View Chapters

Book: Animal Iconography in the Archaeological Record

Chapter: How many tentacles? Octo-pus and X-pus in the Greek Bronze Age: A new archaeozoological approach

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.38877


The Mediterranean common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, was an important symbolic icon in the Greek Bronze age, although its connotation is not fully understood. This cephalopod is one of the 13 autochthonous octopods living in the Mediterranean and the most easily observable because it can be found in very shallow waters. During the Late Bronze age (ca. 1600-1100 BC), octopuses are very widespread motifs in pottery, paintings, jewellery and so on: in some cases the naturalistic details suggest they were submitted to a sort of ‘scientific’ observation. In the so called Marine Style for example (Late Minoan IB, ca. 1500-1450 BC), unquestionably the depicted octopod species is Octopus vulgaris, sinuously embracing the pot surface. But few centuries later (Late Minoan IIIB-C, ca. 1300-1100 BC) octopus representations are rather very stylized.
In agreement with its scientific and vernacular names – e.g. Greek: χταπόδι, English: octopus – the actual Octopus vulgaris has eight arms (or tentacles). However, in many Bronze age representations, the common octopus is figured with a variable number of arms, including odd numbers which disrupt its natural bilateral symmetry: we can find octopuses with 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 and also 10 tentacles. Why does iconography seem to conflict with nature? And what is the real consistency of traditional beliefs about octopus regeneration, related to the marked regenerative capabilities of its arms, which re-grow after being mutilated by predator bites? Through an integrated analysis of archaeological contexts, iconographies with ‘wrong’ tentacles number, zoological identification and biological features, the paper will explore ways of representations, human-animal interactions and possible symbolic meanings of this so fascinating animal.

Chapter Contributors

  • Lucia Alberti ( - lalberti) 'CNR Italy'
  • Giambattista Bello ( - gbello) 'University of Bari'