Dolphins of Heavens and Earth

Map Description automatically generated

Dolphins fresco at the palace of Knossos in Minoan Crete, about 1,600 BCE. Public Domain.

The Greeks of the Bronze age flourished for millennia – in the mainland and the islands of the Aegean and Ionian Seas.

The dolphin icon of the Greek Bronze Age

The largest of the islands, Crete, displayed originality and vigor in the second millennium BCE, which carries the name Minoan Age from its greatest king, Minos, son of Zeus. Other regions in the mainland and Aegean islands that advanced the foundations of Greek civilization included Thessaly in north Greece, Mycenae, and Sparta in Peloponnesos and Thebes and Delphi in Central Greece, Athens, and the Aegean islands of Lemnos, Thera, and the tiny islands Daskalio and Keros. The god of metallurgy, Hephaistos, had his workshop in Lemnos.

Like Crete, Mycenae in Peloponnesos was so exceptional that it sparked its own version of Bronze Age civilization we call Mycenaean.

Scholars date the Greek Bronze Age from about 3,100 to approximately 1,000 BCE. This was the time that the Greeks set the foundations of their civilization: speaking and writing Greek, expressing their piety to the gods, perfecting metallurgy and the arts, architecture, ship building and sailing, sending the Argonauts to explore the region of the Black Sea, fighting, and winning the Trojan War, understanding of the Cosmos and natural world, and organizing their lives around the polis.

Of the surviving icons of the Bronze age, there are images of animals and plants illustrating great art but also great interest and knowledge of the natural world. For example, in a fresco from the palace at Knossos, Crete, and dated about 1,600 BCE, we see images of dolphins.

We admire these iconic dolphins because they are beautiful and accurate representations of an important large animal in the sea surrounding the Greek islands. Dolphins and other sea animals had mythological and religious significance for the Bronze Age Greeks.

Gods Poseidon, Dionysos, and Apollo were connected to dolphins. Poseidon was king of the seas and oceans and protected marine life. A myth suggests that Dionysos turned pirates into dolphins.

The oracle of Apollo at Delphi in the southern slope of Mt. Parnassos in Central Greece was intimately connected to dolphins. Apollo named his oracle Delphi from dolphins that carried Cretan priests to his shrine. He thought of dolphins as sacred animals. He expressed that affection by taking the name Delphinios, the protector of dolphins.

Arion and the dolphin

Another story reported by none other than the father of history, Herodotos (Histories 1.23-24), is about Arion, the best musician and lyric poet of the seventh century BCE. He invented the dithyramb or choral hymn to Dionysos. Arion was from Lesbos, yet he spent several years at the court of King Periander of Corinth.

Once, Arion left Corinth for southern Italy He hired a ship and sailors from Corinth who took him to Taras, a Greek polis in Apulia.

Herodotos says Arion was a great success, his Greek hosts rewarded him handsomely with gifts and plenty of money. On his journey from Taras to Corinth, however, he almost faced death. The sailors conspired against him. They demanded all his money and urged him to kill himself. Arion pleaded for his life without success. The sailors wanted him dead, though they agreed he could sing his last song. Arion dressed up and sang his last song. Then he jumped into the sea.

Herodotos spoke to people in Lesbos and Corinth about Arion. They agreed that a dolphin saved Arion’s life.

Arion on the Dolphin by Francois Boucher, 1748. Public Domain.

The dolphin carried Arion to Corinth. Arion explained the story to Periander who was skeptical to the point of putting Arion under guard. However, he was determined to find out the truth.

The arrival to Corinth of the criminal sailors gave Periander the opportunity he sought. He demanded to know what happened to Arion. The sailors said that Arion was still somewhere in Italy. At which time, Arion confronted the sailors. Periander, put the sailors to death and thanked Arion for his integrity. He also raised a statue of the dolphin that saved the life of Arion.

The story of Arion and the dolphin was so powerful and important and paradigmatic of the role of dolphins in Greek culture that Apollo placed Arion and the dolphin among the stars in the constellation Delphinos.

Delphinos constellation: cluster of stars about 50,000 light years away from the Earth. NASA / ESA / Hubble Telescope.

