Popping up in mythical tales, cormorants are medium to large-sized black or predominantly dark seabirds. The long-necked birds live along coasts in trees or on cliffs and make their nests in colonies. Cormorants dive into the water to catch fish, eels, and sea snakes.
Many cultures consider cormorants a symbol of nobility and indulgence. In more recent history, the cormorant is considered a good luck charm for fishermen, or a talisman that will bring a fisherman a bountiful catch.
In China and Japan, humans once exploited the fishing skills of the cormorant by tying a snare to the bird's throat and sending it to sea. The snare prevented the bird from swallowing fish, and when the bird returned to the fisherman's boat, the fisherman removed the fish and kept it.
Some specific stories of cormorants in literature include
- In the Greek tale of Ulysses, after a storm broke the mast of Ulysses' raft, a sea nymph disguised herself as a cormorant and handed Ulysses a girdle to keep him afloat while he swam to shore.
- In Norwegian myths and folklore, three cormorants flying together are said to be carrying messages and warnings from the dead. In northern Norway, cormorants are considered to be good luck when they gather in a village. Norwegian myth also states that people who die at sea can visit their former homes in the form of a cormorant.
- In Polynesian mythology, Maru-tuahu used feathers to make himself "as handsome as the crested cormorant" when both young daughters of Te Whatu declared their desires to marry him.
- In Ireland and some other places, seeing a cormorant perched atop a church steeple is a warning of bad luck to come.
- In England, the mythical "Liver Bird," the symbol of the city of Liverpool, is thought to be a cross between a cormorant and an eagle.
The cormorant is also a symbol of greed and deception in John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost, as the form Satan took to disguise himself to enter Eden before tempting Eve.