Salmon play a very important role in mythology, culture, tradition, and daily life for many individuals. I think sometimes the importance of the salmon is forgotten. People see salmon as "just another fish". I'd like to give some examples of salmon in mythology for people to read, and explain a bit about why the salmon are so important to some cultures, and why I personally think we should do more to conserve them. Now, a disclaimer, I'm more familiar with salmon in regards to my own Norse practice- but I have heard stories of them while working in the Pacific Northwest with some local tribes. If any information is misrepresented, feel free to correct me. I'll include the stories near the bottom. I decided to bring this up because salmon runs typically begin around Sept/October.
The salmon as a power animal, or totem, tends to often represent wisdom, strength/the ability to overcome obstacles, persistence and determination (among some other things). The salmon is a very unique fish. It is born in a river, and learns the ways of that river. Over its life it moves from the river out to the ocean, where it matures. And at the end of its life, the salmon forgoes all food and nutrition to find its way back home, to its original stream, even to the very bed of gravel it was born in, where it reproduces and dies. It's body becomes the nutrients for the stream that encourages the growth of the new salmon. This cycle of birth and death is very important. Salmon as totem animals teach us to overcome obstacles in our path, to find our roots and honor our heritage/family, and transform ourselves during our lives to grow and move forward.
Norse: Loki as the Salmon
When Loki had killed Baldr, he fled away from the other Gods. He came to live in Midgard, in the home of Man. He made his home near a river where previously he had slain the otter that had been eating the salmon. He built a house with four doors so he could see in every direction, as he was nervous of the other Gods finding him. He had kept the power of transforming himself. And he had begun to transform into a salmon. He would swim in the river next to his house. But he found himself bitter and growing hateful towards the other salmon that swam beside him. He wove a net out of yarn and flax, and gave that net to men, so they would have the means to remove salmon from the rivers. The Gods searched the world until they came upon Loki's dwelling. He had been weaving another net when he saw them approach. He threw the net into the fire and jumped into the river, turning into a salmon. The Gods thought the house to be abandoned. However, one amongst them saw the marks in the ashes of the fire left by the net and knew this was something to catch fish. They turned to the river, bringing a new net with them, and dragging it through the water. Loki became trapped in his own creation, and to escape this he lay between two stones at the bottom of the river. However, the Gods had felt a tug on the net. They put weights on the net, and began dragging it a second time. To escape, Loki swam toward the sea towards the top of the water. As he leaped over a waterfall, Thor grabbed the salmon in his powerful hands. A struggle ensued between Loki as a salmon and Thor. Thor squeezed so hard that the salmon tail became thin and flat towards the end. Thus is how the salmon shape came to be.
Haida: Salmon Boy
There is a haida tale of a boy who was disrespectful to the salmon spirits. He was constantly offending them by throwing away good meat, refusing to return the salmon bodies into the river for the ecosystem, and otherwise acting carelessly. His people tried to warn him not to behave so, but he didn't listen to them. One day he went swimming with his friends, and a rogue wave swept him under the water where he drowned. The salmon spirits took him in, and began to teach him their ways. He lived with them in the depths of the water. After an entire winter passed, the salon began to make their trips back to their home rivers. The boy was included in the migration. However, on his journey back, his mother caught him in a net. She recognized him immediately, because he had a copper necklace around his scales. The longer she held him out of the water, the more he began to shed his salmon skin and turn back into a boy. Eventually, he was human again. He began to teach the people what the salmon had taught him. He had become a great healer; however, he knew his time was short. Soon after, more salmon came down the stream towards the people. Salmon Boy was standing on the bank when he saw a giant salmon moving towards him. It was an old salmon, whose scales were beginning to fall off, and who's sides were see-through. It was Salmon Boy's soul. He thrust his spear through it, and died. The people treated his body as that of the salmon, placing it back into the river.
Yakima: The Lost Salmon
This story tells of how the Creator had instructed the people on how to take care of their food, and in regards to salmon what rules there were for taking care of them specifically. He told them not to neglect the salmon, to not take more than they needed, and that if they could do this- the salmon would continue to multiply, return to the stream, and feed the people. They followed these instructions for quite some time, living happily with the salmon and respectfully following the rules for taking care of them. However, a time came when they became lazy. They were greedy, taking more than they needed. They did not return the bodies to the streams, and instead let them spoil on the ground. And slowly the salmon began to disappear. This caused the people to panic. Poverty and starvation began to occur, and the people desperately began to seek a way to bring the salmon back. While searching, they uncovered a dead salmon lying carelessly on the river bank. They wished they could revive this salmon, and hoped that in doing so the other salmon would return. In legend, people who possessed supernatural powers could awaken a lifeless creature by stepping over it five times. Each person tried to do this, but failed. They decided to go to get "Grandfather", who was a recluse named Old Man Rattlesnake. They convinced him to come attempt to revive the salmon, so he did. He moved over the salmon four times, and on the fifth time he suddenly disappeared inside the salmon. And it came back to life. The salmon returned to the rivers. And the people were happy. The white membrane inside the salmon's spine represents Old Man Rattlesnake.
Celts: Salmon of Knowledge
There was a salmon that live in Tobar Segais, which was the Well of Wisdom. It ate nine hazelnuts that had fallen into the water. Through the act of eating the nuts, the salmon gained all the worlds knowledge. And through the act of eating this salmon, the first person to do so would have the knowledge transferred to them. There was a prophecy that Finegas would catch the salmon, and become the most knowledgeable person in the world. He spent seven years fishing for the salmon, and one day caught him. He handed the salmon to his servant, Fionn, and ordered him not to eat it. Fionn began to cook the salmon, but touched it with his thumb to see if it was done and accidentally burned himself. When he placed his burned thumb in his mouth to ease the pain, the wisdom transferred to him immediately. Finegas asked if he had eaten the salmon, so Fionn said no and explained what had happened. Finegas let him eat the rest of the salmon, and in doing so Fionn gained all the knowledge of the world, and only had to bite his thumb to draw upon it.
Those are just some examples. Scroll through my sources and you will find more.
The salmon is a really important fish, and I hope more people begin to realize this. I worked with OMSI, Oregon's Musuem of Science and Industry, on a salmon research team off and on for roughly three years. And during this time I met with Pacific Northwest Yakama, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce and saw the predicament most are now facing with the salmon. I lived on the Columbia, and saw personally that the salmon from the Columbia were a huge part of the culture for Pacific NW Indians. To many of the tribes, the salmon is sacred to life. The salmon literally is what makes the ecosystem thrive out there. The dead bodies of returning salmon become part of the rich soil, the biologically diverse water, and spread out into the local vegetation. The salmons sheer presence shaped the culture, society and religion of that area. Many people fail to realize that salmon are necessary for the environment to thrive. They are an indicator of the ecosystem's health, they are a constant food source and sometimes a majority food source for several tribes, they are a keystone species who provide the means for other species to exist and for coastal ecosystems to thrive, and they are a traditional part of life for many individuals. They are declining very quickly at an alarming rate in numbers, due to pollution of water, overharvesting, blockages in their rivers (dams, polluted areas, streams which have been moved), etc. Salmon restoration has only recently been recognized as a very needed, critical thing, and is now becoming the main focus of environmental conservation movements in the areas where the salmon are not returning. Everyone needs the salmon. So I urge people to set aside some time to think about the salmon, realize its importance, and do something about it. Perhaps say a prayer in their honor, cast a spell, do a ritual, or simply recognize their value. It could really change the way things currently are progressing.