Dolphin, The Swimming Womb
In sassy arcs, high over the brine bath of the sea, vaulting above the bounding swell, the dolphin has spanked across the wide bay of human imagination from our first tentative sightings, voyaging on tree-branch or hollowed trunk. Darting through shallow seas above continental shelves, dolphins are found all over the temperate planet. Dining daintily on little squids and slippery fishlets, they join us in being happy piscivores. A carnivore eats meat; a piscivore eats fish. All the ancient peoples who encountered these playful marine mammals fell in love with dolphins. Friendly intelligence — how rare on earth is that? — and their curved mouth, the famous delphinine smile, insured humanity’s affection.
The word dolphin sailed into English from Old French daulphin < Medieval Latin dolfinus < classical Latin delphinus < Hellenistic Greek δελφῖνος delphinos < classical Greek δελφίς delphis. The term is related to the Greek word for uterus or womb δελφύς delphus. The ancient Greeks saw the sea mammal bearing live young, hence womb-fish? And did the glistening shimmer of the dolphin “look like” a womb to those randy Hellenic fishermen? Perhaps. The Greek womb word δελφύς delphus may be a reflex of the Proto-Indo-European morpheme *dhel- ‘to be hollow, to be split’ suggesting a male naming of the vagina. Perhaps even more apt as a source is an extension of that PIE morpheme, namely *dhelbh- ‘dig, excavate, insert, delve.’
Boy on a dolphin sculpture
One of the earliest icons of joy in the annals of European art is ‘boy on a dolphin.’ Both joyous and erotic the image was, for most depictions display a slender nude youth firmly astride the moist flanks, muscled thighs clamped to the comely womb-fish. I'd say that perks up the erotometer into at least slight overdrive?
Greek myth told that any sailor drowned and lost at sea would have a dolphin bear his soul to shore. Dolphins were said to have rescued men who fell into the sea.
The primary myth is the story of Arion. The Greek historian Herodotus tells the tall tale. Arion, a singer, was returning to Greece from several lucrative gigs in Sicily and Magna Graeca. He boarded a Corinthian merchant ship for his return to Greece. Now it was Arion’s custom of a morning to sit upon the gunwales of the ship and sing for an hour. The second day, bound out from Tarentum on the Apulian coast of southern Italy, the crew of Corinthian cut-throats suddenly mutinied and turned piratical, threatening all passengers with death. Arion began to sing. The pirates stared at him. Then Arion jumped into the sea. The pirates guffawed loudly. But all around the ship, dolphins splashed and waited, for they had heard Arion singing across the waves and, charmed by his voice, had encircled the ship to listen. Once in the water, Arion climbed onto the back of one, and the dolphin swam him back to Corinth, where Arion went to the king, reported the pirates and saw them all hanged. It turned out that, in collecting Greek folk tunes, Arion happened to remember a salty wee ditty a fisherman had taught him years before, a tune specific to the task of luring dolphins ashore. The moral of the story? It never profits a chanteur to neglect his songbook!
A possibly mangled version of that same story tells of the god Dionysos once trapped by pirates. For some divine reason known only to Dionysos, the god dumped the brigands into the sea to drown, but then Dionysos had second thoughts, and turned them all into dolphins, who swam away to safety.
Ancient Greek coin of a man on a dolphin, in this case he is Taras, legendary founder of Tarentum, his name in Greek letters is to the right of his head.
1. Delphinium was named because the flower’s nectary is vaguely dolphin-shaped.
2. Dauphin was an honorary official title of the eldest son of every King of France from 1349 to 1830. Among manifold earlier forms of the word were daulphyn and doffin. A French dictionary suggests that the title arose from an actual surname Delphinus whose vast held lands were the French province of le Dauphiné. When the last lord of le Dauphiné had to give up his province to a more powerful nearby princeling, he insisted that the title should become hereditary and be borne by every eldest son of every succeeding French king. The historical proof of this is scanty. A more cogent guess is the supposition that Dauphin began as a nickname for some early important person, who was perhaps overly fond of swimming, so his boyhood companions named him after one of ocean’s happiest swimmers, e.g. “Voici Pierre le dauphin.”
3. My Brother, The Womb-Sharer The ancient Greek word for brother is ἀδελϕός adelphos. A brother is one who shares a womb (Greek δελφύς delphus ) with his siblings. The initial /a/ is not the usual alpha privative or negatizing particle; it is rather a copulative prefix, joining root meanings together. Consider too the Greek word for ‘brotherly love’: ϕιλαδελϕία philadelphia.
4. And Delphi?
If the blushing author may be permitted here to insert a modest note of disambiguation, please take notice that the famous oracle of Delphi (ancient Greek Δελφοί Delphoi) did NOT take its place name from dolphins. The name derives from δελφύς delphys ‘womb.’ The site was also called in antiquity the omphalos (umbilicus) of the world, the navel center of earth, the planetary bellybutton, the Hellenic Big Apple. There may have been uterine caves in the vicinity suggesting a vaginoid entrance to the underworld. Therefore the first god worshipped at Delphi may not have been Apollo, but rather the goddess Gaia, The Greek’s Earth Mother.
After Pieter Bruegel I (the Elder); engraved by Frans Huys, Three Warships in a Tempest; in the lower right, Arion, singer’s lute in hand, rides a dolphin, engraved around 1565 CE.
An obsolete Germanic-based name for the supple sea-gliding dolphin was in English mereswine ‘sea pig.’ Really! How could one stand at the helm of a tea-clipper, nostrils besprent with salty spume, suddenly spot the sportive sea-leap of a merry dolphin and think mereswine? Well, apparently one could, if one were an early German or Dutch merchant sailor or naval functionary who abominated all earthly creatures who were not human. This sleazy term has cognates in most of Germanic and Scandinavian languages. Compare Dutch meerzwijn and German Meerschwein, Icelandic marsvín , Swedish marsvin, Danish marsvin. Both parts of the compound are Germanic, Meer ‘sea’ + Schwein ‘pig’
I think we all know who the mere swine of the oceans were, the unsavoury slew of imperialistic aquatic piggies and nautical galoots, like Viking raiders and history’s sailing oppressors like the British navy and the Dutch merchant marine.
Another Porcine Name
Dolphin would not be the only comely swimmer of the seas to be tagged with a piggy name. Look at the etymology of that other smaller delphinoid whale of the family Phocoenidae, the noble porpoise. The word came over to Britain with the Norman conquest of 1066 and shows up in thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman in forms like pourpas, porpeis and porpes from a late Latin word like porcopiscus ‘sea pig.’
Creepiest Related Word: Dolphinarium
It’s a circus-like aquarium where dolphins are kept in a watery prison pool for public entertainment. As The Daily Telegraph reported in 1984,“a large number of dolphins and killer whales imported. . . to perform tricks in dolphinaria die after only a short time in captivity.” Want to help dolphins not become extinct? Do not patronize dolphinaria. Don’t attend cutesy-poo aquarium shows where captured, enslaved dolphins, in an obscene aquatic vaudeville, are trained, in self-degradation, to perform pelagic clown acts in front of brain-dead Republican hardware-store owners from Mutantville, Wisconsin who squat en famille on pink plastic bleachers, slushie-slobber drooling down the chinless skull of Little Bobby, their sullen spawn, a child with the IQ of a shucked mollusc. Beside Little Bobby, maternal buttocks explode in a steatopygous paroxysm, a climax of fat-assedness, a consequence of unwisely purchased spandex tights. If, one sunny afternoon at Boredom of the Sea World, Mommy thinks Little Bobby needs to see a mammal with a fish, kindly suggest to Mommy that she toss Little Bobby into the shark tank.
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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