February 28, 2017
Posted by in Creatures and Monsters | 6.01am | 1,049 views
Considering that water makes up about 71% of the Earth’s surface, it is hardly surprising that there are many mysterious marine creatures associated with our vast seas and lakes. Of all such creatures, no other has continued to capture the vivid imagination of the human mind more than the maidens of the sea, more commonly referred to as mermaids.
Mermaids are the only marine version of half-human, half-animal legend and myth. Since time immemorial, legends involving mermaids have permeated the folklore of many cultures worldwide, from Europe to Africa and Asia alike and have even been chronicled in maritime cultures.
According to records, the earliest known mermaid legends started in Syria around 1000 B.C. It is said that to mourn and atone for accidentally causing the death of her human lover, the Syrian goddess Atargatis dove into a lake to take on the form of a fish.
However, the other gods loathed for her to give up her great beauty. This resulted in a compromise where only her bottom half turned into that of a fish and her top half remained in human form. The legend also briefly alludes to the existence of a merman, the male equivalent of the mermaid. Thus, it is presumed that mermen co-exist with their female counterparts despite not being mentioned much in folklore and legend.
On a less mystical note, the origin of the mermaid has been attributed to ordinary marine creatures, such as manatees, dugongs, or sea-cows (now extinct). It is said that the romanticised legends involving mermaids have been constructed around early sightings of such creatures by sailors. The rationale behind such an explanation is that marine creatures such as the ones mentioned above appear to cradle their young much like how a human would carry a baby. It is likely that sailors, glancing at such a scene from a distance, would mistake the creatures for mermaids.
Appearance and Legends
Since the time of the Syrian legend, mermaids have typically been depicted as mesmerising aquatic creatures with the head and torso of a female human and the tail of a fish. This is generally the case in most legends across all cultures. The following are but a few of the notable ones.
A popular Greek mermaid legend relates to the sister of Alexander the Great, Thessalonike, who is said to have transformed into a mermaid upon her death. She is known to haunt the waters of the Aegean Sea, luring sailors with her beauty and testing them with a question which would cost them their lives if they answered wrongly. She would ask only one question; “Is King Alexander alive?” to which the only correct answer would be, “He lives and reigns and conquers the world”. Any other answer would not be acceptable to her and spelled doom for those who failed her test.
A mermaid tale from Scotland recounts the narrow escape of the Laird of Lorntie. It is said that the Laird chanced upon a beautiful naked maiden who appeared to be drowning in a lake near his house. He was about to gallantly jump into the lake to rescue her when he was pulled back by his servant who warned him that it was a mermaid. Furious to have her sinister plan to lure the Laird into her watery prison thwarted, the mermaid screamed at them. When she jumped back into the dark abyss of the lake, her true mermaid form was revealed.
The love story of Suvannamaccha, a mermaid princess with gorgeous features and a golden tail, can be found in the Cambodian and Thai versions of the Ramayana. In short, the mermaid princess was distracted from her original task to spoil Hanuman’s plans to build a bridge to Lanka (the island fortress capital of the legendary demon King Ravana) as she ended up falling in love with him instead.
However, not all mermaids are shimmering visions of femininity. The following examples from different parts of the world offer some alternative spins on this fish-human legend.
Ningyo of Japan
Far from the alluring vision of a beautiful mermaid, this creature from Japanese folklore is said to take the form of a giant fish with a human face and a monkey’s mouth. In some accounts, it even possesses horns and fangs. It is believed that eating a Ningyo will grant eternal youth and beauty but it comes with a heavy price as catching a Ningyo could result in terrible storms and misfortune that could befall an entire village.
Mami Wata of Africa
Translated to mean “water spirit”, Mami Wata has been described either as a mermaid or a water snake and even at times, as a combination of both. She is never fully human although it is believed that she can take on human form. She is found in many African folk stories where she is associated with healing, fertility, and sex.
Merrows of Ireland
Whilst female merrows are portrayed as beautiful half-human fish creatures with long flowing green hair, male merrows are described as hideous, terrifying and more fish than man. Merrows are able to survive on land and can live underwater when they have a magical cap called a “cohuleen druith” on.
It is said that male merrows are so cruel and terrifying that merrow women would seek out human men instead. Unfortunately, merrows ultimately have to return to sea and it is common for them to eventually abandon their human families in favour of the water.
Marakihau of New Zealand
Based on New Zealand’s Maori folklore, Marakihau is a taniwha (guardian) of the sea who has a human head and the body of a very long fish, as well as a long, tubular tongue. It is said to have a fondness for destroying canoes and swallowing large quantities of fish.
