Salmon of Wisdom by Judith Shaw

judith shaw photoSalmon, ancient symbol of wisdom and transformation, has been venerated by humankind since our pre-historic days.There exists one cave painting of a life-sized salmon – most likely part of a more complex composition – in the l’Abri de Poisson cave in the Dordogne, France, dated to 23,000 B.C.E.

Perhaps Salmon’s ability to navigate multiple environments – freshwater, saltwater, and even air when considering its amazing leaping abilities – coupled with its homing ability is what led our ancestors to associate Salmon with wisdom.

We can’t know for sure but maybe salmon was the fish associated with the Ancient Mesopotamian God of Wisdom, Enki/Ea, who lived under the sea and was often depicted with a fish body. Oannes – Ea’s emissary – also portrayed as part fish, was tasked with bringing wisdom to humankind.

To the Celts, Salmon equaled wisdom. It all began at the Well of Segais, the source of the river Boyne. Some bards say that long ago when the world was young and wild places were everywhere, Boann, Goddess of Knowledge and Inspiration, initiated that spring by walking counter-clockwise around stones found there, causing the water from under the earth to spring forth with great strength and rush down to the sea. The pool formed by the spring was encircled by nine sacred hazelnut trees, whose nuts could impart knowledge when eaten. The Salmon of Wisdom swam in the waters of this hidden pool.


“The Salmon of Wisdom” by Judith Shaw

It was prophecized that the Druid poet, Finnegas would gain great knowledge after catching and eating this salmon. But that fate was not his as after finally catching the Salmon of Wisdom he instructed his apprentice, Fionn, destined to become the leader of the Fianna, to cook it. Fionn burnt his thumb while turning the salmon and put it in his mouth to relieve the pain. He thus received the salmon’s wisdom and power and had only to chew his thumb to obtain needed knowledge.

Salmon was also honored at Tara, the seat of the High King of ancient Ireland. And Salmon’s importance endured as references are found of priests who kept sacred salmon in holy wells all across Scotland and Ireland well into the 16th century. The Irish even had a coin depicting Salmon until they changed to the Euro in 2002.

Another wise salmon myth appears in the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen from which one of the earliest Arthurian legends was drawn. Culhwch, in his attempt to win the hand of Olwen was given a series of very difficult tasks by Olwen’s father. In the course of completing one, he and Arthur’s men sought the advice of the wise Salmon of Llyn Llyw. The salmon revealed the location of what they sought and gave them all a ride on its back to that place.

Salmon was important to the Picts, the original inhabitants of Scotland. Salmon and Dolphin appear on numerous Pictish stones, making them central to an unknown cult of worship. Curiously, unlike other indigenous peoples who honored salmon in gratitude for their food value, the Picts did not eat salmon.

The importance of Salmon continued well after the Picts were gone. Outside of the village of Clatt on the Gartnach hill are remains of a pre-Christian well, called the Salmon Well, used as a place of blessing until the Reformation.

The Haida people of the Pacific Northwest have a beautiful legend – Salmon Boy.  It tells the story of a young boy who had no respect for salmon and other living things. One day he got caught in a swift river current and drowned. Salmon who were now souls rescued him and brought him to their home under the water. Here he learned much and gained respect for all living things. Ultimately he was returned to his village as salmon catch and was restored by his mother’s love to the body of a boy. He spent some time sharing the wisdom he had learned from the Salmon People before returning to their home under the water.

Salmon helps us develop the wisdom we need for a meaningful life while urging us forward on our spiritual journey.

Mature salmon migrate from the ocean back to the freshwater where they were born – often a journey of thousands of miles just to arrive at the mouth of their birth river. Scientists theorize that salmon are able to find the spot where they were born due to both their geomagnetic imprinting and a memory of the odor of that place.

Salmon was also honored for its power. The word come from the Latin “salire” – to leap.  With the ability to leap up waterfalls, often requiring a vertical jump of up to four metres, Salmon overcomes formidable obstacles to reach its home spawning grounds.

Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest celebrate Salmon Dances and First Salmon Ceremonies at the beginning of salmon season. In their artwork salmon symbolizes determination, renewal and prosperity.

Though a difficult journey, Salmon does not fight the river the whole way. It moves in the calm and upstream flowing zones created by rocks wherever possible, saving its energy to swim hard and to leap when needed.

Salmon teaches us to leap with joy, to fight when needed and to flow with the current whenever possible. Salmon shows the power of instinct and determination and urges us to never give up no matter how difficult the journey.

