Dolphins in Ancient Mythology
Excerpted from Dolphins by Chris Catton St. Martin's Press, New York, 1995 [Reprinted with permission of the publisher]



People who spend their lives at sea are superstitious. The sea itself tempts seafarers to become irrational. Before the days of the compass and the shipping forecast, the sea was indeed wildly unpredictable and dangerous. It is still terrifying and awesomely powerful, even with today's satellite positioning and sonar. To frightened, suggestible sailors, an inquisitive dolphin frolicking in the bow-wave must have seemed like a messenger from the gods. It is those seafarers, whose families never knew whether they would return alive, who gave us the first myths about the creatures.

The Greeks were among the first great seafaring nations, and the wealth of their civilization was built largely on their forays across the Mediterranean. It is not surprising, then, that dolphins appear frequently in Classical mythology - they are depicted, for example, on frescoes on the bathroom wall in the Palace of Knossos in Crete, which dates to 1600 BC-- but it is through the writings of the Greek poets that most of the myths about dolphins are known to us today.

One of the earliest dolphin stories is Homer's 'Hymn to Apollo', which describes how the god Apollo founded the temple at Delphi after a journey which took him all over Greece in search of a suitable site. Eventually he chose a lonely cave nestling at the foot of Mount Parnassos, which was guarded by the dragoness Python, whom he slew with an arrow from his silver bow.

After killing the dragoness, Apollo set off to hijack a Cretan merchant ship, leaping aboard the boat in the guise of a dolphin. Terrified, the crew huddled below deck while the dolphin Apollo directed the winds to blow the ship right around the Greek coast and into the harbour below Delphi. Then, according to Homer's poem, the sun god instructed his hostages to live in the new temple and serve him as priests:

And whereas I first, in the misty sea, sprung aboard the swift ship in the guise of a dolphin, therefore pray to me as Apollo Delphinus.

Like most myths, this is a story told in code. It is about the invasion of one culture by another; the replacement of the indigenous earth goddess Python, or Delphys, by the sun god Apollo; the overthrow of the mysterious, complex, female spirit of night by the bright, clear, logical, and preeminently masculine spirit of the sun. But why a dolphin? One possibility is that the dolphin was introduced in one of the first political whitewash Jobs in recorded history. By the time the story came to be written down, Delphi was already growing rich. The Delphic Oracle was a respected prophetess, and worshippers were travelling from all over Greece and beyond to consult her and to ask for Apollo's blessing. The petitioners had also taken to leaving handsome donations. Could it be that the name Delphi, with its allusion to the previous occupant, Delphys, the earth mother, was an embarrassment? Delphis, the Greek for dolphin, is a very similar word to delplys, meaning womb. If the association with the old religion was proving awkward, what better solution than to introduce a dolphin into the story and explain away the name by a clever pun?

Like most reconstructions of this period of early Greek history, this is nothing more than pure speculation, and there are other less prosaic theories. The appearance of dolphins in earlier works of irt it Knossos and elsewhere suggests that the dolphin already had a place in Cretan oral mythology, although the works of later writers and poets do not make it clear exactly what this was. The dolphin continued to feature in art and sculpture wherever the Greeks had influence, from Palestine and Mesopotamia in the east to Rome in the west, and later throughout the Roman Empire. Even in the rock city of Petra, miles from the sea and hidden in a cleft in the Jordanian desert, there is a carving of a dolphin.

Without a detailed written record it is difficult to know exactly what significance dolphins held for the Greeks. The sculptures, the mosaics, the beautifully engraved and painted pottery tell us that they were important, but not why. There are, however, some clues.

In many sculptures from the East, the dolphin is associated with Atargatis, the mother goddess, goddess of vegetation, nourisher of life and receiver of the dead who would be born again. In later myths, particularly in Roman literature, and again in art and statuary, it is the dolphin that carries souls to the 'Islands of the Blest', and around the Black Sea images of dolphins have been found in the hands of the dead, presumably to ensure their safe passage to the afterlife. Taken together these references seem to point to a deeper association with the processes of life, death and rebirth, perhaps linked to the dolphin's ability to pass between the air-breathing, living world of humans and the suffocating, terrifying world beneath the waves, which for the Greek sailors could easily be identified with the kingdom of the dead. Whatever the exact symbolism, it is clear that the dolphin is intimately involved with the fundamentals of human existence.

If the dolphin is implicated in some way in the transition between this world and the next it is no surprise to find that it is also associated with Dionysos, who himself dies and is reborn again each year in his role as the god of vegetation, and who was also worshipped at Delphi. Although most Greek writers refer to Delphi simply as the temple of Apollo, Plutarch is at pains to point out that the worship of Dionysos was equally important at the site. He should know - he was one of the priests of Apollo at Delphi for many years.

Unfortunately for anyone trying, to unravel the role of the dolphin in these Classical myths, Dionysos is one of the most enigmatic of the Greek gods. Conceived of an incestuous relationship between Zeus and his daughter Persephone, the baby Dionysos was killed by the Titans who ate all but his heart. On discovering the murder, Zeus killed the Titans with a bolt of lightining swallowed the heart and gave birth to his own son.

