THE SACRED SALMON
By ANDREW GOUGH
Of all the creatures in the world, who would have thought that the humble salmon would have emerged as the quintessential symbol of wisdom? Then again, why not? For the remarkable fish was held sacred by the Druids, Celts, Picts and countless indigenous communities, and its sanctity was recognised by Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, whose earliest icon was a fish.
The salmon’s extraordinary, geomagnetic, round-trip odyssey of birth-exodus-homecoming-procreation-death, a journey that can take it up to 8,000 miles, was known to Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, and archaeology suggests that the fish has been revered for over twenty thousand years.
As we delve deeper into the salmon’s extraordinary journey, and plight, we will reflect on what humans can learn from this fascinating fish, as well as the tantalising traits we have in common.
To Whence it Came
The salmon travels between fresh- and saltwater worlds and thrives in each, as though it was designed to flourish in two highly diverse ecosystems. Symbolically, its mastery over two realms was not lost on ancient cultures and was one of the many reasons the salmon was regarded as wise. However, the salmon not only has mastery over two water-based spheres, it also embraces a third: air. The word ‘salmon’ comes from Latin, salire, meaning ‘to leap’, and the acrobatic act is probably what drew our attention to the fish in the first place. The skill of leaping up waterfalls notwithstanding, the salmon is perhaps most renowned for its natal homing capability, or the mysterious process by which it returns to its birthplace after many years (and often hundreds of miles) to procreate, and to die, a process that has been observed and studied, by predators and admirers alike, for thousands of years.
In order to complete its homecoming and fulfil its destiny, the salmon is required to travel vast distances upstream. Along the way it must overcome daunting obstacles, such as scaling waterfalls, requiring a vertical jump of nearly four metres. Salmon who successfully defy gravity continue their heroic journey; those who don’t, die trying.
Acrobatic dexterity is the least of the salmon’s worries, however, for it must evade a variety of predators: creatures such as bear, beaver, birds of prey, and humans, each of whom waits to catch, and feast, on its succulent and nourishing body. The weather is also a potential obstacle for the vulnerable salmon; research over the last 300 years has shown that salmon runs are more successful in warmer weather and less so in cooler weather, and so climate variability directly impacts the salmon’s ability to spawn. Needless to say, this dangerous journey is regarded as one of the most punshing migrations in all of the animal kingdom.
Around the world the journey of the salmon is replicated, as if echoing an innate destiny in all of us. This irrepressible fish begins its life in freshwater rivers and lakes, but quickly makes its way to the ocean, where it spends most of its adult life, typically four or five years. Here it drinks seawater, extracting salt to avoid dehydration before commencing its arduous journey home, upstream to its freshwater birthplace.
By now the salmon has reached sexual maturity and is driven by a desire to spawn (release eggs or sperm into the water). Curiously, salmon stop feeding as they re-enter the freshwater of the streams, rivers and lakes on their homeward journey, for their stomach is no longer needed. In fact, the salmon begins a process by which its stomach shrinks, thus creating more room for the spawning process, developing eggs or sperm.
Once back in freshwater the salmon stop drinking and begin to process large amounts of their own urine to rid their bodies of the extra water. The act of consuming one’s own urine has been regarded by thought leaders as an elixir that contains countless nutritious and life-enhancing qualities. Many have argued that the consumption of one’s own urine, and the longevity that this nutrient-rich substance provides, is, in fact, the Philosopher’s Stone, and many ancient texts allude to this fact. This esoteric debate aside, medicine is only now starting to acknowledge the health benefits associated with urine – something salmon have always understood. (Interestingly, the vesica piscis, or the shape of two interlocking circles, has been regarded as sacred and has been used as a symbol by ecclesiastical organisations for thousands of years, and literally means the ‘bladder of a fish’ in Latin. Might the vesica piscis have been inspired by the salmon?)
The process of spawning is nothing if not alchemical. The male salmon returns to his birthplace first and establishes his territory by fighting (literally biting other male salmon), as well as displaying his kype, the pronounced hooked snout that developed while he was living in the ocean. The male chooses the most advantageous spots for breeding: gravel beds, where there is the right amount of water flow to oxygenate the eggs without washing away the protective gravel. Here he waits for the female salmon to signal that she is ready to commence spawning. After digging, the female touches her anal fin to her newly constructed gravel nest, thus alerting the male to join her. The male fights amongst his peers for the opportunity and positions himself next to her. Here he releases millions of sperm onto the precise spot the female has laid her pea-sized seed, eggs that can range in number from a few to several thousand.
The lovers now repeat the process at similar, nearby locations upstream until they grow tired, or run out of sperm and eggs. Serendipitously, the creation of each successive gravel nest sends stone downstream that protects the recently fertilised union. Male salmon, the fitter of the species, often spawn with multiple females; however, the females typically spawn with one male. The entire affair seldom takes more than a couple of days. Mum and dad soon die, or are eaten by predators (easy prey in their weakened state), and the fertilised eggs hatch in three to four months, at which time the young salmon head for the ocean and the cycle commences once more.
Returning to the mechanism at work here, natal homing is a fascinating skill and one which science has yet to bottom out. However, there are several hypotheses as to how it works and, after extensive field research, the general consensus is that the salmon has imprinted the earth’s magnetic field at an early age. That is, natal homing is not an innate capability, but one that is learned and then remembered. Although nobody knows for certain, it is thought that the salmon uses its magnetic imprinting skills in conjunction with chemical clues unique to its natal system, such as retaining the memory of the odour of the place where they were born, in order to successfully navigate home.
