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Fukurokuju Disguised as Octopus (Kuniyoshi Utagawa,  ca. early 19th century Woodblock Print)

Fukurokuju Disguised as Octopus (Kuniyoshi Utagawa, ca. early 19th century Woodblock Print)

In Japan, the seven propitious gods are deities of luck, happiness, wealth and all good things. They are often depicted traveling on their treasure ship, the Takarabune (which is itself a major cultural symbol in Japan) which will sometimes suddenly moor at a town or province bringing overnight success and riches. Not only do these seven generous deities dispense wealth from their ship, they sometimes travel alone to find mortals to shower with gifts and boons.  In the above woodblock print, Fukurokuju, one of the seven propitious gods has disguised himself as an octopus, much to the raucous delight of two bystanders. The disguise is far from complete (!) which adds greatly to the comic effect.  Fukurokuju was a syncretized Japanese version of the Chinese god of the south polar star.  He was particularly affiliated with longevity and deep wisdom–a fact which makes his ludicrous antics all the more uproarious.  There is an additional pun/joke within the composition: in Japanese, people who are comically and completely bald are known as tako-nyudo (octopus monster).

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Wake up, soccer fans! Today I will celebrate the 2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Championship which is currently being played in Brazil. Well actually I was going to write about this year’s world cup tournament, but nothing interesting has happened so far except for that Uruguayan player who repeatedly bites people (and apparently he has already been captured, sedated, and returned to his native habitat without further human injuries).

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Since nothing exciting has happened in this tournament, I will write about the previous World Cup Soccer Championship Tournament which took place in South Africa in 2010. Unfortunately I don’t remember anything that happened on the pitch in South Africa. Clearly I was otherwise preoccupied…plus I am an American and we are famously obdurate in our inability to understand soccer (also we already have several dozen better sports to follow). Only two aspects of those matches stick in my memory: 1) the fearsome buzz of the vuvuzela, AKA “the devil stick”, a horrid musical instrument which first arrived on Earth inside a radioactive comet (probably because humankind failed to win a cosmic moral bet); and 2) Paul the octopus, a magical cephalopod who could predict soccer matches with greater accuracy than any of the world’s human pundits, psychics, and bookies.

The vuvuzela being played by a lesser demon...

The vuvuzela being played by a lesser demon…

I believe that in-depth writing about the vuvuzela is now prohibited by international treaty, and I have nothing comprehensible to say about soccer (which seems to be a sort of agonizingly slow hockey with arcane kabuki-like dramatic conventions), but I would like to take a moment to eulogize Paul, who was not just a remarkable octopus but also a first-rate showman. Like soccer, Paul originated in England. In 2008, he hatched from an egg at the Sea Life Centre in Weymouth, England. Paul soon moved to Oberhausen, Germany, which, Wikipedia informs us, is an anchor point on the European Route of Industrial Heritage. Paul was a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris), a species known for intelligence, lively personality, tool-use, and acute senses. His oracular abilities soon became apparent during the UEFA Euro 2008 tournament. Before each match, Paul’s keepers would offer him two identical seafood treats in bags or boxes which were identical except for national flags of soccer playing nations. Whichever bag Paul chose to eat from first was reckoned to be his choice for match winner.

Paul chooses between Spain and Germany

Paul chooses between Spain and Germany

Paul was a German Octopus and initially he only voiced his opinion concerning German matches. He distinguished himself by correctly choosing the outcome of 4 out of 6 of Germany’s matches. But 2008 was only a lead-up to his remarkable World Cup predictions. During the 2010 World Cup, Paul correctly predicted every match which he was consulted about. This resulted in unprecedented world popularity (and infamy) for the tiny sea creature. Fans of the losing teams threatened Paul’s life, (which ultimately lead the Spanish Prime Minister to offer him state protection). The president of Iran denounced Paul as a symbol of Western Imperial corruption. The German press speculated that 2008 Paul had died and been replaced with a savvier octopus in 2010. PETA demanded that he be released to the wild (which would certainly have spelled the end of the aging tank-raised celebrity mollusk).

