Cephalopods 4 of 4: The Nineteenth-Century Octopus

By July 14, 2013

MormonOctopus WABHMS closeupThe octopus metaphor persists to the present but the cultural milieu has changed. [1] For example, last week I wrote about the image at right. My sense is that most 2013 observers would describe it as ?quaint,? maybe even ?cute.? A century earlier it was an ?inky-black demon? with a ?big black body lying flat, disgustingly spread? or ?a horrible octopus? with ?fiendish goggle eyes? and ?treacherous succer-like tenticles reaching out.? [2] In this post I will try to account for the difference—I will summarize something of what late-nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans thought and felt about octopuses. [3] (Spoiler alert: it casts Mormonism as very bad.)

EdgarFolk cover TheMormonMonster 1900 archive d org 300pxEuro/Americans in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries reacted to octopuses, on average, more negatively, more intensely, and across a broader base of emotions than their present-day counterparts. An octopus inspired panic, disgust, fear, and hate responses; now (I?m guessing) you might get disgust and a little fear. Part of the difference comes simply from more empirical knowledge: late-nineteenth-century media consumers almost certainly thought of the octopus as a much larger, stronger, and very much more aggressive animal than typical media consumers do now. In some cases, the much-maligned cephalopod reputedly attacked victims with hypnotic, magnetic, and/or poisonous tentacles. [4] In short, the octopus was a monster. Such a monster, ?with ever-reaching tentacles, seeking whom it may devour,? made for a useful polemical metaphor. [5] Tellingly, the cover image of Edgar Folk?s The Mormon Monster (1900) was an octopus (see image at left). [6]

In 1903, one Charles L Thompson (Presbyterian) preached an influential sermon that illustrates the ?monster? aspect of octopus metaphors and their literary antecedents. [7]
HugoV Octopus ToilersOfTheSea

Have you read Victor Hugo?s ?Toilers of the Sea?? Then you remember that awful portrayal of the man in the sea who encountered an octopus. Listen to it again:

?Its folds strangle. Its contact paralyzes. It is disease embodied in monstrosity. It is not to be torn away. It adheres closely to its prey. How? By a vacuum. The octopus on the chase hides. It contracts, condenses itself, reduces itself to the simplest possible expression. It confounds itself with the shadow. It looks like a ripple of the waves It resembles everything except something living. The octopus is a hypocrite. When one pays no heed to it suddenly it opens—a glutinous mass possessed of a will. What more frightful! Glue filled with hatred! The octopus is vulnerable only in the head. There is a certain moment in which to seize it. It is the instant when it thrusts forward its head. He who misses at that juncture is lost.?

Awful description, but it describes Mormonism. It, too, strangles whatever it enfolds. It, too, is a vacuum—promises that have no substance back of them. It, too, resembles beautiful things—a shadow, a ripple on the wave. It, too, when you touch it is clammy with death. It, too, clings to what it fastens on—relentless, inexorable, glue filled with hatred of what is good! And it, too, has one vulnerable point—only one—its head is an organism of vitality and power. Its ultimate aim is hierarchical domination of the State, and that is not to be educated, civilized, reformed—but crushed! If we miss at that juncture we, too, are lost! [8]

Thompson?s reliance on Hugo is consistent with the broader trend. [9] Journalists, polemicists, and authors like Jules Verne (see images below) referred to Hugo explicitly and implicitly. [10] Toilers played a pivotal role in the development of octopus metaphors (and of Horror genres in general), and the octopus in those metaphors was horrible (see image, above right, by Hugo). [11] As summarized by a Mormon journalist: ?Every one has read Victor Hugo?s description of the octopus, which has hitherto been regarded as the most hateful and horrible of all created things.? [12]

VerneJ 20000Leagues composite 650px 20130709bIn addition to the literary developments, cephalopods were in the news. In the 1870s an abnormally large number of giant squid washed up in Newfoundland (see image below of a squid in a bathtub, 1873) and written descriptions appeared frequently through the 1880s. [13] Octopuses and company were common topics of discussion, erudition, and speculation at various socioeconomic levels.