This natural form of satellite navigation is not unique in the animal kingdom, for sea turtles and bluefin tuna also exhibit natal homing, as do others. (Even the honeybee has its waggle dance, a similar form of navigational sensing, where a figure-of-eight dance is used to communicate the coordinates of flowers yielding nectar and pollen, water sources and other endpoints, such as the location of a new nest, so that other bees can navigate there.) At the spot where the salmon was born the fish completes its homeward pilgrimage and dies, but in the process it feeds the ecosystem in a vital and regenerative way; its decaying carcass releases vital nutrients that enrich the waters and foliage of the lakes. Foremost amongst these is nitrogen-15, which feeds plankton, a critical food for younger salmon. Not only does the production of nutrients allow specialists to look back hundreds of years in time to study the traces of previous migrations, it reinforces what we always knew – that the salmon’s life is recursive and symbolises wisdom, death and rebirth.
The Salmon in Antiquity
Archaeological evidence confirms what mythology intimates, that the salmon has been venerated for tens of thousands of years. In the south of France, in a cave called l’Abri du Poisson at Les Eyzies, along the Vézère river in the Dordogne, we find an 18,000-year-old image of a salmon carved into a reindeer antler. Another, even older image, a life-sized (1.05 metres) engraving of a salmon carved on the ceiling of the cave, highlighted in red (the colour of the male when spawning), provides archaeological testament to the fact that the fish was revered over 25,000 years ago. Also along the Vézère river we find evidence that humans living around 12,000 years ago modified pools and streams to catch Atlantic salmon, and the archaeological findings suggest that this may have been one of the first fish restaurants.
When reviewing ancient images of salmon it is important to remember that scientists believe that Stone Age fishermen targeted larger specimens which, over time, meant that more small fish survived to breed and pass on their genes. This trend becomes even more noticeable about 10,000 years ago, giving rise to the observation by researchers that ancient salmon (in the same rivers) averaged six to ten inches longer than today’s fish.
Myths about fish-gods soon emerged and foremost amongst them is the legend of the mermen, creatures who were men from the waist up, but fish from the waist down. Stories of mermen were numerous in antiquity, and included the Babylonian gods Oannes and Ea, the Sumerian god Enki, and Dagon, an East Semitic Mesopotamian (Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian) fertility god who first appears in the written record in the Mari Texts, writings containing references to customs in Mesopotamia around 2500 BCE.
The merman fish-god Dagon was best known as a leading deity amongst the pantheon of the Philistines and presents us with an interesting example of the fish-god’s sanctity, as it relates to none other than the Ark of the Covenant. In 1 Samuel 5:2–7 we are informed that the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines and taken to Dagon’s temple in Ashdod, a city in Israel on the Mediterranean coast. Here, the Philistine priests discover the image of Dagon lying prostrate before the Ark. They make it upright, only to find it in even worse condition the following day, its head and hands completely severed. Further, we are given the words raq dāgôn nišʾar ʿālāyw, meaning ‘only Dagon was left to him’ – only the fish element, Dagon, was preserved, creating the tradition that no one disrespects the fish-god under any circumstances, for he survived the wrath of the god.
Likewise, we have the merman fish-god Oannes, who appears similar, if not identical, to Dagon. Oannes taught mankind wisdom, a trait that is explicitly tied to the salmon and is described as dwelling in the Persian Gulf, rising out of the waters in the daytime and instructing mankind in writing, the arts and sciences. Once again, the fish-god is all about wisdom.
Enki (Sumerian), and later Ea (Babylonian), were fish-gods and known for ceremonial rites in which water played a sacred and prominent part, as did hieros gamos (sacred sex) and fertilisation via water and semen, an act that sounds conspicuously like a salmon spawning. Curiously, the fish-god may also be considered a phallic symbol, as witnessed in the story of the Egyptian god of resurrection, Osiris, whose penis was eaten by fish in the Nile after he was attacked.
Fish, as we have seen, were symbols of fertility, and the fertility rite of the salmon is perhaps the most famous. With this in mind, it is interesting to explore the apparently Celtic-era statue (circa 400 BCE) in Poland, on the sacred Mount Ślęża (Poland’s Mount Olympus), where we find an eight-foot statue of a naked young woman holding a huge fish across the front of her body. While many point out the statue’s fertility symbolism, they fail to mention that a fish on a woman is an ancient way of depicting that she is wet – and wetness was regarded as a powerful form of protection from the evil eye, which was a real and feared entity.
The Biblical Salmon
The symbol most associated with Christianity over the last 2,000 years is the fish and, lest we forget, Pisces (the Latin word for ‘fishes’) is one of the earliest zodiac signs on record and is known as the ‘dying god’, due to its association with Poseidon/Neptune, Vishnu, Christ, Aphrodite, Eros and Typhon. Were the mermen the prototype for the dying god archetype, and was this based on the salmon’s regenerative journey of sacrifice, and dying?
The start of this age, or the ‘Great Month of Pisces’ is regarded as the beginning of the Christian religion. Additionally, the twelve apostles were called the ‘fishers of men’, and the earliest Christians were known as ‘little fishes’. We also have ikhthus, meaning ‘fish’ in Greek, and a symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs, known as the Jesus Fish. Further, and quite significantly, Saint Peter is the apostle of the Piscean sign and, as we shall soon discuss, is associated with salmon in a very profound manner.
Further anchoring the salmon’s importance in antiquity is the fact that the surname ‘Salmon’ comes from ‘Solomon’, a popular name in the Middle Ages amongst both Jews and Christians and, of course, the name of King Solomon – a king of Israel, and son of David, who reigned circa 970 to 931 BCE. The name comes from the Hebrew word shelomo (and shalom), meaning peace. Not surprisingly, ‘salmon’ was a nickname used to denote someone wise, as well as a person who played King Solomon in a mystery play; but which came first? Was the legendary King Solomon the archetype for wisdom, or was the salmon? Clearly, the salmon existed before the mystical and chronologically ambiguous King Solomon, promoting the question: was Solomon a title for a wise king or person who had the characteristics of a wise and cunning salmon?
