In recent times we have woken up to the fact that sawfishes are now the most endangered fishes in the ocean. In past centuries, though, they were familiar to many societies that lived along coasts and major rivers in the tropics and, moreover, were incorporated into their stories and belief systems. Ruth Leeney and Matthew McDavitt take a brief trip around the world to look at how sawfishes featured in the physical and spiritual worlds of people and what their decline might mean for the survival of traditional cultures and, more broadly, for the connection humans have with the natural world around them.
Sawfishes are among the largest of all sharks and rays (two species reach seven metres, or 23 feet, in length) and have a remarkable and unforgettable appearance. It comes as little surprise, then, that to the communities that lived alongside them – beside shallow coastal waters, estuaries and large rivers – these were mighty creatures with special powers and deserved to be revered in art and daily and ceremonial objects, as well as in legend. In many parts of the tropical world this has been the case…
West Africa’s only archipelago, the Bijagos Islands of GuineaBissau, harbours a unique culture that has remained relatively intact, thanks to limited transport options from the mainland. On these islands football shirts, miniskirts and flip-flops may now be favoured over grass skirts, but the people still hold their animist beliefs, perform ceremonies and traditional dances and attach special significance to creatures such as the hammerhead shark and the sawfish.
The culture of the Bijogo people includes numerous ceremonies to mark important life stages and events for the islanders. As part of the ceremony for male circumcision, sawfish were caught and brought to the village elders as an offering or sign of respect. In ceremonial dances, men used to wear headdresses topped with the saw of a small sawfish and perform a dance mimicking the sawfish’s movements – motions the young initiates reportedly learned while hunting from wooden fishing platforms, below which they could observe sawfishes feeding. Nowadays, sawfish rostra (saws) are so difficult to find that the great triangular headdresses bear carved wooden representations of saws instead of the real thing.
‘When a sawfish attacks another fish, the victim never escapes.’ Akan proverb | Ghana
The Akan people of western Ghana are renowned for making a strong connection between visual and verbal expressions and for how they blend art and philosophy. Proverbs and sayings featured prominently in their culture and had political, economic and social significance. The many beautiful weights they made from 1400 AD onwards were used as counter-weights for measuring out gold dust (their traditional currency until replaced by coins and paper money). These weights, made from brass, often had forms that were linked to specific proverbs.
The sawfish was sacred to the Akan people, symbolising individuals who held power in coastal communities. The proverb associated with the weight depicting a sawfish is ‘When a sawfish attacks another fish, the victim never escapes’. This was meant to convey the indisputable authority of the king. More generally, fishes symbolised abundance in West African cultures. The sawfish symbol, which linked prosperity and leadership, was so important for Akan societies that the West African Monetary Union chose it, in the stylised form of the sawfish weight, to adorn all the coins and notes of the West African franc (the currency of Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry).
Around the Volta Estuary in eastern Ghana, the Ewe people revered sawfishes as spiritually powerful entities, classed as tro, of a divinity between humans and God. The Ewe had formal sawfish propitiation rites to dispel the danger presented when a sawfish became entangled in a fishing net. The powerful spirit was appeased with offerings of corn meal, alcohol and palm oil. If this ceremony was not performed, fishers who caught sawfishes were believed to have bad luck – illness might strike them or one of their family members, or they might be involved in accidents, for example.
In the Niger River Delta of Nigeria, several cultures count the sawfish (called Oki in the Ijo language) as the leader of the beneficent water spirits that can bestow good fish catches, wealth and agricultural success and drive out sickness and misfortune from the village. During certain ceremonies, dancers wearing huge, life-size sawfish masks rise from the river or arrive by canoe and enter the village, where they mimic the slashing power of the sawfish to amuse both spectators and the invisible water spirits themselves who, according to local beliefs, originally instructed mankind to make the masks and perform the dances. Mothers present their infants to the sawfish dancers so that their slashing movements will repel childhood illness. These sawfish spirits are seen as good-natured and helpful to humankind and offerings are made to them to encourage good fortune and well-being; the water spirits are said to be wealthy because of all the goods that people accidentally drop in the rivers!
Another proverb about sawfish was used by the Douala people of coastal Cameroon. ‘A sawfish on the beach is already well-known news in the city’ highlights that news of spectacular events spreads quickly. It may also be a warning to verify spectacular or outlandish news before believing it – one that still holds good today.
Papua New Guinea
Among the many tribes that live along the Sepik River and its tributaries, sawfishes were viewed as supernatural creatures that commanded respect. Numerous stories warned of torrential rainstorms and danger to fishers if sawfishes were mistreated. For some of the clans inhabiting villages along the Sepik, certain ancestors originally took the form of sawfishes and these ancestors were thought to have created particular land estates for those clans. For initiation rituals, a ceremonial wand was fashioned from the saw of a sawfish; as initiates pass from childhood to adulthood in the ceremony, the saw was used to scratch their bodies, symbolically killing and devouring them so that they would be reborn in their new role as men.
