Whale meanings and symbolism include magnificence, communication, music, protection, gratitude, wisdom, transformation, and psychic abilities. There are 90 species of whales (who are also called cetaceans) and they live in every ocean. So, they are subjects in the mythology and folklore of seafaring peoples around the world. In addition, some believe that whales have psychic abilities. Thus, the whale spirit animal is an important figure to those who feel a strong kinship with these magnificent sea mammals.
In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into whale meaning and symbolism, including whale spiritual meanings, as well as whale mythology, the whale spirit animal, and more.
Table of Contents
- What do whales symbolize?
- Whale Mythology and Folklore
- Whale Mythology in Oceana
- Whale Symbolism in Hawaii
- Whale Meaning in Vietnam
- Whale Meaning in Buddhism
- Whale Meaning in the Bible
- Whale Meaning in the Quran and the Middle East
- The Whale in Ancient Rome
- Ancient Egypt
- Greek Whale Mythology
- Celtic Whale Mythology
- The Whale in Norse Mythology
- Native American Whale Symbolism and Meaning
- White Whale Meaning
- Whale Tail Symbolism
- Whale Spirit Animal
- Whale Power Animal
- Whale Totem Animal
- Whale Dream Meanings
- Whale Tattoo Meaning
- How You Can Help Whales
What do whales symbolize?
- Psychic Abilities
Whale Meaning: Magnificence
The 10 largest animals in the world are whales. The smallest whale in that top 10 list is the gray whale, which weighs about 19.5 tonnes (or 43,000 pounds.) By comparison, that’s the equivalent weight of four elephants. The largest animal on the list is the blue whale, coming in at 110 tonnes (or 242,500 pounds), which is about 16 elephants.
Based on their sheer enormity, the whale is a symbol of magnificence. However, their magnificence extends far beyond their size. The whale also possesses awe-inspiring traits that should humble us, from their protective instincts to their intelligence to their gentleness and more. Indeed, the magnificence of the whale reminds us of just how wonderful and magical the world is.
Not only is the blue whale the largest animal on Earth, they are also the loudest. The call of the blue whale can reach 188 decibels. (That’s 48 decibels louder than a jet plane.) In fact, a blue whale’s whistle can be heard for hundreds of miles.1
Beyond sheer volume, the whale is a complex communicator. They use sonar, or echolocation, to emit low and high-pitched frequencies to better understand their environment. They also communicate with other whales using clicking and whistling sounds. Furthermore, they use body language to express themselves.
As an expert communicator, the whale spirit animal reminds you of the importance of your own communication skills. If you are finding that people are not reacting well to how you express yourself, it could be a sign that you need to consider not just what you want to say but how you’re being received by the other person. Likewise, if a whale makes themselves known to you, whether in real life, art, or the media, it can be a sign that you should try tuning into the more subtle messages and forms of communication that are around you, such as other people’s behavior, nature, and even messages from your spirit guides.
When whales communicate with each other, it has a musical quality to it. In fact, marine biologists say that whales attract their mates by singing to them. According to some stories, the first harp was made from a whale’s bones because the bones had the vibrational magic of music in them.
The spirit of the whale reminds you that music heals. There are few situations where adding music doesn’t make things better. Make sure you are getting your daily dose!
Whale Symbolism: Protection
There are numerous stories of whales offering protection to non-whale species. In fact, biologists have witnessed whales hiding seals under their pectoral fins when orcas are present. Furthermore, there are stories of whales protecting people.
In this video from the Dodo, biologist Nan Hauser explains how a humpback whale protected her from a tiger shark off the Cook Islands:
Because of their protective and altruistic behavior, the whale is also a powerful symbol of protection. The whale reminds you to be protective of those and that which you hold dear. This can extend from your significant other to children in your life, friends, and your community. It may also be your ideas, a cause, or even your finances. The whale asks: Are you being protective enough?
Those of us who have companion animals are aware of how they show gratitude, such as with affection, exuberance, or even how they greet us when we come home. Like other wild animals, including the crow and the badger, the whale also understands gratitude.