Foreshadowing a tale that would echo around the Celtic world, we are told that Solomon ate a salmon that reversed his fortunes and brought him wisdom and happiness. The story goes like this: Asmodeus, the King of Hell and guardian of Solomon’s treasure, was asked by Solomon what could make demons powerful over man, to which Asmodeus replied, ‘Free me and give me your ring and I will tell you.’ Solomon did as Asmodeus demanded, but watched in horror as the Devil King threw the ring into the sea where it was swallowed by a fish. Asmodeus then swallowed the king and spat him out 400 leagues away. Solomon flees and is forced to work as a cook for another king. He falls in love with the king’s daughter and, as punishment, is sentenced to the desert, where he wanders until reaching a coastal city where he purchases a fish to eat, which happens to be the one that had swallowed the ring; a magic ring that contained the image of the Seal of Solomon (better known as the Star of David), which was given to Solomon so that he may exert power over demons. Solomon was then able to regain his throne and expel Asmodeus. The story mirrors one told by the fifth-century BCE Greek historian, Herodotus, of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos (circa 538 BCE to 522 BCE), where a ring is thrown into the sea and found in a fish’s belly, and hints at the more famous Salmon of Wisdom mythology, which we shall review shortly.
Salmon is also a historical figure and is referenced in both the Old and New Testaments: 1 Chronicles 2:10-11, Ruth 4:20-21, Matthew 1:4-5 and Luke 3:32. Salmon, like Solomon, appears to be the patrilineal great-great-grandfather of David, given that he is the son of Nahshon who was appointed by Moses and who led the Hebrews’ passage through the Red Sea by faithfully walking in, deeper and deeper, until the waters parted.
Salmon’s wife was Rahab, an intriguing woman who most associate with prostitution, as she owned an inn, which was often a polite way of saying she ran a brothel. That said, many scholars believe it to be a secular or cultic form of prostitution, as was customary in Canaanite religious practice. Again, we have a reference to a fish or fish-god that is loosely related to hieros gamos, like the great mermen-gods before them and, of course, like the salmon’s act of spawning.
Rahab is best known for having provided protection for two spies who had come to investigate the military potency of Jericho. As a reward for her help, later, when Jericho fell (Joshua 6:17-25), Rahab and her family were spared. Rahab is believed to have been one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, according to the genealogy of Jesus in the Book of Matthew, and this makes her part of a bloodline of salmon-related legends.
Boaz, Salmon’s son, was also an interesting figure and is mentioned no fewer than twenty-four times in the scriptures. His name means strong, or of sharp mind – in effect, wise. Notoriously, Boaz is honoured in Masonic tradition by having the left of the two front entrance columns of Solomon’s Temple named after him (the right column being named Jachin).
Just as King Solomon and his mythology personify the wisdom, determination and leadership of a great king, the Celtic traditions also speak of the role of fish in kingly affairs and, in an even more vivid account, we have the ancient tale of the Salmon of Wisdom.
The Salmon of Wisdom
Legends of the salmon’s prominence are numerous in Celtic traditions, such as that of Irish hero, Cúchulainn, who was known for springing upon his enemies in battle with a mighty ‘salmon leap’. There is no greater fable, however, than the Salmon of Wisdom, an enchanting tale that highlights the Celts’ obsession with the sacred fish and affirms its link with the Druidic tradition.
The story starts with the Fianna, the warrior bands in Irish and Scottish mythology that consisted of landless young men and women who were waiting to receive their inheritance. Their leader, Fionn mac Cumhaill, was a hunter-warrior, well known across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. A titan himself, Fionn is said to have built the Giant’s Causeway as stepping stones to Scotland. He also attempted to throw a portion of Ireland at an enemy, only to have it fall short, creating the Isle of Man in the process.
Fionn’s early years are chronicled in the medieval Irish narrative, The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, and detail how, as the son of Cumhall (leader of the Fianna) and Muirne (daughter of a famous Druid), he met and studied with the Druid poet, Finnegas, who had obsessed in vain for seven years about catching the Salmon of Wisdom.
The salmon of Finnegas’ desire is a renowned and highly coveted fish, due to it having eaten hazelnuts that had fallen into a well. The salmon lived in the well and thus its diet not only transformed it into an all-knowing deity, it also spawned (excuse the pun) the belief that whoever ate it would receive the benefit of the salmon’s infinite wisdom. Eventually, and not without considerable patience and tenacity, Finnegas succeeds in catching the prize fish and promptly instructs young Fionn to cook it. In some versions of the story the Salmon of Wisdom is immortal and lives on, echoing the Arthurian tradition, with the return of the once and future king – of fishes.
However, this is where it all goes terribly wrong for Finnegas, for while cooking the Salmon of Wisdom, Fionn burns his thumb and instinctively puts it in his mouth to sooth the pain. Later, when he serves the fish, Finnegas recognises that Fionn’s eyes are beaming with wisdom and inquires as to whether he has eaten the Salmon of Wisdom, and if he was about to serve him a substitute. Fionn explains, and Finnegas magnanimously permits him to eat the rest of the coveted fish, knowing that this will enable Fionn to acquire the wisdom of the entire world. Throughout his life Fionn would draw upon this eternal source of knowledge merely by biting his thumb. Thanks to the Salmon of Wisdom mythology, we find references to priests keeping sacred salmon in holy wells across Ireland and Scotland, as late as the sixteenth century. Clearly, for the people of the British Isles, there was more to this story than a clever tale of good fortune.
The Salmon of Wisdom is similar to other Celtic folklore, including the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen. To win his lover’s hand in marriage, Olwen’s father assigns Culhwch numerous challenges, including the task of freeing Mabon, a divine child, who appears to be a sun-god (like Solomon) and who is imprisoned. Along the way Culwhch is assisted by King Arthur’s men and together, after consulting with various creatures, all of whom were deemed to have been wise, Culhwch consults the salmon of Llyn Llyw, who informs him of Mabon’s whereabouts and gives Culhwch and Arthur’s men a ride on his back to the prison (in modern-day Gloucester, England), where they succeed in their mission.