Paul chooses the winners of this World Cup from the great hereafter

Paul chooses the winners of this World Cup from the great hereafter

Sadly, Paul passed away on October 10th, 2010 at the age of two and a half (ripe old age for a cephalopod). He was memorialized with a statue and the very funny Google doodle seen above. Paul’s life illustrates that through PR savvy and complete random chance anyone or anything can become an International celebrity (although skeptical marine biologists note that Common Octopuses betray a preference for bright surfaces and horizontal lines—so those national flags may have played a bigger role than thought). Since I failed to blog about him in 2010, I thought I would take this opportunity to eulogize the most famous octopus in the world of sports (which is saying something, considering the role of Al the Octopus in hockey). His tragic passing marks the last time soccer (which is also known as “football”) was enjoyable…although maybe somebody will find a cuttlefish who can correctly calculate penalty kicks or a whelk that can play the Croatian national anthem…

"Happy" the Happy Meal (a fully owned, fully licensed creation of McDonald's)

“Happy” the Happy Meal (a fully owned, fully licensed creation of McDonald’s)

Today Ferrebeekeeper abjectly drops all discussion of space exploration, art, literature, zoology, and history in order to concentrate on the biggest trending topic of the day–a disquieting animated character who takes the form of a weird toothy box. What’s the story here? Well, it turns out that, McDonald’s, the globe-spanning fast-food eatery has introduced a new mascot, “Happy” a happy meal box who wants kids to eat their vegetables and yogurt. The internet is awash in jokes about Happy’s lurid color, ambiguous motivations, and his oh-so-human (and oh-so-large) teeth. Mascots have been a subject of great interest to me ever since the black-and-white TV introduced me to the McDonaldland gang when I was a bright nervous child so I feel like we can do better for Happy (well, better than Gawker’s boilerplate jokes at least) and unpackage some of his history.

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McDonald’s is an American restaurant (actually considering its name & its obsession with cheap beef and potatoes, maybe it’s Irish-American) which began in 1940 in California as a barbecue joint. After the Second World War it changed into a hamburger restaurant and then spread its wings to become the most successful chain restaurant in history. One of the important steps of its evolution into an international corporate hegemon was developing a colorful crew of mascot characters to sell burgers, fries, and, above all, “the McDonald’s brand” to impressionable children (like me!).

The McDonaldland Gang (from a 1973 book cover)

The McDonaldland Gang (from a 1973 book cover)

In the early 1970s, an advertising agency introduced a whole team of mascots collectively known as McDonaldland to the world. The concept was based on the drugged-up fantasy landscape of H.R. Pufnstuf (a surreal puppet show which has cast long delirious shadows over children’s programming ever since it aired). True to the source material, the original cast was a disquieting mélange of weird beings: Mayor McCheese, a corrupt bureaucrat whose head is made of a cheeseburger; Hamburglar, a muttering lunatic thief; and, of course, Ronald McDonald, the dangerous-looking clown prince of the anthropomorphized fast-food landscape.

Grimace

Grimace

Some of the characters were quickly revised. Grimace was originally a villainous purple octopus with a monomaniacal love for milkshakes. Unfortunately early consumer tests determined that children were terrified of the multi-armed abomination. Flummoxed ad-executives were prepared to rework the entire concept, when one perspicacious adman came up with a brainstorm characteristic of the industry. “Let’s just rip his arms off!” he said. So Grimace–whom many people doubtless think of as a mitochondria or a rhizome—is actually an octopus whose arms were amputated by drunken 1970s admen.

"Good-Bye to All That"

“Good-Bye to All That”

The McDonaldland gang hit their heyday in the 1980s, when they were everywhere. Figures were abruptly retired (like poor Captain Cook) or changed, while new ones such as Birdie the breakfast bird made sudden appearances. Yet times change, and contemporary McDonald’s is trying to put McDonaldland behind them. Ronald McDonald has kept his position as a figurehead (much like Mickey Mouse) and the other characters sometimes appear in weathered murals or old playground equipment, but today’s advertising concentrates on pseudo-healthy communities of friends eating together and “lovin’ it”.

mcdonalds im lovin it button

The happy meal, however, continues to attract children with its colorful bag and complimentary toy. It also continues to attract regulators and litigation, so McDonald’s swung into action and created Happy. The animated box started out in the minors—France and Latin America–where he (it?) attained sufficient success to leap to the American market this month.

