The Dolphin

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


As I first in the dark sea spring
In dolphin form onto the swift ship, so
Pray to me as Delphinius; whilst this altar
Shall ever be the Delphi altar, seen from afar.

Hymn to Apollo        HOMER

 From one end of the Mediterranean to the other, the haunting story of a boy on a dolphin has coursed and eddied, repeatedly to surface and be told once again. Always it is tinged with sadness. There is an echo of a poignant longing for love and trust and a merging with pure joyful power. They say that during the reign of Augustus a dolphin living near Naples fell in love with a poor schoolboy. Each day the lad would call to his friend and the dolphin would carry him across the bay to school. There came a day when the boy was mortally stricken with disease and could come no more. The dolphin returned daily to their meeting place, like a mourner at the graveside, until he too weakened, ceased to frolic around the bay and finally died. From his death sprang more than sadness, for it was caused by marvellous affection which is the more memorable sentiment. Perhaps for this reason the story was often repeated, based on events recorded by many a sober classical observer. At Naupactus, Amphilochus, Hippo, and down the Helladic seas to the Nile Delta, the beautiful friendship of a youth and a dolphin has been celebrated in poetry and song. Sweet-sad lyrics tell of the boy from Iasus called Hermias, who rode a dolphin on the open seas. Struck by a sudden storm, the boy died whilst clinging to its back, and the dolphin carried him up on the shore, where he expired by the side of his dead friend. People came and marvelled. They wondered at the bond that could inspire such sacrifice, which humans know is rare to find amongst themselves. The Greeks have a song expressing this wonder which asks, "What is this that they call love, what is this? Is it laughter, joy or pain? I don't know what it is, but I love."

 Mariners of the Mediterranean echo descriptions of the exuberant dolphin offered by sailors all over the world. They tell of how the dolphins play constantly around the bow of their ships, sometimes for hours on end. They rise very close alongside to breathe, making a half-snorting sigh, only to dive and tumble once again. They will glide six feet under the surface, using the large waves pushed up by the Meltemi winds as a sea toboggan. Or they will surf-ride down the Aegean with their noses protruding through the crests of the water. Being the swiftest of marine animals, they are all the more capable of helping those in need, and since very ancient times the dolphin has been seen as a guide and even a saviour of men. The dolphin is quick to help but does so with discrimination, and when its form is linked with that of an anchor, a symbol of arrested speed is indicated. The dolphin moves quickly but wisely. It hastens slowly. In the great expanses of water around this globe, dolphins have located men in trouble and saved their lives. One such was said to have saved Telemachus when he fell into the sea, causing Odysseus to choose a smiling dolphin as a shield design. The shield of Aeneas bore two silver dolphins for good fortune. Opposite each other, they are like those rendered in mosaic at Antioch, where they flank the goddess Thalassa like rudders, guides to lead on the prow of the ship across the unknown dangers of the abyss.

 In the ancient world the dolphin was the guide to souls in the underworld, the saviour of the shipwrecked. The earliest Christians believed this and used the symbol of the dolphin with ship or anchor to indicate the idea of the church guided by Christ. Their identification of the dolphin with Christ went even further in that iconography which depicted the crucifixion of a dolphin pierced by a trident. But the beauty of the pagan guide who loved and died, who saved the hero and foretold the storm – this is the dolphin symbol that lives deep in the hearts of poets and those whose minds are unbounded by time. The ancient longing that wells up behind eyes looking through walls and surroundings, through centuries to the mysterious grottoes of a more vital innocence, finds this dolphin. In his sonnet "To Homer", the words of Keats reach back to lightly touch upon that archaic reality:

Standing aloof in quiet ignorance,
 Of thee I hear and of the Cyclades,
As one who sits ashore and longs perchance
 To visit dolphin-coral in deep seas.