The notion of a wise salmon providing transport and refuge on its back is also found in the story of Loki, the trickster-god in Norse mythology who masterminded the killing of Baldur, the most beloved of all the gods, by the blind god, Hod. To escape, Loki transformed himself into a salmon and leapt into a pool, only to be caught by Thor, resulting in the myth that the taper towards the back of the fish’s body was said to be the result of Thor’s grip.
Not surprisingly, there are other Welsh salmon traditions, such as that associated with the sixth-century Celtic poet, Taliesin, whose work has survived in a Welsh manuscript called the Book of Taliesin, which appears to be one (if not the earliest) account of Arthurian legend. Taliesin was a renowned bard who is believed to have sung at the courts of at least three Celtic Kings in Britain, and was thought to have been a companion of King Arthur. Supporting this proposition, his poems date from the late sixth century, which is when King Arthur was believed to have lived.
The Tale of Taliesin tells of Ceridwen, a sorceress in Welsh medieval legend, who possesses a magical cauldron that she uses to brew a concoction designed to grant the gift of wisdom and poetic inspiration to her grotesquely ugly son, as compensation for his disfigured appearance. Ceridwen asks her servant, Gwion Bach, to stir the concoction, while a blind man tends to the cauldron fire. Similar to the Salmon of Wisdom, the first three drops give wisdom, but the Taliesin version of the story has a twist: the subsequent drops induce a fatal poison. Three hot drops accidently spill onto Gwion’s thumb as he stirs, burning and prompting him, like Fionn, to put his thumb in his mouth to relieve the pain, thus inadvertently gaining the wisdom and knowledge that Ceridwen had intended for her son.
Gwion fears that Ceridwen will be angry and flees. Ceridwen chases him, prompting him to use the powers of the potion and turn himself into a hare. Witnessing this transformation, Ceridwen transforms herself into a greyhound. Gwion becomes a fish and jumps into a river. Ceridwen transforms again, this time into an otter. Gwion has not finished. He responds by turning into a bird, provoking Ceridwen to become a hawk. Finally, Gwion turns into a single grain of corn. Ceridwen, in turn, transforms into a hen and eats him. However, the potion protects Gwion, shielding him from destruction.
Ceridwen becomes pregnant and fears that the child she is carrying is Gwion and so promises to kill him when born. However, the child is so beautiful that Ceridwen cannot bring herself to kill him. Instead, she throws him in the ocean. The child survives and is rescued on a Welsh beach, becoming the legendary bard, Taliesin.
Reinforcing that legends often come from true historical events, it is interesting that the west coast of Wales, where Taliesin, the baby, was discovered, is lined with submerged forests that archaeologists believe to be the home of the Cantre’r Gwaelod, or Lowland Hundred, sometimes known as the Hundred under the Sea, the mythical lost kingdom of Wales. The ancient civilization was flooded, as legend recounts, when the gates of a sophisticated coastal dyke were negligently left open one night and the great empire was lost beneath the waves. After the flood the King of Ceredigion (circa AD 500) relocated his court to dry land and built a new port at Porth Wyddno (Borth), where a nearby fishing weir was constructed not far from Aberystwyth, named Gored Wyddno. It was here that Taliesin was discovered in a leather bag.
It is fascinating that these fishing weirs, or traps, were so effective at removing fish from rivers that they were banned in the Magna Carta and were allowed only on the coast, as we find by Taliesin’s birth place. Were they designed to trap Atlantic salmon on their migration? Legend suggests this to be so. Further, the whole region is dotted with ancient Neolithic settlements, and is home to the most ancient peoples in Britain. In fact, it is here, in the nearby Preseli Mountains, that the famous blue stones of Stonehenge were mined and transported to form the inner circle of the world’s most famous ancient monument. Was this the work of the peoples who also trapped the sacred salmon?
The antiquity of Taliesin’s rebirth aside, clearly, Ceridwen can be seen as the Celtic goddess of rebirth, transformation and inspiration, and the story of Taliesin appears to offer an alternative version of the Salmon of Wisdom. In both stories wisdom is gifted to someone innocent, by accident, when it was intended for someone less deserving.
Serendipitously, ‘Taliesin’ means ‘radiant brow’, reminiscent of the shining wisdom in Fionn’s eyes after consuming the Salmon of Wisdom, and the glowing appearance that Taliesin had when he was born. The story of the recipient of the magic salmon/concoction glowing with wisdom is reminiscent of the account in Exodus that describes how Moses’ face was radiant when he had returned from communing with God on Mount Sinai. The notion of radiating or shining wise men also reminds us of elohim, a term used frequently in the Old Testament and other ancient texts to refer to the mysterious sons of God.
In the Canaanite pantheon, elohim means ‘sons of God’, and the book of Genesis speaks of the ‘sons of God’ who lay with the ‘daughters of men’, which were known as Nephilim, or fallen angels. The letters EL denote ‘shining’ in many different languages. For instance, the Sumerian EL means ‘bright’ or ‘shining’, El in Babylonian is Ellu, El in Old Cornish means shining, as does Aillil in Old Irish. Does the tale of the Salmon of Wisdom draw on a memory of the fallen angels, the legendary Nephilim? Are the Nephilim one and the same as the Tutha de Danann, a race of supernaturally gifted people found in Irish mythology? Boann, the Irish goddess of the River Boyne, was the daughter of Delbáeth, son of Elada, of the Tuatha de Danann, and is known to have challenged the Well of Segais (also known as Connla’s Well, or the Well of the Salmon of Wisdom), walking around it in the Pagan tradition, counter clockwise, prompting water to surge up, creating the River Boyne. As a water-goddess, Boann is linked to Saint Bridget and to fertility and inspiration, much like the salmon. But the question remains, are the Nephilim and Tuatha de Danann descendants of the fish-gods of antiquity?
