The Gulf of Mexico is home to more than 400 endangered animal species. I’m going to contain my fury rant about the current situation (deep breath) and instead focus on myths, legends and symbolism associated with some of the species threatened by the current crisis.
This list, while by no means complete, includes not only animals native to the region, but migratory birds who use the Gulf marshes as a resting and hunting ground while en route, as well as animals further inland who may still suffer through secondary effects as the crisis travels up the food chain.
CRANE: The crane symbolizes longevity and eternal life, as well as fidelity, solitude, independence, and grace. In ancient times, the Chinese believed the White Crane represented wisdom, and considered it blessed. Cranes were also thought to be mounts of the gods, able to fly them to the Isle of Immortals. The Egyptians also saw cranes as the gods’ messengers. Since cranes sometimes feed on snakes, in early Christianity they were viewed as Satan’s natural enemies. They were sacred to the goddess Demeter in early Greco-Roman myth, as their annual migration concurred with Persephone’s return from the underworld. The ancient Greeks saw the crane as a guide to Hades, the realm of the dead. The crane was also a symbol of the Celtic god Pwyll, king of the underworld.
SONGBIRDS: Symbolic of solitude and poetry, as well as spring, the songbird is a protective spirit closely associated with, of course, music. The Navajo have an interesting myth about the creation of songbirds. More recently, sailors adopted the habit of tattooing a songbird (swallow) for each 50,000 miles sailed. Some Norse myths depicted swallows picking up fallen soldiers by their shoulders. There is a fairy tale about a king who cages a songbird, hoping to protect it. The songbird dies, and is replaced by a mechanical bird.
DOLPHINS: Dolphins are friendly spirits, as anyone who has ever been lucky enough to have a dolphin escort their boat (myself included) can testify. It is no surprise that dolphins symbolized protection to the ancient Greeks, Romans, Native Americans, Australian aborigines, and Celts. There are many legends of dolphins saving sailors and drowning swimmers, including Arion the bard, Taras, the son of Poseidon, and Telemachos, the son of Odysseus. In New Zealand, Maoris legend claims a group of dolphins guided the tribe to their new home. The Greek god Dionysus sometimes transformed himself into a dolphin. Ancient Greeks also considered the murder of a dolphin a crime equal to the murder of a human being; the punishment was death. Dolphins’ playfulness evokes the inner child in all of us. Other dolphin meanings include harmony, intelligence, friendship, contentment and resurrection.
WHALES: In various Slavic, Arabic and Russian myths, whales support the earth, while in Chinese mythology a whale/human hybrid is the ruler of the seas. Christian mythology paints a less friendly picture, with the whale being more symbolic of hell or purgatory. Perhaps the most compelling mythology about the whales I have seen is that of the Australian whaledreamer tribes, who believe that the whales, through their dreams, are able to reach other dimensions, and that the heartbeats of whales, being close to the center of the earth, are the heartbeats of the earth itself. The movie Whaledreamers takes a close look at this mythology, and I recommend it to anyone interested in it.
MANATEES: The manatee is thought to have been a perpetrator of the mermaid mythology, though they failed to impress Christopher Columbus, who noted in a logbook that these ‘mermaids’ were “not as beautiful as they had been painted.” In some cultures, the manatee and their cousins, the dugong, were thought to be the descendants of elephants that ran into the sea, while ancient Greeks may have mistaken them for sirens. Manatees were also considered sacred in some West African cultures. There actually aren’t a whole lot of stories to be found on manatees, perhaps because these gentle, friendly sea cows don’t do a whole lot other than eat and float around in our rivers. They are, however, extremely cute, and their faces have an oddly human look to them.