This myth was apparently re-enacted in ceremonies that involved the slaughter of animals (and possibly human sacrifice too), and sexual practices that would certainly find their way on to the front pages of the tabloid press if anyone tried to reinstate the cult of Dionysos today. After over 2,000 years of innuendo and cover-up, we cannot be sure what really happened in any of these ceremonies, and the part played by the dolphins has been long forgotten. Perhaps they carried Dionysos to and from the underworld; perhaps this is why several writers talk about dolphins disappearing each winter; perhaps this explains the name of the constellation Delphinus, the dolphin, which in Greece cannot be seen between the months of November and May. Today we can only guess.

The surviving story that links Dionysos with dolphins gives barely a hint of their mystical importance, though it does once again involve them in the transition between life and death. Dionysos is travelling in disguise on board a pirate ship when the sailors decide that instead of delivering their passenger safely home they will sell him into slavery in another town. Dionysos retaliates by driving the crew mad with hallucinations, at which they jump into the sea. They are saved from drowning only because they repent of their evil plan, at which Dionysos relents and turns them into dolphins.

This myth is often cited as the reason why, for many Greeks, killing a dolphin was an appalling crime. Dolphins were once human, and they retain human characteristics such as care for their young and sociability. According to the Greek poet Opplan, in his treatise on natural history:

The hunting of dolphins is immoral and whoever willingly devises destruction for dolphins can no more draw nigh the gods as a welcome sacrificer nor touch their altars with clean hands but pollutes those who share the same roof with him.

(Halientica, Bk 5)

After the founding of the temple at Delphi, many of Apollo's virtues came to be attributed to dolphins. As the god of shepherds and herdsmen, who traditionally whiled away the hours on the hills with a pipe, flute or lyre, he became by association the god of music, and from this the dolphin of Greek myth gained a reputation as a music-lover. According to Pliny's Natural History:

The dolphin ... can be charmed by singing in harmony, and especially by the sound of the water-organ.

In a similar vein, the Greek writer Herodotus tells the story of Arion, a lyre-player from Methymna employed by Periander, King of Corinth. Arion is a talented and innovative musician whose performances around the Mediterranean have made him extremely rich. Sailing home from a lucrative tour of Italy to his native Corinth, his crew turn on him, threatening to throw him overboard and take his money. Arion tries to bargain for his life but the crew will have none of it and give him a choice: either lie kills himself or they throw him over the side. Arion, for reasons that Herodotus doesn't really explain, asks if he might sing one last song. The crew agree - after all, why turn down a free farewell concert from the best singer in the known world? As the last note dies away, Arion leaps into the sea.

The ship sails on, but instead of drowning, Arion is rescued by a school of dolphins that have been beguiled by the beauty of his music and carry him to shore. He makes his way back to Corinth and tells his story to King Periander, who cannot believe it. The plot is eventually uncovered when the ship arrives and the crew swear that they left Arion alive and well in Italy.

This image of dolphins rescuing sailors or carrying humans recurs again and again in myth and folklore. According to Plutarch, for example, a native of the Greek island of Paros once found some fishermen about to kill some dolphins they had caught, and bargained for their release. Some time later, while sailing between Paros and the neighbouring island of Naxos, his boat overturned in a storm. Of the crew, he alone survived, rescued by a dolphin that carried him on its back to the nearby shore.

In another story told by the poet Aelian, a dolphin falls in love with a beautiful boy and seduces him into friendship. Every day the dolphin waits for the boy as he leaves school. The two go off together, the dolphin carrying the boy far out to sea. Sometimes they swim side by side; sometimes they race, the dolphin allowing the boy to win his share of the contests. Sometimes the dolphin allows the boy to ride on its back, and it is while he is doing this that disaster strikes. The boy falls forward on the dolphin's dorsal fin, severs a vein in his stomach and bleeds to death. When the dolphin realizes what has happened it swims back to the shore and strands itself on the beach, bringing the body of its dead friend with it. Moved by the strength of the dolphin's love, the local people bury it alongside the boy.

This tale introduces another of the dolphin's important mythological traits. It is set above other animals not only because it is friendly with humans, but because it has a sense of morality and honor. 'Diviner than a dolphin is nothing yet created, wrote the Greek- poet Oppian:

This other excellent deed of the dolphins have I heard and admire. When fell disease and fatal draws nigh to them, they fall not to know it but are aware of the end of life. Then they flee the sea and the wide waters of the deep and come ayround on the shallow shores. And there they give up their breath and receive their doom upon the land; that so perchance some mortal man may take pity on the holy messenger of the Shaker of the Earth when he lies low, and cover him with a mound of shingle, remembering his gentle friendship... Excellence and majesty attend them even when they perish, nor do they shame their glory even when they die.

(Htzlieiitica, Bk 1)

Christianity in turn seems to have taken and adapted several of the Greek myths for its own ends. No fewer than five of the early Christian saints are deemed to have been rescued by dolphins. The most colorful of these is undoubtedly St Martinian the Hermit, who, to avoid temptation by a woman, could find no escape but to throw himself into the sea, from which an obliging dolphin carried him on its back to the shore.

Could any of the Classical dolphin myths possibly have any basis in fact? The story of Arion is scarcely more credible than Orpheus's search through the underworld for his lost love, or the fabulous adventures of Jason in search of the Golden Fleece. Yet it is easy enough to explain the stories of dolphins beaching themselves in order to be buried on land. After all, they are often found stranded around the coastline wherever they are common in the sea. We still have very little idea why these strandings occur, and a present-day biologist would simply point out the obvious dangers of interpreting this behavior from Opplan's human-centred viewpoint. But what about the saints who are rescued by dolphins, or the children who ride on dolphins' backs?




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