These forms of Happy never made it out of France: McDonald's does not need two mascot controversies at once

These forms of Happy never made it out of France: McDonald’s does not need two mascot controversies at once

With his loopy eyes, boxy form, and infinite hungry maw, Happy seems like he could almost be a throwback to the McDonaldland era. Yet he is patently a computer animation rather than a human-inhabited puppet. Additionally his putative raison d’être is to convince kids to pursue healthier eating habits. According to McDonald’s own press release:

McDonald’s today introduced “Happy,” a new animated Happy Meal character that brings fun and excitement to kids’ meals while also serving as an ambassador for balanced and wholesome eating. Happy will be introduced nationwide May 23, and will encourage kids to enjoy fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and wholesome beverages such as water or juice.

That certainly sounds admirable, but adults take one look at Happy and shudder. Moreover his true purpose is obvious to us (after all we have spent a lifetime eating under the golden arches): he is obviously meant to sell McDonald’s products to kids. It’s easy to be cynical about him—but I now look back at the strained look on my parents’ faces as they endured the burglars, killer clowns, evil octopi, and pirates of my youth with new understanding. Corporate mascots are friendly monsters who entice children to buy sundry unnecessary goods and services. Kids should get used to brushing them off as soon as possible. It is fine preparation for adult life when the corporate monsters take off their googly eyes and apply their coercion more directly.

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The mighty lion is clearly the king of beasts…or is he?  For your holiday pleasure, here is a gallery of octopuses wearing crowns.  Octopuses have short lives and they do not grow to immense sizes, but they are extremely intelligent.  All of the regal tentacles below put me in mind of the Ordovician, a geological age when mollusks (in the form of giant cephalopods) truly were the kings of the animal world.

A Young Lady with an Octopus wearing a Crown

A Young Lady with an Octopus wearing a Crown

A tattoo of an octopus wearing a crown and bearing a trident

A tattoo of an octopus wearing a crown and bearing a trident

A poster of an octopus wearing a crown by Octopus Wearing Crown by Pop Ink - CSA Images

A poster of an octopus wearing a crown by Octopus Wearing Crown by Pop Ink – CSA Images

An tiny tattoo of an octopus wearing a crown

An tiny tattoo of an octopus wearing a crown (Sidney Collins)

A rhinestone octopus wearing a crown (jewelry pendant)

A rhinestone octopus wearing a crown (jewelry pendant)

An Octopus Crown Indicolite Crystal European Bead (whatever that is)

An Octopus Crown Indicolite Crystal European Bead (whatever that is)

A tattoo of a crowned octopus collecting shells (by Jason Stephan)

A tattoo of a crowned octopus collecting shells (by Jason Stephan)

A sweater necklace

A sweater necklace

Retro hand drawn graphics of an octopus wearing a royal crown (from vector graphics)

Retro hand drawn graphics of an octopus wearing a royal crown (from vector graphics)

Decorative art Mixed Media Digital Illustration of an Octopus with golden crown (by Cocodeparis on Etsy)

Decorative art Mixed Media Digital Illustration of an Octopus with golden crown (by Cocodeparis on Etsy)

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kanaloa-god-of-the-ocean-jim-lee

In Hawaiian mythology the most important deity was the beneficent creator god Kāne, the deity of the sun, the dawn, and the fertile forests where people liked to dwell.  Yet there was also a deity in opposition to Kāne—an evil god of the dark depths of the ocean, and darkness, and the death of all things.  This underworld deity was known as Kanaloa and was sometimes envisioned as a black, poisonous squid or octopus.

kanaloa

The Hawaiian myth of creation involves an art contest of sorts between Kāne and Kanaloa: both deities carved human beings out of basalt but only Kane’s man and woman came to life.  Kanaloa’s people remained dark stone. In anger, Kanaloa seduced the first man’s wife and brought enmity between the sexes.  The dark deity then invented poison and thus caused many fish, plants, and animals to be injurious to the new humans.  Still not satisfied he crafted death so that men and women would have only a short time in the world.

