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…)