Updated: Nov 8
In the absence of scientific knowledge, our ancient ancestors told stories about sharks to help them to understand their confusing (and often frightening) world. Thus, there is a rich history of myths, legends, folklore and theology involving sharks from all over the world, especially from coastal cultures. The perception of sharks that ancient peoples held were complex and conflicting; sharks have been both worshipped and celebrated, feared and demonised. They have been tricksters and villains and guardians. Both worshipped as gods and feared as demons, venerated as protectors and blamed for catastrophes. The shark might be the form taken by a benevolent spirit or the monstrous shape a person is transmogrified into as punishment for their terrible crimes. But, despite our modern perception of sharks, in the past it was far more common for sharks to be venerated and respected, than to be feared.
In several cultures sharks were revered as the hosts of spirits. For instance, in Papua new Guinea, it was believed that sharks were the embodiment of the ancestors. On their death-beds Papuan people would proclaim their intentions to become a shark after shedding their human form, and if a shark was noted for its exceptional size or colour, or if it seemed to stick around a meaningful location, local people would assert that specific shark to be the embodiment of a ghost. Offerings of food would be made to the shark and the animal would be called by the deceased’s name (Baughman, 1948; Crawford, 2008).
Some of the richest and most complex mythologies featuring sharks come from the indigenous peoples of Hawaii. For centuries, sharks were considered to be more than just animals in Hawaiian culture - they were respected as powerful forces in marine ecosystems and were venerated as guardians called aumakua. These champions could take any form, but by far the most popular was that of the shark, especially the Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier). Each island celebrated a specific shark as their ancestral aumakua and families also each kept their own guardian aumakua. These sharks would protect the family’s interests, offer them comfort, and provide them both spiritual and practical guidance (Baughman, 1948; Crawford, 2008).
There was also a ritual which was performed on Hawaii if a family had suffered a stillbirth. Through this ceremony it was believed that the parents could lodge the soul of their lost child into the body of a shark, at which point the animal would become the guardian of their family (Baughman, 1948).
Sharks have also commonly been venerated with totems; with wooden carvings of sharks being displayed at temples and shrines. In the Eastern Island territories of the Torres strait off northern Australia, two specific shark characters were revered as totems: beizam, a shark and iruapap, a hammerhead shark. On the island of Yaime, their hammerhead totem developed into a hero known as Sinai, who was celebrated through offerings, prayers, songs and dances at his sacred shrines (Baughman, 1948; Crawford, 2008).
In the Marshall Islands, no animals were more more significant symbols than sharks and each tribe celebrated their own special species. This representative of their people was so important that if someone from another tribe insulted their shark or killed one, the tribe would have even been willing to go to war over it (Baughman, 1948; Crawford, 2008).
Guardians and Helpers
There are also many stories across different cultures where sharks have been seen as helpers. For instance, in the Solomon Islands, it was believed that good sharks helped to protect people when they were fishing or swimming. In Tahitian theology, the god Tawahaki was transported across the sea thanks to a powerful charm that allowed him to ride on the back of a helpful shark (Baughman, 1948).
Similarly, an especially popular example comes from the Cook Islands, where they tell the story of a beautiful young woman called Ina, who was in love with Tinirau, the god of the ocean. In the absence of any alternative transportation to whisk her off to see him on his far-flung floating island, an obliging shark appeared and helpfully carried her across the sea to her beloved on its back. When Ina fell into the ocean it was Tekea, the great king of the sharks, who came to her aid (Baughman, 1948; Crawford, 2008).
There are also many different examples of sharks as guardians in different mythologies. Throughout Polynesia, islanders would make offerings to seek the protection of their shark gods before undertaking voyages at sea. In traditional Fijian culture, legend tells of a shark that was the defender of the reef entrance to the islands. In Pelau, sharks were thought to be the guardians of the House of the Sun. Combining sharks with solar myth, in this story, sharks flanked the gates to protect the sun as it was at rest at home during the night. In Samoa, a great white shark acted as the representative of the god Moso and would guard coconut trees and the gardens of the native people (Baughman, 1948).
Sharks also often feature as agents of the divine in ancient theologies. For example, Mortock Islanders would call on their good spirit named Ulap, who had dominion over many marine animals, including sharks. In one story, Ulap answered the prayers of those who had been capsized from their canoe - bringing forth an enormous shark that scared off any dangers and ensured they made it safely back to shore (Baughman, 1948; Crawford, 2008).
Sharks have also been worshipped as gods themselves in many cultures. For instance, Gilbert Islanders celebrated a deity by the name of Tabaruaki, and in Tonga a deity named Taufa was revered, both of whom would often assume the form of a shark (Baughman, 1948).
Traditionally, worship of sharks gods was prevalent throughout Hawaii, and temples and shrines to sharks could be found on almost every headland in the islands. People would come to these special sites to make offerings of fruits and their first fish catches, to thank the shark gods who allowed their fishermen safe passage back to shore. The people would also utter an oath: “pau-pele, pau-mano”. Translating to “finished by the shark”, this phrase equates to a Christian person saying “before God” during their worship (Baughman, 1948).
A total of nine different shark gods feature in indigenous Hawaiian theology. The most notable of which are the human-born goddess Ka’ahupahau and her brother Kahi’uka. Worshipped for centuries, the story goes that after their transformations, these benevolent gods devoted their lives to protecting people from attacks by chasing away man-eating sharks. The Hawaiians also celebrated Kamohoali’i as king of the shark gods and guardian of the islands. He could transform himself into any shape - human, sea creature, shark - in order to help people in need. There was also Kane’i’kokala - the shark god who would come to the aid of shipwreck victims and Kuhaimoana - an enormous shark god who ensured fishermen a bountiful catch (Baughman, 1948).
Rather than demonising and anthropomorphising sharks, many indigenous peoples throughout the world admired sharks as powerful forces of nature and these peoples did not attribute any malice to the random attacks on humans. Sharks were simply considered to be powerful animals, which should be given the respect they deserve. It is only the more modern myths that we tell ourselves in our contemporary culture which have consistenly painted sharks as the villains (Baughman, 1948; Crawford, 2008).
Baughman JL (1948). Sharks, sawfishes, and rays: Their folklore. The American Midland Naturalist, 39:2, 373–381. Access online.
Crawford D (2008). Shark. Reaktion Books Ltd.: UK.