In this video from Michael Fishbach, co-founder of The Great Whale Conservancy, Michael and his colleagues removed a fishing net from a humpback whale who was tangled in it. The whale expresses her gratitude to the thrill of her saviors:
The word gratitude is one that has come to be used a lot in our popular vernacular. The only downside to that is that with overuse, the word risks dilution. In fact, the concept of gratitude is possibly one of the most powerful ideas in the world. It is an acknowledgement of the divine – the good in the world. There is a saying:
“If the only prayer you say in your lifetime is thank you, it will be enough.”
That is the spirit of gratitude. The whale reminds you to be grateful for even the smallest things, like your breath and your ability to feel.
Cetaceans are considered to be some of the most intelligent animals on Earth. Along with dolphins, the whale has a large brain. In addition, they demonstrate complex social behaviors, including mourning the death of a calf or other family member just as elephants do. They also play, coordinate with each other when hunting, and demonstrate altruistic behavior. Because of their intellectual capacity and their long evolutionary history, the whale is also a symbol of wisdom.
The whale spirit animal reminds you to use the gift of your intellect. Even if you don’t feel like you’re the next Einstein, the power of your mind is limitless. Living in a state of perpetual curiosity, wonder, and learning is a life well-lived.
Whale Meaning: Transformation
All life on Earth originated in the water. However, some animals evolved to walk on land. Then, of those species, a few made the choice to return to the water. These include reptiles like turtles, amphibians like frogs, and marine mammals, including otters, manatees, dolphins, and whales. Thus, these special animals are symbols of transformation.
As a symbol of transformation, the whale spirit guide reminds you that you have the power to transform your life in extraordinary ways. No matter how deep you dive, you have the capacity to propel yourself out of the depths and into the fresh air.
The whale spirit animal reminds you to visualize what you want and where you want to go, no matter where you’re starting from. Personal transformation begins in the mind. And then, put a plan in place to get there. As the self-help guru Tony Robbins says, once you visualize your goal, back it up with “massive action.”
Psychics who are in-tune with animals say that cetaceans have psychic abilities. This could be one reason why whales show up to help people as well as to get help from them. Animals pick up on information that we do not, just as some people are more sensitive to certain things than others are. This is all that supernatural powers are: an expanded level of awareness. And we all have the ability to expand our level of awareness and therefore consciousness.
The whale spirit animal reminds you to tune into your intuition and the supernatural. We all have this capability. Finding stillness through prayer or meditation and being in nature can help to fine-tune our intuitive abilities. So can relaxing swimming or floating in water. The whale knows there is more going on in the Universe than we humans generally think about as we go about our days – and it is waiting to be explored.
Whale Mythology and Folklore
In the 4th century BC, the philosopher and scientist Aristotle wrote about the different whales and dolphins he saw while sailing on the Aegean Sea. In fact, he differentiated between baleen and toothed whales and had a sense of the lifespan of the different types of cetaceans he observed. Aristotle was way ahead of his time. Unfortunately, much of this knowledge was lost until it was rediscovered during the Renaissance, which began in the 14th century.
The other main example of early cetology (the study of whales) was that of the Scandinavians starting around the 13th century.2 They described killer whales (orcas, which are in the dolphin family) as aggressive like “wild dogs.” They also described narwhals and sperm whales. For the most part, they viewed whales as giant, dangerous sea monsters.
Hundreds of years ago, whales were far more plentiful in the sea than they are today. So, we can only imagine that early seafarers saw them a lot. However, they knew very little about what lurked beneath the ocean’s surface, which understandably caused their imaginations (not to mention their post-voyage tales) to run wild. In many ways, the early seafarers’ fear of whales led to these generally benign animals being misunderstood. Still, while some cultures feared them, others revered them. Here are some of those stories:
Whale Mythology in Oceana
For many of the Indigenous Pacific Islanders, including the Māori People of New Zealand, as well as the Australian Aborigines, the whale is a water spirit who brings good fortune and happiness. In addition, for the Darkinyung and Gamilaraay People3 who live on the central eastern coast of Australia, the whale is an important totem animal who protects the people. In fact, they have an important creation story about a whale they call Gyian.
