Riding the wave


Fish, for the Mediterranean populations from the remotest antiquity, has been a crucial source of livelihood, so, in the end, it acquired a value transcending it being simply food, and became protagonist, for example, of art forms such as floor mosaics, wall paintings, vases and even coins and objects of personal adornment.

Silver stater Silver stater , attributed to the island of Karpathos, V c. BC, with dolphins
Vase with handles in the form of a dolphin Vase with handles in the form of a dolphin from a tomb of the first century BC Regional Archaeological Aeolian Museum Luigi Bernabo Brea
Tetradrachm of Syracuse Tetradrachm of Syracuse, V c. BC, represents the nymph Arethusa with dolphins.

Particularly the fish is constantly present in the religious symbolism: in Babylonian mythology the god of wisdom is wearing the robes of the fisherman, while the God of depths is depicted as a fish-ram and his priests wore a headdress shaped like a fish, that subsequently evolved into the miter of christian bishops.

In other Mesopotamian civilizations fish was the sacred food of the priests, to whom the fish ponds were consecrated. Likely from these cults derived the connection with the symbolism of the resurrection, explaining the pictures of fish in Egyptian, Mycenaean and Etruscan tombs.

The fish is hence the symbol of renewal and preservation of life, and is associated with all manifestations of the Mother Goddess . The Greeks had many gods with forms of fish or represented in the act of riding dolphins and sea horses ; fish is sacred to Aphrodite as a symbol of fertility and in the myth of Poseidon represents the force of the waters; the Romans gave the same meanings to Venus and Neptune . For the Israelites the fish is the food of the holy Sabbath dinner, and the ancient Passover fell in the month of Fish. For Christians, the fisherman is the collector of souls and the fish is the Savior, so that in the Greek word ICHTHUS (fish) were recognized the initials of the words Iesus CHristòs THeù Uiòs Sotér or Jesus Christ, the Son of God Savior.

In this widespread conception of the sacredness of the fish and its association with a god, to Apollo is dedicated the dolphin, aquatic animal sui generis, mammal and lord of sea, friend of man, fond of children, sensitive to music, fellow of sailors to whom it indicates calm waters and safe routes, "accomplice" of fishermen, dear to the gods, for which his capture is a sacrilege.

That's why it is always present in the iconography, not only religious: for example in the House of the Dolphins, at Delos, it recurs in the corners of the mosaic floor.

Eros riding two dolphins Eros riding two dolphins, detail, II c. BC

Similarly, in the Queen's Megaron, in the Palace of Knossos in Crete, the dolphin appears in large wall frescoes of aquatic inspiration.

Dolphins at Knossos Dolphins swim among various fishes, sixteenth century BC, Knossos

It also recurs, for example, in the mosaics in Ostia, related to maritime activities: in a workshop of fishmongers, the mosaic floor is a dolphin biting an octopus , accompanied by an inscription that expresses perhaps a warning.

Decorative dolphin Dolphin decoration, Square of the Guilds, II c., Ostia Antica
Roman mosaic of the fourth century Roman mosaic of the fourth century BC, found in Britain. London, British Museum

According to a legend, the pact of friendship between dolphins and humans had been sealed by the union of Poseidon , lord of the sea, with Melantho, daughter of Deucalion, to whom the god appeared as a dolphin. That is why the son was called Delphi, and after him was named the city of Delphi - where was the oracle of Apollo - where he was the king when Apollo came to take possession.

Hydria Vulci Hydria Vulci, V c. BC: Apollo plays the lyre, seated on a tall tripod, while dolphins swim in the sea below

The origin of Delphi is also linked to Icade, son of Apollo, in whose honor the hero founded the city of Patara and the oracle devoted to the god. During a trip by sea his ship was wrecked, but a dolphin took him to safety and transported him to the foot of Mount Parnassus. Here Icade founded the city called Delphi, in honor of the dolphin that saved him.

Perhaps the Ancients found a similarity between dolphins and humans in their attitude towards their children: Claudius Aelian, II-III century, tells in the History of animals that dolphins proceed as soldiers deployed in battle, with babies on front, followed by females, and males on the rear to ensure the safety of the herd.

To the myth of Dionysus is related another explanation of the friendship between dolphins and humans. In the course of many adventures and misfortunes suffered to assert his right to eternal life, Dionysus had asked some pirates to carry him from Argos to Naxos, but he discovered a plot by them to sell him into slavery. To punish them he turned their oars into snakes, enveloped the ship in a curtain of ivy and paralyzed it with vines, until the pirates, mad, jumped into the sea, and were transformed into dolphins. Since then they are friends of men and seek to save them from the waves, as memory of repentance of the pirates from which they descend.

