7 Fish Folklore Stories From Around the World

As a source of both food and inspiration—the value of fish is boundless

I have always held deep respect and appreciation for folklore. As a storyteller, my favorite part about telling stories is that they transverse time. I love it when two people come together to exchange a past experience or a seed from their own imagination, and the storytelling cycle repeats. Stories also have the special power of preserving memory across generations, particularly in folklore tales. These tales can illustrate a culture’s values, teach life lessons of generations past and simply bring amusement and humor in which everyone can take part.

As a Roger Arliner Young (RAY) Marine Conservation Diversity Fellow in the Fish Conservation Program at Ocean Conservancy (working on fisheries policy and storytelling), coupled with my constant search for stories to keep humbly learning about the world, I sought to gather fun fish stories from all over the world to share with you.

Here are seven, short fish folklore stories, or fish-lore tails from around the globe:

China: The Koi Fish That Persisted

Group of red and orange koi fish in a dark pond.
This Chinese legend features the trek of a large school of koi fish, and one fish in particular that never gave up. Shining brightly like polished jewels in the Yellow River of China, a school of koi fish swam together upstream with every bit of their strength. They swam against the powerful currents of the river and attempted to climb a waterfall. Some fish could not bear the challenge, and so they turned around and let the river take them back downstream. Local deities witnessed their efforts and heightened the waterfall out of spite—more fish turned around. After one hundred years of swimming upstream, one koi fish eventually reached the top of the waterfall. The gods recognized the persistence of this koi fish and turned it into a golden dragon, a symbol of power and strength, hence the waterfall became known as the Dragon Gate.

Brazil, Australia and the Sub-Antarctic: Half-person, Half-fish

Perhaps one of the most familiar creatures in ocean fantasies, mermaids (or merfolk) appear in numerous folklore stories across many different countries.

  • From Amazonas, Brazil is the story of a young, Indigenous warrior named Iara. Because of her top warrior skills and strength, she was deemed better than her brothers and her brothers grew envious of her. One day, she learned that her life was being threatened, so she ran to the Meeting of the Waters, the merging point of Rio Solimões (the Amazon River) and Rio Negro. A chaser ran after Iara and threw her into the river, however the fish saved Iara and turned her into a gorgeous mermaid. From that day forward, Iara attracts men with her beauty and song, only to throw them into the river—just as she was thrown into the river that one fateful night. People on the Amazonas still speak of seeing her along the banks of Rio Solimões.
The National Museum of Australia displays Yawkyawk sculptures by two Kunwinjku artists, Marina Murdilnga and Lulu Laradjbi.
  • The term Yawkyawk, translating to “young woman spirit being,” comes from the Kunwinjku/Kunwok language of Western Arnhem Land in Australia. Yawkyawks are spiritual beings that reside near freshwater streams and are recounted to have a fish’s tail and long hair that resembles trailing blooms of algae. Yawkyawks are occasionally depicted by artists in the visual arts.
  • The Ningen is an aquatic creature of modern folklore. Originating from online forums in the mid-2000s, Japanese sailors and fishermen recall witnessing this huge, white bulbous creature that roams the waters of the Sub-Antarctic region. The name “Ningen” is said to be derived from the term “ningyo,” directly translating to “human fish,” a mermaid-like creature in traditional Japanese folklore.

Zambia and Namibia: Why Hippos Don’t Eat Fish

In this African folktale, a hippopotamus and its Creator reach a compromise. In the beginning, when the Creator made animals, He designated the hippo to live on land. Longing to be in the cool water and relieve its dry skin, a hippo asks the Creator to be allowed to live on the water. The Creator, along with the other water animals, was worried that the hippo would eat all the fish with its huge mouth. The hippo made a promise to only eat plants and to never eat a single fish. The Creator agreed and granted the hippo permission to finally live in the water. To this day, hippos spread their dung with their feet to show the Creator that there are no fish bones that can be traced. A teaching of this tale is to always keep your word in a promise.

Norway: The Return of the Gold Ring

This Norwegian legend is one variation of the popular story of a lost gold ring, which can be found in other countries such as India, Italy and Korea. A merchant and his wife work hard on the farm in a village called Klauva and vow to never become poor. Once, the wife got into an argument with a boatman after the boatman claimed that anyone could become poor. The wife expressed that losing her wealth was as impossible as recovering her gold ring which, under the same breath, she threw into the sea. One day, a villager came into Klauva offering to sell fish. The wife purchased a huge cod, and the villager cut it open with a knife. A gold ring fell at her feet! In shock, she recognized that it was the very ring she tossed into the sea long ago. A short few years later, the merchant and his wife moved out of Klauva as a result of losing their fortunes. The moral? Fortunes can always change.

Menominee People Ancestral Territories (Wisconsin and Michigan), United States: The Chief, the Moose and the Catfish

In this traditional tale from the Menominee nation, an old chief saw a group of catfish in the water. He told them about a moose that often came to the water’s edge to eat grass. The chief instructed the catfish to watch for the moose so that they could work together to attack the moose and feast on it. The catfish agreed to his request and they scattered across the water bank. When the moose came to the water’s edge, the chief struck his spear into the leg of the moose, and the moose bellowed in agony. Seeing the catfish by its feet, the moose trampled its hooves on them thinking they were responsible for the spear. To this day, this is why catfish look the way they do—they have never recovered from the flattening of their faces.

The vast number of stories and tales about fish are an indication of the importance of these finned denizens of ocean (and fresh) waters around the world and throughout history. The value of fish, from providing food to inspiring stories, is just one reason why it is so critical to protect them and ensure that they are abundant from one generation to the next.

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