The salmon was also worshipped at Tara, the high seat of the ancient Kings of Ireland, located near the River Boyne. This is surely because Fionn, who had eaten the sacred salmon and been granted the wisdom of the universe, had, as an adult, killed a fire-breathing man who appeared at Tara every twenty-three years on Samhain / Halloween / Day of the Dead. It was this act of bravery that catapulted him to the coveted position of Commander of the Fianna. To this day, the Irish people say they cannot do justice to a particular cause until they have eaten from the Salmon of Wisdom.
In modern times the tale of Taliesin has become rather trendy and has served as the title of a Deep Purple album, a character in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles and Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle and, perhaps most notably, was featured by the American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who named his Wisconsin and Arizona homes ‘Taliesin’.
Returning to the origins of the Arthurian legend, one can see in the story of Taliesin a direct correlation with the tale of Arthur, for not only does one of Fionn’s would-be wives run away with a handsome young warrior from the clan, but Fionn never truly dies. Rather, he sleeps in a cave protected by the Fianna, awaiting the day when he will awake and defend Ireland in her hour of greatest need. Indeed, the story of Fionn, as chronicled in the Irish text, The Fenian Cycle, has its earliest elements at a date consistent with King Arthur. If the wise King Arthur and Fionn were one and the same, or at least products of the same archetype, then it would stand to reason that it was the Salmon of Wisdom that empowered King Arthur to greatness.
The Pictish Cult of the Salmon
In the summer of 2015 archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen discovered the oldest known Pictish fort in history. The site, on a seaside cliff in eastern Scotland, carbon dates to the third century, thus compressing the start of the Picts’ archaeological presence in Scotland by nearly 300 years and aligning it with written accounts of the Picts in the region at this time. Sadly, only about 250 Pictish stones survive and the highest concentration of these is dotted along the eastern coast of Scotland, roughly from Caithness in the north to Perth in the south. The stones contain enigmatic drawings of creatures, along with geometric shapes, the meaning of which remains a mystery. Most of the Pictish stones are in museums or private collections, but a smattering remain in situ and serve as haunting testament to a people about whom we know very little. It should come as no surprise that the salmon is one of their most prominent images.
All we really know is that the Picts were depicted as savages in ancient texts, had a roughly verifiable kings list (AD 312 to 952), were painted or had tattoos, and their monuments were standing stones with a collection of twenty-eight symbols (usually appearing in pairs) and found predominantly on the east coast of Scotland, suggesting a Norwegian or Scandinavian origin. But is this view as to their origin our only real option? I have often wondered about another possible origin for the Picts: the powerful Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift that surges up from Central America to the Irish coast and on to the northern tip and eastern side of Scotland. Could the mysterious Pictish people have come from Mesoamerica and stopped in Ireland on the way?
Intriguingly, sources such as the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) by the English monk and author Saint Bede (673–735) not only confirm that the Picts came to Ireland first, but that their accession was through the royal female line:
As the Picts had no wives, they asked the Irish for some; the latter consented to give them women, only on condition that, in all cases of doubt, they should elect their kings from the female royal line rather than the male; and it is well known that the custom has been observed among the Picts to this day.
This insightful statement recalls the Salmon of Wisdom hero Fionn, who led the Fianna warriors, the landless young men and women who were waiting to receive their inheritance. It also suggests that the salmon-worshipping Picts may have come from the Atlantic, home of the most abundant salmon in the world, which opens up the debate considerably as to their origins. It also confirms that they stopped in Ireland before moving to Scotland. Intriguingly, Ireland boasted a coin depicting the Atlantic salmon until it switched to Euros in 2002.
Picking up on what Bede has recounted, perhaps a further clue to the origins of the Picts lies in their approach to succession which, from a kingship perspective, was matrilineal; the males were king, but kingship was passed through the female side. The tradition is known as matrilineality and is found not only in Greek mythology (where the royal function was male, but the future king inherited power by marrying the queen heiress), but, most tellingly, the practice is evident in the Welsh stories of Culhwch and Olwen and the Irish Ulster Cycle fable of Cúchulainn who, as we have already seen, was famous for his warrior-like ‘salmon leap’.
The salmon was one of the Picts’ most popular images, and many famous salmon falls are located near their painted stones. In fact, it is now accepted that the Picts had a cult of fish and that the salmon, along with the dolphin (a creature renowned for its wisdom), appear central to that worship. It is interesting that the dolphin, which in Pictish carvings was known in Victorian times as ‘Pictish beast’ or ‘swimming elephant’, also mastered three worlds, just like the salmon: fresh- and saltwater, and air, each being a renowned leaper. What is particularly interesting is that, unlike many indigenous peoples around the globe who venerated the salmon because it was their staple food source (that is, it provided critical sustenance to their community), the Picts did not eat salmon. This surprising insight comes from Roman historians who could not understand how the Picts could refrain from eating such a nourishing and abundant food source.
The Picts were literally surrounded by salmon. The fact that they did not eat the flesh of the goose either, despite its abundance, leads one to question whether they were vegetarians or just mindful of creatures that held special significance for them. Intriguingly, in August 2015 the BBC reported that ‘archaeologists excavating a field in Aberdeenshire where standing stones were found believe they have uncovered the entrance to a Pictish palace.’ The University of Aberdeen team were excavating the site where the famous, six-foot-tall Rhynie Man stone depicting an axe-wielding warrior was discovered in 1978. What is exciting is that they have found ‘fantastic evidence’, according to Dr Gordon Noble, of Pictish artefacts and structures. What makes the find especially interesting is that one of the first Pictish stones discovered on the site depicts a salmon and a dolphin. Time will tell what insights the current excavation will reveal, but suffice it to say that the two sacred creatures of the water appear on a stone at the entrance to a Pictish palace. Surely this confirms the salmon’s importance in the Picts’ extraordinary world?