Gyian the Whale
Before the world was made, the creator Baiyami floated on the Milky Way. And from the stars he created the plants and animals. Though at first, they all lived in darkness. Of all the beings Baiyami created, Gyian the whale was his favorite.
Baiyami promised Gyian that one day he would be able to live with all other creatures in harmony. So, he brought Gyian and Bundar the kangaroo with him as he created the world where all of the plants and animals would live. Baiyami then told Gyian the new world would be his dreaming place.4
The Whale Rider
The Māori People also have a creation story about a whale. They believe the whale is a descendant of their god of the oceans, Tangaroa.
A long time ago, on the island of Mangaia (now the Cook Islands), Chief Uenuku had 71 sons. His youngest, Paikea, was his favorite. Paikea’s older brothers were very jealous of the bond that he had with their father. So, they plotted to drown him when they all went fishing. Paikea overheard their plotting and when they were all out at sea, Paikea purposefully capsized the canoe and his vindictive brothers all drowned.5
However, Paikea was unable to turn the canoe back upright. So, he clung to it thinking that he might drown too. Then a friendly whale named Tohorā came and swam under Paikea. He let Paikea sit on his back.
Tohorā the whale swam with Paikea all the way to New Zealand. When the whale reached shallow waters, Paikea slid off his back and walked to shore. Finding the island beautiful, he settled there.6 Today Paikea is known as the whale rider.
Whale Symbolism in Hawaii
For the Native Hawaiians, the whale is seen as the god of the ocean, Kanaloa, in animal form. The Hawaiians also view whales as guides and helpers just as they do sharks and dolphins. In addition, they believe the whale is connected not only to the physical world but also the divine. In fact, if a whale’s body washes up on shore, the area is considered sacred ground that you should be guarded by alii, who are chiefs, and kahuna, who are shamans.7
Whale Meaning in Vietnam
In Vietnam, the whale is viewed as a sacred being and a protector, particularly of fishermen. The Vietnamese call the whale Cá Ông, which means Lord Fish or God of Fish. In Vietnam, there are a number of temples that are dedicated to whales. In addition, if the Vietnamese find a dead whale on shore, they will provide an elaborate funeral for the whale. Then after a while, they will place the whale’s bones in a temple.
One such temple was built in the 18th century. It’s located in Phan Viet and is called Van Thuy Thu. The temple has the bones of at least 100 whales that were collected over the last two centuries.8 Needless to say, the Vietnamese do not hunt whales. Some historians surmise that the Vietnamese’s spiritual views on whales date back to a 4th century Buddhist story, which you can read about next.
Whale Meaning in Buddhism
According to one Buddhist story, a long time ago there was a terrible tempest raging in the South China Sea. The storm was so powerful that many animals and fishermen were at risk of dying. Viewing the storm from a lotus flower, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the lord of mercy and compassion, took pity on the people and animals.
So, Avalokiteshvara removed his cassock and tore it into multiple pieces. He then threw the scraps into the sea. At Avalokiteshvara’s command, each piece of fabric transformed into a whale.
As the embodiment of himself, Avalokiteshvara knew the whales would rescue the people and other creatures who faced death in the storm. However, even the whales struggled in the huge waves and powerful currents. So, Avalokiteshvara made the whales larger so they could withstand the power of the storm and rescue the people and animals.9
The Japanese Shinto deity Ebisu is sometimes associated with whales. He is the god of fishing and trade. According to Japanese legends, Ebisu was the son of the creator god and goddess, Izanami and Izanagi. However, he was born without bones, so they threw him into the sea where he gained power and became a deity with special powers.10
Unfortunately, whatever connection that Ebisu has to whales in Japanese culture did not extend to their protection. Unlike Vietnam, where whales are viewed as sacred, in Japan whales are still hunted.11
China has a number of sea deities, two of whom in particular are associated with whales. To begin, there is Yu-Kiang, who is described as a whale- or sea dragon-like creature with the hands, arms, legs, and feet of a human. If angered, like the leviathan in the Bible, Yu-Kiang would cause severe storms at sea and high waves. However, the sea creature could also be a benevolent protector of ships.12
There is also the sea goddess Mazu, who was a protector of fishermen and others who traveled on the sea. According to the legend, Mazu began her life as the daughter of a fishermen, but she was an usually quiet and strange child. She grew up to become a shaman with special powers. To this day, there are numerous temples in her honor, particularly in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian.13
Whale Meaning in the Bible
In the Book of Jonah, God calls upon the prophet Jonah to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh and warn them of God’s impending wrath because of their wickedness. However, Jonah doesn’t think the people deserve to be saved, so he attempts to escape God’s request and sets out to sea.
