Folklore and legends are usually traditional stories popularly regarded as the telling of historical events. When in the form of myths, they often involve some form of the supernatural. They have been with us for thousands of years and, because of this, folklore and legends form the basis of many religious beliefs, value systems, and the way we perceive our place in the world and our interaction with other animals. Humans have long revered whales and other animals in legends. For thousands of years, they have been aligned with the gods, mythologized, and celebrated in art.
It appears though in many popular legends that the great whales were not necessarily held in such high regard as the other mythological animals. Whales were typically described as monsters of the sea, their great size to be feared by all. Oppian (A.D. 180) told of the hunt of a whale; its monstrous size and unapproachable limbs a terrible sight to behold. In biblical times, the story of Jonah and the whale was well known, and it is popular even today. The story tells of Jonah who fled from the Lord by boat to Tarshish. When the ship was underway, the Lord caused a great storm. In fear of their lives, Jonah asked the mariners to cast him into the sea so the Lord would again make the sea calm and spare the mariners lives. Once Jonah was in the sea, however, the Lord prepared a “great fish” to swallow him. He was in the belly of the whale for 3 days and 3 nights where he prayed and vowed salvation to the Lord. Upon his vow, the Lord spoke to the whale and it vomited Jonah onto dry land and spared his life. Although today we know that it is unlikely that this event truly occurred, the story displayed the power of the Lord and what He was capable of doing to those who defied Him.
In his 1851 novel “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville described a white sperm whale of uncommon magnitude, capable of great ferocity, cunning, and malice. Melville’s novel summarized the fears of Yankee whalers that the tables would be turned and the whale would become the attacker.
Not all folklore portrays whales as fearsome beasts. Maori folklore of the Ngati Porou people tells of their ancestors being carried safely across the Pacific to New Zealand on the back of a whale. The Ngai Tahu people consider the sperm whales off the coast of the South Island as taonga (treasures). If a whale strands, prayers are said in order to return its spirit to Tangaroa, the Maori god of the sea. After this, the lower jawbone is removed for ceremonial carving and placement on the marae (the tribes’ traditional meeting grounds). Think “Whale Rider.”
The north Alaska Inuit people have for over 1000 years relied on whale products for their survival. As with many traditional hunting societies, ceremonies accompany the hunt that assures good luck, and many hunters take charms or amulets to ensure their luck and safety. Some believe the skull of the dead whale must be returned to the sea in order to assure the immortality and reincarnation of the whale, thereby protecting the future hunting success.
Whales are associated with compassion and solitude, and knowledge of both life and death. They are also associated with unbridled creativity. The exhalation through the blowhole symbolizes the freeing of one’s own creative energies. The sound is also a creative force of life. Whales use sonar and echolocation, linking them to the tutelage of direction and response to feedback. Though whales are symbolic of free use of creativity, they are also teachers of how to use creative energies more conservatively.
The whale may facilitate emotional clarity, and help us navigate through the often ambiguous and confusing seas of emotion. Whales themselves are incredibly nurturing; we see this in how they raise their young as well as their close-knit connection to others in their community herds or pods. Whales have a natural affinity for helping, especially promoting well-being within their community. People who are attracted to the whale often feel devoted to a greater cause, and although they may struggle with their own personal emotions, they tend to naturally conjure healing powers towards others in emotional trauma. Navigating the emotional waters of the whale by your side will afford guidance and clarity say many of these stories.
Whales ask us to embrace the unknown, and that’s precisely why they are so connected to the emotional depths of the oceans. To be sure, our current circumstances are born from an emotional womb. In other words, our reality is intrinsically connected to our thought and our emotional choices. It can be frustrating and confusing to track down the emotional origin of the stuff that’s manifested in our lives, and the whale can help us understand, on a deeper level, the actions that have caused unrest in our daily life.
In many sects of Native wisdom, the whale is symbolic of the beginning, the creation of all life on earth as we know it. They aren’t the only ones. Countless cultures around the globe associate themes of creation, birth and rebirth with the whale.