Under the strain of voyaging, sailors through the ages have seen in the ocean the embodiment of their deepest desires and fears. On early maps the figure of the enchanting mermaid shared space with the hideous monsters and fearsome beasts who lay in wait for the explorers of unknown waters. The woman who lures men to their death has a rich life in the annals of sea history. Where and how does the myth begin? And why and how does it persist into our own time?
Columbus reported that he saw three mermaids on his first voyage to the Americas. On January 4, 1493, according to Purchas, the admiral observed in his log that the female forms "rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are represented." The creatures were probably dolphins or manatees, but Columbus, like other mariners of his day, was ready to see new marvels in every latitude. His mind was conditioned by medieval illustrations, fables, travelers' accounts, and astrological prophecies about unseen territories far beyond the familiar coastlines of Europe.
The historian Arciniegas points out that Columbus's favorite book was Cardinal Pierre D'Ailly's Imago Mundi, a preposterous description of the unknown world by an early 15th century "new age" philosopher. If, as D'Ailly claimed, the lands of the "other hemisphere" were inhabited by giants, pygmies, dog-faced savages and Amazons, the seas around these could very likely teem with seductive creatures, half woman, half fish.
Cardinal D'Ai!ly's book and the fantastic published narratives of Mandeville, "Prester John," Marco Polo and others were imaginative stimuli for early mermaid sightings among privileged explorers who could read. But for the vast majority of illiterate sailors, there were only superstition and the wild rumors that always circulated, in the ports of Europe. The acute physical and emotional deprivation of the early sea voyage, added to these, could easily trigger fantasies and mutinous hallucinations, as some of the ships' logs confirm.
As far back as the first century AD, Pliny the Elder was convinced of the existence of mermaids or "Nereides," with bodies "rough and scaled all over." But the full image, the classic form of the creature, was provided by the influential 5th century Bestiary, of Physiologus. This treatise on animals and their natures was published and circulated throughout the world in many translations until 1724. In Physiologus, the mermaid is "a beast of the sea wonderfully shapen as a maid from the navel upward and a fish from the navel downward, and this beast is glad and merry in tempest, and sad and heavy in fair weather." The odd contrariety of her nature suggests a dark side developed and elaborated later by Christian writers. especially clerics.
By the middle of the 13th Century, the mermaid was fully defined, physically and spiritually, in the annals and theological encyclopaedias of Christian monks and Scribes. One of these works, De Propietatibus Rerum, by Bartholomew Angelicus, made the mermaid a lethal seductress. Mermaids charmed seamen through sweet music. "But the truth is that they are strong whores," who lead men "to poverty and to mischief." Typically, a mermaid lulled a crew to sleep, kidnapped a sailor, and took him to "a dry place" for sex. If he refused, "the she slayeth him and eateth his flesh."
It is not surprising that priests and clerics were involved not only in the moral monitoring of mermaids but also
in many of the famous sightings, interpretations, and, ultimately, in the conversions of mermaids to Christianity. The welfare of the mermaid soul was an issue of some con. troversy during and after the Middle Ages, and as early as the 6th century a mermaid caught off the northeast coast of Ireland was baptized, educated, and given the name "Saint Murgen" on some religious calendars.
The Church, of course, was always quick to appropriate and to modify pagan myths and beliefs to its own advantage among the folk. 'the mermaid could be useful as a figure of virtue or a figure of sin. A Carmelite monk, John Gerbrandus, recorded that in 1403 "a wyld woman" was washed through a broken dike in the Netherlands and was found by some milkmaids flailing her tail in the mud of a nearby embankment. Clothed and fed, she learned to spin wool with her webbed fingers. She was eventually taken to Haarlem, where she learned "to worship the cross" and to live, in speechless piety, for 15 years. The episode was verified by John Swan in his eculumMundi (1635).