Sawfish still inhabit the murky waters of the Sepik River, the longest river on the island of New Guinea. Winding its way eastward across Papua New Guinea to the Bismarck Sea, the Sepik passes through districts with numerous distinct languages and cultures. Many of these cultures feature the unique wildlife of the region, including crocodiles, cockatoos and large flightless cassowaries – and sawfishes. Within a village, each clan has ‘totem’ animals that represent the suite of supernatural creators that founded the clan and images of these totems were, in the past, carved onto shields and the prows of canoes by clan members. Stories featuring totem animals were a part of local culture, a connection between the people, their traditional practices and the natural world around them.
In Angoram, a village along the lower Sepik River, 69-year-old Samsi used to be a school teacher. He shared some of the stories of his Langudubur clan about its totem, the sawfish.
‘A local man was fighting off several outsiders along the riverbank. As he approached the river, and having used up all his spears, he called out to the local sawfish spirit, his totem, to help him. A sawfish appeared in the river, swam to the riverbank where the man stood and nodded its head to indicate that he should step onto its back. The sawfish then carried his charge to safety on the other side of the Sepik River.‘
‘If our clan was going to war, the warriors would visit the haus tambaran (spirit house) and ask the spirits to send them a sign. Once they set off on the river, if the sawfish spirit “jumped up” in front of them but swam ahead, it meant the warriors should continue on – this boded well for the attack. But if the sawfish rolled and showed its belly this was interpreted as a sign of death, meaning they were going to be ambushed and that they should turn back.’
Groote Eylandt, Australia’s fourth largest island, lies some 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the coast of Arnhem Land in the remote tropical north of the country and is one of the most pristine islands off the Northern Territory coast. The sawfish is a central figure in the creation story of certain clans of the Anindilyakwa people of Groote Eylandt. Indeed, sawfishes are still relatively abundant in this area, and the northern and north-western coasts of Australia are one of the last strongholds for four of the five species of sawfish.
One Anindilyakwa story tells that in creation times, a group of sawfishes (yukwurrirrindangwa), eagle rays (dumarnindangwa), estuary whiprays (yimaduwaya), shovelnose rays (yilyanga) and white-spot shovelnose rays (makabarama) began their journey from the eastern coast of Arnhem Land in search of a suitable place where they could rest forever. On their way across the bay to Groote Eylandt they stopped at Bickerton Island, transforming themselves from human beings to sea creatures. Finding that island unsuitable, the rays continued eastward. On reaching Groote Eylandt they found their way blocked by the rocky coast, so they launched inland, carving out the Angurugu River with their toothy snouts. As the tide rushed into the newly formed riverbed, the other rays followed this watery pathway. Their journey was eventually impeded by a rocky barrier at the centre of the island. Exhausted and injured, the sawfishes turned around near Makbulamanja (Pelican’s Nest) and left the river to rest and dry themselves at the sawfish-shaped rocky outcrop named Wurajanbujanbumanja. They then travelled west to Mungkadinamanja, where they made a waterhole, went back to the coast and travelled across to the mainland.
This epic story of the migration of ancestral rays has many important functions in Anindilyakwa society. It establishes the social links between the clan groups that share these totemic fishes as ancestral creators and it explains why certain clan groups possess particular land estates along the rays’ path. In addition, the journey of the rays and sawfishes echoes the historical migration of Aboriginal people when they first travelled from the mainland to Groote Eylandt.
In Indonesia, the teacher who brought Islam to the Hindu kingdom of Borneo arrived atop a huge sawfish, one of several miracles he performed to prove the power and righteousness of the new faith. This pioneering teacher is therefore now known by the nickname ‘Tuan Tunggang Parangan’, which translates as ‘Mr Sawfish Rider’. Sawfish imagery appears in Islamic art throughout the Indonesian archipelago.
Some reverse-glass paintings made on Java feature the story of how the mighty King Solomon achieved humility before his creator. The story goes that when King Solomon took over from his father David, the angel Gabriel appeared and granted Solomon a divine ring from Paradise that gave him dominion over humans, the animal kingdom and the supernatural jinn spirits. Solomon employed his jinn to build a miraculous flying palace and to equip his kingdom with innumerable goods and treasures. In time, he became emboldened by his vast dominion over the earth, its inhabitants and even the winds. To prove his might, he asked God if he might feed all the animals of the world for a day, a task God usually undertook. God warned Solomon that he lacked such power, so Solomon agreed to attempt his wish for just an hour. He used his magic to gather a mountain of grain – enough to feed his entire army for a month – commanding divine winds to transport the sustenance to the seashore. Solomon then called for all sea creatures to assemble to be fed. The first ocean denizen to open its massive maw for food was a whale, which at once engulfed the king’s entire stockpile of food. Aghast, Solomon asked the ravenous whale, ‘Are there other creatures as enormous as you?’, to which the whale replied, ‘O prophet of God, in the sea there are fish so large that if they ate me, I would be as a seed in the desert!’ Solomon then realised that, even wielding the vast powers bestowed upon him by God, he was nothing compared to the greatness of the Creator. So he departed, content with his place in the cosmos.
