The Legend of the Mermaid
The legend of the mermaid has, in its way, endured and while few people may believe mermaids actually exist, they still appear in our stories, pictures, sculptures and other cultural references. When you think about it, it's a curious myth - a woman who is half fish. Why half fish? Why not half-snake or half-gazelle or half-cat? Fish surely aren't the most glamorous or sexy of creatures to base a legend on, so where did the mermaid myth originate?
Well, mermaids of course are linked to the mysteries of the ocean and the conventional wisdom has it that the legend of the half-woman half-fish began with the sexual deprivation and poor eyesight of sailors or perhaps true to reputation, they were all too drunk to tell the difference between a manatee, seal, walrus or dugong.
It's Lonely at Sea
Reports of mermaid sightings were consistantly made by sea voyagers throughout the centuries, sometimes by famous figures, who's credibility would seem sound; explorers Henry Hudson and Christopher Columbus both claimed to have spotted one. So were they mistaken? Just how hard can it be to tell a walrus from a woman...? I would have thought, not very.
Author William Bond, who has written a book titled The Secret History of Mermaids, brings some interesting theories to light. Evidently the vaginal opening of a female sea cow is quite similar to that of a woman (you learn something everyday), thus some have suggested that just as the lonely sheep farmers of New Zealand sometimes turned to their flock for sexual comfort, so too did the occasional sailor seek intimate solace with a female manatee and in order to conceal his deviation, claimed it was really a woman. However Bond points out that the bulk of the mermaid stories derive from tales told by village based European fisherman who did not spend months or years at sea. Nor did the New Zealand sheep-lovers invent some mythical half-sheep half-woman creature to conceal their depravity, so why should the sailors feel the need to? The plot thickens.
Hot for a Dugong?
Perhaps they'd spent little too long at sea but according to folklore, sailors used to mistake the curvacious, blubbery dugong for women.
Mermaids are Common to Many Cultures
Reports of alluring, mermaid-like creatures can be traced back from the sea nymphs of Ancient Greece, all the way up to the 19th Century, with a few scattered sightings in the 20th century. There are variations on the theme too, depending on time and location, with some cultures reporting the mermaids had legs, some with legs only on land or other variations. The Orkland Islanders for example, described their mermaids as posessing not fish tails but long petticoats that merely resembled fish tails.
Bond posits, rather prosaically, that the whole woman-with-a-fish-tail legend stems simply from the female divers who lived on the islands that the ancient ships used to pass by, and in particular the islands off korea and Japan, where records of female pearl divers date back 1500 years. According to Bond:
They dive for shellfish, seaweed, starfish, octopuses and pearls and do this all year round, even in the winter where the water temperature is down to 50°F. They have been known to dive as deep as 30M and stay underwater for over 3 minutes. The food they gather, they place in a net around their waists and many keep on diving to up to 60 years of age or more.
Excerpt from The Secret History of Mermaids
Bond's theory is interesting and it's entirely possible that the native pearl divers contributed to the legend of the mermaid but I should think there was more to it than that. The fish/woman connection and the woman in the water myth is is so old, widespread and varied that I fancy the legend has a more deep-rooted, psychological basis.
All life on Earth began in the sea and we all begin our human lives swimming around in the amniotic fluid of our mothers. Thus there is already a symbolic connection between the sea and women. In all likehood, we began our evolutionary journey as some sort of rudimentary ocean creature and somewhere floating deep within the darkest pools of our psyche is an archaic genetic memory of that earliest life-form. Could it be possible that legend of the mermaid is the unconscious expression of that memory? A metaphor for our evolutionary journey from ocean creature to human-being?
A fishy story eh..?.