Stories about mermen and mermaids can be traced back to ancient Babylonian mythology, from the Old Babylonian times onward through the history of Mesopotamia and into the modern world. In fact, as Richard Carrington so aptly put it, "There is not an age, and hardly a country in the world, whose folklore does not contain some reference to mermaids or to mermaid-like creatures. They have been alleged to appear in a hundred different places, ranging from the mist-covered shores of Norway and Newfoundland to the palm-studded islands of the tropic seas."1
The Babylonian god Oannes, a half-man half-fish deity, has been depicted on sculptures dating back at least to 2000 BCE. Like all mermen, he is shown with the body of a man but from the waist down, he is in the form of a fish. Oannes taught the Babylonians the arts, sciences and letters and possessed vast knowledge.
"To the Assyrians," wrote Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, "the creature was known simply as kulullu, 'fish-man'...representations of these figures were used in Neo-Assyrian art for the purpose of protective nature."2 This "fish-man," wrote Black and Green, "is perhaps the prototype for the merman figure in Greek and medieval European art and literary tradition."3 The kulullu obviously was an important mystical symbol for the Babylonians as priests were often garbed in the fish-man guise as part of healing rituals.
The ancient grain god of the Philistines, Dagon or Dagan, was half man and half fish, although Black and Green dispute this. According to them, "A
1. Carrington, Richard. Mermaids and Mastodons: A Book of Natural & Unnatural History. New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc. 1957, 5.
2. Black, Jeremy & Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin: University of Texas Press 1992, 131-132.
tradition dating back at least to the fourth century AD of Dagan as a fish deity is erroneous."4 Dagon was worshipped in most of the Near East as an ancient grain god and inventor of the plough and it would seem implausible that he could be referred to as a fish-god at the same time.
Vishnu, one of the most venerated and sophisticated deities of the Hindu pantheon, known as the "preserver and restorer," is depicted at times as a man-fish. One of his forms is that of Matsya, the Fish, which saved humankind from the Flood. According to traditional lore, vishnu, in the form of a fish, told King Manu that a flood would occur in seven days. He told the king to build a boat and to ensure that the seven sages, or hermits, were on board along with seeds of all plants and one animal of each species. When the boat was finished and loaded, the fish (Vishnu) told the king to tie the boat to the fish. The king used the royal serpent Vasuki as a rope and tied the boat to the back of the giant fish. The fish then towed the boat to Mt. Himavan until the flood waters receded. The world was then able to be repopulated with plants, animals and humankind. Matsya is Vishnu's first incarnation as a protector and preserver of the world.
Shiva as Matsya, the Fish
Folklorist Horace Beck wrote "it is my belief that what we are dealing with when discussing. mermaids is really a fractured mythology — beliefs so old as possibly to reach back to Neolithic times, beliefs long since vanished into limbo, with only fragments remaining."5 Beck believes that the core myths of the mermaids have a northern European origin but i believe that they have a common origin that was "hard wired" in our minds as a species and not as geographical mythology. it would seem that a common religious and cultural tradition existed at one time in our ancient history; a tradition that still surfaces now and then in our mythology and folklore. Like the Fairy, the legend of the mermaids may also come from this tradition.
Mythic stories of mermaids, nymphs and water spirits may be survival tales of the sea goddesses. Through time, the original stories became more and more elaborate and took on a flavor of their own from the people who passed the stories on. Folklorist Shahrukh Husain, in her book The Goddess, wrote, "the sea goddess survives in a debased form as water-sprites, sirens or mermaids. Probably the first mermaids were images of the fish-tailed Aphro
5. Beck, Horace. Folklore and the Sea. Mystic: Mystic Seaport Museum incorporated 1973, 266.
dite — they are famously able to seduce men away from the land, and draw them down to their underwater kingdom. A reminder of their lost divinity lies in the tales of a mermaid receiving the souls of drowned men."6
Part of the fascination we have with Mermaids is not only their beauty, but also the danger associated with them. In fact, according to Joseph Campbell, the mermaid image reflects the life-threatening as well as the life-furthering aspects of water.7 Legends of sailors capturing these creatures for a short time or living with them longer as husband and wife are interspersed with other stories with more dire results. Fiske noted, "it has been a common superstition among sailors, that the appearance of a mermaid, with her hair comb and looking-glass, foretokens shipwreck, with the loss of all on board."8
Native Americans possess many legends of River Mermaids. The ancient Greeks had Eurynome, who was said to be the daughter of the god Oceanus. Eurynome was "a woman down to the buttocks and below that like a fish".9 Of Eurynome Brewster wrote she "was most probably a local river nymph with the body like a mermaid's."10
In Nigeria, the Benin people also speak of mermaids. In Benin folklore the River goddess Igbag-hon ruled the underworld, which was below the water. She was waited upon by mermaids who informed her of trespassers who went to the river to wash or to fetch water — they never returned from their tasks.11
South African anthropologist Penny Bernard, who has studied water spirit lore and traditions in that part of the world, has found that many of the traits of the Native American river mermaids also exist in South African tribal beliefs. These water spirits are re
6. Husain, Shahrukh. The Goddess. Alexandria: Time-Life Books 1997, 51.
7. Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York: The Viking Press 1959, 62.
