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Before sharks became movie villains, they were celebrated in myths across the world

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Fear and fascination

Great White Sharks in South Africa Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Close your eyes and think of sharks. Chances are, you picture Jaws, bloody shark attacks, tacky Shark Week specials, or maybe Sharknado. Sharks have had a rather one-dimensional reputation in the West. But while our modern imagination sees sharks almost exclusively as terrifying creatures, the history and mythology around sharks is markedly more complicated and rich. In many cultures, sharks have been part of the folklore for centuries.

“No other animal elicits such fascination and fear as the shark,” writes Dean Crawford in Shark. In this book, Crawford lays out some of the mythos of this powerful predator around the world.

Predictably, the cultures with the most shark myths are the island regions surrounded by water. In the Marshall Islands, tribes had their own sacred sharks, according to Crawford, and if someone showed disrespect to another tribe’s shark, they would need to apologize — or go to war.

The Hawaiians had some of the more complex mythology around the animals. They worshipped the sharks as gods, and had nine named shark gods. Perhaps most notable were the gods Ka’ahupahau and her brother Kahi’uka. Both were once human, and Ka’ahupahau was known for living near what is now Pearl Harbor.

In one Hawaiian story, Ka’ahupahau ordered that a local girl be kidnapped and killed after the girl demanded the lei that was being offered to the goddess. But when Ka’ahupahau realized that the girl actually did die, she regretted her rash order and instead said that sharks should never attack humans in the Pearl Harbor region. Similarly, the Solomon Islanders believed in good sharks that helped protect fishermen and swimmers.

The people of Papua New Guinea believed that sharks were the embodiments of ancestors. While the Tlingit, who live in British Columbia, have a myth about a woman who became a shark after being kidnapped by one. You get the sense, reading about these myths and beliefs, that people across the world haven’t felt a universal fear of sharks, so much as a unique spiritual connection.

There are, of course, darker myths as well. One Australian Aboriginal group called the Songlines believed in a giant tiger shark called the Bangudya. They believed that the rocks at nearby Chasm Island are reddish because Bangudya attacked another mythical being, a creature that was half-dolphin and half-man.

The Japanese had a god called the “shark-man” who could turn wind and rain into violent typhoons. Solomon Islanders also believed that sharks could be appeased by human sacrifice and often cast off victims both living and dead into areas of water that were known to be filled with the creatures.

Though lesser-known, sharks also have a role in Greek mythology. One of the endless women pursued by Zeus was the Libyan queen Lamia. Zeus’ wife Hera, jealous of his actions, stole the children of Lamia and Zeus, causing Lamia to go mad and turn into a shark demon that tries to steal other people’s kids. Her name is the basis for the lamnid sharks, which include the white shark.

So how did perception of sharks, particularly in the West, evolve to where we stand today. To be fair, the modern shark terror isn’t wholly without justification. Take the story of the USS Indianapolis: Near the end of World War II, the ship was downed by torpedoes in the Pacific. Three hundred people died, but the remaining 900 weren’t in much better shape, as they floated on life rafts and were attacked by sharks for days. When you consider that this was was the single greatest loss of life at sea for the Navy, and the headlines that must have dominated at the time, it makes sense that people were afraid. In the following decades, sharks became a popular villain in fiction, most notably in Steven Spielberg’s iconic summer blockbuster.

But those fears neglect the wider truth that sharks aren’t all vicious predators circling the waters. They’re crucial for the ocean ecosystem and, frankly, prefer eating fish to eating humans. In the US, roughly one person a year is killed by a shark. In contrast, humans kill 100 million sharks a year.

It’s a shame that this narrative of malevolent beasts is the one that dominates and that — in the absence of myth and the popularity of attack movies — sharks that were once respected as complex creatures today are simplified into bloodthirsty monsters.