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Because of his mischief, Kanaloa was banished to the depths of the ocean, but he retained his power and godhood.  Sailors and fishermen pray to Kanaloa so as to remain safe when crossing his watery domain.  Likewise he is worshipped as the foremost god of magic.  I wish I had some good stories about Kanaloa doing interesting things while in his octopus form, but sadly stories of the dark god are rare.  Some ethnologists even suggest that his role was altered and stories about the deity were changed so that he would fit more coherently into missionaries’ stories about God and the Devil.

kanaloa2

An Adult Female Blanket Octopus

“Blanket octopus” sounds like an endearing nursery game, but the blanket octopuses are actually pelagic hunters which have adapted to living in the ultra-competitive environment of the open ocean.  There are four species of blanket octopuses (Tremoctopus) which can be found ranging from the surface to medium depths of open tropical and subtropical seas worldwide.  Because they often live far from any land, some of the methods which other octopuses use to escape predators do not work very well for them.  Fortunately Blanket octopuses have adapted in their own unique bag of tricks.

An Adult Female Blanket Octopus

Blanket octopuses are named after the distinctive appearance of adult female octopuses which grow long transparent/translucent webs between their dorsal and dorsolateral arms.  Blanket octopuses use these webs as nets for hunting fish, but they can also unfurl and darken their nets in order to appear much larger than they actually are.  Since blanket octopuses do not produce ink and can not camouflage themselves as rocks, coral, or sand, they rely heavily on their blankets.  As a last resort they can jettison the blankets as a decoy and jet away while the confused predator attacks the highly visible membranes.

Blanket octopuses exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism.  Whereas the female octopus can grow up to 2 meters (6 feet) in length, the male octopus is puny and does not grown longer than a few centimeters (1 to 2 inches).  Males store their sperm in a modified quasi-sentient third right arm, known as a hectocotylus.  During mating this arm detaches itself and crawls into the female’s reproductive vent.  As soon as the hectocotylus is detached the male becomes unnecessary and dies.

Male Blanket Octopus

Tiny males and immature females do not have blankets, but they utilize another trick to protect themselves.  Because they hunt jellyfish and other hydrozoans, the little octopuses are immune to the potent venom of the Portuguese man o’war.  The octopuses tear off stinging tentacles from the man o’war and wield them in their tentacles like little whips to ward off predators.

An amazing illustration of a blanket octopus sheltering in a Portuguese man o’war’s tentacles

A very lovely photograph of an octopus kite by Nigel Bence

Ferrebeekeeper has written about actual flying squids which dart above the water waving their lateral fins to extend their gliding ability.  But real squid are not the only cephalopods that one sees in the skies–especially around springtime.  Two of the classical shapes for kites are squid & octopus shape.  The squid’s finned oblong shape, and the octopus’ round shape are perfect for balance and for catching the wind.  The dangling tentacles act perfectly as multiple tails. This spring has taken a cold gray turn—at least in New York, but while you are inside planning what to do during May, perhaps you should build some octopus and squid kites.  Here is a little gallery of images from different kite festivals and kite makers around the world.

A Commercially available Octopus kite/kit

Like squids and octopuses, none of the kites I had when growing up ever lasted long (well none of the ones I actually flew).  The beautiful range of mollusks suspended on the wind in the sky makes me wonder if I have any time to get out some dowels and crepe paper and build some more kites [sadly you do not have any such time—ed.].  As the soon as the  weather clears up again, I hope you enjoy some kite flying!

Sealife Mosaic from "the House of the Dancing Faun" in Pompeii (ca. 1st century AD)

So much of Roman artwork is lost.  Except in remarkable circumstances, Roman paintings, textiles, and drawings were too fragile to survive the long centuries of neglect.  Almost all are now long gone.  Fortunately the Romans were masterful mosaic artists and mosaics are durable. Many mosaics concerning all sorts of aspects of classical life have lasted through the millennia.  Some of these tile artworks present the loves of gods or the wars of men but quite a few are more humble and show the aftermath of a banquet or fishermen hauling in a day’s catch .  Since Romans ate a huge amount of seafood, it is no surprise that many mosaics showcase mollusks of one sort of another.  Here is a gallery of Roman mosaics featuring octopuses, squids, bivalves, or snails.  I have tried to add as much information as I could but some of the photos I found were poorly labeled

Marine Life Mosaic from House viii in Pompeii demonstrating the vermiculatum technique (ca. 2nd century BC)

Detail of a Roman bath mosaic depicting a murex. (ca. late second to early first century BC)

Floor mosaic from "House of the Faun" Pompeii: Cat with bird, ducks, and sea life.

