Folklore and Legends (marine mammals)


Folklore and legends are usually traditional stories popularly regarded as the telling of historical events. When in the form of myths, they often involve some form of the supernatural. They have been with us for thousands of years and, because of this, folklore and legends form the basis of many religious beliefs, value systems, and the way we perceive our place in the world and our interaction with other animals. Man has long revered whales and dolphins in legends. For thousands of years they have been aligned with the gods, mythologized, and celebrated in art.

I. Ancient Greece

Some of the earliest legends about dolphins were told in Greek mythology, where it was believed the sun god Apollo assumed the form of a dolphin when he founded his oracle at Delphi on the edge of Mount Parnassus. The ancient Greeks also believed Orion was carried into the sky riding on the back of a dolphin and was gifted three stars by the gods. This constellation is now known as Orion’s Belt.

Many cultures, both ancient and recent, revered dolphins and believed them to be messengers from the gods. The pre-Hellenic Cretans appeared to have honored dolphins, and the ancient Greek, Oppian (ca. a.d. 180) wrote of godly intervention in the dolphins’ move to the sea. It was believed that by the devising of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, dolphins exchanged their life on land for life at sea and took on the form of fishes. Even though they changed form, it was believed that they retained the righteous spirit of man and, because of this, they preserved their human thoughts and deeds. Oppian also wrote of dolphins stranding themselves to die so mortals could bury them and thereby remember the dolphin’s gentle friendship. This was seen as an example of how magnificent dolphins were.

The close alignment with man meant ancient Greeks held dolphins in extremely high regard and that killing a dolphin was tantamount to killing a person. Both crimes were punishable by death.

II. Romans

Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23-79), a Roman philosopher, told the story of a peasant boy in the Mediterranean Sea who developed a relationship with a solitary dolphin he named Simo. The legend tells of a boy who fed a dolphin and, in return, the dolphin gave him rides across the bay on its back. The boy became ill and died and, according to local knowledge, the dolphin returned to their meeting place for many days until it was believed that it died of a broken heart. Many of the Roman legends involved close human/dolphin contact and may seem fanciful, but in more recent times these bonds between solitary dolphins and humans have been well documented.

III. Art

Drawings carved into rocks in northern Norway of killer whales and other local animals are the earliest known art work portraying dolphins. These drawings have been estimated at 9000 years old. The most detailed and colorful ancient art work was done by the ancient Greek and Minoan (Crete 3000-1500 b.c.) people. Dolphins were portrayed on frescoes, mosaic floors, coins, vases, and in sculpture. One of the earliest known pieces is a dolphin fresco painted ca. 1600 b.c. on the wall of the queen’s bathroom in the Minoan palace of Knossos, The Dionysus cup dated 540 b.c. shows the Greek wine god with dolphins and grapes. Coins portraying dolphins have been found in Syracuse, Greece, ca. 480 b.c. and the Romans also had dolphin coins in 2nd-century b.c.

IV. Whales

It appears in many legends that the great whales were not necessarily held in such high regard as the dolphins. Whales were typically described as monsters of the sea, their great size to be feared by all. Oppian (ca. a.d. 180) told of the hunt of a whale; its monstrous size and unapproachable limbs a terrible sight to behold. In biblical times, the story of Jonah and the whale was well known, and it is popular even today. The story tells of Jonah who fled from the lord by boat to Tarshish. When the ship was underway, the lord caused a great storm. In fear of their lives, Jonah asked the mariners to cast him into the sea so the lord would again make the sea calm and spare the mariners lives. Once Jonah was in the sea, however, the lord prepared a “great fish” to swallow him. He was in the belly of the whale for 3 days and 3 nights where he prayed and vowed salvation to the lord. Upon his vow the lord spoke to the whale and it vomited Jonah onto dry land and spared his life. Although today we know that it is unlikely that this event truly occurred, the story displayed the power of the lord and what he was capable of doing to those who defied him.

In his 1851 novel “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville described a white sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) of uncommon magnitude, capable of great ferocity, cunning, and malice. Melville’s novel summarized the fears of Yankee whalers that the tables would be turned and the whale would become the attacker.

Not all folklore portrays whales as fearsome beasts. Maori folklore of the Ngati Porou people tells of their ancestors being carried safely across the Pacific to New Zealand on the back of a whale. The Ngai Tahu people consider the sperm whales off the coast of the South Island as taonga (treasures). If a whale strands, prayers are said in order to return its spirit to Tangaroa, the Maori god of the sea. After this, the lower jawbone is removed for ceremonial carving and placement on the marae (the tribes’ traditional meeting grounds).

The north Alaska Inuit people have for over 1000 years relied on whale products for their survival. As with many traditional hunting societies, ceremonies accompany the hunt that assure good luck, and many hunters take charms or amulets to ensure their luck and safety. Some believe the skull of the dead whale must be returned to the sea in order to assure the immortality and reincarnation of the whale, thereby protecting the future hunting success.

V. Legends and Folklore around the World

A. Haida

The Haida people of northwestern North America tell of an evil ocean people who used killer whales (Orcinus orca) as canoes. The Haida turned a chief into a killer whale and they believe that this whale now protects them from attacks by the ocean people.

B. Tlingit

The Tlingit (pronounced “Kling-kit”) people of southeastern Alaska immortalize killer whales in their beliefs and folklore. Images of killer whales appear in many of their masks, carvings, totems, and blankets. At gatherings, the Tlingit tell stories, including one about the origin of killer whales. They believe a man from the Seal people carved many killer whales from wood but only the one carved from yellow cedar would swim. The legend says he carved many more from cedar and they swam up the inlet where he taught them how to hunt and what to hunt for. He also taught them not to hurt people. The Tlingit in return do not hunt killer whales and they believe that because of this the killer whales look after them (Fig. 1).

C. Australian Aborigines

On Momington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, northern Australia, a tribe of Aborigines have been in direct communication with Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops adun-cus) for thousands of years. They have a medicine man who calls the dolphins and “speaks” to them telepathically. By these communications he assures that the tribes’ fortunes and happiness are maintained.

D. Amazonians

Many people who live on the banks of the Amazon River believe that river dolphins or botos (Inia geoffrensis) have the ability to transform themselves into handsome young men in order to woo women during fiestas and times of ceremony. So strong is this belief that some children are believed to have been fathered by these dolphins.


A Japanese legend tells of a gigantic whale who challenges a sea slug to a race after boasting that he is the greatest animal in the sea. The sea slug accepts and arranges for his friends to wait at different beaches along the chosen course. On the day of the race, the whale surges ahead, but when he arrives at the first beach he is astonished to find the sea slug already there. So he challenges it to another race, only to have the sea slug win again. This happens many times until the whale admits defeat. This legend is analogous to the European legend of the tortoise and the hare but shows the Japanese peoples close relation to the sea and its inhabitants and their use in teaching moral lessons.

Perhaps such legends and folklore serve the purpose of helping people understand their past or to help society learn valuable lessons. In many societies today we revere whales and dolphins, and this will continue to develop our folklore into the future.

Killer whale images on the front of a Tlingit house.

Figure 1 Killer whale images on the front of a Tlingit house.

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