This is an article inspired by Jason's book DEEP VOICES: The Wisdom of Whales and Dolphin Tales all about the role of dolphins and whales in world mythology and ancient beliefs.  You can order a signed copy of the book by visiting the POD Shop!

Stories of dolphins, whales and porpoises, collectively known as cetacea, abound in world mythology.   This popularity may stem from the impressive size of the large whales, or the playful exertions of the acrobatic dolphins, not to mention the many stories of cetacea coming to the aid of shipwrecked sailors and stranded fishermen.  Several themes commonly appear in ancient mythology from Greece to the tiny islands of the Pacific, though there is one element present in all: since time immemorial humans and cetacea have shared a very close and quite unique bond.  We have even immortalised the dolphin in the heavens above us in the constellation delphinus

'The Dolphin is not afraid of a human being as something strange to it, but comes to meet vessels at sea and sports and gambols round them even when under full sail' 
- Aristotle

The idea of dolphins and whales transforming into humans is one of the most enduring themes in cetacean mythology, and commonly appears in stories accounting for the birth or creation of certain tribes.  In Northern Australia, the native people of Groote Island tell a story about their origins that accounts for the special relationship they share with dolphins to this day.  Millennia ago, in the early days of the Dreamtime, lived the Indjbena, or dolphins.  These ancient sea-dwelling creatures were arrogant and took little notice of the dangers that surrounded them in the ocean, preferring instead to mercilessly taunt the small shellfish (Yakunas) for their amusement.  Ultimately the dolphins’ unwelcome presence among the shellfish resulted in the Yakuna leader seeking help from Mana, the tiger sharks.  All but one of the dolphins were slaughtered, and their souls left their bodies to become humans on land.   Only one dolphin – a pregnant female – had been spared, and the son to which she gave birth, named Dinginjabana, was stronger and wiser than any of the dolphins that had gone before, and was the first of the friendly, intelligent dolphins we know today.  In time, this female dolphin swam into the shallow waters and recognised her mate, Dinginjabana’s father, and in her joy transformed into human form so the two could be reunited.   As time passed, this human couple had many children, who became the ‘Dolphin Tribe’ of Groote Island.    These people have never forgotten the connection with their ancestors in the ocean, just as the dolphins remember to this day the special affinity they share with their human cousins, and this ancient connection is even celebrated in cave paintings on Groote Island which date back millennia.


‘Diviner than the Dolphin is nothing yet created, for indeed they were aforetime men and lived in cities along with mortals, but…they exchanged the land for the sea, and put on the form of fishes; but even now, the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thoughts and human deeds’ 
- Oppian, Halieutica

The ancient Greek myth of Dionysus provides one of the earliest accounts of the special relationship that humans share with cetaceans, and goes some way towards explaining the affinity we feel towards dolphins in particular.  Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, was kidnapped by Etruscan pirates who mistook him for a wealthy prince capable of bringing them a hearty ransom.  No sooner had the boat set sail with the captive Dionysus onboard than the god surrounded himself with tigers, lynxes and panthers and caused giant vines to grow up along the sides of the boat, the leaves wrapping themselves around the mast and rigging, and the oars became serpents.  The pirates jumped overboard in their terror, yet as they floated in the sea Dionysus showed compassion for them.  As he uttered the words “I will make you happy!  In my heart, I honour you”, all the pirates were transformed into dolphins, never again to harm or do wrong, but instead to fulfil their destiny of helping those in need, and providing support and assistance when called upon.

The story of Dionysus clearly shows that the Greeks had a special affection for the dolphin, presumably because of its playful nature and the assistance it seemed prepared to render those in need at sea.  Precisely because of this altruistic (and intelligent) characteristic of the dolphins, however, the Greeks, in common with other cultures, chose to interpret the behaviour of this creature as ultimately human, and therefore of human origin.


 ‘To the dolphin alone nature has given that which the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage.  Though it has no need of help of any man, yet it is a genial friend to all, and has helped man.'  - Plutarch

There are many cultures that have revered the apparently selfless assistance that dolphins have offered humans for aeons.  The Noonuccal tribe of Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island, Australia) traditionally fished for mullet with the help of a local pod of dolphins, a practise that continues in some parts of the world to this day (such as Brazil and Mauritania).  The members of this tribe believed that the reason the dolphins were so helpful was because they both (humans and dolphins) shared a common ancestor.  This ancestor was the cultural hero Gowonda who, along with his hunting dogs, was transformed into a dolphin and thereafter helped the members of his human tribe to catch fish.  According to the legend, Gowonda could be instantly recognised by his white fin, and this characteristic was passed down to his descendants, always making it easy to recognise the leader of any dolphin pod. 

When fishing, the tribesmen would first sit on the sand dunes, concentrating on the ocean (many observers believed they were telepathically communicating with the dolphins), mentally calling each individual dolphin by name.  On the first sight of a dorsal fin, the men would rush down into the waves and start hitting the water's surface with their spears.   It is also said that the locals communicated with the dolphins through certain sounds and whistles, which the dolphins themselves used in ‘reply’ to the men, and thus a ‘spoken’ language existed between the two species. 

The dolphins would drive the fish towards the awaiting nets of the men, who would show their gratitude by offering some of the mullet to their willing helpers.  Some witnesses even reported seeing the dolphins accept mullet off the end of spears, showing no signs of fear or apprehension, and a few dolphins were known to have waited in the area until they received their due reward, patiently swimming up and down the beach until they were fed with some of the men's catch!  When European settlers first came to this area, they would secretly watch this co-operative fishing, and slowly learned the whistles and sounds that the tribe used to communicate with the dolphins.  They then imitated the sounds, and when the dolphins approached the settlers would kill and eat them. Not surprisingly, the surviving dolphins stopped coming to the beach soon afterwards.


In Australia, four extreme points of the mainland have always been significant ‘Dolphin Dreaming’ sites for local tribes.  In the west is Monkey Mia, in the east Byron Bay, in the south is Wilson’s Promontory and in the far north Bamaga, though in fact the entire Australian coastline is blessed with the presence of dolphins and whales.  The sight of a dolphin or whale always brought joy to Aboriginal tribes, particularly in times of difficulty or distress.  For the Wurunjeri people of south-eastern Australia, the dolphin was regarded as a sacred symbol or totem, and the tribe engaged in co-operative fishing with the help of the local dolphins.  The people would also consult the dolphins for answers and insights on important tribal matters (apparently by use of telepathy), and the tribe believed that the spirits of their dead would transform into dolphin bodies and remain offshore, helping and guiding the familiar members of the human tribe on land.   It was always forbidden among the Wurunjeri people to hunt or kill dolphins; to do so would invoke the wrath of the ‘feather footed man’, Gornge (the Executioner). 

The people of the Massom area in Papua New Guinea tell the tale of Dudugera, literally translated as ‘The Leg Child’.  The story concerns a child who was conceived by a mortal woman who was frolicking in the sea one day when a god, disguised as a dolphin, appeared and swam around her, through her legs, brushing against her skin, magically impregnating her.  When the child was born, he was given the name Dudugera, or ‘leg child’, to denote the unique way in which he has been conceived, and for this he was mocked as he grew older.  In his anger, he vowed to take revenge on the uncaring world into which he had been born by setting fire to it.  Indeed, when he came of age, Dudugera one day soared into the sky and started hurling spears of fire towards the earth – he thus became the sun.  His mother, filled with fear for her safety, cowered in a cave and began to throw mud towards the newly formed sun in an attempt to stop the searing heat from scorching her friends and her village.  In doing so, she created the first clouds to obscure the sun, and thus tamed the wrath of her own sun, the unhappy child born of the dolphin god.


It is important to note that not all contact with cetacea by ancient tribes and cultures rested on mutual friendship and respect.  In Peru, the Amazonian Pink Dolphin, the ‘Boto’, has long been revered for its ability to change into human form, and it was (and remains) taboo to inflict harm on this most mystical and revered of creatures.  However, down river in Brazil there are places where the taboo surrounding the Boto is not observed, and a black market trade in dolphin body parts (for ornamental and medicinal usage) has thrived for centuries.   Likewise, when the people of Va-Pan Island in the Marquesas, French Polynesia, plan a feast, over a dozen canoes set off in search of dolphins.  As soon as the dorsal fins of dolphins are spotted, some of the men bang rocks together beneath the water's surface to confuse and scare the dolphins, who instinctively move away from the noise – into the nets of the waiting fishermen who have sailed on ahead.  The noise continues, getting ever louder, and the dolphins eventually become unconscious from the noise, as their hearing is so sensitive, and blood begins to pour out of their tiny ears into the surrounding waters.   When all the dolphins have been herded into one area, where they lie unconscious, they are mercilessly slaughtered before being taken back to the village for everyone to feast on. 

Such treatment of cetacea is nothing new; recent archaeological evidence from Ra’s al-Hadd in Oman strongly suggests that both bottlenose and common dolphin species were customarily chased into a weir-like structure built in a lagoon.   Here it seems they were harvested by the local people, with evidence of butchery to the ribs indicating fat extraction and hide removal.    To this day, Norway and Japan, despite rich cultural mythologies which revere the whale, both continue to mercilessly slaughter great whales each year to neatly package the meat in sterile plastic trays to be displayed in garish supermarket refrigerators.


Having ‘come back from the brink’ as the global whaling industry collapsed, whales and dolphins have today become the very symbol of freedom and environmental awareness.  Just as dolphins were once deified by the Greeks, Romans and countless other great civilisations, today they are iconised in everything from jewellery and ornaments to corporate motivation posters and ‘environmentally kind’ detergents. Whether lone ‘ambassadors’ or ‘super-pods’ of several hundred individuals, dolphins and whales are becoming increasingly prominent in eco-tourism ventures around the world. Apart from the many companies offering dolphin-swim and whale-watch excursions in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the Bahamas, many other countries are beginning to understand the huge tourism potential of offering trips for visitors to see and swim with the cetacea around their coasts.   Indeed, to see a whale or dolphin in the wild is fast becoming the pilgrimage of choice for the modern-day seeker on a quest to encounter an indefinable wisdom, serenity, or profound contact with a non-terrestrial intelligence. 

The new eco-tourism initiatives mark a departure from the former attitudes and practices of nations such as Iceland, Spain and Fiji where whale-hunting was once common, and where artefacts such as a sperm whale's tooth were a very important part of the local culture, often regarded as ‘lucky charms’.  Indeed, in Fiji, to give such a tooth to another person was seen as a gesture of utmost respect and, depending on the circumstances of the presentation, also an apology.  The whale tooth would often be attached to a neck chain, and treated as a highly prized object.  This tradition was recently commemorated in a postage stamp produced in Fiji, and a whale tooth was even presented to the British Queen by the Fijian people as a mark of respect.

As tourist dollars fuel an ever-increasing number of excursions to see and swim with cetacea, many traditional beliefs are disappearing.  It is to be hoped that one common theme from ancient times persists, even flourishes, amidst this modern devotion of today's dolphin and whale supporters – that cetacea should be afforded great respect, and regarded with a sense of humility and awe.  As the majority of seafaring peoples throughout the world have known for aeons, to be in the presence of cetacea is to experience something powerful; it is an immense privilege and, for some, it is a chance to touch the divine.

Order your signed copy of Jason's book DEEP VOICES: The Wisdom of Whales and Dolphin Tales by visiting the POD Shop!

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© The POD - People, Oceans, Dolphins    2009