 Aphrodite was commonly associated with the dolphin throughout the Mediterranean world. As the Nabataean goddess Atargatis, she was the harbinger of good fortune and safe passage in the sea and in the after-life. Like her counterpart Aphrodisias, her long hair coiled around two dolphins who gracefully sprang from her head. An attribute of Isis is the dolphin, and Thetis was depicted riding naked upon one's back. This mode of divine transport was not unknown to 'the Woman of the Sea', for in Tunis there is a lovely Aphrodite who, with her long sky-veil billowing out behind her, is tranquilly seated on a flying dolphin. As a pictographic seal, the dolphin appeared in Crete three thousand five hundred years before the Christian era, and the Minoan kings decorated their throne rooms with their ultramarine grace. This association with power was echoed by the medieval counts of Daufine, who used a dolphin design on their armour and gave their name (Daufin) to the heir apparent of the throne of France. The good fortune associated with dolphins passed through countless transactions within the Hellenic world in the form of coins stamped with their plunging shape. More than forty Greek cities issued such coins, whilst everywhere vases, metal work, engravings and stucco floors were fashioned to display this most auspicious motif. From as far off as Russia and Egypt, statues of Eros riding a dolphin have been found, and the soil of ancient Carthage has yielded a mysterious figure holding a caduceus whilst standing upon a dolphin.

 The dolphin guides and it carries. Perhaps the most famous classical incident in which a dolphin apparently saved a man was recorded by Herodotus. He tells of the tyrant Periander who kept court at Corinth around 600 B.C. In its porticoes Arion of Methymna played his lyre and gained fame as a musician and composer. At one point Arion travelled to Sicily and made great profit from his talents before returning home to Corinth. The sailors carrying him intended to take his wealth and throw him overboard. Although he begged them to take his money and spare his life, they refused and permitted him only to sit in his full costume upon the prow whilst singing the Orthian before he died. It is believed that the sweetness of his voice was responsible for attracting the dolphin. Whatever the cause, his cape had not yet sunk beneath the brine before he was carried up in a surge of awesome force and propelled at great speed to Cape Taenarum. From there he made his way back to Corinth to await the sailors who thought he was dead.

 Two dolphins facing in opposite directions symbolize the dual cosmic streams of involution and evolution. This seems to be borne out by the strong solar and lunar characteristics which coexist in the symbolism connected with the dolphin. Closely associated with Apollo, the dolphin was believed to guide souls to their enlightenment. The Greek word delphis (dolphin) is related to delphys, which means 'womb' and stands for the feminine principle. This was reflected in the relationship between the dolphin and many of the Mediterranean goddesses, and yet the dolphin was also an attribute of Poseidon and intimately associated with Dionysus. There is a beautiful cup from the early classical period designed by Exekias, who painted the godly figure of Dionysus resting upon a ship which itself looks like a dolphin. Growing around its mast is a tree with fruit and leaves hanging over the sail, and around the ship dolphins swim. This masterpiece depicts the attempted abduction of the god by sailors who were turned into dolphins for their pains, which no doubt bears a deeper symbolic meaning. It is said that the Greek myths explaining the origin of the dolphin are all related to Dionysus, and the cycle of death and rebirth has been likened to the diving and leaping dolphin coursing its way across the watery abyss.

 Apollo is also a dolphin deity. Is he not called Apollo Delphinius? Legend has it that when Apollo had completed his temple near Mount Parnassus, he needed suitable priests. Spying some Cretans in a ship bound for Pylos, the great sun god leapt into the sea in the form of a dolphin and thence into the hollow of their vessel. Too large to throw overboard, the dolphin lay there, and the sailors were driven by forces beyond their control into the Gulf of Corinth and finally that of Krisa. There, as a beautiful youth, Apollo revealed himself to them and appointed them holy servants of his temple. He bade them worship him under the title Delphinius (Dolphin-like), and the site of the shrine, formerly called Pytho, took on the immortal name of Delphi. As the deity guides the sun across the heavenly ocean in his golden vehicle, the dolphin leads the ship of men across the blue in watery form, and at Delphi the two meet. From the illuminated marble of Apollo's temple, the dawn reaches down and touches the slumbering depths of the sea cleft by the arc of a dolphin's curve. So close, they are the complement of each other, one above, one below.

