Dolphins in Ancient Mythology

Dolphins have been viewed as somehow magical for millennia by humans. They’re one of the only animals that appear to play, leaping out of the water and doing tricks, and the bottlenose dolphin even seems to grin widely at everything. It was inevitable that such a remarkable animal also collected a remarkable mythology that extends through today.

The first culture that seems to have mythology associated with the dolphin was the Minoan, a seafaring people in the Mediterranean. They left few written records, but they did leave beautiful murals on the walls of their palaces, murals that show the importance of dolphins in their mythology.

Because they were strongly associated with Poseidon by the later Greeks, this probably explains why the sea god was so often surrounded by dolphins. In one myth about Poseidon, dolphin messengers were sent to bring him a nymph he loved, who he later married. As a reward, he set the dolphin in the sky as a constellation. And he was constantly accompanied by dolphins among other sea creatures.

This wasn’t the last time the Greeks associated dolphins with romance. Aphrodite is often depicted with dolphins, riding them or being accompanied by them. Later, the god Dionysus transformed the way dolphins were perceived in Greek literature. He was set upon while at sea by a band of pirates. Instead of simply destroying the sea raiders, he transformed them into a pod of dolphins, charging them to rescue any distressed sailors in the ocean. Dolphins, in Greek culture, were often rescuers of humans, probably because they like to bring things to the surface and, well, because there’s some really good evidence that they do indeed purposely rescue people in danger.

This image of the dolphin continued in myth and legend as the world transformed around them. Byzantine sailors, Arab sailors, Chinese and European explorers, all had tales of dolphins rescuing sailors or ships in trouble. Dolphins could predict calm seas. And a ship accompanied by dolphins was sure to find safe harbor, fair weather , and following seas. Just as with an albatross, it was terrible luck to harm a dolphin. This is very clear in the tales of Pelorus Jack, a dolphin described in the late 19th century who guided ships through a particularly treacherous strait off the coast of Tasmania.

Jack would appear as ships neared the strait, and guide them through the safe deep parts of the water, leaving the ship once it was safely through. One day, a drunk passenger on one ship shot Jack, and of course he fled. Weeks later, he reappeared to guide ships again, but would never guide that particular ship again. And ultimately, that ship did wreck on the rocks of the strait.

Today, in movies and in literature, we have our own legends of the dolphin. Almost any website or book about dolphins will speak of the amazing intelligence and wisdom of the dolphin, and though much of it is supported by scientific fact, some of it has slipped into mythology. There are people today who see dolphins as intelligent aliens – a legend expanded upon by The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, wherein dolphins tried to warn earthlings of impending doom before giving up and just leaving. Flipper was a Lassie-like dolphin who made himself useful by continually rescuing two accident-prone little boys.

Today, few creatures in the animal kingdom command the breathless awe and respect a dolphin can. With its grace, intelligence, and seeming eagerness to entertain, the dolphin captures the imagination and affection of almost everyone.

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