In the Irish tale “Tuan Mac Cairill” (English rendition by James Stephens here) the title character reincarnates through several forms as he learns about himself and the world around him: first a village man, then wild man, boar, stag, hawk, and salmon, then lastly back into a boy. As a salmon, Tuan Mac Cairill is the ‘river king:’ he travels from the sea through Ireland’s brown rivers, escaping from bears and otters. Eventually, though, a fisherman catches him and brings him to the palace, where he is eaten by the king’s pregnant wife and thereby reincarnated into his final iteration, her son, prince of Ulster.
In Stephens' telling (pictured in an illustration from the 1920 edition on the right) as the fisherman carries Tuan Mac Cairill from the river to the castle, “he sang a song of the river, and a song of Doom, and a song in praise of the King of the Waters.” Tuan Mac Cairill's transition from salmon to human prince was not one of murder, it was a reallocation of resources necessary to keep the ecosystem's balance: to help keep the whole alive and thriving. Doom for the fish, at the cost of something bigger than the fish or human by themselves. The fisherman’s song, similar to the story of Tuan Mac Cairill itself, entails a recognition on the part of people of their dependence on local animals and plant life for survival. By affording those animals respect people engage with the networks of life that sustain them.
“Tuan Mac Cairill” is not salmon’s first appearance in folklore, and far from the only one to invoke salmon when exploring the interplay between material and spiritual sustenance. The Yakama legend "The Lost Salmon," is another example. Yakama people, indigenous to what is now called the Pacific Northwest, tell the story of how, when people took more salmon than they needed, the Creator took all the salmon away. Because salmon were so important they may have starved without them, the people had to then learn to not be greedy and treat the world around them with more respect, so the Creator would return the salmon to the rivers.
Beyond indigenous and pre-Christian references to salmon, representations of salmon also appear in Christian texts, appears in Christian texts too, despite the church's desire to separate Christianity from local pagan practices. The Book of Kells, for example, is dotted with salmon. Additionally, there are instances of salmon-hybrid creatures, such as this mix of a human-esque face, lizard legs, and salmon back in a fourteenth century psalter held at the British Library. This marginal drawing suggests both anthropomorphization— giving animals human characteristics— and the opposite: integrating humans and non-human animals together.
The Oxford English Dictionary online lists Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon from the late 14th century as the first time salmon appeared in literature. However, given how commonplace a food it was, we can presume that salmon appeared on the page even earlier, in a more practical context: the cookbook. Supposedly, salmon was served so frequently that apprentices objected to eating it more than three times a week— though there were many ways to prepare it.
This later example, the 17th century Cookbook of Constance Hall from the Folger Shakespeare Library, for instance describes “how to make sauce for fresh fish,” saying that it could be used for “samon trout or pike.” Cookbooks offer a window into the other side of the relationship between salmon and people: it’s through cooking that a fish is turned into dinner— a detail we don’t get in the tale of Tuan Mac Cairill.
It may be surprising, considering how we tend to think of fish as either slimy and wet or covered in a fresh fish sauce, but salmon skin— and fish skin more broadly— is a hardy material that people have taken advantage of in lots of different ways. Fish skins can and have been used as a material for clothes, drums, books, and more. In particular, there’s an interesting additional dimension to the entangled traditions of storytelling and food when one considers salmon as a bookbinding: in this context, salmon, given symbolic value due to sustenance it provides, then is also the material by which such value is conveyed. It can be both the medium and the message.
Even though fish skin can be a hardy material, it does not naturally come that way. Salmon leather, the primary salmon-based material used in bookmaking, depends on ‘tanning’ to make the skin durable and malleable enough to use in bookmaking. The two methods most commonly used are chrome and vegetable tanning, which are ‘bio-tanning’ materials, meaning that they are biodegradable. More commonly used animals in bookmaking, like cows or pigs, do also require a tanning process— but their size makes for a much more cost effective choice for book-material. As such, salmon skin is usually turned to when those animals aren’t available: a German book binder began using leftover fish skins in his book binding after World War I, for example.
Many examples of salmon skin, or fish skin more broadly, getting turned into leather are for fish-related objects. This book bound in salmon skin, for example, is used to track catches throughout a particular year. A book bound in salmon skin used to mark a fishing season seems to close the cycle between symbolic and material, story and food. As the fisherman records his catches, they are reminded by the book they are holding of what happens to the fish after they are caught: they die and go on to serve some other purpose. Salmon, in this case, supports human activity from both sides: it is the material one writes on, and the reason for writing things down in the first place. Maybe it's a different way to offer respect to the creatures that one catches (and presumably eats).
Understanding how an animal supports us humans, whether it be as food or as a book, is to recognize that we are not superior beings, uninfluenced by and independent of the world around us. Whether it's a list of catches, a cookbook, or a weird salmon-lizard-man at the bottom of a page, the history of salmon in the human imagination and as sustenance speaks to how much we depend on the world around us for nourishment, both the kind that we get from telling stories, and what comes off a plate.
More food for thought: