Happy Shark Week, everyone! This week, the Discovery Channel continues its tradition of airing over 20 hours of shark-related content in what’s come to be known as “Shark Week.” You can find more information, including the full schedule of programming, here.
Sadly, there is no Brer Shark in the Uncle Remus tales. This is unsurprising, though, considering it is highly unlikely that the people who told the stories ever encountered a shark in their lifetimes, including Joel Chandler Harris. Fortunately, middle Georgia remains relatively shark-free.
There is a shark story, though, in Tanzanian folklore called, “The Monkey, the Shark, and the Washerman’s Donkey” that strangely features a trickster hare.
Sharks feature prominently in other folklore, primarily in island cultures. This makes sense since island cultures share territory with the toothy, underwater predators. In most mythologies, sharks are gods or demi-gods that can change their forms from human or god to shark and vice versa. What’s interesting is that sharks seem to occupy a gray-area space in folklore, sometimes the heroes and sometimes the villains of the stories.
In Fijiian mythology, Dakuwaqa is the shark-god. He most famously tried to conquer Kadavu Island by battling a goddess who had taken the form of an octopus. The Octopus Goddess defeated Dakuwaqa, pulling his teeth out with her eight legs and rendering him useless against her. After his defeat, Dakuwaqa promised never to attack the island again and instead became its protector, protecting fishermen from the dangers of the sea.
(By the way, you can see a real-life version of this battle here. Don’t mess with octopuses, guys.)
On the other hand, in Japanese folklore, isonade (or ō-kuchi-wani) are shark-like creatures with barbed tails. They appear during storms and use the hooks on their tails to capture boats and drag their passengers into the water to eat. Sometimes, they even come close to the shore, swiping the beach with their dangerous tails and devouring prey that way.
Similarly, in Greek mythology, there are shark-like creatures called Ketea that represent “insatiable” hunger. There’s also a shark-god called Lamia who is the daughter of Poseidon and who eats children.
Hawaiian mythology seems to have the most and the most complex shark characters. It makes sense that there would be at least nine shark-gods in Hawaiian mythology considering there are approximately 40 species of sharks native to waters around the islands. I won’t go through all of them. Instead, I recommend reading this blog post I found, which did a good (and amusing) job breaking down the different Hawaiian shark-gods — or as the author called them, the “Guardians of the Ocean.”
I did want to call out one shark-god, though: Kane’apua, the Trickster God of Sharks. Like many other shark-gods, Kane’apua was a god that could take the form of a shark. You can watch a performance of the legend of Kane’apua performed by a storyteller at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
Humans and sharks have — and continue to have — a complicated relationship. It’s fascinating to see how that relationship is reflected in these varied shark tales.