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A pink and a red starfish sit on smooth rocks in water.

Aquatic Constellations: Starfish


Fascinating biology: The symbol and metaphor of star echinoderms.

Silent and elegant, like an open hand, starfish are like a preliminary drawing of what they represent: the stars. It is as if they were a child’s drawing of the shape that humans saw in the stars and were there, on the seabed, to symbolize the famous law of correspondence written by Hermes Trismegistus: “as above, so below.” Perhaps for that reason they have so fascinated us with their form and their symbol, but they are also fascinating at a biological level.

orange starfish in crystal clear water with white sand below

Although they are called starfish, they are not fishes but echinoderms, and their closest relatives are sea cucumbers and sand dollars. A whole family of animated drawings. There are more than 2,000 species of echinoderms in practically all of the world’s oceans. But their charm is found at the tip of each of their arms, where they have a tiny eye that only perceives changes in light. With these eyes they not only detect their prey, which are normally oysters and clams, but they also are able to get inside the shell to devour the innards with their stomachs turned inside out. They literally expel their stomachs through their mouths to get into the shells. If they lose one of their rays they can regenerate them, and the lost ray, or arm, eventually becomes another starfish.

In this sense their intelligence is similar to that of an octopus, in that it is not condensed into its brain but rather into all of its parts. As a result, as well as representing the universe on earth, their constitution also allows for a fabulous psychological reading. We humans tend to consider ourselves to be arachnid-like organizations: there is someone in the center that is in charge of all of the parts (a boss, an ego). But when that ‘self’ is examined carefully, as has been done by mystics for millennia and science for the last 100 years, no nucleus can be found. What we consider to be the self is in fact a dynamic addition and an integration of different processes: We are starfish.

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