Evidence that the salmon and dolphin were sacred symbols of wisdom is reinforced by the fact that many stones with their image have been found in locations where bishops were consecrated, such as Clatt Kirkyard, which sits nearby the House of Knockespock (meaning ‘hill of the bishop’); bishops were consecrated in this part of Scotland as early as AD 700. Furthermore, evidence exists to suggest that the Salmon of Wisdom folktale existed in Scotland, too, for on a hill just outside the village of Clatt we find the remains of an earlier pre-Christian well, known as the Salmon Well, which was used as a place of blessing until the Reformation. The carved outline of a Pictish salmon, along with an overhead arch, was embedded next to the well until the early years of the twentieth century.
Interestingly, the notion of the sacred salmon is maintained in a popular series of children novels (set 6,000 years ago), Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by the British author, Michelle Paver. In her story, The Salmon Clan (which sounds an awful lot like the Picts), are a people that have a ‘sinuous’ tattoo on one cheek, fish bones braided into their hair and clothes made of fish skin.
Additionally, and in a framework we have encountered before, a Scottish folk tale recounts how the Queen of Cadzow, a Scottish town where the ancient kings of Strathclyde maintained a hunting lodge, gave her lover the ring that her husband had proposed with. While hunting, the King observed that his wife’s lover was wearing the ring and waited until the man slept to remove it. The King threw the ring into the River Clyde and then cloyingly demanded his wife show it to him. Of course she could not and thus the King imprisoned her, promising to release her only if she produced the ring. Desperate, the Queen turned to Saint Kentigern for help, who in turn asked one of his monks to catch a salmon in the river. The fish’s belly was promptly slit open, revealing the ring. In recognition of the story, Kentigern became the patron saint of nearby Glasgow, and a salmon appears in the city’s coat of arms.
Ironically, modern day Scots, like the Norwegians to the east (where most believe the Picts may have originated), have become expert smokers of salmon. The most famous smoked fish is called a kipper, a fish mostly eaten for breakfast and that many believe originated in Celtic Britain (although the practice of smoke-cooking fish goes back much further and was prevalent all across Europe).
Although ‘kipper’ generally refers to a herring fish that was split, salted and simmered in heat until burned, the ‘kipper’ also means a young male Aborigine, a native Australian, usually 14 to 16 years old, who has recently undergone his tribal initiation. Tellingly, for Australian Aborigines the salmon symbolised pride, intensity, confidence, inspiration and wisdom. This is especially interesting, for ‘kipper’ in Old English is cypera, meaning spawning salmon (a male salmon in particular), and this comes from an even older word, cyperen, meaning ‘copper’, a reference to the distinctive coppery tinge which salmon acquire during the spawning season. There are references to kippering salmon that date back to the 1300s, and Kipper Time is the season in which fishing for salmon is forbidden in Great Britain by an Act of Parliament (originally the period from 3 May to 6 January) in the River Thames. The Isle of Man is particularly famous for its kippers, and should we be surprised? It seems anywhere the legend of the Salmon of Wisdom is found, so too is the kipper.
Many monastic communities consumed large quantities of fish due to the fact that they were forbidden to eat meat unless ill, and/or were prohibited from doing so during Advent and Lent, when the use of most animal by-products was restricted. Although monastic communities typically transported fish from the sea, freshwater fish were more expensive and thus more prestigious (and indicative of higher economic status) and this led to more wealthy monastic communities creating their own freshwater ponds, such as the Meare Fish House in the Somerset Levels of western England, which was built for the monks of the powerful Glastonbury Abbey in the 1330s. English Heritage state:
The Fish House is almost certainly the only standing example of a medieval building directly associated with a freshwater fishery, and certainly the only one designed to house a monastic official.
It was constructed as a residence for the abbey official responsible for the adjoining ponds (and the freshwater lake that covered more than a square mile) and who managed the vital supply of fish to Glastonbury Abbey some three and a half miles down the road.
Monks were required to observe silence at all times and so in order to communicate the sign for salmon they used their hand to mimic the motion of the fish’s tail. Although salmon was the fish of choice, it was difficult to find, and even more difficult to provide in freshwater lakes. Thus, many other species of fish were substituted, such as the popular freshwater bream. To this end, English Heritage reports that in the late thirteenth century Meare yielded 200 freshwater bream, 5,600 eels, 30 ‘great’ eels, 55 pike, and 20,000 other ‘white’ fish. Similarly, the author, W. Dugdale, reported in his 1661 work, Monasticon Anglicanum (The History of the Ancient Abbeys), that ‘the fishery was highly productive, being admired in 1540 for its “great abundance of pykes, tenches, roches, jeles and divers other kinds fysshes”.’
Still other monastic orders, such as the Welsh Cistercians of Tintern Abbey (circa 1260), provided salmon for themselves and their sister abbey at Kingswood, as well as the Bishop of Hereford. Likewise, the Cistercians in Ireland recognised the River Boyne as a heaven for salmon and fished it systematically with nets. In fact, the nearby church at Monknewtown contains a far older plaque, depicting three salmon; three salmon are found frequently on family crests in Ireland.
Byland Abbey, in the Ryedale district of North Yorkshire, England, was the only Cistercian house not situated on or near a fishable river, and so it secured rights to fish in rivers elsewhere, mostly in salmon-rich waters along the coast. Securing or granting rights to valuable salmon streams was common practice. However, overwhelmingly the most viable solution was the construction of fish ponds known as ‘stews’. The visionary in this regard was Fountains Abbey (also in Yorkshire), which has been described as the ‘main monastic pioneer’ in fish farming, including, where possible, the sacred salmon. Intriguingly, at Fountains Abbey we find an alluring reference to the salmon by Archbishop Thurstan, who assumed the role of patron and adviser of the abbey. William of Newburgh writes in The History of English Affairs (p. 75) that amongst Thurstan’s many good works wasFountains Abbey,‘where continuously from that time onwards so many have drunk, as it were, from the Saviour’s fountains the waters that leap up to eternal life.’Of course, in this context the phrases ‘leap up’ and ‘eternal life’ would appear to be references to salmon.
