Whales are creatures that were honored and worshiped by some peoples, like the South American Nasca and the Native American peoples of the Pacific Coast. Others relentlessly hunted the whales, some nearly to extinction. Inupiaq legend from the Arctic region recounts how the Great Spirit created the most perfect animal, the bow whale. In their culture, the whale was treated with great respect and hunters had to go through initiation rites just to be able to hunt them. In these rites, the hunter had to touch the whale all over and assimilate its spirit, medicine, and pain. Europeans also had great respect for whales, because they considered them to be symbols of the world, the body, and the grave. Whales were symbolic of the ocean, a foreign environment that was vital, and what’s more, fatal to men.
Whales seen swimming are a sign of good luck for many peoples, while a beached whale meant ill tidings for the entire community, even disease, since a decaying corpse could spread sickness.
Whales are associated with compassion and solitude, and knowledge of both life and death. They are also associated with unbridled creativity. The exhalation through the blowhole symbolizes the freeing of one’s own creative energies. Sound is also a creative force of life. Whales use sonar and echo-location, linking them to the tutelage of direction and response to feedback. Though whales are symbolic of free use of creativity, they are also teachers of how to use creative energies more conservatively.
Information from Ted Andrews's Animal-Speak, Jessica Dawn Palmer's Animal Wisdom, and Steven D. Farmer's Power Animals.