About the project

Whales of Power studies relations between humans and aquatic mammals in maritime regions of East Asia, focusing on popular ritual practices and beliefs.

Photo: Aike Peter Rots

We look at notions of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals as embodiments of divine power, at related festivals and other ritual traditions, and at nature conservation initiatives concerned with protecting these animals.

Through a combination of historical and ethnographic research, the project Whales of Power: Aquatic Mammals, Devotional Practices, and Environmental Change in Maritime East Asia hopes to gain insight into responses to socio-economic and environmental change in Asian coastal communities.


In various parts of East Asia, aquatic mammals are associated with divine power, and serve as objects of devotion. Cetaceans are worshipped in south and central Vietnam as life-saving deities. The spirits of whales are venerated during ritual ceremonies in some Japanese coastal areas. Aquatic mammals have all been associated with water deities in China, Cambodia and the Ryukyu Islands.

These animals continue to carry significant symbolic capital today – if no longer as gods, at least as local heritage and symbols of nature conservation, acquiring new meanings in the context of secularisation, (forced) displacement, and environmental degradation.


Whales of Power is concerned with the comparative study of human-cetacean relations in maritime East Asia, as expressed in popular worship practices and beliefs. We examine several of these traditions in different parts of the region, through a combination of historical and ethnographic research.

Our main hypothesis is that changes in local worship traditions reflect changes in human-nature relations, caused by wider social, economic and environmental developments. Thus, marine mammals and associated worship practices serve as a prism, through which we approach human responses to socio-economic and environmental change in Asian coastal communities.

Whales of Power combines state-of-the-art theoretical approaches from different disciplinary traditions in order to reach new understandings of the ways in which human-nature-god relations reflect social and environmental changes.


The project has three core theoretical objectives:

  1. Apply recent theoretical developments associated with environmental humanities to the comparative study of popular religion. 
  2. Reconsider the role of local worship traditions in the Asian Secular Age, examining the new meanings attributed to ritual practices.
  3. Contribute to the establishment a new comparative paradigm in Asian studies.


Whales of Power is divided into the following work packages, each of which takes up one or several case studies:

Work Package 1: Whale Worship and Environmental Change in Japan and Vietnam: A Comparison (PI, Aike Rots)

Work Package 2: The Death of a Goddess: Sacred Dolphins and Nature Conservation in the Yangtze and Mekong Rivers (Postdoc, t.b.a.)

Work Package 3: Divine Dugong? Sacralisation and Environmental Activism in Okinawa (PhD, t.b.a.)

Work Package 4: Whale God on the Move: Forced Displacement and Diasporic Devotion (PhD, t.b.a.)

Work Package 5: “In Harmony with Nature”: Whaling, Eco-Spirituality, and the Politics of Indigeneity (PhD, t.b.a.)




EU- and ERC-logos

This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 803211. ERC-2018-StG

Published Dec. 18, 2018 10:18 AM - Last modified Mar. 15, 2019 10:33 AM