The Norse story of the trickster-god, Loki, who transformed himself into a salmon while attempting to escape after having helped in the killing of the beloved god, Baldur further illustrates Salmon’s association with journeying and transformation.

Young salmon undergo their first chemical transformation while living at the mouth of their birth rivers in preparation for life in the ocean’s salt water. Ultimately adult salmon travel out to sea, some migrating thousands of miles, where they live mostly solitary lives. The journey home begins from two to seven years old, depending on the species. More changes are in store for salmon during that final journey.

Male Salmon

NASA Goddard Photo and Video / CC BY (

Their bodies begin to change. The male salmon’s jaw begins to elongate, the nose hooks downward and large, sharp teeth emerge. The physical transformations continues upon arriving at the mouth of their birth river as they adjust to life in freshwater again.

Salmon also stops eating –  its stomach disintegrates, allowing space for developing eggs and sperm.  Salmon then lives off its stored fat and the color of its flesh begins to pale as its pigment is transferred to its skin, transforming from a fish’s typical steely silver color to bright red, green black, purple and yellow-gold, depending on species. Female salmon are less brightly colored than males as they transfer some of the color causing carotenoid from their diet to their eggs.

Salmon’s bond with its past is unbreakable. Salmon reminds us to honor our own heritage.

Salmon gifts us with its wisdom as we journey from our source through difficult waters during which we gain insight and spiritual knowledge. When Salmon appears know that personal transformation is at hand; that perseverance is needed to reach your goal; that your path might well emerge from your own roots. Salmon gives us awareness of our own instincts and truth; access to the calm currents beneath the surface; the ability to stay grounded in our roots as we move forward in life. Wise Salmon provides the understanding that we are always on our way home – to reunion with Source.

Sources: Britannica, Electric Scotland, Trees for Life, Native American Salmon Mythology, The Waxing Mind, Andrew Gough, Stream Explorers, Marine Science, Seattle Aquarium, Shamanic Journey, Universe of Symbolism, Trusted Psychic Mediums 

Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now.  Celtic-Goddess-Oracle-cards-by-judith-shawYou can order your deck on Judith’s website – click here. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!

Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her art. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations, which are found everywhere in the natural world. In recent years Judith became very interested in the Goddesses of her own ancestors, the Celts, resulting in her deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle cards. She is now working on her next deck of oracle cards – Animal Spirit Guides. Originally from New Orleans, Judith makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings, priced from $25 – $3000.

Categories: animals, Folklore, General, Myth, Paganism

Tags: , , ,

15 replies

  1. I immediately thought of Shakespeare’s
    “Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?”
    “No, but I do bite my thumb.”
    So I’m wondering was that a veiled /direct reference to the Fionn legacy ?
    My granddaughter (a wise little one) Fiona bites her thumb.
    I sit amazed at the power of a name.


    • Elise,
      Not really sure if that quote from Shakespeare relates to the Celtic Salmon of Wisdom story or not. It doesn’t seem to have any reference to wisdom but then I don’t really know its context. But that is very interesting about your granddaughter, Fiona. I also thought about the whole thing of toddlers sucking their thumbs and thought about that as perhaps an unconscious attempt to gain wisdom. And yes there is certainly power in names!


  2. Great history and stories. Beautiful illustrations. I can’t remember the last time I ate salmon. Thanks for this enlightening post. Bright blessings to you and every salmon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barbara, As I keep working on this project it continues to amaze me how very very long humans have had their mythic connection with so many various animals. Salmon on their homeward journey up a river must be an amazing sight – hope to see them some day. Bright Blessings to you too!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. What a beautiful post, stories and images, especially your painting. Thank you for sharing the derivation of the word. To leap, how perfect. Prayers for salmon and for all they inspire and nourish–including whales! Thank you for another insightful, inspiring post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating post, thank you for sharing this.


  5. Another wonderful post Judith, and that glorious salmon painting… I didn’t know that the female salmon’s stomach disintegrates to create room for her eggs.

    So many wonderful stories…

    Thank You!!!


  6. Sara
    I didn’t know that either until I did the research for Salmon. I am learning so much!!


  7. Yesterday I went to a big forest park and i went to the water, to connect to Brigid, my roots..
    There were these tiny tiny fish that were acting like salmon swimming in the upcurrent, and i could hear myself thinking, it’s using the current to travel.
    reading this put it all together, thank you :)


  8. How much more committed to preserving salmon’s habitats would humans be if they saw this sacred, reverent aspect of salmon? Just beautiful.


  9. So true Trelawney. By extension if human consciousness could see our whole natural world as sacred what kind of world would we have? Beautiful I believe.


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