MosesHarvey Bathroom Logy Bay Giant Squid 1873 392pxBelow is a list of some ideas that might have come into the minds (not necessarily in so many words) of late-nineteenth-century Euro/Americans when contemplating a cephalopod. [14]

  1. Fearsomely predatory (relentless, hungry, skilful)
  2. Hypocritical, cowardly (a moral failure; hides in ink)
  3. Hypocritical, deceitful (a tactical strength; ambush hunter)
  4. Deformable (disguises itself, eg Trojan Horse)
  5. Deformable (absorbs hits without damage)
  6. Cunning (controls tentacles independently, ambush hunter)
  7. Sticky, icky, clammy, etc.
  8. Large (kills adult humans, whale, ships)
  9. Ontologically evil

Below is an 1874 image of Brigham Young as ?The Cephalopod of the Great Basin.?Genus Polypi Mormoni Priesthoodi.? [15] The image is partly humorous / humiliating, portraying Young as subhuman and naked, with (quoting Jared Farmer) ?menacing hair.? To the original viewers, however, there was probably a disgust and horror reaction as well. [16]

CephalopodOfTheGreatBasin EnochsAdvocate 1874May11 650px

In addition to the connotative impressions above, an octopus could be used to represent multiple things:

  1. Controller of territory, politics, and/or institutions (with coiled tentacles)
  2. Controller of people directly (with coiled tentacles)
  3. Relentless seeker (with writhing tentacles)
  4. Destroyer (it sucks out lifeblood with its beak or suckers)
  5. Phenomenological monster (hideous for what it does rather than what it is)
  6. Ontological monster (hideous for what it is rather than what it does).

The following image (1903) seems to touch on all of the points above except, perhaps, the first. [17]

Mormon Octopus Enslaving Women of Utah small 650px

The shift of octopus propaganda from an emotional metaphor to an intellectual one was probably well underway by the 1920s. The octopus became cliché, nature reporting became more accurate and less-histrionic, and popular fiction like ?The Call of Cthulhu? (1928, image below, left) and ?The Octopus Cycle? (1928, image below, right) pushed the octopus away from a degenerate terror toward entertainment and pulp. [18] I?ve put further conjecture and hand-waving in the footnote. [19]

JI Cthulhu u OctopusCycle composite
DevilFish 1984 poster LeMonstreDeLOceanRouge wrongsideoftheheart 250pxTentacled beasts continue, of course, to feature in present-day horror genres, but the octopus by itself has lost the power to terrify. When it appears, it is usually combined with something else, like a shark (see image at right). [20]


With devil-fish horror movies I conclude my discussion of the Mormon Octopus. Public perceptions of both the octopus and the Mormons changed in the latter nineteenth century. Tentacled animals were in the news in the late 1800s and played big parts in popular entertainment, which made the octopus metaphor convenient. Mormonism also changed in relation to American society. As the institutional church and Mormons in general established themselves politically, financially, and religiously, part of the opposition shifted focus from moral horror at its polygamy to concern for what it could actually do with its (alleged) power. Concern over monopolies and plutocracies matched up with concern for the centrally-organized church, which concern lent itself to octopus imagery and, hence, the Mormon octopus.


[1] Examples of present-day usage, non-Mormon: ?Gays are an octopus of infection stretching across the world.? Attributed to Paul Cameron in pamphlet, ?What Homosexuals Do (It’s More Than Merely Disgusting),? as quoted in Ward Harkavy, ?Slay it with a Smile,? Denver Westword News, Denver, CO, 1996 Oct 03. ?Most of the occupiers marched carrying banners and homemade signs. A couple of dozen teamed up to carry a human float called ?Occupy Octopus?—a head and eight tentacles made of plastic bags attached to a frame.? Hailey Branson-Potts, ?Rose Parade 2012: Cheers, jeers greet ?Occupy Octopus? human float,? Los Angeles Times (Local, LA Now), 2012 Jan 02.

Examples of present-day usage, Mormon: ?On first glance, the lengthy list of Mormon entities might appear to be overkill from aggressive lawyers. In fact, it was an attempt at capturing as many tentacles of the octopus that forms the Mormon church?s business empire as possible.? Lisa Davis, The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011), 70. ?But Father says he has as good a right to his opinion as anyone else. As he sees it, the Church is a giant octopus, the dignitaries its tentacles reaching out in every direction for food with which to fatten itself. [¶] And right in the middle sits Brigham Young, digesting all he wants before passing on the leftovers. He says that half the men here in the settlement disagree, at least in part; [sic] with Mormon teachings, but through fear not one opens his mouth.? Luella Pool Saxby, But One Husband: The Truth about Mormon History by a Woman Who Lived It (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2013), Ch 20.