Iara of Brazil
According to the Brazilian folktale Iara (Lady of the Waters), this mermaid-like creature originated from a water snake, but was subsequently immortalised in folklore as an immortal woman with green eyes and brown skin. She is infamous for luring sailors either voluntarily or forcefully, to become her lovers and live in her underwater palace. Many accidents in the Amazon, especially those involving disappearances of men, have been attributed to Iara.
Rusalka of Russia
Whilst it is widely accepted that Russian mermaids are hauntingly beautiful, people are divided as to the nature of the Rusalka. Some claim that they are benevolent water nymphs which appear in springs to water crops but some swear that they are the revengeful spirits of girls who have died violently. These malevolent spirits have translucent skin which gives them a ghost-like appearance and long hair which is used as a tool to lure men and children to their watery deaths.
Melusine of Medieval Europe
France, Germany, Luxembourg and Albania have various folk tales about Melusine, a female spirit who is said to sport a serpentine tail and on occasion, wings. She is commonly described as a wilful maiden who sought to destroy her father in order to avenge her mother but ended up being cursed with a serpent’s tail as punishment from her mother. France is especially connected with the Melusine legend as the royal French house of Lusignan claims to descend from her.
It is interesting to note that over time, the imagery of mermaids has evolved from a rather sinister look to a more benevolent one. Nowadays, mermaids are likely to be seen as innocent and sweet, if not helpful to human kind in many cases. This is likely due to the prevalent influence of the most famous tale in all of mermaid mythology – Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. This tale has served as an introduction to the mermaid legend for children and adults alike. In addition, the Disney film that bears the same name has also heavily reinforced the benevolent image of the mermaid in the minds of many.
It is said that magical fish-like female figures first appeared in cave paintings in the late Paleolithic (Stone Age) period some 30,000 years ago, when humans gained dominion over the land and, presumably, began to sail the seas. Since then there have been many mermaid legends and a few dozen historical claims of supposed mermaid sightings.
The earliest published record of a mermaid sighting dates back to 586 A.D. when early Arab and Greek medieval sailors claimed to have seen them. Similar reports have continued right into the 1900s.
Even the famous explorer, Christopher Columbus, reported a sighting of three mermaids in the ocean off Haiti, in January of 1493. Apparently, what he saw didn’t match his expectations and he went on to record his disappointment at discovering that they were not as pretty as claimed and even said that the creatures he encountered looked like men.
Other notable examples of such sighting include;
- A claim back in the 1600s that a mermaid had entered Holland through a dike, and was injured in the process. Apparently, after she was nursed back to health, she opted to stay in Holland where she learned to speak Dutch, do household chores and converted to Catholicism.
- Captain John Smith, a sea captain off the coast of Newfoundland described his 1614 encounter as “saw a mermaid swimming about with all possible grace.” He also indicated that she had very attractive features, namely, large eyes, a finely shaped but ‘somewhat short’ nose, well-formed longish ears and long green hair. In fact, Smith admitted to being very taken with her but couldn’t get past the fact that she was a fish from the waist down.
- Right around 1830, Scotland was swamped with media attention over a claim that a young boy had killed a mermaid by throwing rocks at it. Although it is said that the villagers buried the mermaid, who looked like a child of about three or four years old but for a salmon’s tail instead of legs, no historical evidence was found that could support this fishy tale.
There aren’t many modern reports of mermaid sightings but in 2009, a news report of a mermaid sighted off the coast of Israel in the town of Kiryat Yam caught much global attention. It is said that the mermaid, who resembled a young girl crossed with a dolphin, briefly appeared around sunset and performed a few tricks for onlookers right before disappearing into the night. The frenzy over the sighting reached such a fever pitch that the local council offered a monetary reward of 1 million dollars to anyone who could conclusively prove the existence of mermaids.
No one ever claimed the reward although many attempts were made. In fact, an NBC film crew attempted an expedition around Kiryat Yam to try and film the mermaid in 2010, but was unable to produce any strong evidence despite strong insistence that mermaids are real from the head of the research team.
In 2012, a TV special called “Mermaids: The Body Found” which was presented in a fake-documentary format reignited interest in mermaids. It was so convincing that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which was represented in the film, deemed it necessary to issue a statement officially denying the existence of mermaids.
No solid evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found yet mermaids or mermen continue to occupy the collective consciousness of nearly all seafaring people. And it is not just seafaring people who keep the mermaid legend alive. Although their tales may be ancient, their legend remains relevant in modern times as you can see their image in many contemporary forms; from literature and film to your morning coffee at Starbucks!
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