Dionysos, the Greek god of ecstasy, has a long-standing association with dolphins. One of the most famous stories told about the god involves the Tyrrhenian pirates who captured him to sell, only to realise that their captive was a god. Dionysos filled their ship with vines and wild animals, and in their fear, the sailors jumped overboard. However, something remarkable happened as they did so – they began to transform. Philostratus the Elder describes it below:
Under the maddening power of Dionysos the forms of dolphins are creeping over the Tyrrhenians […] One of the men has dark sides, one a slippery breast, on the back of one a fin is growing, one is growing a tail, the head of one is gone but that of another is left, the hand of one is melting away, while another laments over his vanishing feet.
Dionysos on the prow of his ship laughs at the scene and shouts orders to the Tyrrhenians as fishes in shape instead of men, and as good in character instead of bad.
Philostratus retold this story in the 3rd century AD. By that point, the story had been around for almost a thousand years. It is first recorded in the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus. It later captured the imagination of the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote a vivid account in his Metamorphoses:
The men leapt overboard, all driven mad or panic-stricken. Medon’s body first began to blacken and his spine was arched into a curse. “What magic shape is this?” cried Lycabas, but, even as he spoke, his mouth widened, his nose curved out, his skin turned hard and scaly. Libys, trying to pull the thwarting oars, saw his hands suddenly shrink – hands no longer – fins they might be called. Another, when he meant to clasp his arms around a hawser, had no arms and jumped limbless and bending backwards into the waves. His tail forked to a sickle-shape and curved like a half moon. All round the ship they leapt in showers of splashing spray. Time after time they surfaced and fell back into the sea, playing like dancers, frolicking about in fun, wide nostrils taking in the sea to flow it out again.
Dionysos was not a sea god, but he presided over the wild Bacchanalia, events in which intoxicated participants held ecstatic parties. He seemed to govern the border between reason and madness, civilization and the wild. Transforming humans into animals fits this theme. Dolphins are playful, sexual animals, so perhaps this is why they were long associated with this particular god. Although madness instigates the change, the ancient writers generally thought of it as an improvement, turning the pirates from greedy men into helpful and benevolent sea creatures.
The D’Aulaires, in their beloved Book of Greek Myths from the 1960s, wrote that Dionysos’s transformation of the sailors “is why dolphins are the most human of all the creatures that live in the ocean”. While I haven’t been able to locate an ancient source that explicitly says this, it does seem to capture something of the unique place of dolphins in Greek mythology, which on the whole is not populated with as many talking animals as other world folklore. More on that another day… For now, if you want to read more ancient accounts of this myth, Theoi.com is a great place to start.