Dolphins have large brains.
Possibly they will someday
Be able to teach us what
Brains are for.


 Similar to the abducting sailors who were turned into dolphins was the plight of Pharaoh's forces as they pursued the Israelites into the Red Sea. The idea of a man-fish, so revered in many religious traditions, is marvellously demonstrated in the dolphin. Whether people have thought that he was once a man or that man was once a dolphin, there is no more intelligent mammal in the ocean, and, some would argue, on land as well. Most dolphins inhabit the seas, but some, like the Ganges dolphin, live in rivers sometimes many miles from the sea. The Brahmaputra, Indus and Ganges join the Amazon, Nile, Yangtze Kiang and other great rivers in hosting this graceful sojourner. The common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) can reach a length of nine feet in the open seas and is distinguished from the bottle-nosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and the beakless porpoise by its well-defined narrow beak. The dolphins painted by Exekias on the Dionysian cup are a good example of this type, whilst sculptors of the Roman and medieval periods tended to favour the bottle-nosed dolphin, which grows to a length of twelve feet or more. Such awesome size seems more within familiar human proportions when one learns that dolphins have a ten-month gestation period, give birth as a normal mammal, and suckle their young for an eighteen-month period. Of course this proportion reaches beyond the human range when one notices that the new-born is three feet long and weighs twenty-five pounds, yet the loving care and discipline shown by the dolphin mother to her offspring is a model for human conduct. Dolphins have a highly cooperative social network wherein they help each other to fish and achieve safety, and they will go to great lengths to protect a wounded or sick comrade. Since ancient times, in the Pacific and Mediterranean worlds, stories have persisted which describe how sometimes one or several dolphins gave up their lives to remain with a stricken fellow. When efforts are made to save healthy animals stranded on a beach, they refuse to be rescued and turn back to die with their injured friend.

 It has often been suggested that the irresistible wail of the sirens which Odysseus heard whilst he was safely tied to the mast of his ship was really the song of dolphins. When they depicted the scene, the ancient Greeks showed the sailors with their ears plugged, their master bound fast, and dolphins leaping and gambolling around the boat. Perhaps the plaintive sounds of the dolphin lure one back through the abyssal past to a primordial mode of communication which flies in the face of separative consciousness. This could be seen as a threat to the individuating hero who must seize reason as a means of knowing and can no longer move as one with the currents of life. But the irrational force of Dionysus claims the dolphin equally with the Apollonian force of the rational, and the immense auditory specialization represented in dolphins is accompanied by a very high degree of discriminative intelligence.

 Whilst the eye, which is strongly related to human powers of discrimination, is well developed in the dolphin, its outstanding characteristic is a profound audio sensitivity to changes in signal amplitude or frequency. The evolution of their hearing and sound-producing systems have involved new mechanisms as well as modifications of those possessed by their terrestrial ancestor. The entire peripheral respiratory system has been modified to facilitate sound production. Clicks and whistles are produced simultaneously and in extremely close proximity with each other and still have different beam patterns. All of these can be understood either by the dolphin using sound for echo location purposes (a minutely detailed check of its environment), or by many dolphins who carry on complex communication whilst swimming in groups. In the Black Sea, dolphins commune in whistles, each one having a unique tone and contributing to an underwater chorus of enormous variety. The bottle-nosed dolphin is exceptionally adept at learning and remembering sounds heard. They can also recognize variants of duration and frequency as derivative forms. It is this inclination that has inspired many to feel that the dolphin might well be capable of learning an imposed language. But as one observer has pointed out, why should a language be imposed upon this remarkable animal? Is it not perhaps more fruitful that we attempt to learn the meaning of its own? It is amusing to think that the intelligent 'tricks' which men have taught dolphins to perform might be indulged in by them in a spirit of cheerful compassion.