8. Fiske, John. Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company 1881, 103.
9. Brewster, Harry. The River Gods of Greece: Myths and Mountain Waters in the Hellenic World. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. 1997, 97.
11. Osoba, Funmi. Benin Folklore: A Collection of Classic Folktales and Legends. London: Hadada Books 1993, 40.
ferred to as the "River People" and are believed to live in certain deep pools of water, especially below waterfalls. Bernard notes, "some informants say they are fair skinned, with long dark hair, are naked and some have half-human, half-fish physical attributes (mermaid like)."12 She also reports that these creatures only live in "living water" — that is, water that is flowing in rivers, the ocean or waterfalls. Some, however, are also reported to reside in wells in Zimbabwe. Normally this tradition is found only in the more arid areas of Africa.
Water spirits cannot simply be dismissed as metaphors. The almost universal application of human-like characteristics and supra-natural powers, like those of the Fairies, demands a broader approach. At least through the 19th century, the people of Norway left offerings to water spirits every Christmas Day. The following account appeared in the December 17, 1859 issue of the British journal, Notes & Queries:
.a fisherman wished on Christmas Day to give the Spirit of the Waters a cake; but when he came to the shore, lo! the waters were frozen over. Unwilling to leave his offering upon the ice, and so to give the Spirit the trouble of breaking the ice to obtain it, the fisherman took a pickaxe, and set to work to break a hole in the ice. in spite of all his labour he was only able to make a very small hole, not nearly large enough for him to put the cake through. Having laid the cake on the ice, while he thought what was best to be done, suddenly a very tiny little hand as white as snow was stretched through the hole, which seizing the cake and crumpling it up together, withdrew with it. Ever since that time the cakes have been so small that the Water Spirits have had no trouble with them.
in the folklore of Tobago, the mer-people are always male and live in the deep sea but they mate with "fairymaids" that live in the rivers and "secret mountain pools." These fairymaids are described as beautiful with long lush hair and one foot shaped like a deer's hoof. The fairymaid is said to live in caves behind waterfalls, near waterwheels and under bridges over deep rivers. The fairymaids of Tobago appear to have many similar traits to the river mermaids of American indian lore.
According to Beck, mermaids and Fairies may have a common origin. Mermaids "seem to be related to the Celtic fairies through their coloring, the name — Marie Morgane — and their underwater cities, love of music and ability to grant gifts."13
Mysterious water creatures have been reported throughout the world's folklore for hundreds and thousands of years. Like the Fairy, these creatures also have almost universal characteristics and descriptions. California Mi-wok Indians called these creatures He-Ha-Pe, or "River Mermaids" and described them as "beautiful fish-women [that] had long black hair and lived
12. Bernard, Penny. "Mermaids, Snakes and the Spirits of the Water in Southern Africa: Implications for River Health", lecture given in Short Course on the Role and Use of Aquatic Biomonitoring. Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, 2000.
in deep pools and rivers".14 Other California tribes referred to these creatures as "Water Women" in their mythology. The "River Mermaids" reportedly pulled victims to their deaths in these deep waters.15
Nineteenth-century writer S. Baring-Gould reported several instances of the capture of supposed mer-people. One such instance was the capture of a "Marmennill" or merman off the Icelandic island of Grimsey in the early 14th century; one also reportedly washed up on the beaches of Suffolk in 1187.16 Baring-Gould notes other cases as well of mermen not only being seen but caught in 1305 and 1329 off Iceland; 1430 in Holland; 1531 in the Baltic; 1560 on an island west of Ceylon; and 1714 in the West Indies.
According to Baring-Gould, the 1560 incident occurred near the island of Mandar. It was here that "some fishermen entrapped in their net seven mermen and mermaids, of which several Jesuits, and Father Henriques, and Bosquez, physician to the Viceroy of Goa, were witnesses. The physician examined them with a great deal of care, and dissected them. He asserts that the internal and external structure resembled that of human beings."17 Baring-Gould gives several other accounts of mer-folk being captured and examined by sailors and other villagers from Ceylon, Holland and the Shetland Islands. Other reported sightings include one made by Henry Hudson's men on June 15, 1608; Captain Richard Whitbourne in 1620 at St. John's Harbor in Newfoundland; and Captain John Smith in 1614 in the West Indies. Even today, mermaids are reportedly commonly seen near the Isle of Man.
