Atlantic salmon have been a part of human history for more than 20,000 years. They have been more than a food source – they have been a sign of the ritual of passing seasons, an emblematic creature that embodies mysterious knowledge, and a subject for artistic depiction, and poetic expression. Here is a sampling of the cultural importance of Atlantic salmon.
North American First Nations
The Atlantic salmon held an important place in the passing of the seasons. To the Mi’kmaq they were called plamu.
Throughout the area they were found, First Nations people would hunt them by torchlight at night. This captivated European artists in the 18th and 19th century, and many watercolors, oils and pen sketches resulted.
Stone Age (Paleolithic) Salmon
Salmon carved into reindeer antler and onto the floor of a cave show that Atlantic salmon were part of the world of humans in southern France and the Pyrenees that form the border with Spain.
Oldest of all is a carved life-sized salmon dated to 22,000 years ago on the floor of a cave called l’abri du poisson at Les Eyzies along the Vezere River in the Dordogne Region of France.
Elsewhere along this river is evidence that early humans living around 12,000 years ago modified pools and the stream itself to help catch Atlantic salmon that were likely smoked on the spot for winter food.
When Rome conquered Gaul, it encountered both the Salmon and the local passion for salmon. The gaulish name for Salmon was Salmo – leaper. The Roman name was salar – also leaper. In the 18th century, when Linnaeus was codifying the name of species, he combined these in the scientific name, Salmo salar.
Writing in the age of Tiberius, Pliny the Elder said in his Natural History that the people of Aquitania loved no other fish above the Atlantic salmon. A Roman writer living in Trier in the 3rd century described the swirl of salmon on the surface of the Moselle River.
The Atlantic salmon held a special place in the minds of Celtic peoples. Because it could leap effortlessly, and could survive in both ocean waters and rivers, it was seen as the holder of all mysterious knowledge.
It plays a role in the Celtic myths. The salmon is said to be as old as time and to know all the past and future. The salmon teaches you how to get in touch with ancestral knowledge and put it to practical use.
In Celtic France, coins were made in the century before Julius Caesar and at least two have depictions of salmon on them. In Scotland it is carved into standing stones, its effigies a mystery of the past.
The Gaelic Image
The Office of Gaelic Affairs is pleased to endorse the Gaelic Image for the Province as developed and presented by the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia on behalf of the Gaelic Community.
The image is that of a salmon in the shape of the letter ‘G’.
The salmon represents gift of knowledge in the Gaelic storytelling traditions of Nova Scotia, Scotland and Ireland and the Isle of Man.
The ‘G’ represents the Gaelic language and the ripples are the manifestations of the language through its attendant culture: song, story, music, dance and custom and belief system.
Salmon in Europe’s Middle Ages
Echoes of the earlier Celtic wonder of salmon persisted. Atlantic salmon appear in the Arthurian legends as the all-knowing water creature. Arthur sends the heroes Cei and Gwrhyr to seek the missing Mabon (an enigmatic sun god), and they ride the back of the great Salmon of Llyn Llyw to find Mabon at the present Gloucester.
In London, England, the site of the present Westminster Abbey owes its prominence to an Atlantic salmon. When a small chapel was being dedicated in 604 AD, salmon fishermen with nets ferried across the river a man they later swore was St. Peter himself.
When it came to determining the most important site for a cathedral, after the year 1000, the association of this site with St. Peter and the salmon gave it the highest prominence. The claim also led to a tradition still followed, of the Fishmongers’ Guild in London each year giving a salmon to the Priory of Westminster.
Today, one still hears individuals say they are ‘salmon mad’ – passionate about interacting and angling for Atlantic salmon; content to angle and release the wild creature in order to share the experience on the river where they swim.
The first postage stamp depicting Atlantic salmon was designed for Newfoundland, appearing in the 1930’s, and the best known modern coin showing the Atlantic salmon is that of Ireland, only retired when Ireland switched to Euros in 2002.
In Canada, the mystique of Atlantic salmon led to an entire river, the Cascapedia being reserved in the 19th century for the angling of the Governor General and his guests. In the United States, the presentation of the first Atlantic salmon of the season to the President was carried on until the time of George Bush Sr., when they were considered too endangered for the ritual.