[2] WP Monson, ?Character of Anti-Mormon Propaganda; Letters in Answer from Governors of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and New Mexico,? Liahona: The Elders? Journal 13:42 (Independence, MO, 1916 Apr 11): 658-660, copy at Harold B Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Rachel Irwin, ?Mormonism,? Home Mission Monthly 13 no 12 (1899 Oct): 269 (266-9). CM Hauser, ?The Views of an Ex-Confederate,? Elders? Journal 1:8 (Atlanta, 1904 Mar): 97 (96-98).

[3] As Robert MacDougall notes (writing about early literature on phone companies): ?We can remember the monsters of the Gilded Age, but not the horror they once evoked. The octopus, the spider, the hydra?historians find these images of corporations and the technological networks they built strewn across the culture of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States like the bones of dinosaurs long extinct.? MacDougall, Robert. ?The Wire Devils: Pulp Thrillers, the Telephone, and Action at a Distance in the Wiring of a Nation.?American Quarterly 58:3 (?Rewiring the ?Nation?: The Place of Technology in American Studies,? 2006 Sep): 715-41; excerpt at Project Muse; ht: Vulgar Army, ?The Wire Devils by MacDougall.?

[4] ?Magnetic? referred to ?animal magnetism,? which was a connection between individuals posited by mesmerists.

??gigantic Mormon octopus, with its body Utah, and stretching forth its poisonous tentacles, until it is laying hold upon six surrounding and contiguous states.? No author listed, Boston Globe, 1898 Dec 17, as quoted and cited in Jonathan H Moyer, ?Dancing With the Devil: the Making of the Republican/Mormon Pact,? Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah, 2009 Aug, p 190. ?English girls never return to tell how they have fared in the bosom of Mormonism, and one of my saddest possessions is a drawer full of sworn affidavits from heart-broken parents and despairing husbands whose womenfolk have gone forth, drawn by the magnetic seduction and hypnotic power of the Mormon octopus.? Winifred Graham, as quoted in Forbes W Fairbairn (Universal Service Staff Correspondent, London, 1919 Jun 14), ?Mormonism Lures Girls Who Learn of Slavery after Leaving Homes,? The Pittsburg Press, Pittsburg, PA, 1919 Jun 15 Sun morning, ?Additional Classified Section,? p 1.

[5] No author listed, ?Mormon Shrine in Vermont,? Interstate Journal 10 (June 1905), as quoted in Keith A. Erekson, ?The Joseph Smith Memorial Monument and Royalton?s ?Mormon Affair?: Religion, Community, Memory, and Politics in Progressive Vermont,? Vermont History 73 (2005 Summer/Fall): 126 (117?151). Also: Mormonism ?is a great octopus, and we call upon every Christian of our land to help slay the monster.? No author listed, ?The Church Needs a New Vision,? Home Mission Monthly 26:12 (1912 Oct): 302 (301-302).

EdgarFolk cover TheMormonMonster 1900 perspective view confettibooks [6] Folk?s book was cited in Part 2. The book had what look like tentacles along the spine (image courtesy of confettibooks). Folk described Mormonism as ?an immense octopus reaching out its slimy tentacles and seeking to seize hold upon our religious, social and political institutions, an ugly and misshapen monster.? Edgar E Folk, The Mormon Monster: or, The Story of Mormonism (Chicago: Fleming H Revell Co, 1900), 11.

[7] I say the speech was influential because it was reported elsewhere, because pro-Mormon writers responded to it, and because the text of the talk that I reproduce here is introduced: ?So many inquiries have been made regarding ?Dr. Thompson?s Los Angeles address on Mormonism? that we give our readers that part of the Secretary?s address at the General Assembly last Spring.? Charles L Thompson, excerpt of a speech in Los Angeles, 1903 May, as reported by [No author listed], ?The Octopus,? The Assembly Herald 9:4 (Philadelphia, 1903 Oct): 459-460.