Religion joined scientific inquiry in the account of seven mermaids caught in fishnets off the coast of Ceylon in 1560. A team of Jesuits and a physician named Bosquez, aide to the Viceroy of Goa, performed autopsies and published their findings in the annual Relations of The Society of Jesus. They concluded that mermaids are anatomically and spiritually identical to humans.
The cream were probably dugongs, Asian relatives of the American manatee; they had been spotted in the Indian Ocean as early as the 4th century Bc by the Greek adventurer Megasthenes. But by 1560, human cultural ideas about mermaids were routinely confused with perceptions of common marine mammals.
From this intellectual climate there emerged, in 1599, the freakish and sumptuously illustrated Historia Monstrorum, by Ulysses Aldrovandi of Bologna This comprehensive catalogue of thc animal world includes mermaids among the many other known "monsters," and in one famous illustration features a merman and his mate reportedly observed embracing for two hours by a civil magistrate in the Nile delta. Among the foremost zoologists of the Renaissance, Aldrovandi was essentially a collector of curious reports. His work, viewed today, is a learned and grotesque compendium of organized ignorance. But how does it compare to first-hand ship-board sightings of these phenomena by we!l-known explorers of the period?
In 1608, the English navigator Henry Hudson was skirting the polar ice off the arctic coast of Russia in his second attempt to find a northeast route to the spice markets of China. Near the coast of Nova Zembla, Hudson made his log entry of 15 June:
This morning, one of our companie looking over board saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up, and by that time shee was close to the ship's side, looking earnestly upon the men: a little after, a Sea came and overturned her: From the Navill upward, her backe and breasts were like a woman's.., her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long haire hanging down behinde, of colour blacke; in her going down they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a Porposse, and speckled like a Macrell.
The adduced emotion lends Hudson's account a touch of poignancy. But couldn't this be a walrus? A seal? Not likely, according to the eminent Victorian biologist P.H. Gosse, who declared inthe 1860s that the mermaid might well be a new zoological species. Gosse commented that Hudson's cold-water mariners were too well-acquainted with seals and walruses to mistake them for anything else than "some form of being as yet unrecognized." In his Romance of Natural History (1861 ), Gosse was also enthusiastic over reports of "a unicom" in Africa." and the possibility of "a great anthropoid ape" in South America.
Six years after Hudson's voyage, another English captain, John Smith, spotted a mermaid in the Caribbean, "swimming about with all possible grace." At first he thought it was a woman, the upper part of her body being perfectly human. She had "large eyes, rather too round, a finely shaped nose (a little too short), well-formed ears, rather too long, r and her long green hair imparted to ber an original character by no means unattractive." Smith confessed that he had "already begun to experience the first effects of love," when the creature rolled suddenly, revealing that"from below the waist the woman gave way to the fish."
Throughout the centuries, however, the most impressive mermaid data was provided by the clergy. Christian missionaries in Africa were deeply concerned when they discovered, in 1700, that native Angolans were catching mermaids and eating them. The discovery raised a nagging theological question: since mermaids are at least half-human, should acts of cannibalism against them be punishable by the Church?
In an episode that stirred great intellectual excitement in Europe, Dutch sailors caught a "sea wyf" off the coast of Borneo and kept her for nearly a week in a large vat. This was the famous "Mermaid of Amboine," five feet long, who from time to time"uttered little cries like those of a mouse." Her excrement, examined in the vat after she died, was found to resemble that of a kitten. Deeply touched by this creature's picture in a book, the Russian Czar, Peter the Great, traveled incognito to Amsterdam in 1717 to ask the book's publisher for verification of the facts surrounding the mermaid's captivity.
The desire to find an authentic mermaid extended unabated into the "Age of Reason" and numerous European publications featured accounts of sightings and contact with the creatures. In 1739, for example, The Scots Magazine carried a report that the crew of the ship Halifax, short on rations in the East Indies, had caught and eaten several mermaids. Upon arriving in London, the sailors described how, when taken, the creatures moaned "with great sensibility." The flesh, the men said, tasted like veal.