 Pliny the Elder told of how dolphins helped fishermen in classical times, mentioning that it was called 'fishing for share'. To this day, the practice continues in rivers and in the open sea. Fishermen of the Sporades catch garfish in the darkest nights of October with flares which initially attract them, whereupon the dolphins drive the fish into the net. In the Tapajoz and Irrawaddy rivers, dolphins push fish into the net, the latter being particularly revered by Burmese fishermen, each riverside village having its guardian dolphin. The dolphins of the Tapajoz can be called by Brazilian Indians with a humming tune and a knocking on the side of their canoe. Off the coast of New Zealand and Queensland, mullet were caught in a similar way. The Aborigines of Australia say that they used to call the individual dolphins by name and that they would respond to a peculiar splashing in the water made with their spears. Coming to them from beyond the waves, the dolphin would drive the mullet into nets thrown out over rocky inlets.

 Man tends to think of intelligence in terms of manipulating things. Dolphins cannot do this, but in their response to the needs and desires of man they reveal an intelligence of such subtlety that people are either awed or made sceptical. One way to clear the air is with a bit of humour, a method freely used by Aesop, who wrote of the dolphin that rescued a monkey after a ship went down. Approaching Piraeus, the dolphin asked the monkey if he were an Athenian. "Oh yes," the monkey replied, "and from one of the best families." "Then you know Piraeus?" asked the dolphin. Whereupon the monkey replied, "Very well indeed, he's one of my best friends." The dolphin was outraged with so gross a deceit and promptly took a deep dive, leaving the clever-by-half monkey to his fate. Many would argue that moral outrage was not within the scope of the dolphin and that, though clever-seeming, its acts towards man are merely the result of playfulness and curiosity. There persist, however, well documented cases of people who have been saved by dolphins at sea, including that of one woman who had fallen overboard at night in the Caribbean and was 'nudged' by a dolphin away from strong currents and towards the shore. During the Second World War many stories about dolphin rescues circulated in the Pacific. In one incident, six American airmen had been shot down and were afloat in a small rubber raft. A dolphin appeared and pushed them steadily through the open sea until they reached land. Unfortunately, they quickly discovered the island to be occupied by the Japanese, a political distinction beyond the discrimination of the altruistic dolphin.

 The dolphin cannot display its intelligence by manipulating things, but with echo location he gains far more knowledge of his environment than one may imagine. The intelligence of a dolphin is lonely, almost disembodied. He floats in a watery world without the stimulus of agile, exploring fingers that can alter and formulate the surroundings. Yet in that floating world he has developed an intelligence of a very high order. Once a land mammal long ages ago, the dolphin returned to the sea where his large and highly convoluted brain slowly evolved. To quote the poetic words of Loren Eiseley, "It is as though both man and dolphin were each part of some great eye which yearned to look both outward on eternity and inward to the sea's heart."

 There is indeed a special and profoundly moving kinship between mankind and the dolphin, as though they represent two specialized aspects of one self. Herman Melville expressed something of this when he wrote:

 Their appearance is generally hailed with delight by the mariner. Full of fine spirits, they invariably come from the breezy billows to windward. They are the lads that always live before the wind. They are accounted a lucky omen. If you can withstand three cheers at beholding these vivacious fish, then heaven help ye.

Always men have worked the sea with the dolphin as friend. Because he is an intelligent and altruistic partner, men have fished with him for the share. It is extremely difficult to understand how any fishing industry could, out of a greed which calls itself necessity, enter into an aggressive and dehumanizing competition with this old friend. In the second century Oppian, a Greek of Cilicia, warned:

 The hunting of dolphins is immoral and that man 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 him, whoso willingly devises destruction for dolphins. For equally with human slaughter the gods abhor the deathly doom of the monarchs of the deep; for like thoughts with men have the attendants of the god of the booming sea; wherefore also they practise love of their offspring and are very friendly to one another.

