Of Weasels, Foxes, and Dolphins

I’ve started reading The Legends of the Jews, a collection of Jewish tales and legends (Haggadah) compiled by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg in 1906. It’s an impressive collection. Rabbi Ginzberg’s goal was to gather all the Jewish legends, from their original sources: not only classical Rabbinic literature, also but apocryphal and pseudopigraphical literature — all texts that are not part of the Hebrew Bible, and so not part of the canon. He even delved into early Christian literature.

Furthermore, Jewish legends can be culled not from the writings of the Synagogue alone; they appear also in those of the Church. Certain Jewish works repudiated by the Synagogue were accepted and mothered by the Church. This is the literature usually denominated apocryphal-pseudepigraphic. …

If the Synagogue cast out the pseudepigrapha, and the Church adopted them with a great show of favor, these respective attitudes were not determined arbitrarily or by chance. The pseudepigrapha originated in circles that harbored the germs from which Christianity developed later on. The Church could thus appropriate them as her own with just reason.


Besides the pseudepigrapha there are other Jewish sources in Christian garb. In the rich literature of the Church Fathers many a Jewish legend lies embalmed which one would seek in vain in Jewish books. It was therefore my special concern to use the writings of the Fathers to the utmost.

— From the Preface of The Legends of the Jews

Quite a scholarly endeavor.  The work encompasses four volumes, and the legends cover the period from before the creation of the world to the story of Esther. And the stories are all told in an engaging manner; I haven’t even gotten to the appearance of Adam and Eve, and already I’m hooked.

As with any collection of folktales, the continuity is loose, at best. Here’s the beginning of the fifth day of Creation:

On the fifth day of creation God took fire and water, and out of these two elements He made the fishes of the sea. The animals in the water are much more numerous than those on land. For every species on land, excepting only the weasel, there is a corresponding species in the water, and, besides, there are many found only in the water.


Awww, the poor weasels, I thought. Why don’t they have a counterpart? Why aren’t there weaselfish? Or merweasels, perhaps? The fifth day provides no answer; but on the sixth day we do get a flash-forward to after the serpent tempted Eve and caused The Fall.

God delivered the whole of the animal world into the power of the Angel of Death, and He ordered him to cast one pair of each kind into the water. He and leviathan [the ruler of the sea] together thus have dominion over all that has life.

Was this punishment for what the serpent did? I’m not sure. Anyway. The Angel of Death gathered up a pair of every animal (a male and a female, I assume), and hurled them into the sea. But when the Angel of Death got to the fox, the fox burst into bitter tears. He was mourning “his friend,” as he told the Angel, while pointing to his own reflection in the water. So the Angel of Death thought that it had already thrown a representative fox pair into the sea (in the Angel’s defense, I imagine it gets hard to keep track, after a while), and so let the fox go. The fox told the cat, and the cat pulled the same trick — successfully. And so there are counterparts to all the land animals under the water except the fox and the cat. Catfish notwithstanding. Maybe they’re really weaselfish.

Also, I think it’s cool that foxes are the tricksters in so many cultures. It must be the sly and mischievous expression on their faces.


Ah, but are there people under the sea, too? We know Adam and Eve didn’t get thrown into the water, and supposedly there was no one else, except clearly there was someone else, because who did Cain go to live with, after The First Murder? As I said, I haven’t gotten to that part of the narrative yet (this was all in flash-forward). Whoever those other people were, the Angel of Death must have thrown two of them into the sea, where they became dolphins.

The dolphins are half man and half fish; they even have sexual intercourse with human beings; therefore they are called also “sons of the sea,” for in a sense they represent the human kind in the waters.

I once heard a story of someone, a fairly well-known someone in their field, and supposedly this was that person’s fantasy: to make love to a dolphin. I guess the desire has a mythological basis. And I suppose dolphins make as much sense as the theory of the origin of mermaids: that mermaids are really manatee, spotted by sailors on long ocean voyages, who mistook the manatee for half fish, half human woman. Really, really lonely sailors.

Manatee plate

All this (and much more), by only the sixth day of creation. I have several more chapters, and several more centuries, to go. I’ll keep you posted.

The 5th Day of the Creation M. C. Escher, 1926. Source: WikiArt

African Fennec Fox: Photo by Yvonne N. Source: Wikipedia

Manatee image: detail from a plate by C. Berjeau, Transactions of the Zoolological Society of London, v.11, 1885. Source: Wikipedia

4 thoughts on “Of Weasels, Foxes, and Dolphins

  1. In Scottish and Irish folklore there is a creature known as a selkie that lives as a seal in the sea and sheds its skin to live as a human on land. Selkies were said to intermarry with humans. A different take on the half human-half fish stories from other cultures.

  2. In a lot of Scandinavian tales the Fox & the Bear appear together. There are Norwegian family traditions that say the (Red) Fox & (Brown/Black) Bear are the totem-animals of the (very old, pre-Christian) god Ull (White/Arctic Foxes & Polar Bears are totem animals of the goddess Skathi). In parts of Norway the fox isn’t seen so much as a trickster but more of a “strategist”. The difference is subtle but e.g. rather than being an opportunist who exploits things as they happen, the Fox is seen as carefully planning things.

    I enjoyed the article 🙂 Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you! I do think I remember hearing linkages of foxes and bears, perhaps in Native American or Inuit folklore? I’m not so familiar with Northern European mythology as I ought to be.

      Whether strategist or trickster, foxes are certainly seen as smart, even wise, in so many cultures: Native American, Nordic, Japanese, Chinese… it’s interesting. There’s much to admire in wolves, too, but they don’t seem to have this reputation.

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