April 25th is World Penguin Day, a day chosen because it coincides with their annual northward migration. Penguins have stolen the hearts of many worldwide, with their silly little waddles and tuxedo like markings.
They have also become a totem animal for lovers; pop-culture folklore tells us that they choose to mate for life. The token pebble the penguin males present to their partner as part of their courtship rituals is as significant as the rings that human couples exchange; penguins are hopeless romantics.
They have also becomes increasingly adopted as a Christmas animal, looking cute and cheery alongside the reindeers and polar bears on decorations and wrapping paper. Modern interpretations have associated them with Santa in the North Pole, despite the fact their habitats are only in the southern hemisphere.
The leading theory behind the etymology of the word penguin is that it was the same word used for the now extinct great auk, which at a distance looks similar to some breeds of penguin (the competing alternatives are that may have come from the Welsh pen gwyn, meaning ‘white head’, or the Latin pinguis meaning ‘fat’).
Despite our new found adoration of the penguin, the references to penguins in historical literature and mythological prose is incredibly sparse.
The first mythological references we found involves the Fiordland penguin, known as the Tawaki in Maori. The penguin is named after the god Tawaki, a god that roamed the earth appearing in the form of a poor man. One day he climbed to the top of a mountain, and threw aside his dirty garments and clothed himself in lightning. There was a man hiding at the top of the mountain that saw him perform this feat; the man went down and told all the people in the villages. Once they realized Tawaki was a god they began to provide him offerings and incantations. The Tawaki name suits the fiordland penguin, their yellow markings reminiscent of lightning.
Penguins also feature briefly in an Australian aboriginal dreamtime story when they act as escorts for Jeedara (a water serpent) to bring him to a great corroboree ( A traditional ceremonial gathering) :
When Jeedara reached Illgamba, Head of the Great Australian Bight, he was met by two penguins who had travelled from their home in the west. The penguins, Djulia, then escorted Jeedara, one on each side of him, to a perfectly round stone table located in the sacred cove of Dhulanda. Dhulanda, meaning a place to listen and understand was where the corroboree and other ceremonies were to be held.
Creatures had travelled along the songlines from all over Australia to sing songs and take part in the ceremonies around the sacred round stone at Dhulanda. Assembled round the table were animals of the land, sea, air and of the underground, including Dolphin, Seal, Wombat, Sleepy Lizard, Native Cat, Brush Turkey, Emu, Kangaroo, Koala, Bat, Kestrel, Swallow and Dingo.
After the ceremonies were over the Djulia Kutjara then escorted Jeedara to his sea cave home. To this day you can still see the perfectly circular stone ceremonial table and some of the animals who had turned to stone seated around it in the sacred cove of Coolani. The sacred spears used in the ceremonies can also still be seen lying on top of the table.
Penguins have captured our popular imagination, be they animated (think the Madagascar series), villainous (i.e. one of Batman’s arch enemies) or sublime (because anything Morgan Freeman narrates takes on a liminal sheen). So, while penguins may have been neglected in past mythology, let’s spend this day rectifying that by OD’ing on penguin cuteness, Happy Feet and all!
Dreamtime Story found at: http://www.worldtrans.org/creators/whale/myths2.html