By the close of the 18th century, the achievements of Newton, Priestley, Watt, Owen, and numerous other theorists and scientists of the "Age of Reason" would seem to foreshadow a loss of interest in mermaids. But far from waning in this period, the romance of the sea stimulated new heights of enthusiasm for mermaids in people of all classes. As Benwell and Waugh note in Sea Enchantress, belief in the mermaid subsided, but interest in her continued and even increased in the 19th century, where she remained a fascinating and enigmatic phenomenon.
Perhaps because of the comparatively high rate of literacy in Scotland, sightings there are especially detailed and factual. In 1797, a Caithness schoolmaster, William Munro, saw a mermaid sitting on a rock proudly combing her shoulder-length hair. The forehead was round, "the face plump, the cheeks ruddy, the eyes blue, the mouth and lips of a natural form." In 1811, a farmer named M'lsaac saw a mermaid,"with very hollow eyes," near a cliff in Kintyre. The creature stroked and washed its breast and dexterously combed back its wind-blown hair, its fan-shaped tail, meanwhile, was "in tremulous motion."
But a much more celebrated episode occurred in 1830 on the small island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. A farmwoman cutting seaweed on the shore, was startled to see a few feet from her the fish-like form of "a woman in miniature" happily turning somersaults. Several men failed to capture the creature as she splashed away, but a boy struck her in the back with a rock. Days later, the mermaid's dead body washed ashore. The dainty corpse attracted a large crowd. A careful examination was performed and documented by local officials. Everyone agreed that this was a mermaid and therefore partly human. As a result, there was a complete burial in a shroud and a coffin made by order of the chiel' magistrate of the island.
The detailed examination of "The Mermaid of Benbecula" was published solemnly in 1900 by the distinguished Gaelic scholar, Alexander Carmichael. It reveals thai the upper part of the creature was "about thc size of a well-fed child of three or four years of age, with an abnormally developed breast. The hair was long. dark and glossy, while the skin was white, soft, and tender. The lower part of thc body was like a salmon, but without the scales."
Throughout the 19th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, numerous fake mermaids were exhibited, including the one owned by P. T. Barnum. On a visit to Japan in the 1850's, Andrew Steinmetz discovered that fishermen there made these curios, in a kind of cottage industry, from the corpses of monkeys and large fish.
Returning seamen, over time, brought many of these bogus mermaids home as souvenirs; some found their way into the museums of Europe. In The Magic Zoo, Peter Costello notes that such a specimen was given to the respected marine biologist, Alistair Hardy, by a family which had owned and cherished it for generations. An X-ray of the corpse disclosed to Hardy the wires which held together the two halves. The British Museum acquired the tiny mermaid for its 1961 exhibition of famous fakes and frauds.
Combined with the pressures of travel, toil, isolation and the will to believe, the legend of the mermaid has distorted the perceptions of humans for hundreds of years. The certainty of people who saw her in the past acquires, in retrospect, an amusing quaintness; but it differs little, basically, from the certainty felt by contemporary witnesses to the movements of flying saucers and the monster of Loch Ness. Like many creatures of the imagination, the mermaid, in a harmless way, exemplifies the paradox that things unseen provide humanity with its most compelling visions.
Shadows of the Goddess -
The image of the Mermaid, the sea-swelling half-woman, half-fish, has been an endearing and popular one; each age had invested this enchanting creature with new shades of meaning and new elements in her myth.
Although her male counterpart, the merman, had his place also in the collective consciousness, the female of the species with her special feminine symbolism, is far more often represented; it almost seems as though the male version fundamentally exists because he logically must in order to facilitate continuation of their race. However, despite this, the first representation of the half-human, half-fish hybrid was a male; the sea-god Oannes, the 'great fish of the ocean', who was also the sun-god, rising out of the sea each day and disappearing back under the waves each night.
