Mermaids and Mermen
Legendary supernatural sea people, human from the head
to the waist but with a fish tail instead of legs. In German folk-
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lore, a mermaid was known as ‘‘meerfrau,’’ in Danish
‘‘maremind,’’ Irish ‘‘murduac’’ (or ‘‘merrow’’). In Brittany, the
‘‘morgans’’ were beautiful sirenlike women, dangerous to men,
while in British maritime lore, seeing a mermaid might precede
a storm or other disaster. A traditional ballad, ‘‘The Mermaid,’’
tells how a ship’s crew sees a mermaid sitting on a rock,
combing her hair and holding a mirror. Soon afterward the
ship is wrecked in a raging sea. In legend, one can gain power
over a mermaid by seizing her cap or belt.
There are many folk tales of marriages between a mermaid
and a man, and in Machaire, Ireland, there are individuals who
claim descent from such a union. The medieval romance of the
fair Melusina of the house of Lusignan in France concerns the
daughter of a union between a human and a fairy who cursed
the daughter Melusine so that she became a serpent from the
waist down every Saturday.
Hans Christian Andersen’s sad story ‘‘The Little Mermaid’’
echoes folk tales in its theme of a mermaid who falls in love with
a prince in a passing ship; the mermaid takes on human form
in order to gain a human soul and be close to the prince, but
although constantly near him, she cannot speak. When the
prince marries a human princess, the mermaid’s heart is broken.
There is a similar haunting pathos in Matthew Arnold’s
poem ‘‘The Forsaken Merman.’’
In Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1884) folklorist S. BaringGould
suggests that mermaid and merman stories originated
from the half-fish half-human gods and goddesses of early religions.
The Chaldean Oannes and the Philistine Dagon are typical
deities of this kind, and a representation of Oannes with a
human body down to the waist and a fish tail has been found
on sculpture at Khorsabad. Such goddesses as Derceto (Atergatis)
and Semiramis have been represented in mermaid form.
The classic Venus, goddess of love, was born out of the sea
foam, it is told, and was propitiated by barren couples who desired
children. The Mexican Coxcox or Teocipactli was a fish
god, as were some Peruvian deities. North American Indians
have a legend that they were led from Asia by a man-fish. In
classical mythology the Tritons and Sirens are represented as
half-fish, half-human.
In addition to legends of mythology and folklore, however,
there are many claimed accounts of sightings and contact with
actual mermaids and mermen throughout history. The twelfthcentury
Speculum Regale of Iceland describes a mermaid called
the Margygr found near Greenland ‘‘This creature appears
like a woman as far down as her waist, with breast and bosom
like a woman, long hands, and soft hair, the neck and head in
all respects like those of a human being. From the waist downwards,
this monster resembles a fish, with scales, tail, and fins.
This prodigy is believed to show itself especially before heavy
storms.’’
In 1187 a merman was caught off the coast of Suffolk in England;
it closely resembled a man but was not able to speak, so
the story goes. The Landnama or Icelandic doomsday book tells
of a merman caught off the island of Grimsey, and the annals
of the country describe such creatures as appearing off the
coast in 1305 and 1329.
In 1430 in Holland violent storms broke the dykes near
Edam, West Friesland. Some girls from Edam had to take a
boat to milk their cows, and saw a mermaid floundering in shallow
muddy water. They brought her home, dressed her in
women’s clothing and taught her to weave and spin and show
reverence for a crucifix, but she could never learn to speak, says
the tale.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus claimed to have seen three
such creatures leaping out of the sea.
In 1560 some fishermen near the island of Mandar off the
west coast of Ceylon caught seven mermen and mermaids, an
incident claimed to have been witnessed by several Jesuit fathers
and M. Bosquez, physician to the viceroy of Goa. The
physician made a careful examination of the ‘‘mer-people,’’
dissected them, and pronounced that their internal and external
structure resembled that of human beings. There is a wellauthenticated
case of a merman seen near a rock off the coast
of Martinique. Several individuals affirmed that they saw it
wipe its hands over its face and even blow its nose; their accounts
were attested before a notary.
A merman captured in the Baltic Sea in 1531 was sent as a
present to Sigismund, king of Poland, and seen by all his court;
the creature lived for three days. In 1608 the British navigator
Henry Hudson (discoverer of Hudson Bay) reported the discovery
of a mermaid
‘‘This morning, one of our company looking overboard saw
a mermaid; and calling up some of the company to see her, one
more came up, and by that time she was come close to the ship’s
side, looking earnestly at 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 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.
Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert
Rayner.’’
