The hypocritical octopus

Recently when reading what Victor Hugo had to say about octopuses (none of it good)in Travailleurs de la Mer,  I came across this line: “The octopus is a hypocrite. You don’t even notice it, and suddenly it unfolds itself.” For Hugo the octopus is murderous — it lies disguised  in ambush, and then suddenly it opens up and gets you! (which indeed it often does,  if you’re a fish). Elsewhere, Hugo writes of the sea itself  “The wave is hypocritical: it kills, hides the evidence, plays dumb, and smiles“.

To me, the English word hypocrite does not simply mean “someone who feigns innocence”, which is how Hugo uses it here. To me hypocrisy is the ostentatious affectation of virtue by someone who is unvirtuous, especially when the hypocrite also loudly condemns someone who has committed the same sin that he himself is committing. (more…)

Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 9:37 pm  Comments (2)  

The etymology of hypocrisy

(Many thanks to my friends at

My puzzlement over the hypocritical octopus and the hypocritical ocean wave in Victor Hugo’s Les Travailleurs de la Mer led me to an etymological investigation of the words hypocrite and hypocrisy (hypocrisie) in English,  French, Latin, and Greek (but not Hebrew.) It was actually sort of a wild goose chase, but I put in a lot of time into it and one of the privileges of obscure bloggers is to publish anything they want. This is probably my least interesting post ever, since most people aren’t interested in etymology and the ones who are have better things to read.

The word “hypocrite” and its derivatives trace back to the Greek. Neither the word nor the concept is found in Hebrew. The  word does not appear in the Septuagint, the Jews’ own Greek translation of the Tanakh (the Old Testament), though it does appear in a different Jewish translation of the Tanakh into Greek. When the word is seen in the KJV translation of the Old Testament  it translates, and possibly mistranslates, a word that simply means “godless” or “lawless”. (Whether it’s a translation or a mistranslation depends on the degree to which the Biblical Greek word’s meaning had diverged from its classical Greek meaning).

In classical Greek the word “hypocrite” means someone who is pretending to be or acting as someone else. It can be  negative, as in the case of a fraud, or neutral, as in the case of stage actors and public spokesmen.

The word appears many times in the Greek New Testament, often in the words of Christ.  This is problematic, since Jesus did not speak Greek and there doesn’t seem to be an Aramaic or Hebrew equivalent of the word. In only one case does this word clearly have its classical Greek meaning of “pretending”; in the others (and in the exceptional Jewish translation mentioned above) the Greek word seems to have acquired an additional meaning beyond just feigning and dissimulation, something more like “evil”.

Presumably the Greek word had evolved (perhaps under the influence of Hebrew and Aramaic). Conjecturally, if “hypocrisy” in the sense of “feigning” had come to be used mostly in cases when evil people were feigning goodness, then “evil” might become part of the definition.  Thus, “pretending to be good, but really evil inside” and simply “evil inside”, rather than “feigning”,  might have become the primary meaning of the word. However the restricted “feigning” meaning probably never quite disappeared — Godefroy cites an instance from Old French.

It seems pretty clear that the common European meaning of the word is derived (via the Vulgate) from Biblical and not classical Greek, though some scholarly writers may have occasionally deliberately reverted to the classical meaning. One source claims that the word came to English via Molière’s play Tartuffe, ou le Hypocrite, and while this is not true and is off by many centuries, it’s possible that in English the limited Tartuffian sense became dominant while the broader meaning survived in France. Even so, Hugo’s application of the word “hypocrite” to an octopus pretending to be a rock and to the murderous ocean wave feigning innocence does seem like quite a stretch.  But Hugo, being Hugo, could lay it on as thick as he wanted.



Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Comments (1)  

“Adopt the attitude of the octopus*”


Πολύποδος νόον ϊσχε    Polypi mentem obtine

The Adages of Erasmus, ed. & tr. William Barker, Toronto, 2001, I i 93, pp.41-5.

Cephalopods are like chameleons, but more so. Not only can they match the color of the surface they’re seen against, but in order to blend into the background they can even match complex and rippling patterns of color and texture. For this reason Victor Hugo describes the octopus as a “hypocrite”, since it pretends to be something that it’s not. (Here, an octopus pretends to be a rock). Erasmus, drawing on classical Mediterranean sources, also notes this capacity, but he treats it much more favorably. Whether this difference is Northern vs. Southern, pagan vs. Christian, or post- vs. pre-Reformation I do not know, but it strikes me as something worth looking into. It may merely be that in the Mediterranean cephalopods are just more familiar and ordinary than they are in the North of France.