The paradigm of Aristotle

No doubt, the Greeks had a very strong affinity for dolphins. Natural philosophers like Aristotle, his student, Theophrastos, and historians like Herodotos and Plutarch wrote about dolphins.

Aristotle, in fact, was responsible for the scientific study of dolphins. Aristotle, the great fourth century BCE philosopher, and tutor of Alexander the Great, invented the science of zoology. He studied about 500 animals and wrote about their anatomy, behavior, and relations with humans and the natural world. His History of Animals and Parts of Animals are almost unparalleled in clarity, scientific facts, and insights.

In book I of the History of Animals, Aristotle spoke about animals communicating with each other. He said that some animals are mute, and others resort to chirping and twittering, and singing. But some animals have voice and of those with voice some have articulate speech.

In books VIII and IX of the History of Animals, Aristotle classified the dolphins, porpoises, and whales. He said they are breathing air, giving birth to live young, which they suckle. Aristotle said these cetacean animals (dolphins, whales, and porpoises) communicate under water.

Aristotle praised the dolphins for being gentle to humans, especially young boys. Moreover, Aristotle hinted that dolphins have voice, speaking in the air in a manner resembling human speech.

Experiments with dolphins in the 1950s, says the American scientist John Lilly, confirmed the observations of Aristotle. In 2006-2007, Shane Guan, biologist at the University of the Virgin Islands, also agreed with Aristotle that dolphins had a voice in the air no different than that of humans.

In September 6, 2011, NBC News reported on a study headed by Peter Madsen of Aarhus University and published in Royal Society Biology Letters. The conclusion of the study was that dolphins talk to each other, to some degree, like humans do.[1] Aristotle was right.

The dolphins in the Anthropocene

Despite Aristotle and despite the millennia-long Greek tradition of respect for dolphins and cetaceans, modern people have been killing them as fast as they can. Add to this global genocide the deleterious effects of climate chaos in the waters of rivers, seas, and oceans, and the future of marine life is in deep trouble.

Not all is lost, however. Millions of people care for dolphins, whales, and porpoises. They understand that if these beautiful marine mammals are doomed, their turn is not that far behind. Knowledge and love for the natural world are the two key ingredients in saving marine life, including dolphins, whales, and porpoises.

Scientists have been warning the leaders of the world that overfishing with factory ships and polluting the oceans is harming all marine life, especially dolphins, whales, and porpoises. One of those scientists is Mark Carwardine. He is a British scientist with considerable influence. He offers know-how and zoophilia, which, properly channeled, have great potential for saving the natural world. He is a zoologist, whale watching guide and photographer, and author of 50 books on wildlife. He is also the author of Field Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2022).

This Field Guide helps the zoologist and non-zoologist to understand the rudiments of the anatomy and lives of the numerous varieties of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The book includes more than 600 annotated illustrations of all of the 93 species of cetaceans: whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Identifying these animals adds knowledge to the passion of humans striving to help the survival and protection of these ancient and magnificent animals.

Zoophilia is an extremely powerful idea and timely passion resurrecting the Greeks’ love for the wildlife. It has to become political, if only to save the natural world. Mark Carwardine spoke about the human atrocities against the cetaceans, pleading for the end of the war against water animals.

However, nothing will save the whales, dolphins, and porpoises from extinction but a new attitude towards life. Zoophilia has to become real, not merely a sentiment of a few lovers of threatened animals. Carwardine’s Field Guide is useful and timely. However, the users of the Field Guide have to go beyond the identification of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. They must say enough with the killing and contamination and the warming of the water environment of the cetaceans. In other words, humans must stop their deadly business as usual that is poisoning and heating the oceans. Only then Arion and the dolphin will survive in both our civilization and the constellation Delphinos.


1. In the technical jargon of scientists: “the term whistle is a functional misnomer as dolphins actually do not whistle, but form the fundamental frequency contour of their tonal calls by pneumatically induced tissue vibrations analogous to the operation of vocal folds in terrestrial mammals and the syrinx in birds. This form of tonal sound production by nasal tissue vibrations has probably evolved in delphinids to enable impedance matching to the water, and to maintain tonal signature contours across changes in hydrostatic pressures, air density and relative nasal air volumes during dives.”

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.