The Ancient Near East
In Iran, images of sawfish have been uncovered in ancient ruins dating to 6,000 years ago. A text from medieval Baghdad details that sawfish were numerous along the Persian shore, where they were caught and sold for food in the markets, and that sawfish entered the Shatt-al-Arab River as far as Basra, Iraq. Sawfishes were depicted in ancient Persia as an animal swordsman, a symbol of warriors. Modern Persian artist Fereydoun Ave drew upon such symbolism when, in creating his sculpture Divas 2, he combined classical architectural elements, human faces and a glittering sawfish saw, painted with gold leaf, to create a chimeric form evoking the ancient gods who instilled both fear and stability.
The indigenous Guna of Panama occupy the San Blas archipelago and the adjacent mainland along the Caribbean coast. For this people, the sawfish held a special position as an important and beneficial species that, according to their folklore, had been placed in the world to safeguard the coasts and the humans who inhabited them from dangerous sea creatures, including sharks and crocodiles. In this way, the Guna attitude towards sawfishes was similar to the attitude towards dolphins found in much of the modern Western world: sawfishes were protectors and friends of humankind.
Remarkably, the protective role of sawfishes also extended into the supernatural realm. When Guna shamans (a healer or someone with access to the spirit world) entered the watery spirit realm to battle the evil spirits that caused sickness and death, they called upon golden sawfish spirits. Those spirits would appear and repel the titanic crocodiles that the sickness spirits rode, thereby assisting the shaman healers. Molas – the colourful, elaborate panels embroidered by Guna women – often depict scenes and characters from the natural landscape and Guna folklore, including sawfish, crocodiles and sharks. Molas were originally incorporated into blouses and shirts worn by the Guna and are now also sold to tourists as decorative pieces.
Warrior, ancestor, protector, bringer of good fortune. It is hardly surprising that creatures as fantastic as sawfishes, which shared their coastal habitats with so many human communities throughout the tropics, became key characters in the folklore and cultures of those communities. And it is notable that in most cases, sawfishes were seen as a benevolent force rather than a threat to humans. Despite this, humans have brought about their demise. Modern fishing gear and fisheries targeting sharks and sawfishes for their fins, as well the destruction of the mangrove and estuarine habitats so important for sawfishes, have had catastrophic effects on many populations.
The traditions and cultures in which sawfishes featured may also be disappearing. Perhaps this is a result of far fewer encounters between people and sawfishes now than in the past, so the stories and beliefs associated with them are slipping from people’s memories. Or it may be that as our world grows smaller and more connected, cultures become homogenised and traditions are cast aside by younger generations, who see them as dated, tedious and irrelevant to their lives. Probably it is a combination of both. Many of these cultural narratives have been passed down orally from generation to generation and may be lost forever as the elders who still recall them reach the end of their lives.
As humanity exerts ever more pressure on our planet, wild places and creatures are becoming increasingly rare and we understand far less what it means to be one species among many – part of an ecosystem. Many of the stories, beliefs and art forms documented here may have been rooted in attempts to make sense of the natural world and our relationship with it, or may simply have been amusing diversions. Either way, they provide us with a window to a time when humans understood that they were reliant upon the well-being of the world around them for their survival. A proverb from the Duala people of Cameroon, ‘The saw of the sawfish has killed the sawfish’, teaches that the power a sawfish wields in its saw could, if mis-used, lead to its downfall. While this speaks in literal terms to the vulnerability of sawfishes to fishing nets, it could also be interpreted as a warning to humans. Our brains and technologies have led us to greatly alter the world in which we live, so much so that our own survival is now at risk.
Sincere thanks go to the senior clan members of Groote Eylandt for giving permission to reproduce their story about the creation of Groote Eylandt, as well as the cave art depicting a sawfish rostrum in this article. Thanks also go to the family of Nandabida Maminyamanja. We are also indebted to Hugh Bland, Leslie Pyne and Ross MacDonald of the Anindilyakwa Land Council, Elaine Labuschagne of MAGNT, Ingeborg Eggink of the Wereldculturen Museum and Elizabeth Swider.
Based in one of the world’s most unusual and unexplored ecosystems, Ruth aims to unravel the mystery of Madagascar’s sawfishes. Which species are present? What threats do they face? Can communities be convinced to protect them?