Sea Monsters: Jaws

Deep below the depths of the ocean, strange things lie. Hidden in the dark within sea caves, your fears reside.
Folklore Thursday

After Darwin and the 19th century, monsters changed from the mythological creatures they were into real species who have been demonised for simply trying to stay alive.  They knock us off the top of the food chain, they hunt us as prey and this terrifies us.

Where once we feared sea serpents, today we fear reality.  Or at least, the version of reality we have spun for ourselves.


Jaws was a watershed moment for the sharks, taking them from the shadows to centre stage, from un-thought-about to villain.  Jaws portrayed a ruthless maneater who killed for cruelty.  This idea of the vengeful shark infiltrates our language.  We talk of seas infested with sharks, sharks menacing our coast lines, sharks invading our beaches…

Sharks merge into the large fish category when it comes to looking at myth and legend and older texts so it’s not always clear to see how literature has reflected this creature.  And whilst there are few clearcut examples of literary sharks, those that do exist don’t seem to expand our understanding of the species, often being cast as monsters and more recently, in animated films for example, as cute and cuddly.  The reality being somewhere in between.

Humans are far more of a threat to the shark than they are to us.  We kill millions every year to eat them, for their fins, for their teeth or simply because of our fear.  When we come face to face with this apex predator, our sense of self and our place in the world is challenged and we react with fear and we lash out.

Between 1986 and 2000 in the northwest Atlantic ocean, the hammerhead shark population fell by 89%, the great whites fell by 78% and for tiger sharks there was a 65% decline.  In contrast, about 5 people a year, worldwide, are killed by sharks.  Far more people die from bee stings or lightening strikes than from sharks.

Sharks are not a threat to human life but they threaten our importance, reminding us how small and vulnerable we really are.  They become a scapegoat for our fear of the unknown seas.  Where once we drew mythological monsters on our maps as a symbol of the uncharted and dangerous waters, today we have the shark.  A painful reminder of just how little we know about life in the deep.

But communities who live by or on the oceans tend to have a more nuanced view of sharks.  In some cultures, for example, the shark is revered, respected for its strength and hunting prowess.  In Hawaiian culture the shark is seen as a protector or a brave warrior and deceased family members are thought to be transformed into guardian sharks.  Sharks can also be a boom for the tourist industry.  A single living shark is allegedly worth $50,000 a year in tourist revenue according to a report from Fiji.

These magnificent and complex creatures are terribly misunderstood.  If we can step outside our humancentric way of thinking and seeing, we can appreciate how wonderful sharks are, how fantastic they are at being sharks and we can gaze upon them with respect.


Shark: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck


The shark is a fish, so it is worth having a look at that card as well.  

Whilst we are familiar with a few key species of shark – the tiger shark, the hammerhead, the mako shark etc – there are actually over 500 species which range from 17cm long to 12m.  I recently read an article about the great white shark.  It covered lots of technical info but the bit that stuck with me was the duality of appearance that they drew my attention to.  From the side, they can appear comical, clown like.  And then when they turn and face you, they are, without any doubt, menacing.  I loved this.  Sharks have a really bad reputation as fierce, heartless killers but really, especially compared to humans, they’re pretty gentle and ethical killers.  Unlike us, they kill to survive.

Sharks have been described as killing machines and whilst that is a very one sided perspective, it is true.  The shark, like other apex predators, has evolved to be an efficient hunter.  They are streamlined and fast with excellent manoeuvrability.  Despite our fear of shark attacks, they are actually elusive creatures who are likely to only attack people if they are threatened or they mistake the human for a seal.  Think about it, the shark will see the person and the seal from underneath, as a shadow against the surface of the water and in certain positions, they look the same.  This does give us some insight into the nature of the shark – they are action orientated, act first, think later.  If there’s something you feel you should do, do it, do it now and don’t overthink it.  Follow your gut.