 Poseidon of the booming sea holds a dolphin in his right hand as his vehicle and yet it is one with him, esoterically. Some say that Poseidon became a dolphin in order to win his consort Amphitrite, whilst others have believed that the dolphin acted as messenger. For this favour Poseidon placed him amongst the immortals in heaven, where as Delphinus he lies east of Aquila on the edge of the Milky Way, occupying that portion of the sky that Aratus called the Water. This act of bringing the reluctant Amphitrite and Poseidon together is no doubt linked up with the frequent association of Eros (or Cupid) with the dolphin, and an important consequence of this was the birth of their son, Triton.

 Above the waist Triton was a man, whilst below he had the form of a dolphin, a combination that links him with the idea of Oannes the man-fish as well as the Hindu notion of Vishnu-Matsya. These were Teachers of wisdom to mortals, and in the aspect of Matsya there lies a powerful example of the fish-dolphin acting as guide. Triton too assisted the transfer of human life from one age to the next at the time of the Great Deluge. Exercising control over the waters, he also acted to preserve the solar spark of wisdom culled out of a vast period of evolution. With the power of sound he allayed the rising waters. With his conch shell he blew a note that filled the deep around the world. Thus the dolphin is instrumental in bringing about the birth of the man-fish, the saviour, and in a very real sense is itself a saviour. In the Hindu tradition the dolphin is identified with the tenth sign of the zodiac, which is Capricorn or Makara, the vahan of Varuna-Poseidon. The stars making up this constellation were merged by ancient seers in order to signify the meeting of water and air upon earth. This is the occult meaning of the man-fish/goat-fish associated with the mirror of mind. In this way, Makara can be seen as the vahan of the Universal Encompasser (Varuna-Poseidon), who fell into time and generation. The man-fish is linked to the Fall, but out of the chaos of the sea, it is said, the dragons will manifest their fruits. Clearly then, the dolphin exemplifies, as a symbol and as a living creature, a great primitive sacrifice. In this way it is linked to the five pristine Yogis called the Kumaras and to spiritual microcosmic birth. The Secret Doctrine suggests that these Kumaras are of the fifth order of Brahmadevas and have the soul of the five elements in them, with water and ether predominating. Because of this, their symbols were both aquatic and fiery. They are linked to the Prachetasas (the five Ministers) who worship Narayana and whose mother is the Daughter of the Ocean (Savarna-Amphitrite). In this way, they symbolize both the lunar dolphin vehicle and the manifest wisdom embodied in the solar man-fish.

 With this fusion, Apollo and Dionysus are brought together. Like two dolphins circling around each other, each facing the opposite direction, like revolving teardrops in a yin-yang pattern, the two gods alternately represent involution and evolution. Both are so closely associated with the dolphin that the characterization of either as exclusively rational or irrational seems overdrawn. Rather, one might perceive a necessary blending of Buddhi and Manas suggested in their shared affiliation. Apollo takes on the guise of a dolphin to make priests of men. Dionysus rides upon a dolphin-ship and scatters those who were blind to the spiritual back into the form of the Sacrificing Ones who entered the water of the mother long ago. By this compassionate act the great god of the Mysteries afforded such persons a chance to experience a pure and selfless intelligence which is less involved in manipulating an environment than in intimately relating to it. Through hearing and producing sound, they would respond to the most minute aspects of a swirling, watery matrix in which a vast spectrum of tones endlessly resounded. Perhaps then, as dolphins, they might experience and mirror the wisdom embodied in the virgin Akasha which echoes throughout the heavenly ocean. As dolphins they will leap with the joy of hearing these celestial sounds and attempt, even at the risk of their lives, to share this with their human brethren.

On the edge of the ocean
Where the waves become sky,
The boy rides on the dolphin,
They leap, they dance, they fly!
A sun splashing across the world.