Oannes was worshipped by the Babylonians around 5000BCE. Early images of Oannes show him as a man wrapped in a fish cloak, but later the image evolved into the half-man, half-fish form in which he became more widely known. A civilizing force for the good, and light and life to his people, Oannes represented the positive values connected with the sea.
Oannes' goddess counterpoint was Atargatis (or, Atergatis, or in Greece, Derketo) a Semetic moon goddess who became the first official mermaid, being depicted with a fish's tail; fish were sacred to her. She and Oannes were said to be the parents of the legendary Semiramis, an historical queen of Babylon. Atargartis was an important fertility goddess, also representing the darker, night forces of love and their potentially destructive power. As Dea Syria, her cult reached as far as Britain; the migration of the ubiquitous mermaid had begun.
Later this goddess became identified with Aphrodite, who was born from the sea, and retained close connections with it, but in fully human form again; her fish attributes were transferred to her escorts the Tritons, and more rarely, the female Tritonids. Aphrodite was also a fertility goddess, and goddess of fair sailing, her companion the sacred dolphin. Many of the symbols associated with Aphrodite, subsequently the Roman Venus, have been retained in the mermaid myth. Her mirror, later a symbol of her vanity, originally represented the planet Venus in astrological tradition.
Her abundant, flowing hair, symbolizing an abundant love potential, was also an attribute of Venus in her role as fertility goddess. Her comb, necessary to keep all that hair in order, carried sexual connotations for the Greeks, as their words for comb, kteis and pecten, also signified the female vulva. Thus the mermaid is the surviving aspect of the old goddesses, particularly as the link between passion and destruction.
How did one goddess then become a multitude, a whole race of sea-people? The Greeks were a great sea faring people and obviously aware of the abundance of all life in the oceans. The incestuous union of brother and sister Oceanus and Tethys bore eloquent testimony to the legendary fertility of the sea; they produced 300 sea-nymphs called Oceanids, along with much other issue. Among these were Metis, mother of Athene by Zeus; Euromyne, who was represented as a mermaid in a statue at Phigalia; and Doris, who became the wife of another sea-god, Nereus. These two then produced 50 more sea-nymphs known as Nereids. Among these were Thetis, mother of Achilleus, and Amphitrite, who became the wife of the later sea-god Poseidon, and bore the race of Tritons, already mentioned in connection with Venus.
Nereids had become synonymous with mermaids by the time of Pliny (80 CE) and the Tritons the originators of the mermen. The original sea-gods were Wise Old Men of the Sea in keeping with the tradition begun by Oannes, but the Tritons were a lustful and rapacious lot, fond of assaulting unwary sea-nymphs and human women alike, doubtless as a result of their association with Venus.
The Nereids on the other hand were protective of sailors, and reserved their beautiful singing voices to entertain their father, unlike the dangerous Sirens who ensnared sailors with their enchanting voices and lured them to watery deaths. The Sirens were originally bird-women related to the Egyptian Ra, or soul birds, demons of death sent to catch souls. But the Sirens eventually became synonymous with mermaids; thus the mermaids acquired their unpleasant reputation for drowning sailors. This evil aspect can also be traced to a certain degree as stemming from Greek sea-monster propaganda, promoting a fearful image of the sea to discourage commercial rivals in shipping and colonization.
Whilst the Sirens tempted Odysseus with supreme knowledge, a god-like attribute, later the emphasis shifted to worldly temptation. Thus the mermaid/siren symbol was used by the Mediaeval Church as embodying the lure of fleshy pleasures to be shunned by the God-fearing. The mermaid became a victim of the repressive sexual attitudes of the Christian Church. Mermaid carvings figured prominently in church decorations in the Middle Ages, to symbolically serve as a vivid reminder of the fatal temptations of the flesh. These rapacious soul-eaters (the legacy of the bird-sirens) were of course not considered to have souls of their own. Thus the legends of the more highly-principled mermaids, anxious to acquire souls, arose.