An example of the coverage: No author listed (Special to the Herald, Los Angeles, 1903 May 26), ?Clammy and Glue-Like, Smooth and Slippery,? The Salt Lake Herald, Salt Lake City, UT, 1903 May 27, last edition, p 1. Access provided by Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress. An example of the pro-Mormon response: Brigham H Roberts, ?How?,? address delivered at the Young Ladies? Mutual Improvement Association Annual Conference, 1903 May 31, in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle, as reported in Improvement Era 6:9 (Salt Lake City, 1903 July): 658-672; reprinted in Brigham H Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints, vol 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 126-128. The speech that prompted Roberts?s reply is noted, without explicit reference to the octopus metaphor (though it does cite the ?It has one vulnerable point? line), in the Deseret News, as reprinted in ?That ?Crushing? Argument,? The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 65:25 (1903 Jun 18 Thu): 396.

[8] Charles L Thompson, excerpt of a speech in Los Angeles, 1903 May, as reported by [No author listed], ?The Octopus,? The Assembly Herald 9:4 (Philadelphia, 1903 Oct): 459-460. The excerpt continues: ?[p 460] Its doctrines are full of evil. Its machinery for propagating them is well nigh perfect. Professor Ely has recently said: ?Its organization is the most nearly perfect piece of social mechanism with which I have ever in anyway come into contact, excepting alone the German army.? [¶] ?It moves with the impact of trained regulars, and with the zeal of fiery fanatics. It moves to western coasts, to eastern capitals. Its hypocrisies blindfold a nation while it chases, paralyzes and strangles. With what easy indifference we regard its advance! [¶] ?If we were told there were two thousand men going through the country, every one of them infected with smallpox, the nation would rise in a panic, would flee or would grapple the danger. But to be told there are two thousand men abroad, trying with deftest art to infect a nation with a religious system that is blasphemous and with practices that are subversive of social morality and destructive of the national conscience, is to awaken a mild protest here and there—and again here and there to call forth an apology. ?Are not Mormons industrious? Look at their towns, their schools, their irrigating ditches, their commercial prosperity!? [¶] ?With such superficial views we go to sleep while the system spreads and its apostles hasten toward their avowed goal—the control of western States and Territories—the ultimate holding of the national balance in power! [¶] ?And are the churches alive to the situation—they who presumably stand on high ground and are able to see and measure the dangers to which men on merely commercial planes may be blind! Confess the fact. Our churches in Utah are a brave protest and little more. Our schools are a gracious invitation—a little more. While Mormons send missionaries to us far faster than we send missionaries to them! Beware the Octopus! [¶] ?There is one moment in which to seize it, says Victor Hugo. It is when it thrusts forth its head. It has done it. Its high priest claims a Senator?s chair in Washington. Now is the time to strike. Perhaps to miss it now is to be lost!?

BH Roberts responded at length (700+ words): ?? The reverend gentleman then concludes that the Mormon octopus has thrust forth its head. ?Its high priest,? said he, ?claims a senator?s chair in Washington. Now is the time to strike. Perhaps to miss it now, is to be lost.? ? If my voice could reach the reverend gentleman, I would inform him that there is not even the charm of novelty in what he recommended. We [127] have heard something like this before. ? In fact it has all the monotony of the refrain of some old familiar song. Much was said about an octopus, too, and about it thrusting forth its head, at the time to which I refer, 1898. Then its ?High Priest,? when a certain gentleman by the name of Roberts was elected to Congress form the State of Utah. ? What effect did that illegal act of Congress have on Mormonism? About as much effect as a mosquito alighting on the moon would have on that sphere. The ?Mormon? octopus survived that awful blow! And even the gentleman who was denied his seat, I am informed, survived also; and I have not heard that his shadow has grown less because of that experience. And should the agitation against Senator Reed Smoot result in his expulsion from the Senate of the United States—a thing which is as unlikely as it is unjust—I verily believe that Mormonism would survive even that blow. The trouble with [128] our reverend friends is, that they persist in mistaking always the head of the octopus, and hence never strike it. ? [three pages, 131] ? and they flattered themselves that, if this master spirit of Mormonism, Joseph Smith could only be crushed, then there would be an end to Mormonism; for it was supposed that this man was then the head of the ?octopus?—its vulnerable point. This must be struck, to miss it would be to lose! So they struck; cruelly, murderously struck. But what of the effect on Mormonism? Did the ?octopus? die? No. ? [1 page, 132] ? It proved to be so in this case; and after the first moment of confusion was passed, those in whose hearts the spirit of hatred had been fostered, discovered that they had, as some of them said, ?scotched, not killed,? the ?octopus.? ? From a distance, however, the sectarian harpies? croaked in chorus, ?only wait till the head of this ?octopus,? Brigham Young, dies, and then Mormonism will succumb by reason of disintegrating forces, for it cannot be that the system will produce another genius such as this wonderful man.?? Brigham H Roberts, address delivered at the Young Ladies? Mutual Improvement Association Annual Conference, 1903 May 31, in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle, as printed in Brigham H Roberts, ?How?? Defense of the Faith and the Saints, vol 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 126-128, 131, 132.

