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
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
(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
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?