Apparently one method for a mermaid to gain a soul was to marry a human being; the best known form of this legend is Hans Christian Anderson's 'Little Mermaid', recently popularized once again, and sanitized of the darker aspects of the legend, by the Disney Studios. But similar legends abound in the folklore of many countries. Celtic mythology included the sanctified Liban, a young woman drowned and transformed into a mermaid, who after 500 years enlisted the aid of the Irish St. Comgall to save her soul; also the Mermaid of Iona who wept many bitter tears over her inability to leave her ocean home to gain her promised soul. St. Patrick allegedly had a custom of transforming pagan women into mermaids, adding to the marine population in Ireland.
France has the legends of Melusine and Undine, both water-spirits who married noblemen. These mixed marriages in legend almost invariably fail miserably, with the unhappy mermaid ultimately unable to abandon her ocean element.
In Germany on the Rhine River they had their Lorelei or Nix, a beautiful blonde siren who sat on a cliff luring boatmen to their deaths with her songs, in traditional style.
There are the 'morgens' of Brittany, seemingly descendants of Morgan Le Fay, the sorceress of Arthurian legend. These creature lure all who come too near, down to their gold and crystal underwater palaces.
In Norway the 'havfrau' portends imminent disaster if sighted sitting on the surface of the water combing her long golden hair with a golden comb.
The Japanese have their mermaids known as Ningyo. In fact the mermaid archetype is so widespread among cultures that one may conclude it is very ancient, and fulfills a particular need in the human collective consciousness. The mermaid in our culture is the most persistent and pervasive symbol of the old Goddess energy that represents women, particularly the mysterious, life-generating element. The Christian Church, in promoting the ideas that mermaids
a) were dangerous temptresses and
b) had no souls of their own,
was actually stating deeply-held beliefs about all women, much as in the case of the witchcraze, when harmless old women were put to death by burning or hanging for practicing traditional herb-lore; this being the province of women it was destroyed by the Church in support of male domination.
This beautiful, helpful and compellingly attractive goddess-mermaid has been stripped of all her spiritual qualities; hence the stories involving the mermaid's soul could never end happily. They emphasized the supposed faithlessness and inconstancy of women, the danger of their attraction, and the unlikelihood of their gaining humanity.
In Elizabethan times the mermaid was used as a symbol of prostitution, and thus popularly applied to Mary Queen of Scots, as Queen Elizabeth's hated rival. Shakespeare, in the Midsummer Night's Dream, included these lines supposedly referring to Mary, five years after her execution:
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a Dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music.'
The 'mermaid', 'sea-maid' meaning Mary; a dolphins back', she married the Dauphin of France; 'the rude sea', the Scotch rebels; 'certain stars' referring to the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland and the Duke of Norfolk; 'shot madly from their spheres', revolted from Queen Elizabeth, enchanted by Mary's feminine qualities.
These lines may been disguised flattery; but it seems unlikely since Mary was dead, and also due to the prostitution symbolism of the mermaid at the time. More likely it was directed at Elizabeth, Shakespeare's patroness, in the sense of censuring the behaviour of her rebel nobles. The mermaid was a popular poetic and allegorical symbol in Elizabethan theatre.
In our own times the mermaid-symbol has been completely trivialized; stripped of her power to frighten or impress, all deeper meanings forgotten. Although just a cute toy for little girls, the persistence of this creature, despite her biological unlikelihood, is interesting. My personal favourite theory is based on Desmond Morris' suggestion in 'The Naked Ape', that possibly the human species spent some time living in the ocean at the time of the separation from our closest relatives, the great apes. This could explain some of the obvious differences between human beings and other apes, i.e. relative hairlessness, upright stance (both for streamlining) freeing the hands for manipulation, protruding noses, and the fact that the human, alone among the great apes, actually enjoys immersing in water and seeks it out for pleasure. Could the mermaid also be a symbol of our affinity with the sea, gained in this way?