John C. Messenger, in his ethnography of a small Irish island he called Inis Beag, noted during his study that "At least one and maybe three mermaids are associated with particular locations along the coastline of the island. The spirit usually is found sitting on a rock with her tail in the water and combing her long hair, although she has been seen hovering over the surface of the sea in a 'robe of mist.'" 18
Angelo Rappaport noted, "The sacred wells are a very favourite place with the fair children of the sea. Here, undisturbed by men, the green-haired beauties of the ocean lay aside their garb and revel in the clear moonlight."19 There are very few sacred wells at the ocean however, and Rappaport does not say how they journey to these places.
14. Varner, Gary R. Sacred Wells: A Study in the History, Meaning, and Mythology of Holy Wells & Waters. Baltimore: Publish America 2002, 129.
15.Merriam, C. Hart. Editor. The Dawn of the World: Myths and Tales of the Miwok Indians of California. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1993, pg. 228-230.
16. Baring-Gould, S. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. New York:John B. Alden, Publishers 1885, 205.
18. Messenger, John C. Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland. Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1969, 100.
19. Rappoport, Angelo. The Sea: Myths and Legends. London: Senate 1995, 184. A reprint of the 1928 edition published by Stanley Paul & Company, London. Originally titled Superstitions of Sailors.
In Zulu lore mermaids would, at times, possess mediums and give them healing powers. They were also believed to come out of the waters at night, causing humans to avoid rivers and the ocean after nightfall.
Among both American Indian and African beliefs is that the River Mermaids and the River People must be treated with respect and fear — for both of these creatures would often lure unsuspecting individuals to their deaths or to live the remainder of their lives under water. This fear is universal among the world's indigenous peoples. The Udmurt people of Estonia say water spirits would drown those humans who swam at the wrong time or swam without wearing a crucifix. 20
Russia has its own tales of dangerous Water Spirits. "Water Grandfather," according to Joseph Campbell, "is an adroit shapeshifter and is said to drown people who swim at midnight or at noon."21 Like the beautiful Mermaid, this shapeshifter likes to sit in the moonlight and comb his long green hair and beard. He is not above asking humans for help, however. He often seeks out a village midwife when one of his wives is about to deliver a baby and she is paid handsomely in gold and silver.
The "Mami Wata" (mother Water) is West Africa's mermaid deity. She is not the only one, however. Mamba Muntu and Chitapo are two other mermaid figures, which closely resemble the typical mermaid characteristics. However, anthropologist Brian Siegel of Furman University believes that these mermaids, while derived from an ancient lake spirit, are examples of cultural diffusion. While other scholars have claimed that the mermaid is perhaps one of the oldest and widespread symbols in Africa, Siegel responds that the African mermaid is "derive[d] from 'Der Schlangenbandinger' (The Snake Charmer), an 1880-87 chromolithograph of the exotic, long-haired, snake-charming wife of a Hamburg zookeeper. Moreover, it has since been determined that copies of this popular lithograph being sold in West Africa in the mid- to late 1950s originated in Bombay and England."22
There are, indeed, many similarities among the African water deities-mermaids and those of other parts of the world. All seem to possess beautiful long hair, combs, mirrors and very fair skin. In fact, Mamba Muntu is occasionally depicted with blond hair. However, in this particular case the reasons for the similarities are easy to explain. According to Dr. Siegel, "Until replaced by Old Testament scenes and portraits of Jesus in the 1980s, the Mamba Muntu mermaid...dominated the popular art of urban Shaba Province for twenty years. First introduced into Lumbumbashi by West African traders by the 1950s, she became the omnipresent subject of bar murals, sit
20. Lintrop, Aado. "On the Udmurt Water Spirit and the Formation of the Concept 'Holy" Among Permian Peoples" in Folklore, Vol. 26, April 2004, 9. Published by the Folk Belief & Media Group of the Estonian Literary Museum, Tartu.
21. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books 1949, 80.
22. Siegel, Brian. "Water Spirits and Mermaids: The Copperbelt Case". Paper presented at the Spring 2000 Southeastern Regional Seminar in African Studies (SERSAS), Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, North Carolina April 14-15, 2000, 1.
ting room paintings, and record covers."23 By the 1970s similar images had spread from Central Africa into Zambia. This is a perfect example of popular culture from one part of the world creating an important icon in another — an icon that eventually was regarded as an ancient one even though, in reality, it was only a few decades in the making.