Dionysus transforms the pirates into dolphins Dionysus transforms the pirates into dolphins. Jar VI-V c. BC (Toledo Museum of Art)
Black-figured cup Black-figure cup from Vulci, attributed to the sixth century BC, represents Dionysus on a sail boat, whose mast is shaped like a vine with grapes; dolphins swim in the sea, and also decorate the sides of the ship (note the apotropaic eyes , the beak and the rudder consisting of two wide blades of oars). Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek

The geographer Pausanias the "Periegeta", second century, native of Asia Minor, in his Description of Greece, tells of the bronze statue of the poet Arion riding a dolphin, on today's Cape Matapan, erected as a sign of man gratitude for being saved by dolphins.

The oldest version of the story is narrated by Herodotus: Arion of Lesbos was a musician and had obtained from his master - the tyrant of Corinth - the permission to travel the Magna Graecia and Sicily , to enrich himself with his songs. When he wanted to return home, the sailors of the ship plotted to kill him and rob him of his earnings. However, Apollo appeared in a dream warning him of the danger and promising his help. When the sailors attacked him, Arion asked to sing one last time. At the sound of his voice, a flock of dolphins came to the ship. Arion, confident in the promises, dived and was rescued by a dolphin, which led him to shore uninjured. Arrived safely, Arion dedicated a votive offering to Apollo and went back to his native Corinth, where he recounted his adventure to his master. When the ship reached the city, the Tyrant asked the sailors what had become of Arion, and they told he perished during the trip. At that point Arion appeared and the perpetrators were put to death. In memory of that event, Apollo turned the lyre of Arion and the dolphin into constellations.

Again Pausanias, in the Description of Greece, among its many stories focused on dolphins, tells of the Spartan Phalanthus, rescued by a dolphin during the sinking of his ship, and transported to the shores of southern Italy, where he founded the town of Taranto.

Phalanthus riding the dolphin Phalanthus riding the dolphin on the obverse of a stater of the fifth century BC at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples

Pliny the Elder, who died in Miseno during the eruption in 79 AD, in his Natural History tells the story of a child, going to school every day around the lake Lucrino near Baia , that became friend with a dolphin that lived in the lake; every day he gave him his snack, and then climbed on the back for being carried on the opposite bank. But after some time the child died, and the dolphin, not seeing him more, let himself die in pain.

Claudius Aelian tells a similar story of a young student, who - after school gym - dived in the nearby waters of the Iaso, along with his classmates. A bit at a time, overcoming the initial mistrust, he befriended a dolphin that had come to attend their games. The two began to swim together and compete with each other, until the boy learned to ride the dolphin, drifting in long ridings in the waves. But one day, in jumping onto the back of his friend, the boy stabbed on the sting of the dorsal fin and died, and his blood reddened the waters. The dolphin knew that he had lost his companion and, in despair, threw himself on the beach, letting slip the boy's body, and wanted to die with him. In memory of the great friendship the people of Iaso buried the two in the same grave and erected a stele, on which was depicted the boy riding the dolphin.

Another story demonstrates the gratitude of dolphins towards who was generous with them: one day the hero Cerano saw a fisherman who had caught a dolphin. He bought the animal and restored its freedom. After some time Cerano ran into a shipwreck, and was the only one, among the humans transported by the ship, to be rescued by dolphins that brought him back to shore unharmed. When he died, while the funeral procession was passing through the port of Miletus, a group of dolphins followed the coffin along the coast.

Other stories focus on the collaboration of dolphins with fishermen. As Pliny tells us, they call them loudly with the name "Simon", which likely derives from the greek simós from which the Latin simus to mean "snub" referring to the muzzle of the animal. Dolphins rush to push into the net flocks of fish, swimming around them to prevent their dispersion, then rewarded with part of the prey.

In classical arts the dolphin appears now as a decorative element, and then as the symbol of the transmigration of the soul, and as such also appears in Christian art. In pagan iconography it appears with Neptune , Bacchus, in the altars of Delphic Apollo; on a chariot drawn by dolphins are represented Amphitrite , Galatea , and Thetis; when is combined with the trident it is the symbol of the sea. It is also one of the attributes of St. Andrew. In heraldry the ordinary position of the dolphin in the shield is in profile, bent into a semicircle, with the nose and tail towards right.