What’s with the Octopus? A Look at the Octopus in Steampunk Culture

If you’re new to Steampunk you may have noticed certain trends standing out. Firstly there’s fantastical machines, and of course there are the goggles, but you may have asked yourself, “What is with the Octopus?” It’s a very popular icon in Steampunk culture and appears everywhere from art to jewelry. But why is the culture so smitten with a cephalopod? There’s no one defining answer but it may have to do with Steampunk’s roots as a literary genre. There are several notable appearances by octopi in literature of the 19th and early 20th century, particularly in the science fiction/fantasy realm that gave birth to Steampunk as we know it today. The Octopus seemed to symbolize the unknown, the new, and the spirit of adventure.

Original sketch of Cthuhlu by H.P Lovecraft via Wikipedia

Original sketch of Cthulhu by H.P Lovecraft
via Wikipedia

Cthulhu

If you said “Bless you” don’t be embarrassed, it happens to a lot of first timers. Cthulhu (pronounced: Ka-THOO-loo) is a deity created by horror fiction writer H.P Lovecraft. Cthulhu first made an appearance in a short story called, “The Call of Cthulhu,” and was described as a cross between an octopus, a man, and a dragon. Lovecraft then expanded the character to create an entire mythology around him, saying that Cthulhu was an alien and imprisoned deep under the ocean and that someday he would rise again. Lovecraft was never really appreciated in his lifetime (much like many great artists) but he has since been embraced by fans of Steampunk for his style of speculative fiction. An octopus may be a Lovecraft fan’s way of showing their love. Or maybe they’re awaiting the second coming of Cthulhu and want to show him that they’re on his side. Better to be safe than sorry.

The poster for Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The people have spoken and they want more tentacles!

The poster for Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The people have spoken and they want more tentacles!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea author Jules Verne takes us aboard a submarine called The Nautilus and introduces us to the environmentally conscious and slightly unhinged Captain Nemo. In one famous portion of the book the Nautilus is attacked by a gang of cuttlefish (though in the original French publication Verne wrote that it was a gang of octopi). The book was published in 1870 and Verne’s description of the Nautilus was so far ahead of its time it captured the imagination of thousands. Jules Verne is credited as the king of modern science fiction and as a result, a Steampunk icon. Some would argue that his genre of science fiction within the constraints of Victorian era technology is the root of all Steampunk.

Artwork for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Horror of the Heights via astrofella.wordpress.com

Artwork for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Horror of the Heights
via astrofella.wordpress.com

The Kraken

Life at sea was horribly dangerous. Besides everyday dangers like disease, starvation, and dehydration you could expect to be away from home for months at a time, or worse, get lost in the middle of the ocean. Sailors were a superstitious lot and they told stories of mermaids, whirlpools to magic lands, and giant sea monsters with many arms that would drag you down to the depths. Most of these stories were probably to stave off boredom, but when you’ve been out in the sun for weeks a person can start to see things that seem pretty real. No doubt a giant squid or two ran afoul of a boat and the legend of the Kraken was born. At the turn of the century when the sky become the new frontier everyone’s imaginations ran wild with what new things awaited up in the clouds. In The Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pilot Joyce Armstrong investigates the disappearances of several other pilots who broke 30,000 feet. What Joyce finds is that there is an entire eco-system above 40,000 feet similar to that of the ocean. Suddenly, he is attacked by a creature with a beak and tentacles and barely escapes with his life. He attributes this Air-Kraken to the other pilots’ disappearances. Steampunks love mixing nautical themes with aviation so an Air-Kraken would be the obvious nemesis to any airship.

PICK UP AN OCTOPUS PIECE AND HAVE YOUR OWN SYMBOL OF ADVENTURE

Cthulhu Octopus Necklace - Bronze Tone

Cthulhu Octopus Necklace – Bronze Tone

Steampunk Octopus Necklace

Steampunk Octopus Necklace

Cthulhu Ring
Cthulhu Ring

 

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