… and thank you for all the fish.

It’s important to read lots of different scholars on a subject and to keep in mind 1) they are only as good as the sources they’re working from and 2) everyone has biases, which shape how they interpret information. 

Case in point: G. M. Hirst’s The Cults of Olbia was published in 1903. She brings together a wealth of material (some of which more contemporary scholars fail to cite) but that material is limited to what was available at the time, primarily literary citations and numismatics. Serious excavation didn’t even begin at the archaeological site until 1902, with its heyday being the 1920s when they were able to return to the field post-WWI. Some of the most significant discoveries weren’t made, however, until the 1980s and as late as the 2010s when efforts were intensified due to concerns over erosion from the Black Sea and damage from pollution and climate change. None of this is reflected in Hirst’s study, obviously, so if you relied solely on that you’d have a pretty skewed perception of, say, Dionysos’ place in the Olbian pantheon (since many of those discoveries have had to do with him.) 

And for point two I simply want to remind folks that biases shape how we perceive things both large and small, significant and not. It’s easy to recognize bias when the scholar is postulating out-dated or faulty theories, especially if they’ve been thoroughly debunked or it’s something we’re familiar with and happen to care about – but other errors can slip right by without us realizing.

For instance, there is much debate about whether the Olbian dolphin coins are actually dolphins – or rather sturgeons. Sturgeons don’t mean anything to me, so I’m inclined to agree with the dolphin camp. That doesn’t make them right, however. After all, while it’s unlikely that an eagle could carry off a dolphin in its claws (not impossible, just extremely unlikely) there is nothing extraordinary about it doing that to a sturgeon.

While I applaud the scholar who was first able to look past the communis opinio and see a sturgeon one reason I side with the dolphiners is that no one I’ve read has satisfactorily explained why the Olbiapolitians would mint coinage with sturgeons on them, whereas it’s self-evident why they’d do so with dolphins, considering the animals’ associations with Dionysos and Apollon. In fact, one of Olbia’s major trading partners was the polis of Taras (or Tarentum) in Magna Graecia which minted its own dolphin coins, associated originally with their eponymous hero and Poseidon, though later on Dionysiac attributes were added via Taras’ blending with Iakchos (or Kloster.)

In other words, question everything – especially the things you are certain of.

24 thoughts on “… and thank you for all the fish.

  1. Just did the math. It can’t be a sturgeon either. Not naturalistically. The Beluga Sturgeon weighs anywhere from 42- 582 lbs on average with the record being a mind-blowingly huge 3,463 lbs female caught in 1827. It might as well be a fucking dolphin lol

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    1. See, I know fuck all about sturgeons so I didn’t catch that. Though I’m guessing a fish that large would be economically important to the city, which could explain their inclusion on coinage. Though not the eagle thing, which I’m guessing is a graphic reference to a myth or legend (either Greek or indigenous) that simply hasn’t come down to us. Especially since there are coins that show the dolphin/fish and the eagle together without the one trying to abscond with the other.

      My bet (impossible to verify, of course) is that this was a story wherein two divinities (Gods, Heroes, some other type of Spirit) were engaged in a chase or a fight and shape-shifting occurred, ultimately ending in the “eagle” capturing the other.


  2. One thing is to trace the areas where sturgeon live and dolphins. Surgeon live in fresh water as a rule. Dolphins don’t. Look at the tail. Dolphins have horizontal tails, surgeons vertical. I could come with more but I have found that a lot of people think dolphins are fish. Even people who know better.

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    1. Good points!

      Though the dolphin/fish needn’t be native to the area. For instance, this could be something the colonists carried with them from their metropolis, or an attribute ubiquitously associated with a deity or hero.


