Dolphins, animals symbolic of rescue
Dolphins are the animals most frequently used as symbols for rescue and it is no accident that they are associated with Poseidon. The myth of Arion, in which he is rescued at sea by dolphins thanks to his song, pictures these animals as a positive symbol of the sea. Classical mythology is full of examples of dolphins rushing to the aid of men in trouble at sea. Ulysses had the image of a dolphin on his shield because his son Telemachus, when still a child, had been saved at sea by the one of these small intelligent creatures. Delphi, the famous sanctuary and Oracle of Apollo, was thus named in their honour. The city of Taranto was founded by Phalantus, who rode there on the back of a dolphin. Enalus and Fineid were both saved by dolphins, as was Icadius, Iapyges’ Cretan brother.
Bearers of the souls of the drowned
The god of wine, Dionysius, the Romans’ equivalent to Bacchus, who was captured by pirates in the Tyrrhenian, turned them into dolphins so they would come to the aid of those who were shipwrecked. In the Strait of Messina, for example, and all over the lower Tyrrhenian Sea, fishermen’s traditional fear of dolphins is due to their belief that they are the bearers of the souls of the drowned.
Numismatic symbol in Greek-era Messina
In popular Christian belief dolphins have not lost their strong symbolic value; indeed, it is said that two dolphins carried the statue of Our Lady from the sea up to the summit of the Peloritani mountains, now known as Dinnammare, on the same site where a temple dedicated to Neptune may have once stood. Thus, dolphins have clearly been one of the most frequent iconographic symbols since ancient times, and they can often be seen in local sculptures and mosaics, such as in the Roman villa of San Biagio near Castroreale, and on coins from Messina in Greek times.
The unique hunting technique of dolphins in the Strait
When required, dolphins can be astute and sometimes ruthless predators, cooperating as a group with a rigid system of alliances, and are capable of developing surprisingly complex and effective hunting strategies in order to feed themselves. The Greek scholar Aelianus, in the 2nd-3rd century AD, warned in a treatise that dolphins tore fishing nets to steal fish and were able to interfere with the capture of tuna. According to seafarers’ traditions, therefore, dolphins can become “fera maliditta” (cursed dolphin) bringing bad luck, playing a central role in superstitions and sometimes possessing evil or supernatural powers. In the 18th century, Antonio Minasi, a Dominican padre from Scylla and Professor of Botany at the Sapienza University in Rome, observed and recorded the unique phenomenon of active beaching. Dolphins make well-coordinated attacks on fish, making waves and harrying the fish towards the shoreline. When their prey has nowhere else to go, being hemmed in near the beach, they are devoured by dolphins that even chase them onto the beach itself. The Calabrian botanist had illustrations of the dolphins’ spectacular hunting method made by artists in a beautiful collection of engravings dedicated to the environmental microcosm and marine life of the Strait of Messina. The illustrations, with detailed captions by Minasi, include one that depicts the hunting dolphins chasing and attacking shoals of tuna. The tuna defend themselves from the dolphins by forming a triangle, but the dolphins «from three directions, attack them in a semicircle, staying against the light, forcing them towards the shoreline». The dolphins’ tactic is successful, and the tuna are routed on the shore.