Other Fishy Legends
The period when Rome invaded Celtic Europe is well documented and, as previously mentioned, the Romans were astonished to learn that the Scottish Picts did not eat salmon. They were equally as surprised, when conquering French Gaul, to discover how passionate the local people were about their salmon, whose Gaulish name was salmo, meaning leaper. Similarly, the Roman name for leaper was salar. Much later, in the eighteenth century, when Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and inspiration for what we call ecology, was codifying the names of species, he combined these in the scientific name, Salmo salar.
During the time of Roman Emperor Tiberius (AD 14 to 37) the Roman author, naturalist and naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, known as Pliny the Elder (AD 23 to 79), wrote in his ten-volume epic work, Natural History, that the people of Aquitania (the south-western corner of France, bordering Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, for which Bordeaux is the regional capital) loved no other fish above the Atlantic salmon. Similarly, a Roman writer living in what is believed to be Germany’s oldest city, Trier, where the Emperor Constantine established a strategic headquarters, wrote in the third century about the swirl of salmon on the surface of the Moselle river. Clearly, the Romans were intrigued by the mysticism of the salmon, like many other cultures before and since.
Legends of the sacred salmon in Great Britain continue and, perhaps most famously, the local Fishmongers’ Company in London ceremonially present a salmon to the Priory of Westminster each year. This tradition stems from the association of Westminster Abbey with the salmon, and the legend of a small chapel that was dedicated there in AD 604 when a salmon fisherman transported Saint Peter (the patron saint of fishermen and apostle of Pisces, the fish) across the River Thames in his boat. Later, when determining the most important site for a cathedral, the association of the site with Saint Peter (and the salmon) made it the most worthy location. Further, a few weeks after the Westminster ceremony, The Fishmongers’ Company present a dressed salmon to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, on 29 June, the Feast Day of Saint Peter. Fittingly, the shield of the Fishmongers’ Company of London depicts a salmon, a dolphin (in the form of the Pictish beast), a merman and a mermaid, and Saint Peter.
Similarly, in the United States there exists an equally fascinating tradition involving the ceremonial presentation of a salmon. The tradition of the President’s Salmon began in 1912, when Karl Anderson, a member of the Penobscot Maine Salmon Club, became the first and only successful fisherman on the opening day of the salmon season on the River Penobscot. In fact, he caught two. Karl gave one of his prize salmon to Campbell Clark, president of the Clark Thread Company in Newark, New Jersey, a salmon enthusiast who was known for paying the highest price for the first catch of the season. The other, Karl decided he should present to the President of the United States himself, William Howard Taft, in order that he, on behalf of the city of Bangor Maine, should ‘show the city’s honour and respect for the president.’
The peculiar tradition of the President’s Salmon was born, but did not continue uninterrupted, for the Penobscot salmon fishery suffered for much of the 1960s and early 1970s, resulting in President Richard Nixon being denied his presidential salmon. The Clean Water Act ensued, however, and soon reduced pollution in rivers by 80%. As a result, the tradition of the President’s Salmon resumed, at least until George Bush Sr, who banned it due to the belief that fish had become too endangered for the ritual. In 2015 a book by the name of The President’s Salmon by Catherine Schmitt, an environmental scientist who has conducted water-quality research in Maine, sympathetically chronicled the peculiar story and the plight of the Penobscot salmon.
As recently as 2008, the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia developed a new symbol and flag featuring a salmon. The flag consists of the letter ‘G’, as a salmon, representing the gift of knowledge in the Gaelic storytelling traditions of Nova Scotia, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, while the letter ‘G’ represents the Gaelic language. Salmon symbolism in this part of the world is not unexpected, for the first postage stamp depicting the Atlantic salmon was designed for Newfoundland. Nevertheless, the symbolism is refreshing and offers hope that the importance of the fish will not be forgotten.
Salmon Boy and other Tales of the North Pacific Rim
The U.S. Army Volunteers (turned explorers), Captain Meriwether Lewis and his second Lieutenant, William Clark, recorded many fascinating observations about salmon during their 1804 ‘Lewis and Clark Expedition’ (commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson) across the western portion of the United States. Unfamiliar with the fish’s lifecycle, they noted many dead salmon on the surface of the water and others who were jumping back up stream. What they did understand was that once they crossed the largely mountainous and inhospitable passage of the Americas known as the Great Divide, the salmon accounted almost exclusively for the Indian tribes’ sustenance, as it would theirs, as they journeyed westward towards a region that has perhaps the greatest salmon legends of all, the North Pacific Rim. Here, from the Pacific coastal regions of Alaska to Washington State, Japan to Russia (and beyond), we find the heart-warming, albeit slightly dark, tale of Salmon Boy. There are several variations of the story, but a condensed version of it goes as follows:
Long ago there was a young boy who disrespected the salmon, not just by not eating it when served to him, but by discarding its bones indiscriminately. The boy swam in the river with his friends and drowned. Actually, he was abducted by the mythical Salmon People; real salmon, who were on their way to the ocean. The Salmon People took the boy home with them and taught him the importance of respecting the sanctity of the salmon. Winter came to an end and it was time to return to the rivers. The boy swam with them, for he was now a salmon. When the Salmon People swam past his old village his birth mother caught him in her net and recognised him, despite him being a salmon, due to the copper necklace he was wearing, for she had given him that same necklace years before.
After eight days he became a human once more, only now he was a healer. He taught his village, stressing that he could not stay long, and telling them that they must remember his teachings. He prepared to leave the village and rejoin the salmon that were travelling upstream, who were on the final leg of their homeward journey. As Salmon Boy stood by the water, he saw the old, exhausted-looking salmon. As they swam towards him he recognised his own soul in one of them and thrust his spear into it, promptly killing it, and himself. The people of the village did as he had instructed and place his body into the river. It circled four times and then sank before returning to its home in the ocean, back to the Salmon People.
