I’m fascinated by erroneous beliefs — hence my coverage of cryptozoology — and I’ve become increasingly curious about why animals in old depictions are usually “wrong”. Not being an art critic or anthropologist, I’m baffled why people would illustrate animals in a way other than as accurately as possible. It appears my culture of viewing animals from a literal, scientific perspective is a quite recent phenomenon in human history.
This Late Helladic I blade from ~1500 BC unambiguously shows a dolphin, which has been interpreted to show a Striped Dolphin (Masseti 2008). I’m not really convinced the curved lines drawn on the figure represent the markings of that species¹ and I wonder if they could represent movement or waves. Other fairly realistic dolphins are seen in art from the Bronze Age (Fresco at Knossos) and Classical antiquity (youth playing the flute and riding a dolphin, various coins); however, some depictions from the ancient world are quite fanciful.
This figurine — from 330–310 BC Eretria, if Wikipedia is to be trusted — is still recognizably dolphin-like, but the body is unusually long and bendy (even the rostrum is curved) and the replication of fins (and… counter-dorsal fins?) is really curious. I wonder if, perhaps like the wavy patterns on the first example, this is an attempt to capture movement in a static work of art. Say, shouldn’t there be a cryptozoologist citing this as undeniable proof of a “Rhinoceros dolphin“? I’ll have to discuss the bewildering phenomenon of people taking these obviously stylized artworks literally another time.
In this mosaic of Eros riding a dolphin, the mount is so stylized it would be hard to tell it’s supposed to be a dolphin at all if there weren’t other depictions of the same scene. I would have guessed that this was a mythological creature based on a dolphin associated solely with deities, but several similar creatures are depicted independent of any gods. This particularly extreme style of depicting dolphins was surprisingly influential², as I’ll discuss later.
This 15th Century depiction of a “Delphinus” from a bestiary shares nothing with the older depictions aside from its name and aquatic nature. Other illustrations documented by the excellent website, The Medieval Bestiary, show dolphins as various generic fish. Van Duzer (2013) shows additional illustrations depicting dolphins as generic fish with human faces, but apex of illustrative eccentricity seems to have been reached here. Dolphins are most assuredly not blank-faced merfolk with either eyes or a mouth in their chests. So what the hell happened? According to Montagu (1962), knowledge about dolphins was almost completely lost at some point; it seems the only information remembered was their name and aquatic nature. Romero (2012) essentially concluded that Medieval people were backwards idiots; however, the approach of bestiaries seems dramatically different from natural history and I can’t help but wonder if there are illustrations from other sources depicting more natural dolphins, perhaps under different local names.
This 16th Century illustration looks nothing like works from the Medieval era and was inspired by Classical dolphins (Van Duzer 2013). These clearly look related to the type of dolphin used as Eros’ mount and they’re very well-rendered, but it’s still not exactly a naturalistic depiction of cetaceans.
Pierre Belon‘s 1551 is almost a contemporary of the map-monsters above, yet its style is remarkably modern. Belon actually bothered to dissect dolphins and noted anatomical structures such as hindlimbs, lungs, milk glands and hairs, yet failed to connect them to terrestrial mammals (Romero 2012). Monstrous depictions of cetaceans continued for long after Belon’s work, but this seems to be a good stopping point.
Egerton, F. (2003) A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 11: Emergence of Vertebrate Zoology During the 1500s. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 84(4) 206–212. Available.
Masseti, M. (2008) The Most Ancient Explorations of the Mediterranean. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 59(1) 1–18. Available.
Montagu, A. (1962) The History of the Dolphin IN: The Dolphin In History.
Romero, A. (2012) When Whales Became Mammals: The Scientific Journey of Cetaceans From Fish to Mammals in the History of Science. IN: New Approaches to the Study of Marine Mammals.
Van Duzer (2013) Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps.
¹ Aristotle apparently conflated Striped Dolphins with Bottlenose Dolphins and Short-Beaked Common Dolphins (Romero 2012), so it could be possible the ancient Greeks also lumped the familiar species of dolphins.
² It appears this creature or a similar one provided the model for the face of my favorite monster, the Cetacean Centipede/Scolopendre Cetacee.