Whale Mythology and Folklore

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Caption: Marten-Jacobsz van Veen Heemskerk, Jonah and the Whale, c. 1566.

Folklore and mythology about whales can tell us a great deal about human interaction with whales across cultures. These stories function to encapsulate cultural beliefs about the origins of people, nature and the universe and provide insight into the meaning of the universe and people’s place within it. For most of human history, these myths were passed down orally from generation to generation.

Many myths about whales are stories of creation, stories about God or the gods that give us a sense of our own place in the world and our relationship to other creatures. Whether they are envisioned as gentle brothers that give themselves to us for sustenance or monsters that are to be both feared and respected, these myths and folkloric tales shape the way people in cultures throughout the world view whales.

As outsiders, we can read these cultural myths as simple “stories,” but they contain fundamental moral truths about human interaction with whales for the people who pass these stories on to children and adults alike for centuries or even millennia.