[9] Victor Hugo, Les Travailleurs de la Mer [French] (Bruxelles: Verboeckhoven et Cie, 1866); Toilers of the Sea [English] (London: Sampson Low, 1866). I was not able to identify the translation Thompson used. Below I add ellipses and give page numbers from 1866 versions in English (New York: Harper and Brothers) and French.

?[123a] Its folds strangle. Its contact paralyzes. ?[~9 words]? It is disease embodied in monstrosity. It is not to be torn away. It adheres closely to its prey. How? By a vacuum. ? [~500 words; p 123b] ? The octopus on the chase?[~4 words]? hides. It contracts, condenses itself, reduces itself to the simplest possible expression. It confounds itself with the shadow. It looks like a ripple of the waves. It resembles everything except something living. The octopus is a hypocrite. When one pays no heed to it suddenly it opens—a glutinous mass possessed of a will. What more frightful! Glue filled with hatred! ? [~2,000 words; start new chapter; p 125b] ? The octopus is vulnerable only in the head. ? [~40 words; 126a] ? There is a certain moment in which to seize it. ?[~10 words] ?It is the instant when it thrusts forward its head. ?[~4 words] ?He who misses at that juncture is lost.?

?[p 482] Ses noeuds garrottent; son contact paralyse. [¶] ? C?est de la maladie arrangée en monstruosité. [¶] Elle est inarrachable. Elle adhère étroitement à sa proie. Comment ? Par le vide. ? [p 484] La pieuvre en chasse?, se dérobe; elle se rapetisse, elle se condense; elle se réduit à la plus simple expression. Elle se confond avec la pénombre. [¶] Elle a l?air d?un pli de la vague. Elle ressemble à tout, excepté à quelque chose de vivant. [¶] La pieuvre, c?est l?hypocrite. On n?y fait pas attention; brusquement, elle s?ouvre. [¶] Une viscosité qui a une volonté, quoi de plus effroyable! De la glu pétrie de haine. ? [p 493] Le poulpe, en effet, n?est vulnérable qu?à la tête. ?il y a un moment qu?il faut choisir; ?c?est l?instant où la pieuvre avance la tête?. Qui manque ce joint est perdu.?

[10] ?This terrible scene of the 20th of April none of us can ever forget. I have written it under the influence of violent emotion. Since then I have revised the recital; I have read it to Conseil and to the Canadian. They found it exact as to facts but insufficient as to effect. To paint such pictures, one must have the pen of the most illustrious of our poets, the author of ?The Toilers of the Deep.?? Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas? (Boston: George M Smith & Co, 1873), 276 (Part 2, Ch 19: ?The Gulf Stream?); in French (Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers, Paris: Bibliothèque, d?Éducation et de Récréation, 1871), 397.

From the frequency and ease with which I found newspaper and magazine references to Hugo?s octopus, I think it was well and broadly known. In the introduction (xv) to his The Octopus: Or, The ?Devil-fish? of Fiction and of Fact (London: Chapman and Hall, 1875), Henry Lee wrote: ??public attention was never particularly attracted to it until, within the last few years, Victor Hugo brought it again into notice by the publication of his ?Les Travailleurs de la Mer.? Since then it has been constantly exhibited in aquaria, and ?Octopus? has become a household word.? Hugo, of course, wasn?t the first to put tentacled beasts in the public eye; Tennyson, Melville, de Montfort, and others wrote, famously, about cephalopods in the nineteenth century.