On the voyage, Jonah’s ship hits an overwhelming storm that threatens to destroy the ship and kill the entire crew. Knowing the storm is caused by God’s anger at him, Jonah goes overboard and the storm subsides.
That’s when the whale comes in. Sent by God, the whale takes Jonah into her mouth.
There are a few different interpretations of what the whale in the Book of Jonah symbolizes. On the one hand, the whale, as one of God’s creatures, is a protector of the prophet. However, other accounts theorize that the whale was actually the biblical sea monster called the leviathan. (At the time the Book of Jonah was written, in the 5th century, there wasn’t really a Hebrew word for whale, so some believe the people of the time viewed whales and sea monsters as one in the same.)
Some believe the whale (or sea monster) in the story of Jonah symbolized the people of the wicked city of Nineveh. While Jonah thought they were monstrous and therefore not worthy of redemption, God proved that even the monster could be tamed into repenting and following the word of God.14
(It should be noted that only sperm whales are capable of actually swallowing a human being, as other whale species have throats that are too narrow to swallow a person, and their baleens are not designed to chew up large prey in order to swallow it. However, there has never been a proven case of a sperm whale swallowing a person. So, it’s impossible to tell if the story of Jonah is actually based on a sperm whale taking a man into his mouth.)
Whale Meaning in the Quran and the Middle East
The Quran also tells the story of Jonah and whale. In the case of the Quran, Jonah (or Yunus in Arabic) is commanded by Allah to carry his word.15
Whales appear elsewhere in the Quran and other Islamic stories. For example, there is a mythical creature called Nun who carries the world on his back. The story shares a similar cosmology with a number of other cultures, from ancient Egyptian to Hebrew to Hindu and Native American, which describe the beginnings of the world as an endless sea.16 Only for the Hindus and Native Americans, the world rests on a giant turtle instead of a whale.
The Adventures of Sinbad
In another story from the Middle East, Sinbad the sailor is on his first voyage in the series when he and his crew put their anchor down near an inviting island so they can rest. The island has vegetation growing on it and a sandy shore. However, when Sinbad and the crew begin lighting cooking fires, the island starts to move. In shock, they scramble to get back on their ship as it’s revealed that the island is actually a giant whale. The fires evidently woke him up from a prolonged nap.17
The Whale in Ancient Rome
It’s impossible to know when and where the first stories of malevolent whales sinking ships began. Certainly, cultures from 5000 BC and earlier had mythologies around giant sea serpents that encircled the world, as is reflected in the ancient ouroboros symbol.
However, it wasn’t until recently that scientists confirmed that certain whales were actually in the Mediterranean Sea – an area where many of the whale-as-evil-monster stories began.
In the 1st century AD the Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny recorded his theories about whale behavior as he watched whales in the Bay of Cadiz. The bay is near the Straits of Gibraltar – where the Atlantic Ocean connects with the Mediterranean Sea.
In his writings, Pliny wrote about whales viciously attacking other whales. Up until recently many viewed Pliny’s writings as somewhat fanciful. However, recent studies of ancient Roman fish-processing locations revealed the bones of certain whale species. It’s unlikely the Romans could have caught these whales far out at sea and brought them back, so they were likely in the bay.
The researchers confirmed that killer whales, or orcas, were in the vicinity and they were indeed hunting right whales and gray whales who were also there.18 As apex predators, orcas (who are in the dolphin family) most likely contributed to the view of whales as giant, aggressive sea monsters.