Ancient Roman Mosaic Prtraying Sealife from the British Museum

Triton with an octopus and squid (Forum Baths, Herculaneum)

Roman Mosaic of an Octopus

Modern mosaic makers were inspired by the Roman example and flamboyant cephalopods are a major theme of contemporary mosaics as well as ancient ones.  Here are some modern octopus and squid mosaics for millionaires’ swimming pools, elementary schools, or even everyday bathrooms.  Enjoy!

Modern copy of a Roman era mosaic from Milreu, Portugal

A Kraken for the bottom of a swimming pool (by Laurel Studios)

Octopus Mosaic for a public school

Contemporary Octopus Mosaic

A squid mosaic in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Octopus Mosaic from Seattle Country Day School

Navigation Mosaic by Mia Tavonatti

Tomorrow evening will feature the first game of the Detroit Red Wings season. This bold team of lovable* misfits will take to the ice against the hockey team from Ottawa–the name isn’t listed but they have some sort of classical footsoldier as a mascot so we’ll call them the Ottawa Hopelites. [maybe you should understand at least something about hockey before writing about it—ed.]

Anyway, even more exciting than the actual game between the Redwings and the Hopelites is the unofficial mascot of the Red Wings.  In a post concerning mollusk mascots from around the world, alert reader Ryon Lancaster commented that we had overlooked the mascot for the Detroit Red Wings, a purple hockey-playing octopus named Al.  Apparently the legend of Al started back in April 15, 1952, when fishmongers Pete and Jerry Cusimano decided to throw an octopus onto the ice at Olympia Stadium.  The eight tentacles of the cephalopod were meant to mystically represent the eight victories required to win the Stanley Cup (the ice hockey championship trophy). Sure enough the magical mollusk brought the team to championship victory and ever since then fans have thrown deceased octopuses onto the ice at their home stadium—especially during playoff matches.  As the Red Wings’ octopus tradition deepened, the purple mascot Al coalesced from fan art and from oral tradition. Al takes his name from a former building operations manager, Al Sobotka, who exhibited great elan whenever he removed octopuses from the ice.  Apparently Sobotka had a special octopus twirling technique which whipped the fans up (albeit at the expense of distributing octopus particles onto the ice and the crowd).

As you might imagine, NHL officials have mixed feelings about this fan tradition. In 2008 hockey officials banned Al Sobotka’s octopus twirling and the duty of removing octopus corpses has fallen to linesmen and icegirls.  The stadium itself added a large octopus prop during the 1995 playoffs.  This huge octopus totem was ceremonially raised to introduce the team.  Later on it was given glowing red eyes (which light up during goals), a number eight hockey jersey, and a broken tooth.  Since it now requires winning 16 games to win the Stanley Cup, there are two Al the octopuses hanging above the ice at playoff time.

Naturally a number of other teams have tried to imitate the seafood throwing craze including San Jose, (where fans threw a shark), Boston (lobster), and Vancouver (Salmon).  The only other team which appears to be establishing a continuing tradition of throwing deceased aquatic creatures on the ice is the Nashville Predators (why does Nashville have a hockey team?): predators fans have been known to throw large catfish onto the ice.  A weary ice attendant, Jessica Hanley is reported to have said “’They are so gross. They’re huge, they’re heavy, they stink and they leave this slimy trail on the ice. But, hey, if it’s good for the team, I guess we can deal with it.”

*actual boldness and lovability may vary

Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn.  These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong:  octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception.  The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species.  Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent).  Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs.  They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey.  However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.

(photo by Aluki from Flickr)

Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration.  The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings.  If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it.  The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things.  Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.

Argh, I said don't touch it

The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane.  This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration.  This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim.  Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe.  If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).

Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers.  The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat).  When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year.  Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.

Under its mother's watchful eye a baby southern blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa) emerges from its egg.

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