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. Moreover, this appears
to be as true today as it was five thousand years ago.
"The Dolphin is not afraid of a human being as something strange to it,
butcomes to meet vessels at sea and sports and gambols round them even when under full sail."
- - Aristotle
In his memoirs, the German archaeologist Ludwig Curtius tells how, in 1904, he was
filled with anxious expectation as he sailed towards Athens for his first research project. Looking out onto the blue swells
of the Adriatic sea, he whispered to himself: "Gods, give me a sign that you have mercy on me, and that you will continue
to keep me under your protection even during this turning point of my life." A dolphin leaped out of the water and accompanied
the boat for a while, which Curtius happily interpreted as a good omen from Apollo.
In the past, Apollo had been referred to as ‘Delphinios’ by sailors. In
the shape of a mighty dolphin, he had led the ship of the Cretans from Konossos to the Greek harbour of Krissa, where he jumped
ashore ‘…like a star in the middle of the day, sending out many sparks and a shining light up into the skies…'
Thus he led the way to the sacred site that was to be built for him in Delphi. In the Greek calendar one of the months was
called Delphinios, and the memory of this Apollo’s other name is commemorated in his temple’s old law-court in
Athens, which was called the ‘Delphinion.’ Apollo is connected with another, older god of the sailors called Melikertes
by the Greeks. This god ensured safe trips over the oceans for sailors and merchants. Coins from the Phoenician coast town
of Aradus show Melikertes with a dolphin in each hand. Music is the other bond that connects the dolphin with Apollo, the
leader of the muses, as the dolphin was considered an extraordinary music lover in those ancient days.
Many centuries after the Ancient Greeks, and on the other side of the planet, the presence
of the dolphin is evident. It is interesting to note that one of the first British ships to explore the Pacific was, in fact,
called The Dolphin, under the command of Captain John Byron (grandfather of the famous poet) in 1765. The following year,
under the command of the more inquisitive Captain Samuel Wallis, The Dolphin landed in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, to a friendly
welcome, three years prior to Captain Cook’s arrival in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus.
The Maoris of New Zealand have traditionally enjoyed a long and sacred relationship
with dolphins and whales. They believed that dolphins provided assistance in finding the answers and solutions to tribal problems,
regarding cetaceans as ‘the human beings of the sea.’ Dolphins were generally known as tepuhi, a name thought
to originate from the sound that the dolphin makes as it breathes air out through its blowhole. Some Maori tribes learned
to recognise certain aspects of cetacean body language, such as the manner in which dolphins and whales would leap out of
the water, as an indicator of future events, and as such they regarded cetaceans as messengers of the gods. It was possible
to know in advance, for example, if a sick member of a tribe would live or die by observing the behaviour of whales and dolphins
close to shore.
One of the world’s smallest dolphins is the Hector’s Dolphin, measuring
only about 1 metre when fully grown. It is an agile, sprightly dolphin, and is found only in the coastal waters of New Zealand.
It was known by the Maoris as Tutumairekurai, meaning ‘special ocean dweller’. Some Maori Tribes, particularly
those in the South Island around the Banks Peninsula (where the Hector’s dolphin is most commonly seen) believed that
the spirits of the dead would become tutumairekurai. Another name for the dolphin in common usage was Tupoupou, which means
‘to rise up vertically.’ This presumably originated from observing the dolphins ‘spy-hopping,’so that
the head (with both eyes) is above the water’s surface, the tail balancing them from below so that they appear to ‘hover’
in one location to have a good look around!
DOLPHINS BECOMING PEOPLE
The notion 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.
A common story throughout Micronesia is of cetacea that emerge from the sea in the
form of humans to watch village celebrations and activities in secret. One such tale comes from the Ulithi people of the western
Caroline Islands (in what is now The Federated States of Micronesia). In ancient days, two ‘dolphin women’ emerged
from the sea to watch the local village men dance. They did this for several nights in succession. One evening, however, the
trails that the dolphin women left behind on the sand were noticed by one of the village men, and he became suspicious. He
lay in wait the following night, and after the women had emerged from their dolphin bodies he hid the tail that belonged to
one of them. This dolphin woman was therefore not able to return to the sea, and stayed in the village to become the man’s
wife, and the mother of his two children. One day, by chance, she found her tail, which her husband had been secretly storing
in the roof of their home. She put the tail back on and made her way down to the beach. Before returning to her oceanic home,
she implored her children never to eat dolphin meat, and thus it became taboo for any member of the village to ever harm or