you need to tap into your own, innate octopus powers. For example, you can meditate on the octopus power animal in situations where you:
- Feel you need to use a level of finesse and artistry to win people over or to make certain things happen.
- Are trying to make things happen or make a decision, but you feel that you might be too emotional. Summon the wisdom of the intelligent octopus and use your wits for the best outcome.
- Feel depleted in some way, whether its physical energy, mental energy, or even your finances. Have faith that you have the power to regenerate!
- Think that your life is too limited. The octopus reminds you of the infinite possibilities that the universe has to offer you.
An animal totem embodies the protective powers of the animal it represents. Thus, the octopus totem serves as a helpful symbol for healing and renewal. In addition, the octopus totem can be a good luck talisman for when you’re trying something new and want to perfect your craft, particularly something that involves the use of your hands and limbs, such as being a designer, dancing, or expressing yourself in some way.
Octopus Dream Meanings
What does it mean if you dream of an octopus or octopus-like creature? Dreams are obviously personal and they can have a range of meanings. So, there is not one cut and dry answer as to what an octopus dream means. To begin, your own feelings about octopuses will play a role in how you interpret the dream. Understanding the emotions and the reactions you experienced in your dream is the first step in getting clarity about what your subconscious mind is trying to tell you.
Negative Octopus Dreams
An octopus (or even octopus-like sea monster) dream in which you felt anxious or fearful can mean there are issues you need to address in your wakeful state that you can’t quite get a handle on. The complexity of the octopus can reveal that feel helpless. So, it’s important to figure out ways to address the issues, such as visualizing positive outcomes or taking small steps to make positive changes and resolve issues.
Positive Octopus Dreams
A dream about an octopus where you feel at ease and in command of the situation can reveal that you should have the confidence in your wakeful state that you can manifest positive outcomes. You may have doubts and insecurities, but the positive octopus dream can mean that you are equipped to handle things and to excel.
In addition to your subconscious mind, dreams can be messages from your spirit guides or other information that you pick up metaphysically. Dreaming of an octopus can also be a nudge for you to explore what the octopus symbolizes further and use it to expand your awareness and spiritual growth.
Dream meanings are personal to every dreamer. However, hopefully learning more about the octopus, their stories, and symbols, can provide you with deeper insights.
Octopus Tattoo Meanings
The octopus makes a wonderful design for a tattoo from both a visual and symbolic standpoint. An octopus tattoo can demonstrate that you are an artist in some way, dexterous and creative. It can also signify that you believe in giving to a cause that is greater than yourself. Furthermore, it can signify that you have gone through challenges in life yet had the wherewithal to heal yourself and regenerate to become something even better. Of course, an octopus tattoo can also symbolize that you believe in infinite possibility and the unlimited power of love.
Organizations that Protect Octopuses
Like so many of the world’s sea animals, octopuses are currently under threat. Commercial fishing, pollution, and changes to the octopus’ natural ocean habitat (from pollutants, ocean acidification, temperatures rising, and other factors) are all taking a toll and causing octopus populations to decline. If you care about octopuses, please do what you can to protect them. Here are some organizations that are working on protecting octopuses and their habitats:
- American Oceans
- Marine Conservation Society
- MarineBio Conservation Society
- Coral Reef Alliance
- Coral Restoration Foundation
- World Wildlife Fund (WWF)