For more detailed accounts of tentacled horrors and Hugo?s impact, see: Michelle Farran, ?Victor Hugo,? posted at blog Vulgar Army, 2010 Feb 14; Christian Moncelet, ?Les ?Viles? Tentaculaires: Réquisitions Satiriques de la Pieuvre? Ridiculosa 10 (?Les Animaux pour le dire,? 2003): 43-60 (ht: Vulgar Army); China Miéville, ?M. R. James and the Quantum Vampire: Weird; Hauntological: Versus and/or and and/or or?,? Collapse 4 (2008): 85-108; Karl Beech, ?From Devil-Fish to Demi-God: the Giant Squid in Romance and Fantasy of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century,? posted at blog Invisible Kingdoms, 2012 Jan 20.

[11] Hugo made the drawing and pasted it into his own copy of Toilers according to Will Schofield, citing Shadows of a Hand: The Drawings of Victor Hugo (Florian Rodari, Marie-Laure Prevost, Luc Sante, and Pierre Georgel, (New York: The Drawing Center / Merrell Holberton, 1998)), ?The Octopus Bearing the Initials V. H.,? posted at blog 50 Watts, 2008 Oct. The image above is from Wikimedia. Note that the tentacles at center top form a ?V? and an ?H.?

[12] Continuing: ?According to Lucifer, however, there has been discovered in Nicaragua a plant which is as horrible as the devil fish. This is a vine called by the natives ?The Devil?s Snare,? which seems literally to drain the blood of any living thing which comes within its death-dealing touch.? No author listed, ?The Vampire Vine,? The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 53:45 (1891 Nov 09): 710 (710-711).

[13] For examples: William Wyatt Gill, Life in the Southern Isles; or, Scenes and Incidents in the South Pacific and New Guinea (London: Religious Tract Society, 1876) has seven pages of discussion of the octopus, including accounts of it killing adult hunters and of climbing trees (285); more discussion here. No author listed, ?Devil-Fish,? in George Ripley and Charles A Dana, eds, The New American Cyclopaedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, Volume 6 (New York: D Appleton and Co, 1867), 427-429. William Emderson Damon, ?The Devil-Fish and its Relatives,? reprinted from Ocean Wonders: A Companion for the Seaside (New York: D Appleton & Co, 1879), Popular Science Monthly (1879 Jan): 345-355. For discussion, see Lyle Zapato, ?How to Defend against a Charging Octopus,? blog ZPi, 2009 Oct 03. Thomas O?Connor, ?Capture of an enormous Cuttle-fish off Boffin Island, on the Coast of Connemara,? The Zoologist: A Popular Miscellany of Natural History 10 (2nd series; London, 1875 Jun): 4502-4503.

?A Japan paper relates that while a boy fourteen years old was fishing recently, a huge cuttle-fish thrust two of its tentacles out of the water and grasped the boy?s right arm. The boy shouted for assistance, as the fish was dragging him in, and some men who were near released the lad by cutting the tentacles. When the boy reached home his arm was cold and motionless, and notwithstanding medical aid, he died in five days.? No author listed, The Contributor 5:5 (1884 Feb): 172. ?An Indian woman, bathing in the sound near Victoria, Vancouver?s Island, was seized by an octopus, or devil fish, and carried to the bottom, where she was found next day.? No author listed, ?Minor Items,? The Cultivator and Country Gentleman, Luther H Tucker and Gilbert M Tucker, eds, Albany, NY, 1877 Oct 04, p 641.

[14] I presume it goes without saying that the list is self-contradictory and almost certainly incomplete. I did not include a ?sexual? impression for nineteenth-century Euro-Americans even though Japanese readers in the nineteenth century or present-day internet users would likely include a sexual dimension in a list of possible octopus associations.

