Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/March 1885/Superstitions About the Dolphin




NO animal of the sea or land figures more frequently in the fanciful creations of the Greeks and Romans than the dolphin, king of the Mediterranean Sea. It is represented in their myths as an attribute, symbol, companion, and servitor of the mighty gods, who were themselves not ashamed to borrow its form; in the epics as the friend and deliverer of the Grecian heroes, even of historical men, whom it carried on its back over the waters; in the stories as the playmate and fondling of handsome boys, whose death it could not survive. As in poetic art, so was it also adopted as a form of beauty down to the latest after-bloom of Roman plastic arts of design, equally in painting and as an ornament on the articles of daily life, on vases, coins, and cut stones, on the borders of Etruscan mirrors, etc. It is not strange, then, that these motives entered even the scientific work of antiquity, and the dolphin was elevated into an ethical type of the animal world, Ælian ascribed to it a parental love that did not fear death for the sake of its young. The mother would not forsake her young one when it was caught, but would share captivity and death with it; if one of two was taken, the mother would drive the other away from the danger, and then go back to perish with the caught one. Ælian tells of many such traits which seem to reveal a kind of human nature in the dolphin, and to connect it most intimately with man and his sea-life. Dolphins were said to accompany the ship of the hardy sailor over the solitary sea, to endeavor to entertain him with their sportive movements, and to be so confiding that, if they were called by the name of Simon, they would come up and help the fisherman in his work of driving the fish into his net. They forewarned him of the storm, also had a good feeling toward bathing boys, and exhibited thankfulness toward man. The spiritual qualities of the dolphin appeared not less deep to antiquity. If a dolphin was caught, he would greedily eat all the fish that were caught with him, then would break the net and escape; hence the wise fisherman, if he casually caught a dolphin, would draw a rush through his nose and let him go, marking him for another time. That such an animal, to which a lavish fancy ascribed so many noble qualities, should have enjoyed in reality a certain degree of honor and indulgence, follows as a matter of course, especially when it is remembered that the dolphin was of little value when caught, but when at large could often make himself very useful by driving up the smaller fishes toward the nets, as the whale does in the herring-fishery. The southern people, who were otherwise not particular as to the quality of their food, spared the dolphin, and it is still considered inviolable on the Sea of Marmora. With a few exceptions, dolphins were abhorred by the cultivated classes. The Byzantines had so little regard for them that they caught them and salted them. It was not thought amiss to make them of use in medicine according to the presumed laws of sympathy and homœopathy. The fat of the dolphin, eaten with wine, would cure hydrocephalus; its teeth would ease the teething of children, if the proper bones were rubbed upon the gums or burned to ashes and taken; and they served as amulets to protect against sudden dangers. To dream of this wonderful animal signified good, while the dreaming of any other creature of the water betokened evil.

