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WHALES IN FOLKLORE HISTORY


Totem carvings with Killer Whales in British Colmbia
Photo by Maris Sidenstecker II


The enormous size of the great whales has always been a marvel to mankind, and their hidden way of life in the vast oceans has long given birth to myths and legends. From earliest times to the present, many people have thought them fish. But whales are not fish; they are mammals with warm blood that breathe air, not water, and give birth to living young which feed on their mother's milk.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 B.C., may not have been the first person to recognize that whales are mammals, but he was certainly the first to record his observations. In his "Historia Anamalium," he defined whales as "all creatures that have a blow-hole respire and inspire, for they are provided with lungs.'"

It was not until science was reborn in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the true nature of the whales began to be realized. It was Konrad Gesner, a German-Swiss doctor living in Zurich, published between 1551 and 1558 the enormous 'Historia Animalium' that formed the starting point of modern zoology. His great folio volumes were illustrated with many fine woodcuts of animals...many of [which] appear fantastic to us, but the absurdities arise because the artists tried to draw animals they had never seen from descriptions that they misunderstood. Huge creatures are shown attacking ships full of men, whereas it has always been the men that attacked the whales. The thought that a whale is big enough to sink a ship is translated into actuality. It was said, too,that throwing barrels overboard would distract the attention of whales attacking a ship, and that the sound of music would calm their fury."

The beauty of dolphins frolicking in waves with amazing speed and grace has long attracted the attention of artists, who have represented the animal in painting and sculpture. The earliest picture that has been preserved is the dolphin frieze of the Queen's Megaron in the palace of Knossos, dating from about 2000 B.C. This frieze is a beautiful representation of the common dolphin, and was obviously painted by an artist who had examined the animals carefully, and who painted a picture based on knowledge and not on guesswork. Similar figures, often more or less conventionalized, often occur as decoration on antique ceramics such as bowls and vases.

Conventional dolphins are introduced into art as symbols of the sea -- the dolphin supporting the statue of the "Venus de Medici" refers to the sea born origin of the goddess. Dolphins, too, are favorite subjects in sculptured fountains, where they accompany Neptune and his train of nereids, mermaids and tritons or draw the car of Amphitrite. Often they support the sea-god in the cartouches of old maps and charts, in which also spouting whales, as well as ships in full sail, are used to give interest to the empty space of the oceans.


Following is a strange tale from Pliny the Elder:

Pliny relates a story about dolphins helping fishermen to catch mullet in the lagoons by the shore in the south of France. Mullet are fish that live in the lagoons, but at the highest tides of the year the sea breaks through and forms a channel through which they migrate to the sea. The force of the tide is so great that the fishermen cannot set their nets across the opening for the tide would wash them away.

So they call "Simo, Simo" and in a short time a great school of dolphins arrives.

The dolphins take up position in ranks outside the mouth of the channel, and the fishermen set their nets supported on poles in the shallows, whereupon the dolphins drive the fish into their nets. The dolphins fight a battle with the mullet and kill a great many of them, but do not eat them until the drive is over.

The Norwegian "Speculum Regale" tells us that killer whales have "teeth like dogs," and that they are as aggressive to other whales as dogs are to other animals. They therefore flock together and attack big whales, and whenever they find a big whale alone they bite and exhaust it until it dies, although it may kill many of the attackers by heavy blows before it dies.

The "Regale" gives descriptions of terrible monsters among the whales that destroy ships and men, but also of good whales that are helpful to people -- these ideas were prevalent in Scandinavian and Icelandic folklore for many centuries.

In sagas of the Icelanders there are many stories of drift whales, and of the quarrels about them. Drift whales were sometimes harpooned by whalers who had then lost them, and people disagreed about whether the whale belonged to the harpooner or the owner of the land where it drifted ashore.