The haunting tale of Salmon Boy has been recounted for generations in the North Pacific Rim, and beyond. Its moralistic tone is full of symbolism and has resulted in the tale becoming a popular children’s book. However, Salmon Boy’s overriding message is clear: the salmon was the primary source of food for many people in the region, and thus the fish must be respected.
The Makah tribe in Washington State have a legend that salmon were people before being fish, and are honoured to serve the sacred cycle of life by being food for others, especially humans.
The American Indians have a legend about a salmon that they recount when sitting around the campfire. It speaks of how the salmon has three stories to tell: one about how to pray, one about how to laugh, and another that will make them dance.
On the large island to the north of Japan, known as Hokkaido, home to the Ainu people, the word for salmon is shipe, meaning ‘the real thing we eat’. The Ainu people once extended up into Russian Siberia and salmon was the primary staple of their diet. As a result, the Ainu learned how to manage the salmon harvest. The Ainu believed that the salmon who came up river each year were divine beings (kamuy) and were afforded extra respect. In many parts of the region a rite was performed whereby a smallish salmon was taken from the river, decorated (inawkike) and returned to the river. Once it was back in the abode of the gods it would share the human’s offerings with the rest of the salmon gods who would reward the humans by sending more salmon to their village. In the folklore of the North Pacific Rim a salmon is entirely altruistic. It is honoured to sacrifice its lives for others.
The Ainu believe that rivers are the sacred abodes of the gods who incarnate as salmon. When harvesting salmon prior to spawning, the Ainu will only claim as many salmon as they can eat that day, for they know that a body full of eggs cannot be preserved for eating later, no matter what technique is used. Further, they only kill salmon with a sacred tool called an isapakikni, which is a ceremonial instrument made of white wood and decorated with the same wood shavings that are used on the first fish they find returning to spawn. Today, the term ‘Salmon Priest’ is used to refer to a modern instrument used to kill the fished salmon. Typically, it is a machined head with an aluminium stem, designed to dispatch the fish quickly and humanely.
Sadly, the Japanese who immigrated into the Ainu’s land placed a ban on salmon harvesting and the Ainu people lost their identity, and many their lives, for they began to starve. Still, members of the Ainu compose poetry to the salmon, such as Mieko Chippu (born in 1948), who has written many touching odes to the fish, including Salmon Coming Home in Search of Sacred Bliss, an epic piece that chronicles the salmon’s extraordinary journey. The poem concludes:
Now, cradled in the arms of home
You may rest
For you will live on
In the memories of your children
You will endure forever
So rest well, now
Kamuy chep (Fish of the Gods)
Oh, most sacred fish.
In Siberia the Ulchis harvest salmon twice a year (in spring and autumn) and a special ceremony is held to ensure the salmon’s safe arrival. Nearby, in Alaska, the Tlingit people not only look to salmon as their primary source of sustenance, the salmon shapes their social identity, and also carries symbolic, shamanic and totemic value, with many clans proudly displaying the salmon as their crest. On totem poles the salmon symbolises dependability and renewal – a provider. Poignantly, the Tlingits regard the salmon run as a ‘myth of eternal return’.
In the interior of Alaska the Koyukon Athabaskan people have a riddle that says: ‘We come upstream in red canoes’, the answer being salmon. At Kettle Falls on the Columbia River, Washington State, the once-home of the Salish people, an authorised salmon divider distributed the salmon equally. Everyone received an equal share, regardless of whether they had participated in the harvest or not.
In Canada the mystique of the Atlantic salmon led to an entire river, the Cascapedia, being reserved in the nineteenth century for nothing but angling by the Governor General and his guests. The extreme length that the Governor went to is not unique amongst the salmon appreciation community, as the expression ‘salmon mad’ is used to denote enthusiasm for the sport. Clearly, the indigenous people of the North Pacific Rim have maintained a special relationship with the sacred salmon, as have many generations of people through history before them.
Dust to Dust
What the salmon teaches us today is no different from what our ancestors cherished about the fish since long before the last Ice Age: traits such as determination, poise, versatility, respect and, of course, wisdom.
However, there is one very special feature that I keep coming back to, and which I feel may be overlooked. I speak of the salmon’s natal homing ability, or its capacity to recall where it started its journey and to remember why it must return there – to procreate and die – in other words, to regenerate. When I contemplate whether humankind has a similar ability, I am reminded of how scientists have recently discovered that our DNA contains past-life memories. While this spectacular discovery sets the conventional view of a singular life existence on its head, there has been considerable debate about the authenticity of reincarnation for thousands of years; that is, the notion that our soul leaves our body at death and re-enters another physical body after spending a brief time in the spirit world, reviewing the life just past, making a pre-life agreement for the next incarnation and deciding where, when and in whose care the soul will incarnate next. Regeneration, indeed.
Less examined, however, is a similar phenomenon, namely the feeling that you have not only visited a place before, but have actually lived there in a past life. Typically, these seemingly magical destinations are far from our home and country – but not always. Many of us have experienced the sensation that we have lived somewhere before, and know that this differs from the feeling you get when you simply like a new destination. Rather, it is an overwhelming sense of coming home.
Psychologists would call this sort of ‘coming home’ sensation déjà vu, a simple aberration of the normal recognition experience and, in all fairness, controlled laboratory studies have shown this to be the case. But what if we do return home, if not physically, but mentally, on a soul level, as new DNA research suggests? Do we have a pre-life mission? Can we uncover it? Can we learn to live and thrive in multiple realms of consciousness, like the salmon lives in fresh- and saltwater, while literally leaping into a third realm (air) as it transport itself between the two? For me, these are the mysteries of the salmon that we have yet to understand – both in the fish, and in ourselves. Surely, the important thing is acknowledging what we do not know, whilst not dismissing the possibilities out of hand. At the very least, our continued ability to contemplate the magnificence of the salmon is nothing if not a sign of wisdom, tenacity and hope, and for that we should be grateful.