The following are (approximately random) examples of octopus imagery in non-Mormon, (mostly) non-trust contexts that illustrate some of the attributes. ?This Robert J Jordan, M.D., evidently belongs to that family of vile quacks who batten on the fears of the unwary and inexperienced—and who, when once their miserable dupes have adventured themselves within the den, drain them as to mind and body, as to means and energy, by their extortionate threats, with the relentless tenacity of a devil-fish.? No author listed, ?Quicksands and Quack-Mires,? The Tomahawk: A Saturday Journal of Satire 2:53 (London, 1868 May 09): 192. [Writing about coastal degradation]: ?Already its [the ocean?s] octopus arms have seized the lowland in horrid embrace, and day by day, month by month, year by year, generation by generation, the grasp is tightening, the monster creeping further and further inland.? No author listed, ?Encroachment of the Sea on the North American Coast,? attributed to New York Forum, as reprinted in The Deseret Weekly, Salt Lake City, 1890 Aug 23 Sat, p 295 (294-295). ?We have Jay Gould, who gobbled up a railroad and telegraph line, and the telegraph line is like a devil fish, gobbling up everything within [884] its reach, and outraging the people by its charges.? George Ainslie, as quoted in Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention of Idaho, 1889, vol 1, IW Hart, ed, (Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1912), 883.

[15] Enoch?s Advocate, 1874 May 11, as reprinted in Jared Farmer, Mormons in the Media, 1830-2012 (self-published e-book, 2012), 27.

The face is Brigham Young?s. The tentacles are labeled (starting at the bottom / the right side of Brigham Young?s chest and moving clockwise): Blind Obedience, City [illegible], Endowments, Blood Atonement, Polygamy, Banking Agency, Crowns & Principalities, Enoch, Patriarchal Blessings, Consecration, Tithing, Cooperation, and Legislature. On his abdomen are what appears to be two money bags, labeled ?$1000s? (or ?$10000?), two buildings, one of which (on the viewer’s left) appears to be the Lion House, and the words: “Bonds,” “Farms,” and “Lands.”

?The Cephalopod of the Great Basin? is one of the earliest octopus(-like) polemical metaphors I have encountered, Mormon or non-Mormon. I have not made an exhaustive study of non-Mormon octopus images or metaphors, but my impression is that they were relatively rare before the 1870s. Michelle Farran reports that the earliest octopus-as-an-industry image in her collection came from 1873. Her Vulgar Army lists only one image from before the 1870s.

[16] On ?menacing hair? see Jared Farmer, Mormons in the Media, 1830-2012, revised edition (self-published e-book, 2012), 145-148. I acknowledge a possibility that the “Legislature” tentacle is intended to suggest a phallus, but such a usage goes so strongly against my understanding of nineteenth-century cartooning mores that I remain very, very skeptical.

[17] Ovando James Hollister, ?The Mormon Octopus Enslaving the Women of Utah,? in John Hanson Beadle, Polygamy: Or, The Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism, 2nd edition (Philadelphia, 1904 [1st edition, 1882]), xxxi; ht: Jared Farmer, Mormons in the Media, 1830-2012 (self-published e-book, 2012), 78. Note that the image was not in the first edition; though octopus images were common by 1882, they became more common and more clearly associated with Mormonism later, so it?s possible Beadle/Hollister were jumping on a bandwagon.

[18] HP Lovecraft, ?The Call of Cthulhu,? Weird Tales 11.2 (1928 Feb):159-178, 287. Irvin Lester and Fletcher Pratt, ?The Octopus Cycle,? Amazing Stories 3.2 (1928 May): 110-119, 157. Pulp-fiction octopuses became prolific by the 1940s (and, just for fun, note that one of the French words for octopus is poulpe, so we have pulp poulpes). For examples of octopus-themed pulp fiction (and the cover image for ?The Octopus Cycle?) see, Francesca Myman?s blog Poulpe Pulps: A Silly Website. The Cthulhu image is a sketch of an (in-universe) idol made by a worshiper of Cthulhu; sketch by HP Lovecraft, 1934 May 11; image from Cyclic Tone, ?The Darkest Place,? 2012 Jun 19.

Cosmpolitan?s JF-Smith-topus (1911, cited in Post 2) was on the declining edge of Mormon octopuses. Whitney?s ?divine tentacles? (1929, Post 2) serve, I think, as evidence that the octopus?s hold on the popular imagination had already waned.