I think some people probably associate the shark with anger, with uncontrolled temper, with pure fear. But they aren’t like that all the time.  On one side they are killers, they do strike fear into prey.  But there is another side to them.  Like most big sea animals, they are a bit like a moving, living ecosystem.  Little fish actually swim into the mouths of sharks – they help the shark out by cleaning their teeth, eating parasites etc.  And the shark does not eat them even though they could and would in other situations.

It feels like actually, the shark, if you consider it to have a temper, has a very controlled one.  It can say to the cleaner fish, yes now is a good time, I’m in a good mood, I’m not hungry, come on in.  And conversely, it can say no, not now, go away, not right now.  This feels like it would be a really good skill for us.  How much easier would it be if we could recognise and easily communicate when we need to be left alone.  There is a common reaction that if someone wants you to leave that you’ve done something wrong but the shark shows us that you will probably be welcomed back with open arms.  It’s just about timing.

As I’ve said, they are not gratuitous killers, instead killing when they need to eat.  I think humans probably kill more than we eat because of fears around scarcity.

“Scarcity thinking says that there will never be enough of anything – love, food, energy, power – so we must hoard or conditionally offer and withdraw, what we have… Abundance thinking says that together, we have enough of what we need, that there is enough for all of us if we recognise our essential interdependence.” – Autumn Brown

The shark has overcome this difficult relationship with scarcity and abundance with an internal rationing system.  This means they can delay digestion when food is scarce so they are really planning for the future, putting something aside for a rainy day as it were.

Let’s have a look at a few facts and bust some myths…

  • Their teeth are continually being replaced. True.  Keep your tools sharp, keep your skills fresh.
  • They can smell blood from far away which led to the belief that sharks could sense if a death was imminent.  True.  Sailors believed that seeing a shark would mean someone on board would die.
  • They have to keep moving or they’ll sink.  False.  However some species do need to keep moving in order to keep breathing and are able to sleep whilst swimming.
  • Sharks are loners.  False.  Some species are but most are social animals and even solitary sharks meet up for breeding and in rich hunting grounds.
  • Sharks are speedsters.  True and false.  It varies between species but they travel at an average speed of 5mph.  They can reach higher speeds, an average of 12mph, in short bursts. Like the cheetah, this isn’t a marathon, it’s a short sprint.
  • Sharks migrate.  True.  They have complicated migration patterns that we don’t know much about.  They travel great distances and manage 45 miles a day.

As I mentioned in the stingray post, sharks and rays can detect the electrical pulses given out by living beings through senses on their skin.  Have a look at this video for more info about how this works:

This extra-sensory experience of the world, plus the belief that sharks could predict death, has led them to be linked with clairsentience (psychic feeling or touching) and clairolfactus (psychic smelling).  The shark is asking us to tune into our senses, tune into our intuition, tune into our emotions and what our body is telling us.  Trust these ways of knowing to help you navigate the deep seas of your soul.

And I do mean deep.  Sharks are deep divers, common down to 2,000 metres.  This primitive, instinctual animal is comfortable in the dark waters of our emotions.  Perhaps we need to strip back part of ourselves, our logical, modern mind, and instead approach our inner self in a more intuitive, more primal way.  Feel our way through and not worry about how we put what we experience and see into language.

Sharks are often demonised; the Western view of sharks has been that they are malevolent, dangerous and evil.  A clear example of us fearing what we don’t understand.  And not making much effort to get to know what we don’t understand.  Instead, we make a decision about the nature of a thing and perpetuate myths and beliefs about it so we don’t have to challenge our own thinking.

As we saw with the panther, there is a difference between revering and respecting an animal and just being blindly afraid.  Sharks and shark gods are prominent in Hawaiian mythology.  One of these, Kamohoali’i, would guide lost sailors home and could take the form of any fish.  Both Hawaiian and Polynesian mythology tell of the shark as a resting place for the soul and in a similar vein, the Fijian shark god Dakuwaqa would eat lost souls.

When you’re looking at the shark, try and see the duality, try and see this duality in yourself as well.  We are not clear cut beings.  We are predators and prey.  We are killers and creators.  We are graceful and we are vicious.