For millions of children around the world, the Pokémon franchise has served as a gateway to the global treasure trove of mythology and folklore. In the final quarter of the 20th century, Japan underwent rapid urban expansion. An aspiring game designer called Satoshi Tajiri, who grew up collecting insects in fields and ponds that were then flattened for housing developments, sought to reconnect children in post-industrial Japan to the country’s natural environment. Given the intimate relationship between Shinto, Japan’s native religion, and the natural world, it is no surprise that folkloric and religious motifs fuel so many Pokémon designs. Rooted in the Shinto tradition of kami, or spirits, inhabiting every aspect of nature, Pokémon’s sprawling lore provides its own take on many traditional Japanese stories. Tajiri also taps into non-Japanese mythology when seeking inspiration for his creations.
With so many Pokémon inspired by animals, it is no surprise that marine mammals have appeared in the ever-expanding roster of creatures that inhabit the Pokémon world. Pinnipeds such as seals are particularly well-represented, but cetaceans are surprisingly less so. It was not until Generation III, six years into the Pokémon franchise, that any explicitly cetacean Pokémon were introduced. These were Wailmer and Wailord, whose designs are based on blue whales, and Kyogre, a primordial orca whose origin as the Jewish Leviathan merits its own future post. However, dolphins remain conspicuously absent even as Pokémon enters its third decade of production. Gorebyss, which bears a bizarre resemblance to the Pictish Beast, is sometimes posited as a dolphin Pokémon, but its design and behaviour are actually based on snipe eels. At first glance, it appears that cetaceans were unrepresented in Pokémon until Generation III, and dolphins missing to this day. But if you look beyond the physical appearances and investigate deeper, one Generation I Pokémon emerges as a clear cetacean stand-in: Lapras.
A pod of Lapras
Born of a fusion between West African Vodun and Roman Catholicism, Haitian Vodou is a rich religious tradition full of drama and devotion. Vodou is syncretism at its finest. Catholic saints have been seamlessly incorporated into the iconography of Vodou’s own roster of spiritual personalities, the lwa who serve Bondye the creator and who are served in turn by human beings. Many of the lwa can be traced back to gods of West Africa and the Kongo, but in crossing the Atlantic with the millions brought over on slave ships, they have taken on new attributes and character reflecting local concerns.
Mami Wata figurine by an Ovimbundu artist, c. 1950s – 1960s
One of these goddesses who has transformed into a Haitian lwa is Mami Wata. Venerated across much of Africa, Mami Wata is an exotic merwoman associated with wealth and fertility. Her half-fish, half-woman form represents the dualism of the sea over which she presides: The sea can offer its bounty to fishermen, but it can take lives in a storm. Similarly, Mami Wata can be a benevolent promoter of fertility or a cruel withholder of wealth. Although both men and women give Mami Wata her dues, women have always played a special role in her worship, some becoming mamisii, her priests. For hundreds of years, European mermaids have heavily influenced depictions of Mami Wata, which fits her connection to the liminal Mediterannean. Today her iconography in Africa has undergone further changes thanks to posters of Hindu goddesses that began to circulate in the mid-20th century, visually distancing her from her incarnations in the Americas, where she retains her nautical association but has taken on many new names. In Haitian Vodou she is called La Sirene and La Baleine, the siren and the whale, so it is this iteration which we will feature today.
Yesterday, my sister had an incredible marine mammal encounter. In the liminal space between two fishing villages, with the Isle of May shrouded in mist on the horizon, she saw a dark shape circling in the water. Nearby a seal cut across the North Sea, but this other creature took a more circuitous path, possibly tracking the same fish that had attracted the seal. Every now and then, a dorsal fin emerged from the water, but the rest of its form remained murky. As she told us when she got home, if she had seen the creature hundreds of years ago in the Middle Ages, who’s to say what sorts of conclusions she may have drawn…
Isle of May on horizon © TaiDai1000
In honour of her fantastic experience, I’d like to highlight a beast that has haunted the imaginations of people along the east coast of Scotland for over a thousand years. Known as the Pictish Beast, this enigmatic creature appears on dozens of Pictish symbol stones. The Picts formed a kingdom in the late seventh century that brought together many smaller groups under a single united kingship based in northeast Scotland. They remain the most elusive of Britain’s medieval kingdoms, with almost no written records in their own language. Instead, they left the landscape littered with impressive stone monuments bearing inscrutable designs that have puzzled their descendants for centuries. These Pictish “symbols” include geometric and abstract symbols as well as animals. Cut from imposing slabs of rock, the stones probably served as boundary markers for ecclesiastical and secular territories. The animal designs are finely detailed and often very naturalistic, but among the most common of these is an unrecognisable animal known as the Pictish Beast.