Such representations by the ancients were the more singular, because the dolphin in reality is so strikingly different from them. According to science, the dolphin is the boldest, most greedy, and fiercest robber of the sea, the terror of the smaller fish, especially of the flying-fish, which leaps into the air in fear of it. How was it possible, in the face of qualities so directly opposite, for the dolphin to be made the pet of poetic and figurative art among a people who were otherwise so keen in their perceptions? The question may be answered, generally, by considering the two fundamentally different points of view from which the ancients and the moderns regarded the animal world. The Greeks, and still more the people of the middle ages, were generally inclined to put the realistic and scientific side in the background, and to look at animals from the religious, moral, and sentimental point; the humoristic-satirical character of the romantic and Germanic animal-poetry of the middle ages is a departure in another direction. It would, however be a mistake, and would underrate the clear comprehension of reality possessed by the Greeks, to suppose that all these traits of dolphin-life were mere fancy-pictures. The dolphin was observed correctly on the whole, but the lively imaginative faculty of the sailors and fishermen, easily moved to exaggeration in contemplating the immensity of the sea, unconsciously underlaid the natural behavior of these animals with moral motives. With later peoples, those traits were exaggerated on the sentimental side. Large schools of dolphins followed the sailors in clear weather and amused and entertained them with their arrow-like movements, and with the gracefully waving lines which they left on the waters, while everything else avoided the ship. It was easy for them to imagine that all this was done for their sake, and in consequence of the dependence of the animal upon man. The fancy naturally arose that the dolphin by his movements warned men of approaching storms; and it became regarded as a power and a symbol of the sea and sacred to Neptune. As the lion was king of the animals of the land, so was the dolphin king of the animals of the sea; and as the former, according to the story, ate apes to renew his strength in his old age, so did the dolphin prolong his life to three hundred years by eating sea-apes. Thus a humanizing of Nature took place in this fancy of the Greeks, as in everything else they looked at. It was imagined that the dolphin could call with a whistle, and when this was believed, it became a sure evidence to the Greeks that the animal must have once been a man, one of the wild, piratical, Tyrrhenians whom Dionysus in punishment changed into a dolphin. Out of this grew the idea of the moral attributes that wore ascribed to the animal, its parental love, its humors, etc. Thus it became still more appropriately a symbol of the sea and a constant companion of Neptune, while its speed was compared with that of the horse, a creature of Neptune's. It was the dolphin that hunted up Amphitrite when she fled to the depths of the sea to avoid a marriage with Neptune, and guarded her till the god led her home as his spouse; and Neptune, in recognition of its skill and fidelity, made it his sacred animal, and set it as a constellation in the northwestern sky. Thus it came also that Ulysses, the ideal sailor, carried the symbol of the dolphin on his shield and wore it engraved on his signet-ring.

These mystic views of the animal were impressed on other people, and found expression in new tales and forms. Conrad, of Megenburg, the first German naturalist, introduced them to the Germans in the fourteenth century, to whom he described the dolphin as an animal without malice, living to be a hundred years old, loving music and friendly to men, and told the story of Arion and the boys with the dolphin. The Greek myths were also translated to the Christian saints' legends, and we have in the latter stories of wonderful deliverances of God-beloved persons, like those which had so often appeared in the Hellenic epics of a thousand years before; and the dolphin thus found its way into the ancient Christian symbolism, where it figured as an emblem of love, of marriage-fidelity, and of the Christian; for it was regarded as a fish, and the fish was used (after the text in Matthew iv, 19, "I will make you fishers of men") to designate souls gained by baptism or conversion. Therefore it is often found on baptismal basins, and on grave-stones in the catacombs to indicate that the person resting there was a Christian; and it occurs, with an anchor, on the lids of Christian coffins. This curious and peculiar symbolism is less wonderful when we reflect that ancient Christian art was wont, in its dread of anthropomorphism, to betake itself to zoöraorphism, and that it represented Christ himself by a fish. In the Belgian legends, the largest fish of the country, the sturgeon, figures instead of the dolphin as the deliverer and leader, and carries St. Amalberga over the Thames when she wishes to go to a cloister. In the German legend, Notburga is assisted across the Neckar by a stag.

These considerations will help to explain much that is mysterious in myth, legend, and art, in reference to the dolphin. It is quite obvious also that ancient artists prized this animal the more because it belonged to the beautiful forms of nature. The graceful lines of its body, contrasted with the relatively monotonous outlines of the fishes, commended it to their regard, and were appreciated by artists on account of the animation which the animal's movements in the water imparted to them. Nevertheless, a comparison of the picture of a real dolphin with an ideal dolphin will show that a bare naturalism could have made much less than art has made out of the animal. But the ancient artists treated the animal world with great freedom, and a large appreciation of its spirit; they only made the real form prominent and mingled the unreal with it, or threw it entirely away, and thus by skillful treatment made a picture agreeable to the eye. This freedom was more justifiable, because the Greeks never had a particular species of dolphin in view; but, as Cuvier has shown, confounded with it the smaller sharks, thus inventing the extreme diversity of forms in which dolphins are depicted. Add to this the unstable element of the water in which the dolphin was always seen sporting, and the impossibility of getting an accurate view of its form under the circumstances, and it is evident that an artistic fancy might readily and legitimately exaggerate the proper form into the most grotesque. It would, of course, be natural for art to represent the animal as always in motion, and its tail with its sickle-shaped fins in the air after the manner in which it always showed itself to the sailors who observed it.—Die Natur.