The Greeks (and to a lesser extent, the Romans) were as soppily enamored with the cutest member of the cetacean family as any Flipper fan today. The literature of writers from Aulus Gellius to Oppian is crammed with “awwww” stories about dolphins scooping up drowning humans and long-term relationships between boys and greathearted cetaceans.
The Greeks were seagoing folks, and, like all ancient sailors, superstitious. Ever since early Minoan times on the big island of Crete, dolphins had pride of place in Greek mythology and art, and were often associated with the wine god Dionysus.
One of the myths relates the story of Dionysus, who boarded a pirate ship while traveling in human disguise. The crew, hard up for drinking money, decided to sell what appeared to be an ordinary fellow into slavery rather than deliver him to his destination. Getting wind of the plot, the wine god drove the sailors insane by giving them hallucinations. They jumped into the sea and were drowning when Dionysus called out, “Do you repent your evil plan?”
When they screamed, “Yes!” the deity turned them into dolphins.
This myth and many others kept Greeks from harming dolphins, believing that these social animals that tenderly care for their young were once human (even if some of them were formerly bad guys and pirates). To kill a dolphin was considered a serious crime in ancient Greece.
The ancient world adored dolphins, considering them true protectors of humans. Legends of their rescues and friendliness filled the pages of Greek and Roman writers.
Another great story involved Arion, a famous singer and lyre player from Corinth, Greece. When he was on his way home from a lucrative concert tour of Italy, his boat crew turned traitorous, demanding all his money before they put out his lights. To buy a little time, Arion asked if he might sing one last song, and the crew—being big music fans and not all bad—said yes.
The musician carefully dressed himself in his performance robes, then began to sing the lovely ode to the Pythian Apollo. The musical piece he chose was a lengthy sucker, and the crew grew restive. When Arion saw them pull their knives, he jumped into the sea.
As he sank, he was swept up and borne above the waves by a school of dolphins that had enjoyed his performance even more than the boat crew. Greeks also believed that dolphins were charmed by human singing. Swimming well into the starry night, the brainy cetaceans gently carried him to the shore, where some amazed humans witnessed the dolphins encircling Arion for a group hug. As they left, the dolphins frolicked near the promontory, leaping a joyous farewell.
Soon Arion hotfooted it back to Corinth to tattle on the mutinous crew. When the boat crew finally arrived, they got what they richly deserved from Periander, the testy tyrant of Corinth.
Dolphin legend-spinning grew in several directions. The marine mammal was believed to guide human souls to the Isles of the Blessed—or to the underworld, if that was your final destination. Folks were convinced that dolphins, also long thought to be friendly and helpful to humans, had a sense of honor. Borrowing a page from such mythologizing, the early Christian church boasted nearly half a dozen saints who claimed to have been rescued by dolphins.
Plutarch, Greek historian and author, once wrote something that reveals how deeply the Greeks felt about these animals. “To the dolphin alone, beyond all others, nature has given what the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage. Though it has no need of man, yet it is a friend to all men and has given them great aid.”