If people today were asked why they want to watch whales, they might talk of the size and the magnificence of these sea dwellers, and the awe they inspire. They might also mention a mystique that has captured their imaginations. But this fascination is nothing new; tales about whales have been passed from generation to generation, becoming part of folklore and legends across cultures throughout history.
It was believed that Yu-kiang, an enormous whale some thousands of li in length, ruled the oceans. Although its body was a whale, it had hands and feet like a human being. It was not deemed wise to anger it, because then it would turn into a massive bird and rush up to break the water’s surface. In doing so, it would create terrible storms in the surrounding sea.
The story of King Sulemani and the whale holds a moral for those who may seek to overreach their power, however well-meaning. The story tells of how King Sulemani had grown more than enough crops to feed all the starving people and animals of his land. Not content with his success in that, he prayed to God to be given the strength to feed the whole world. This presumptuous idea was not well- received, and the next day a giant creature appeared from the sea and ate every scrap of corn that was left. It spoke to the king, telling him that it was still hungry and demanding to be fed more. Not only that; it also told King Sulemani that there were 70,000 more such whales in its tribe, all hungry! It seems that King Sulemani understood then that he was being taught a lesson! From that day on, he was humbler in his aspirations.
A well-known story from Icelandic folklore tells of a man who threw a stone at a fin whale – and hit its blowhole, which resulted in the whale bursting. This act was not acceptable, and the man was given the punishment of not being allowed to go to sea for twenty years. He managed to do as he was ordered for eighteen years, but in the nineteenth year he was unable to keep himself from returning to the sea. The whale found him and killed him. It has been suggested that this story illustrates that whales will forgive a misdemeanour, but only once the punishment has been served, and genuine remorse shown.
In Vietnam, whales are revered as sacred creatures and believed to bring good luck, prosperity and safety. Some believe they seek to save humans in difficulty at sea.
When whales are stranded on the shore (beached) and found dead, this is seen as an event of sadness, anywhere in the world. In Vietnam, though, the dead whale is buried on land, with a ceremony, as if it was a member of the community. Many local people come to mourn. Cá Ông, or Lord Fish, is the name respectfully used to address whales in this situation. Sometimes, a shrine may even be set up in honour of the whale.