In 1755 Erik Pontoppidan, bishop of Bergen, published his
New Natural History of Norway (2 vols.), in which there is an account
of a merman observed by three sailors on a ship off the
coast of Denmark, near Landscrona; the witnesses made a deposition
on oath. In another book, Poissons, écrevisses et crabes de
diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires, que l’on trouve autour des
Isles Moluques (published in 1717 by Louis Renard, Amsterdam),
there is an illustration of a mermaid with the following
description
‘‘See-wyf. A monster resembling a Siren, caught near the island
of Borné, or Boeren, in the Department of Amboine. It
was 59 inches long, and in proportion as an eel. It lived on
land, in a vat full of water, during four days seven hours. From
time to time it uttered little cries like those of a mouse. It would
not eat, though it was offered small fish, shells, crabs, lobsters,
etc. After its death, some excrement was discovered in the vat,
like the secretion of a cat.’’
In 1857 two fishermen from Scotland, where numerous reports
of mermaids have surfaced, made the following declaration,
recorded in the Shipping Gazette
‘‘We, the undersigned, do declare, that on Thursday last, the
4th June 1857, when on our way to the fishing station, Lochindale,
in a boat, and when about four miles S.W. from the village
of Port Charlotte, being then about 6 p.m., we distinctly saw an
object about six yards distant from us in the shape of a woman,
with full breast, dark complexion, comely face, and fine hair
hanging in ringlets over the neck and shoulders. It was about
the surface of the water to about the middle, gazing at us and
shaking its head. The weather being fine, we had a full view of
it and that for three or four minutes. —John Williamson, John
Cameron.’’
Several more mundane and conventional explanations of
reports of mermaids and mermen exist. It is known, for example,
that some were the result of hoaxes. As early as the 1820s,
for example, Robert S. Hawker, before to his years as a minister,
had been known to put on a merman costume and sit on
the rocks and sing in the evening to the awe of the local villagers.
Japanese fishermen used to manufacture mermaids to supplement
their income and P. T. Barnum exhibited similar creatures
in his museum. Many reports have been attributed to
misidentifications or romantic viewings of a marine mammal
called a dugong (Halicore), of the order Sirenia, which also includes
the manatee or sea cow. Such creatures suckle their
young at the breast and have a vaguely human appearance.
They used to be hunted for their oil, used as a substitute for
cod-liver oil, and are now rare.
It is possible that the dugong known as Rhytina gigas, or Steller’s
sea cow, long believed extinct, may survive in the Bering
Sea, near the Aleutian Islands. Vitus Bering, after whom the sea
is named, was a Danish navigator who was shipwrecked on the
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1025
desert island of Avacha (now known as Bering Island) in 1741.
His party included naturalist George W. Steller, who made copious
notes while the party was dying of starvation. Steller observed
large herds of Sirenia a short distance from the shore.
The creatures were mammals about 25 to 35 feet long and
grazed off the kelp like cows on a pasture. They were unafraid
of humans, and it was easy to harpoon them, drag them ashore
and eat the flesh, which sustained the party. The top half of the
creature resembled a seal, and the bottom half a dolphin. It
had small flippers, and the females had mammary glands like
a woman, suckling their young at the breast. Even courtship
habits seemed human, as well as other behavior. When one
creature was harpooned, the others would gather around it and
try to comfort it, and even swim across the rope and try to dislodge
the hook, Steller observed.
Sirenia bear only a very vague resemblance to historic accounts
of mermaids, however, especially those brought ashore
and kept in captivity before they died. These also have no connection
with the stuffed ‘‘mermaids’’ displayed in showmen’s
booths in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which
were invariably clever fakes assembled by Japanese craftsmen.
Contemporary cryptozoologists have included mermen in
their area of concern. Gwen Benwell, Arthur Waugh, and Bernard
Heuvelmans, who studied the accounts extensively, have
suggested that only some type of yet-unrecognized species of
dugong or sea cow, or even an undesignated variety of marine
primate could account for all of the excellent and detailed reports
of mer-hominoids in recent centuries. However, since the
habitat of such a creature is in relatively shallow water near
shorelines, it is unlikely that some would not at some point have
been washed ashore and discovered. Others, primarily folklorists,
consider mermaids the products of hallucinatory or visionary
experiences. Unfortunately, no extensive scientific expeditions
have been launched to either confirm or discover the
cause of the widespread reports of mermaid sightings. (See also
Lorelei; Sirens)
Sources
Bassett, F. S. Legends and Traditions of the Sea and of Sailors.
Chicago Belford, Clarke, 1885.
Benwell, Gwen, and Arthur Waugh. Sea Enchantress The Tale
of the Mermaid and Her Kin. London Hutchinson, 1961.
Clark, Jerome. Encyclopedia of Strange and Unexplained Phenomena.
Detroit Gale Research, 1993.
Hutchins, Jane. Discovering Mermaids and Monsters. Shire
Publications, 1968.
Rappoport, Angelo S. Superstitions of Sailors. London Stanley
Paul, 1928. Reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich. Gryphon Books,
1971.