Erasmus’s treatment of this proverb is fuller and in general more favorable than those given to other similar proverbs dealing with changeability and disguise: the chameleon (III iv 1 pp.273-4 ), the fox (as opposed to the hedgehog: I v 18, pp. 87-9), and Proteus (II ii 74, pp. 167-8). In ascending order of dignity, the chameleon is said to represent a dissembler, or  one who is inconstant and adopts any appearance to suit the time. The fox, with his many tricks, is held to be inferior to the hedgehog with his single very effective trick. The versatility and resourcefulness of the divine shapeshifter Proteus (twisting and turning…. hard to pin down…. a cunning fellow and jack of all trades) are treated with a degree of respect, though he hardly seems like someone to rely on. In all of these cases, dissembling and transformation are regarded as defensive tricks primarily useful for someone trying to escape enemies or to keep from being brought under control or called to account.

In polypi mentem obtine , however, octopodal changeability, disguise, opportunism and (as Hugo would say) “hypocrisy” are treated favorably:

The proverb is taken from Theognis, whose couplet about the polyp [octopus] exists today:

Adopt the attitude of the many-colored polyp;

Moving toward a rock, it straightway takes its hue.

This advises us to suit ourselves to every contingency of life, acting the part of Proteus and changing ourselves into any form as the situation demands….On the contrary there is a sensible attitude which makes men comply on occasion with a different mode of conduct, to avoid being disliked or being able to be of use, or else for the sake of rescuing themselves or their households from great dangers. (more…)

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 2:08 pm  Comments (3)  

Krakens, Basilisks, Clam-monsters

In his book Mirages on the Sea of Time (which I plan to return to) Edward Schafer describes a  monstrous mollusc with many of the traits of Hugo’s horrible octopus:

In imaginative literature, particularly, but also in some soberer sources, the ch’en mollusc acquired more extravagant attributes. It was transformed into a monster lurking in dark lairs — mysterious submarine grottoes — where it assimilated some of the traits of a sea-dragon, frothing at its ambiguous mouth and belching bubbles into the world of man, in a way somewhat reminiscent of the occidental dragon crouched over its kingly hoard and spouting puffs of smoke and fire:

“He worked his jowls and dripped saliva, gaping and sucking, so that people took him to be a veritable sea-basilisk [kraken, giant squid ]  or dragon-clam [clam-monster]“.

Edward Schafer, Mirages on the Sea of Time, California, 1985, p. 81

Oddly, this mythical creature (like the dragon “hid in the deep”, of which it may be a prototype or relative) is not regarded as evil. It’s merely one of the strange creatures living in an undersea Taoist fairyland corresponding to the terrestrial Kun Lun Mountain fairyland, and its most prominent power is the creation of the strange nautical mirages or fata morganas  which sometimes confuse sailors.  Schafer speaks of it as a kind of clam, but it behaves more like a cephalopod, and Schafer probably should have treated it as one (or perhaps, since it’s mythical,  as a hybrid clam-squid.)

Whether the Taoist clam monsters have anything to do with the thetan clams who have left bivalve engrams deep in our psyches, or with the Pirates of the Caribbean Kraken,  is unknown to me.

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 1:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Victor Hugo on Cephalopods

To believe in the octopus, one must have seen it. Compared with it, the hydras of old are laughable.

Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod were only able to make the Chimaera; God made the octopus. When God wills it, he excels in the execrable. And all ideals being admitted, if terror be the object, the octopus is a masterpiece.

Its most terrible quality is its softness. A glutinous mass possessed of a will — what more frightful? Glue filled with hatred.

At night and in its breeding season, it is phosphorescent. This terror has its passions. It awaits the nuptial hour. It adorns itself, it lights up, it illuminates itself; and from the summit of a rock one can see it beneath, in the shadowy depths, spread out in a pallid irradiation, — a spectre sun.

It has no bones, it has no blood, it has no flesh. It is flabby. There is nothing in it. It is a skin. One can turn the eight tentacles wrong side out, like the fingers of a glove.

The creature superimposes itself upon you by a thousand mouths; the hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man amalgamates himself with the hydra. You form but one. This dream is upon you. The tiger can only devour you; the octopus, oh horror! breathes you in. It draws you to it, and into it, and bound, ensnared, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself.

Beyond the terrible, being eaten alive, is the inexpressible, being drunk alive.

(Excerpted from five pages of Toilers of the Sea, II iv 2, “The Monster”: Toilers of the Sea, p. 157; Les Travailleurs de la mer, p. 199) (more…)

Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 2:43 am  Comments (4)  

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