Today in the New York Times it was reported that an octopus named Inky, who had been a resident of the National Aquarium of New Zealand since 2014, had disappeared from his tank -- apparently slipping "through a small gap" found at the top of the tank -- and then made his way across the floor to a drainpipe which led down 164 feet of pipe into Hawke's Bay . . . and freedom.
Above is a video in which aquarium manager Rob Yarrell describes the escape and notes wistfully, "Didn't even leave us a note."
The above Times article also quotes Alix Harvey of the Marine Biological Association of England, who tells of an octopus in residence there who would regularly leave his own tank and make his way to other tanks to devour the fish kept there, before heading back into his own tank before morning.
She says that "Octopuses are fantastic escape artists [. . .] They have a complex brain, have excellent eyesight, and research suggests they have an ability to learn and form mental maps." Inky's escape certainly seems to confirm the ability to "form mental maps" and to put together a rather remarkable plot to sneak out when no one was looking.
In fact, the same article reports that the staff did not even notice Inky's escape until much later -- how much later is not exactly clear but the story says that "The escape happened several months ago, but only recently came to light," which seems extremely unusual. It is especially unusual because the stories about Inky's escape also state that the staff was able to determine what happened by looking at the "octopus tracks" which "suggest he then scampered eight feet across the floor" to the drainpipe in question.
If the escape was not noticed for quite some time after Inky made his move, it would suggest that the tracks may have already gone cold by the time investigators arrived on the scene. Perhaps they called in Ace Ventura to recreate Inky's exploits (we can only imagine what that might have entailed).
In fact, the intelligence and resourcefulness of the octopus are legendary -- so much so that one of the most ancient epics of the human race pointedly compares its central figure, whose resourcefulness is also legendary, to an octopus as he himself is making good his narrow escape from captivity: the great Odysseus.
In Book 5 of the Odyssey, as the long-suffering Odysseus is making his way by raft across the open ocean from the isle of the goddess Calypso, he is spotted by the angry Poseidon, who stirs up a tremendous storm, blasts the raft to pieces, and sent winds and waves so powerful that they threaten to end the hero's homecoming right there. The vital assistance Odysseus receives from the divine Leucothea at that critical juncture is discussed in this previous post.
Even with the protection offered by Leucothea and the inspiration provided by Athena, making landfall on the rocky shores of the first coastline he encounters -- on the morning of the third day, after paddling for two days and nights through the heaving swells -- is a perilous undertaking, amidst what the poem describes as
roaring breakers crashing down on an ironbound coast,
exploding in fury --
the whole sea shrouded --
sheets of spray --
no harbors to hold ships, no roadstead where they'd ride,
nothing but jutting headlands, riptooth reefs, cliffs.
Odyssey, Book 5: 445 - 448, from the superlative translation by Robert Fagles.
It is just as he is negotiating this life-threatening landfall that the ancient poem compares Odysseus to the octopus, in an inspired metaphor:
Just as that fear went churning through his mind
a tremendous roller swept him toward the rocky coast
where he'd have been flayed alive, his bones crushed
if the bright-eyed goddess Pallas had not inspired him now.
He lunged for a reef, he seized it with both hands and clung
for dear life, groaning until the giant wave surged past
and so he escaped its force, but the breaker's backwash
charged into him full fury and hurled him out to sea.
Like pebbles stuck in the suckers of some octopus
dragged from its lair -- so strips of skin torn
from his clawing hands stuck to the rock face.
A heavy sea covered him over, then and there
unlucky Odysseus would have met his death --
against the will of Fate --
but the bright-eyed one inspired him yet again. Odyssey, Book 5: 468 - 482.
When I was teaching the Odyssey in the department of literature at West Point (now very long ago), I was so struck by the aptness of the comparison of the wily Odysseus to the octopus that I made a point of adorning most of my lesson slides with octopus images (and not much else -- I believe in engaging in discussion with my students when exploring a work of literature, and not showing a bunch of words on slides) -- here are a few representative samples:
The insights into the character of Odysseus that can flow from the consideration of the incredible octopus to which he is briefly compared in Book 5 are many and deep.
The octopus, as we have already seen from the discussion of the accomplishments of Inky above, is a master of escape -- so too is the central figure of the Odyssey. Odysseus, in fact, is famously described in the opening lines of the epic as "the man of twists and turns" (Book 1, line 1). Such, at least, is the inspired translation which Professor Fagles gives to that opening descriptor of Odysseus: the line itself in the ancient Greek is
andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polutropos his mala polla,
which I believe translated literally and word-for-word is something like
"the man describe-relate, O Muse, much-turned/much-turning this-one very-much"
and which previous translators have rendered
"The man, O Muse, inform -- that many a way
Wound with his wisdom . . . " Chapman, 1616.
"Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile . . . " Cowper, 1791.
"Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer . . . " Fitzgerald, 1961.
"Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys
after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel." Lattimore, 1965.
Odysseus is a man "of twists and turns," of "many ways," who is "skilled in all ways of contending" -- one whose "ways of contending" more often involve using his inspired resourcefulness rather than using brute force, one who more than once must use his wits to escape physical pens even more daunting than the aquarium from which Inky made his bold dash to freedom, and one who frequently must change his shape and his persona and put on disguises in order to negotiate the many twists and turns he encounters on his long and arduous voyage through the unforgiving seas of this life.
Below are a few videos of octopi in various situations demonstrating absolutely incredible feats of resourcefulness, deception, and disguise -- each of which makes the ancient poem's metaphorical comparison of Odysseus to an octopus appear all the more appropriate:
As you can probably tell by now, I love the Odyssey (and have since I was quite young in age -- just a boy, in fact, and long before the excellent Robert Fagles translation was even available).
In Star Myths of the World and how to interpret them, Volume Two, I devote quite a bit of space to an exploration of this wonderful epic poem, and to the insights that can arise when we approach the Odyssey with some understanding of the language of celestial metaphor in which it -- along with the other myths and sacred stories given to humanity -- is undoubtedly speaking.
According to my analysis, it is very clear that the Odyssey is not so much intended to describe to us the adventures of the incredibly wily and resourceful "man of twists and turns," the great-hearted hero Odysseus, as it is to demonstrate to us the journey undertaken by each and every man and woman making his or her way through the furious breakers and jutting headlands and riptooth reefs of this incarnate life -- and the importance of recognizing and listening to the guidance available from the Invisible Realm, the realm of the gods: guidance which Odysseus shows himself to be extraordinarily sensitive and attuned.
We can all be grateful to Inky, for demonstrating his own Odyssean resourcefulness and providing such a stunning demonstration of the genius of the ancient poem's comparison of Odysseus to the wily, deceptive, twisting-and-turning octopus.
His escape should also demonstrate that octopi just want to be free.
If we are upset about the great anguish and distress inflicted upon the mighty orcas in captivity (and we very much should be, as discussed in this previous post), then we should also give mind to the plight of the intelligent and complex octopi held in aquariums around the world, and then we should do the right thing and provide them all with access to small gaps in their tanks, and drainpipes that run out to the ocean.