TURTLES: Symbolic of both earth and sky (because of their rounded shell), turtles are one of the more unique creatures on the planet. Ancient Greeks believed they were denizens of hell, but other cultures had a more positive outlook. A Native American myth depicts a giant turtle supporting the world. In another Native myth, the Earth Diver turtle swam to the depths of the seas, then resurfaced with mud which was used by the Creator to make the earth. Also, as beach shores are associated with doorways to the faerie lands, the turtle is sometimes seen as a guardian of those doors. A Japanese fairy tale tells of man who saves a turtle from being tormented by boys. The grateful turtle brings the man before the King of the Ocean, who presents his daughter, a beautiful water sprite, to the man as a bride. Traditionally, the turtle symbolized female sex organs and female sexuality to Nigerians and also to Native Americans. Also, since some turtles’ shells have a total of thirteen segments, and perhaps because they use lunar cycles in nesting and perhaps navigation, turtles are associated with the lunar calendar, which is comprised of thirteen full moons or thirteen new moons (this may be where the female cycle symbolism originated from). The turtle can also be symbolic of Mother Earth and, of course, of persistence and steady determination, as shown in the more modern story of the tortoise and the hare.
Of the seven remaining species of sea turtles in existence today, five live in the Gulf.
ALLIGATOR: Like the crocodile, the gator represents aggression and male sexuality, perhaps because of its long tail and ferociousness. They also represent, unsurprisingly, hidden dangers and lurking threats. A powerful predator, the alligator is a cousin of the crocodile, which is found in several Egyptian myths: the Egyptian god Sorbek, for instance, wore a crocodile’s form. Though the alligator is hardly in danger of going extinct, as any Florida resident can tell you, it is a part of the marsh/swamp ecosystem, and it could create problems if it has to look elsewhere for food and/or shelter. There are no crocodiles in Louisiana, but they do inhabit the Gulf, mainly in the Everglades, where their territorial boundaries sometimes overlap with those of gators.
DRAGONFLY: The dragonfly is quite respected in Japan, where it symbolizes summer and autumn, new light, and joy, and also represents the warrior class. During the festival of Bon, the Dragonfly of the Dead, Shoryo Tombo, returns the souls of the dead to their descendents. Akitsushima, or Dragonfly Island, got its name from an emperor who thought the island represented a dragonfly. The dragonfly (one of the few insects I can tolerate) is also symbolic of happiness to the Japanese, who made it their national emblem, and to the Chinese, who consider it lucky. To the Navajo, the dragonfly represented pure water, though in early Nordic cultures, the dragonfly was less revered and was given names like ‘The Devil’s Dart’ and ‘Water Witch.’ Romanian folklore portrayed dragonflies as the souls of dead horses. Elsewhere, the dragonfly is associated with speed and purity. As it is a being associated with both air and water, dragonflies also represent a sense of self and change, and remind us of how brief life can be and the importance of living fully. In other cultures, the dragonfly is associated with prosperity, swiftness, purity, harmony and strength, while in some Native Americans cultures, they were thought to be the souls of the dead In Celtic myth, the dragonfly is also associated with the faerie realm. Because of the way their fragile wings bend and reflect light, they also remind us of the importance of seeing truly.
Also, dragonflies can fly backwards.
LOON: The loon symbolizes peace, tranquility, and generosity. The call of the loon, especially when heard through a morning mist, can be quite haunting. The loon’s song, which can be mournful or quite animated, sounding like laughter, is also the source of the term ‘loony,’ signifying madness; this call was also thought to be an omen of death to some tribes. Other tribes, believing the birds escorted souls to the netherworlds, buried loon skulls with their dead. The tale of how the loon got its ‘necklace’ from a blind man is the heart of a Tmishian legend, which was the basis for the story depicted in the 1950 movie The Loon’s Necklace.
SHARK: The shark represents stealth, hunting ability, strength and power. A frequently misunderstood predator, the shark is central to the Hawaiian legend of Kauhuhu, the tale of The Shark God of Molokai, in which said shark god helps a man avenge the deaths of his sons.
HUMMINGBIRD: In some cultures the hummingbird was considered a messenger who had the ability to stop time. This little bird also symbolizes joy, purity, and love, and reminds us to savor our brief time here.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but that’s enough for today.