Today’s tale of cetaceans in world folklore comes to us from the Swahili people of Africa’s east coast. Occupying modern-day Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, the Swahili have been predominantly Muslim since the early Middle Ages. While the influence of the Qur’an can be felt everywhere throughout their culture, local versions of internationally popular Islamic stories take on a character distinctive to this coastal people. One such story uses a legend of the mighty King Sulemani (the Swahili name for Solomon) to explain the origins of the dolphins that frolic in the Indian Ocean.
Sulemani is one of the most popular characters in Swahili folklore. While King Solomon is an important figure in all Abrahamaic religions, his veneration in Islam has some unique characteristics. The Bible’s Solomon turns to idolatry under the influence of his hundreds of foreign wives, building temples and statues dedicated to the pagan gods of their homelands. He remains a figure of great wisdom and, in Judaism, an important political figure as the last king of a united Israel, but his overall portrayal is rather ambivalent. By contrast, Islam maintains a more positive outlook on Solomon throughout his reign. As one of Allah’s prophets, he is gifted with special supernatural powers. He rules over all spirits, people and beasts, and can even understand the language of animals. His power is contained in a special signet ring Allah gave him which bears “the seal of Solomon”. Solomon’s decline into idolatry is blamed on a djinn who stole the ring and impersonated the great king.
The subject of Solomon’s seal has sparked centuries of speculation, but in the Swahili tradition, it is said to bear the secret 100th name of Allah which was only ever revealed to Sulemani and the Prophet Mohammed. As Jan Knappert explains in his Myths & Legends of the Swahili (1970), Sulemani’s popularity among the Swahili can in part be attributed to his command over spirits, which fits very well into a “cult of spirits” alive and well among the Swahili of the 20th century. Knappert’s collection draws on Swahili manuscripts dating between the 18th and 20th centuries as well as ethnographic interviews he carried out in the 1960s. Sulemani appears in a great many Swahili stories which elaborate on his spiritual mastery. The story which draws our attention today concerns the origin of dolphins:
In the days of King Sulemani there were no dolphins. One ominous day, when the king was asleep, the devil came and stole the ring. Now the devil, ugly Satan, took the shape of King Sulemani and sat down on his throne, ready to rule men and animals. Soon, however, he was bored with sitting there and decided to go on a voyage. He ordered a ship to be made ready and sailed out. In the middle of the Ocean he lost the ring, which sank and sank and sank in the water, until Allah sent a fish along to look for it. This fish was the dolphin, which Allah created for the purpose. If you go out sailing on the Ocean you are likely to see the dolphins still diving for the magical ring. Other learned men narrate that the ring was snapped up by a fish, which was caught by a fisherman, who offered it for sale to King Sulemani’s cook, so that the king found his ring on his own plate. But Allah knows better.
While the story’s premise is rooted in the Quranic account – the power of Sulemani’s ring and a malicious impersonation of the king – the story forges its own path from there. The alternative version recorded by “other learned men”, which the storyteller considers inferior, is part of a wider Jewish and Islamic body of stories wherein demons steal Solomon’s ring. In one story, the king of demons Asmodeous throws the ring into the sea after tricking Solomon into lending it to him. Solomon wanders the desert as a beggar until he catches a fish which holds the ring in its belly and is restored to power. The detail of the dolphin, however, appears to be unique to the Swahili version. There is nothing in the Qur’an to suggest that dolphins were not created with the rest of the animals in the beginning of time, or that Solomon never got his ring back but was doomed to watch dolphins dive for it until the day he died. The designation of dolphins as animals specially commissioned to search for Sulemani’s lost seal is a unique outgrowth of the Swahili imagination, composed by people steeped in the splendid tales of an ancient king’s power while experiencing their own rich world of folklore and belief on Africa’s eastern coast.