Other explanations for such tales may be the sighting of unexpected but perfectly natural animals appearing in many of the eerie water locations around the world. Would the flash of a large fish in a "spooky" lake be misinterpreted as a mermaid? Perhaps. But can such an event explain the mermaid tales from other areas that did not have the same exposure to such primal cultural symbols?
The Pascagoula Indians of Louisiana not only respected the mermaid — they worshipped one. According to E. Randall Floyd, "legend has it that an entire...tribe — the Biloxi, also known as the Pascagoula — marched into a raging river at the command of a mermaid-like sea-goddess and drowned."24 This happened, according to legend, in the 1500s. It was said that within a week after a white priest appeared to them, commanding them to "abandon their superstitions in an underwater goddess," they disappeared in the waters of the Pascagoula River.
Some Native American lore states that a merman actually was responsible for their arrival on American shores. According to Rappoport, such a creature led the ancestors of modern Indians from Asia to America when he took pity on them one day when they were suffering from hunger. "Following the fish-man," Rappoport wrote, "they ultimately reached the American coast."25 The merman was described as having green hair and beard, a forked tail and a face shaped like a porpoise. This creature, according to Baring-Gould, appeared suddenly one day "in the season of opening buds." "The people of our nation," so says the legend, "were much terrified at seeing a strange creature, much resembling a man, riding upon the waves But if our people were frightened at seeing a man who could live in the water like a fish or a duck, how much more were they frightened when they saw that from his breast down he was actually a fish, or rather two fishes, for each of his legs was a whole and distinct fish."26 Contemporary accounts of mermaid sightings read like daily news reports. Explorer Henry Hudson, on one of his attempts to open the Northwest Passage, wrote of one such event:
This evening [June 15] one of our company, looking overboard, saw a mermaid, and, calling up some of the company to see her, one more of the crew came up, and by that time she was come close to the ship's side, looking earnestly on the men. A little after a sea came and overturned her. From the navel upward, her back and breasts were like a woman's, as they say that saw her; her body as big as one of us. Her skin very white, and long hair
24. Floyd, E. Randall. Great Southern Mysteries. Little Rock: August House Publishers 1989, 118.
hanging down behind, of colour black. In her going down they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise, speckled like a mackerel.27
Mermaids are also found in Medieval church architectural ornament. However, she does not appear to be regarded as simply "ornamental," on the contrary the mermaid is "a symbol of the lure for mankind" to sin.28
Some scientist believe that sightings of mermaids are the result of seals, sea-cows and manatees seen from afar. However, it is not that simple to explain these ancient tales through scientific analysis. Anthropologist Richard Carrington wrote "...the natural history of mermaids cannot be understood by the methods of natural science alone. These hauntingly beautiful goddesses of the sea, full of mystery and danger, were surely conjured from the chaos of the waters in answer to some primal human need. Their genus and species may not be carefully docketed in the NomencIator Zoologicus, but their reality in terms of poetic truth is firmly established in the impassioned imagination of men."29
Water spirits are one of the most widely recognized "otherworldly" creatures in the world. Reported in most every land throughout time, these nature beings are benign and mischievous, helpful and deadly.
As noted, American Indian legends are full of water-beings such as the Water Babies of the west, river mermaids and water dragons. In Mexico, creatures like the Water Babies were called "Wachoqs" and were described as little people who lived in streams and lakes and had the ability to walk underwater.
More nature spirits than "Little People", the Australian Aborigines have legends of water-spirits, also referred to as "Good Spirits," who reside in streams and other water sources. Smith reports that these water spirits "dwell in the form of tiny bubbles that cling closely together in the limpid pools and make the surface look as white as snow."30
In Mongolia, shamans often invoke water spirits, called Ius, for the purpose of removing bad fortune and unseen dangers. According to shaman Sa-rangeral, during rituals to cure an ill person, water is mixed with milk, tea, and liquor. The Ius dissolves the evil forces that surround the individual in this concoction and it is then thrown outside in a direction dictated by the spirit. Because many streams, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water contain these spirits, it is forbidden to throw anything into the water. The worst
27. As quoted by Richard Carrington in "The Natural History of the Mermaid", in Horizon, January, 1960, Vol. II, Number 3, 131.
28. Cave, C.J.P. Medieval Carvings in Exeter Cathedral. London: Penguin Books 1953, 21.
30. Smith, William Ramsay. Aborigine Myths and Legends. London: Senate 1996, 112. A reprint of the 1930 edition, Myths & Legends of the Australian Aborigines published by George G. Harrap, London.
offense, of course, is to urinate in the water.31 This prohibition also occurs in other locations around the world. "In olden days," said Zulu leader Credo Mutwa, "Africans used to risk their lives in protecting water. In olden days our people used to severely punish anyone caught urinating into a stream or
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