[19] We react to octopuses differently because—among other, you know, stuff—we experience (1) media and (2) monsters differently and (3) we know more about octopuses. Octo-prop is a subset of monsters in the media, which is a subset of media in general. It?s not just that our relationship to octopuses has changed but that the metaphor menagerie is much larger. Some thoughts on things that have changed in the social milieu of octo-prop:

  1. Familiarity: so many groups, so often, have been called octopuses that it is cliché.
  2. Dynamic Range: if Nazis and Stalin-purge Soviets were octopuses, most any other octopus seems weak.
  3. Monster familiarity: the idea of a ?monster? itself has been diluted; all kinds of people and groups get called ?monsters? for all kinds of behavior. If everything?s a monster, no one is.
  4. Dilution: we see hundreds of images per day; the octopus is just another meme.
  5. Horror Media: we?ve seen too many movie monsters; a ?mere? octopus does not scare us like it would have in the nineteenth century. This might not be desensitization but displacement; polemical (including anti-Mormon) scare lit in the nineteenth century partially filled the social role played by horror media today. We might be susceptible to a high-production-values, CGI, killer octopus in a horror movie, but (1) it would have to be very good, otherwise it?s a B-movie schlock joke, (2) we go to movies for entertainment, (3) we?ve already seen Jaws, so it?s going to have to top that.
  6. Nature Documentaries: we?ve seen too many nature documentaries for underwater creatures to terrify to the same extent as before; they?ve lost part of the un-known and weird. Furthermore, we?ve seen too many octopus documentaries and maybe even the World Octopus Wrestling Championships in the 1960s. We think of octopuses as cute and/or weird and/or gross but not terrifying. We?ve seen the ink cloud and don?t think it blinds everything for meters around; we know that most octopuses are not very big and tend to not attack humans.
  7. Sharks: there aren?t very many (any?) octopus attacks in the news. Poor sharks.
  8. Along with our documentaries, we?ve learned to anthropomorphize less (though we still do it) and to not extrapolate moral qualities from physical characteristics; that is, we might think an octopus is icky or weird or gross or what-have-you, but we are unlikely to think of it as evil.

[20] Promotional poster (in French) for the 1984 Italian film, Shark: Rosso nell?oceano, released in English as Devil Fish.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Brilliant, once again. My only critique of this series, Edje, is that it belongs in a journal as much as on a blog.

    Comment by Ben P — July 14, 2013 @ 6:46 am

  2. Edje, this has been a fascinating series of posts. I second Ben’s regret that this isn’t in a journal (yet)!

    Comment by J Stuart — July 14, 2013 @ 9:29 am

  3. I was going to make a comment about the impressive scene from the movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea where the giant squid attacks the submarine, but Wikipedia notes that Verne called it a poulpe or octopus, although it’s generally translated as a giant squid.

    As you note in footnote 19 (5-6), octopuses just don’t strike fear into our hearts like they might have into the hearts of Verne’s or Hugo’s readers.

    This has been a great series!

    Comment by Amy T — July 14, 2013 @ 10:10 am

  4. This has been a fun series. Thanks Edje!

    Comment by David G. — July 14, 2013 @ 11:35 am

  5. A stunning finish to an amazing series. Thanks, Edje!

    Comment by Nate R. — July 14, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

  6. Thanks, Ben, J Stuart, Amy, David, and Nate.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 14, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

  7. Fantastic conclusion to the series, Edje. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — July 14, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

  8. Extraordinary.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 14, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

  9. I had no idea there was so much to be said about Mormons and octopi. This was fantastic.

    Also, before you turn your attention to something besides the octopus, I’d like to leave you with this fun fact (I found it on Pinterest, where else).


    Comment by Saskia — July 15, 2013 @ 7:51 am

  10. Thanks, Christopher, J Stapley, and Saskia.

    That’s a fun link, Saskia.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 15, 2013 @ 8:56 am

  11. […] of the Mormon ?octopus? or ?devil fish,? which I wrote about earlier this summer (1, 2, 3, 4). In this connection—and while we?re on the subject of (pseudo-)cryptids by the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Beast of Almería and Mormon Eels, Mermaids, and Leviathans — August 25, 2013 @ 9:35 am


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