While there are not any known whale deities from ancient Egypt, southwest of Cairo is one of the most important sites ever discovered that tells the story of the evolution of whales. Wadi Al-Hitan, or Whale Valley, contains an immense collection of fossils of the early ancestors of whales. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wadi Al-Hitan contains fossils that show the evolution of whales from land-dwelling creatures to ocean mammals.19
Greek Whale Mythology
As seafaring people, the ancient Greeks inevitably came across whales. They certainly had a number of stories about dolphins. The Greeks also told stories of a whale island, which they called aspidoceleon. As in the story of Sinbad, in Greek myths sailors would mistakenly anchor on the aspidoceleon, thinking it was an island, when in fact it turned into a blood-thirsty whale that would eat them.20
In other Greek myths, Poseidon, the god of the sea, had a whale or sea monster named Cetus. In the story, Queen Cassiopeia of Ethiopia had a daughter named Andromeda. She was so proud of her daughter’s beauty that she boasted that Andromeda was even more beautiful than Poseidon’s sea nymphs, the Nereids.
Enraged by this hubris, Poseidon sent Cetus to attack Ethiopia. Terrified of the monster, Cassiopeia decided she would offer Andromeda to Cetus, chaining her to a rock at the ocean’s edge. Thankfully, the monster-slayer Perseus came on to the scene, using Medusa’s head to turn the Cetus into stone. Bereft at the death of his sea monster, Poseidon threw the stone Cetus into the sky where it became a constellation.21
Celtic Whale Mythology
The Celts didn’t venture into the deep sea as much as the Vikings did. However, they had a few sea deities who may have been inspired by whales. And later generations told whale stories.
Celtic sea deities include Nodens, who was the god of the ocean, healing, hunting, and dogs.22 In addition, there was Lir, who was the personification of the sea.23 Lir had a son named Manann who was a warrior and the ruler of the Otherworld, or the world of the gods. He was also associated with the sea and sea creatures.24
Like the Muslims and the ancient Greeks, the Irish had a tale about sailors landing on an island that turned out to be a whale. In the Irish case, the leader of the crew was the 6th century explorer Saint Brendan the Navigator.25
The Whale in Norse Mythology
The Vikings also told stories of a whale who would disguise himself as an island and lure sailors. Called Lyngbakr, the whale would sink the ship and drown the crew.26
The ancient Scandinavians were fearful of whales, though they hunted them for food. (Unfortunately, that tradition endures in our modern world.)
In one story in the collection of sagas known as Heimskringla, King Harald of Denmark commands his warlock to go to Iceland on a fact-finding mission. So, the warlock shapeshifts into a whale and swims there. However, no matter where he goes along the coast of the island, Icelandic guardian spirits, including a dragon, toads, and a giant bird, deter him, so the king is forced to give up on attacking Iceland.27
Native American Whale Symbolism and Meaning
For the Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest, such as the Inuit, the whale is sacred and a symbol of good luck and abundance. This is mainly because, like the caribou, the whale is an important source of food. In addition, for the Salish People, the whale symbolizes wisdom and spiritual awareness.28
Sedna, Goddess of the Sea
The Inuit goddess Sedna is associated with whales and other sea animals. In different versions of the story, her father throws her into the sea. Hence, she becomes a vengeful goddess who must be placated or she causes havoc for people when they venture into the ocean.29
The Raven and the Whale
The Intuit have a legend about the raven and the whale.
In the beginning of time, Raven created the world. He wanted to assess his handiwork, so one day he paddled out to sea in his kayak. Though Raven created the world, he didn’t know every detail about it.
While at sea, he came across a whale. Curious about what was inside of the giant sea creature, Raven waited for the whale to yawn. Once she did, Raven paddled his kayak into her mouth.
To his surprise, inside the whale was a beautiful maiden who was dancing. Raven told her that he could help her escape the whale. However, the maiden said, “No. I cannot leave. I am the heart and soul of the whale.”
The maiden danced inside the whale, entertaining Raven until she grew tired and fell asleep. As soon as she did, Raven grabbed her with his talons and when the whale exhaled he flew out of the blow hole into the sky, carrying the maiden.