    2. Beluga sturgeons have been found in the Caspian and Black Sea basins so they do share habitat with dolphins (the Beluga sturgeon is an anadromous species that lives in lives in saltwater but migrates to freshwater during spawning season). But yes, your point about the fins is correct. The fins are more like a dolphin’s

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  3. Just spit-balling here…

    I wonder if, just as you’ve observed the bull/wolf connection pretty decisively and consistently, if there might be some sort of reflection of this in the eagle/dolphin imagery here as well, but “translated,” as it were, into other realms. Dolphins and wolves can easily be related to one another, especially through a Deity like Apollon (Who was related to both!); and as for eagles, I’d of course go to Zeus first of all…which would then give it some relation to bulls, though that connection doesn’t seem as close.

    Here in the Northwest, one gets graphic representations of eagles and killer whales (which are the largest delphinid species, actually!–and all of that bullshit about “it’s not a whale, it’s a dolphin” is a bit of a red herring, because ALL dolphins are whales because they are part of the Order Cetacea, and then dolphins are a sub-Family in the scientific nomenclature), often with one turning into the other, and killer whales are also understood to be the aquatic version of wolves in several of the tribes.

    I’m also reminded of the common Meso-American artistic motif of the large lizard (Gila monsters?) being carried by large eagle-like birds…these are not things that could actually happen, unless the lizards were very small members of their species, but there is clearly some sort of myth involved.

    As for transformation and supernatural pursuits: possibly, but not likely in my view, because the way that usually goes is that the one being pursued takes some form, and then the pursuer takes the form of the natural predator of that species (e.g. Gwion Bach becomes a hare and then Ceridwen becomes a hound; Gwion becomes a trout or salmon and Ceridwen becomes an otter; etc.). Since eagles are not the natural predators of dolphins, that wouldn’t work…unless the “dolphins” are salmon, and the whole thing is taking place in Puget Sound. So, unless the Olbians came to this region of the world, it doesn’t seem likely, at least to me.

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    1. I love when you spitball! Lots of good stuff to think further on, especially re: dolphins as wolves.

      Probably the dueling shapeshifters too, except … what if the sequence is reversed? As in X becomes an eagle to catch Y, so Y becomes a dolphin to devour eagle-X, so X becomes an even bigger fucking eagle and carries dolphin-Y off.

      Or maybe I’ve just smoked too much weed.

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        1. Your last thought there, Sannion, is now reminding me of the thing I saw on Jay Leno lo, these many years ago (probably over 20 years ago), when he did one of his “Jaywalking” segments where he goes out to Hollywood Blvd. and asks people questions. He asked a guy “What animal is said to be ‘king of the beasts’?” The guy answered, “Well, it’s SAID TO BE the lion, but I don’t know, I’ve got my doubts.” Jay then followed up, asking, “What do you think would be a better candidate?” and the guy replied, “The eagle.” Jay asked why, and the guy went on, “The lion isn’t so tough–you ever see a lion get attacked by a group of eagles?” Jay then said, “Do groups of eagles attack lions on a regular basis?” That was where that particular conversation ceased on the televised version…

          All of that to say: I don’t think considering the relative weights of these different creatures ever came into the thoughts of anyone who has ever discussed these things before, and it certainly didn’t come into the thoughts of the people who made the artifacts we’re considering here!


          1. Ah, how I miss the days when late night hosts were funny and classy and not just a bunch of partisan hacks. Hell, I wouldn’t even mind the partisan bit if they could actually tell decent, original jokes. But such are the times we live in.


    2. Your mention of Meso-American motifs reminded me of the Thunderbird vs. Horned Serpent / Underwater Panther / Water Beast dichotomy that is so common in North America. Different nations have different explanations for and interpretations of the various parties involved, but the motif is really common.

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      1. I was thinking the same thing. It’s been on my mind a lot because those kinds of spirits are native to Massachusetts where I live. As of yet I only interact with the Nikkommo (Little People of the Forest) but I often wonder if there is anything I can/should do for the other spirits

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        1. Certainly! Though my experience with Massachusetts is it really matters exactly where you are. I mean that’s generally true animistically, but it seems doubly so in Mass. because of the history and some possibly non-human factors. I’d love to chat about it sometime.


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