As Raven flew, he saw the whale begin to die. And the further away he got, the maiden he held grew smaller and smaller until she disappeared. This is how Raven learned that every living creature has a heart and a soul.30
White Whale Meaning
The symbolism of the white whale is derived from Herman Melville’s 19th century classic Moby Dick. One of the greatest allegorical stories of all time, one of the most compelling aspects of Moby Dick and what the white whale symbolizes is that they can be interpreted in a myriad of ways.
For some, the white whale represents God – as in – You don’t mess with God. For others, the whale is the leviathan sea monster – representing either God’s wrath or the Devil. The whiteness of the whale can also be interpreted in the context of racism and white imperialism.31 Or it can also be interpreted as human beings’ insatiable desire to exploit nature, which could inevitably lead to our own demise. There is also a Buddhist interpretation that Ahab’s obsession with the whale is the ultimate form of attachment, which only leads to his own suffering.
Whale Tail Symbolism
The tail of a whale has its own symbolic meaning. It carries much of the symbolism of the whale itself, including being a symbol of protection. The whale tail also symbolizes strength and freedom, as the whale’s tail propels the whale forward in the ocean. The fluke of the tail is the two parts of the tail that split like two fins. This symbolizes balance and harmony.
Whale Spirit Animal
When the whale is your spirit animal, you have a magnificent guardian on your side. If a whale makes themselves known to you in a way that captivates your attention –pay attention. There are no coincidences. Learning more about whales can expand your consciousness and help you as you navigate your life path here on Earth.
Whale people are wise and insightful people who have strong intuitive abilities. You may at times feel misunderstood. So, it’s important to tap into the power of your own communication skills to get your message across to others. Whale people are also incredibly protective of others in a way that is selfless.
Whale Power Animal
A power animal can empower you with their most dynamic traits. So, if you want to transform an area of your life, consider the attributes that the power animal represents. For example, you can meditate on the whale power animal in a situation where you:
- Feel you need protection or that someone in your life does, whether it be physical, emotional, psychological, or even financial.
- Want to improve how you communicate with and interact with others. This might be verbally or through art, music, or other forms of expression.
- Would like to transform an area of your life.
- Want to enhance your psychic abilities.
Whale Totem Animal
An animal totem embodies the protective powers of the animal it represents. Thus, the whale totem serves as a helpful symbol for protection as well as for personal transformation. In addition, the whale totem is a good luck talisman for fine tuning your intuition and expanding your consciousness beyond the physical world.
Whale Dream Meanings
What does it mean if you dream of a whale or a pod of whales? Dreams can have a whole range of meanings, so there is not a cut and dry answer as to what a whale dream means. For example, a dream can be the result of fears or anxieties about an issue that you need to address in your conscious, wakeful state. Or it can be your brain’s way of imagining a pleasant experience.
Furthermore, your dreams can be messages from your spirit guides or other information that you pick up metaphysically. Because cetaceans are known to be psychic, a whale dream can also be your super-conscious making a connection with a whale, a whale spirit, or other spirit guide. Certainly dreaming of a whale in distress can be a sign of your deep connection to these sentient beings and a call to action.
Dream meanings are personal to the dreamer. However, hopefully learning more about whales and what they symbolize in the collective consciousness, as well as understanding the emotions you experienced in your dream, can bring deeper insights.
Whale Tattoo Meaning
A whale tattoo is a positive symbol of wisdom, protection, and transformation. It can also signify the special kinship you feel with these soulful animals, even on a spiritual level. Furthermore, it may mean that you are a protector of whales and the world’s oceans.
Tattoo meanings are deeply personal to the person whose skin they adorn. But hopefully understanding more about whale symbols and mythology can bring even deeper meaning to your tattoo.
How You Can Help Whales
While conservation efforts have protected some whale species from going extinct, the fact is that many are still endangered, such as blue whales, or critically endangered, including right whales. Threats to whales include hunting (or whaling), oil and gas development, toxins in the ocean, habitat disruption from climate change, starvation, and getting tangled in discarded fishing nets.32 If you care about whales, please do what you can to protect them. Here are some organizations that are working to protect whales: