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Mysterious Myths About Mermaids
Almost every one out there must have seen the cartoon "The Little Mermaid" or read this book in their childhood. The mermaid has always been a creature of mystery, fantasy and unlimited beauty. Its elegance and splendour has been known to enchant people since a very long time. Even now it is one of the favourite cartoon characters of most children.
Let's take a deeper look into the mermaid mythology, its beginning, various legends, mermaid's part in literature and recorded sightings.
Merfolk As Gods
The mermaid and merman legends begin with the worship of gods as have many mythologies. The earliest representations and descriptions of these now well known creatures can be traced back as far as the eighth century BC.
The Babylonians were known to worship a sea-god called Oannes, or Ea. Oannes was reputed to have risen from the Erythrean Sea and taught to man the arts and sciences. In the Louvre today can be seen an eighth century wall-scene depicting Oannes as a merman, with the fish-like tail and the upper body of a man.
The Syrian Mythology
The Syrians and the Philistines were also known to have worshipped a Semitic mermaid moon-goddess. The Syrians called her Atargatis while the Philistines knew her as Derceto. It is not unusual or surprising that this moon-goddess was depicted as a mermaid as the tides ebbed and flowed with the moon and this was incorporated into the god-like personifications that we find in their art and the ancient literature. Atargatis is one of the first recorded mermaids and the legend says that her child Semiramis was a normal human and because of this Atargatis was ashamed and killed her lover. Abandoning the infant she became wholly a fish.
In Japanese and Chinese legends there were not only mermaids but also sea-dragons and the dragon-wives.
The Greek and Roman Mythology
Greek and Roman mythology is often placed together as the two are very similar and it is in the literature from these cultures that one finds the first literary description of the mermaid, and indeed the mermen. Poseidon and Neptune were often depicted as half-man and half-fish but the most popular motive of the ancient world that depicts mermen was the representations of the tritons, Triton being the son of the powerful sea-god.
The British Merfolk
The British Isles too had their fair share of merfolk mythology. The Cornish knew mermaids as Merry maids. According to the Cornish legend a mermaid called Moveren had made appearance in the village of Zennor and due to her interest in music she had fallen in love with one of the singers Matthew of the choir of the church. Now when this man found out about the mermaid, he too fell in love with her and together they went to live in the sea. The people of Zennor still say that they can hear Matthew sing to the mermaid and to them the whispers of waves still make sense. The Irish knew merfolks as Merrows or Muirruhgach and some sources write that they lived on dry land below the sea and had enchanted caps that allowed them to pass through the water without drowning, while the women were very beautiful the men had red noses, were piggy eyed, with green hair and teeth.
One more perception that existed in historic times and is found in most myths is that seals are really merfolk disguised under the seal skin. All the legends related to this theory usually start with fishermen finding seal skins and then a beautiful girl comes back for her property as without it she is exiled from her submarine friends. But the property is never returned and the girl is offered protection under the roof of this man. All these myths end in the same way, that is, the seal skin is discovered and the mermaid returns back to her native home. However, some stories concerning this concept are different too, for example a story is told of a man, Herman Perk, who was caught in a storm and was saved by a merman on the price that he would return him his seal skin which was in his storehouse. Herman perk was true to his word.
Russian mermaid mythology includes the daughters of the water-king who live beneath the sea; the water-nymph that drowns swimmers and the male water-spirit who followed sailors and fishermen. The Africans believed the tales of a fish-wife and river-witches.
But with the growth of science, the fantastic became childish specially during the eighteenth century but began to flourish again amongst the writers with the Romantic Movement at the turn of this century. It was also the time however for the logical minded to do their utmost to dispel the myth of the mermaid, claiming that all the recorded sightings were simply men who'd been at sea too long and so when a seal, porpoise, dugong or manatee was spotted from the ship they'd swear they'd seen a mermaid.
Mermaids and literature
In literature the mermaid began to be used as a description of women, rather than an identification of the creature herself. The mermaid had become a metaphor! Chaucer takes the mermaid and uses her as a scholarly metaphor for beautiful but dangerous song. Shakespeare is known to have used such a device; Comedy of Errors for example:
"O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears: Sing, siren, for thyself and I will dote."
Oberon's vision of a mermaid in Shake-speare's A Mid-summer Night's Dream, is not however used as a metaphor:
"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."
John Donne, however, uses the mermaid as myth in his skeptical song where he doubts constancy in women. More likely than finding this constancy in women he believes would be to:
"Goe, and catche a falling starred"
Children's stories are filled with mermaids again. The mermaid figures in art once again allowing the artist to portray the division within human nature of the "animal" and the intellectual thinking; represented by the tail of the mermaid and that human part of her that wishes to gain a soul, the prime example being The Little Mermaid by Hans Andersen where the young mermaid gains a soul through her faithfulness. It is a great marketing tool for toys and cartoons.
There have been recorded sightings from fishermen, women, men of reputation within the community of mermaids and mermen. Some are quite convincing while others are a little vague. Nonetheless they make a good reading.
The most recent sighting is of 1947 when an eighty-year-old fisherman reported that he had seen a mermaid ‘in the sea about twenty yards from the shore, sitting combing her hair on a floating herring box used to preserve live lobsters. Unfortunately, as soon as the mermaid looked round, she realized that she had been seen, and plunged into the sea. But no questioning could shake the old fisherman's firm conviction: he was adamant that he had seen a mermaid.'
Off the coast of Britain, June 4, 1857, Shipping Gazette, reported Scottish seaman had spotted a creature, ‘in the shape of a woman with dark complexion, and comely face.'
Off the Isle of Yell, 1833, six fishermen reported that their fishing line had become entangled with a mermaid. They said they had kept her on board their boat for three hours, and said that she was about three feet long. She ‘offered no resistance nor attempted to bite,' but she moaned piteously. ‘A few stiff bristles were on top of the head, extending down to the shoulder, and these she could erect and depress at pleasure, something like a crest.' She had neither gill nor fins and there were no scales on her body. The fishermen who were very superstitious threw her overboard eventually and said that she dived ‘in a perpendicular direction.'
The story was heard from the skipper by a Mr Edmondson who in turn told the Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh:
"Not one of the six men dreamed of a doubt of its being a mermaid, and it could not be suggested that they were influenced by their fears, for the mermaid is not an object of terror to fishermen, it is rather a welcome guest, and danger is apprehended from its experiencing bad treatment... The usual resources of skepticism that the seals and other sea-animals appearing under certain circumstances operating upon an excited imagination and so producing ocular illusion, cannot avail here. It is quite impossible that six Shetland fishermen could commit such a mistake."
In the outer Hebrides, about 1830, women cutting seaweed reported they had met a creature of female form playing happily off the shore. A few days later her dead body was found two miles from where she had first been seen. The description of the creature was recorded thus, ‘the upper part of the creature was about the 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 the body was like a salmon, but without scales.
Campbell town, John M'isaac, a farmer, October 29, 1811, made a sworn statement to the Sheriff-substitute and the parish minister that he had met a mermaid in Campbell town. The description he gave ran for more than five hundred words and was so convincing that Rev. Dr George Robertson, Rev. Norman MacLeod, and James Maxwell, Esq., Chamberlain of Mull wrote that they were, ‘satisfied that he was impressed with a perfect belief, that the appearance of the animal he has described was such as he has represented it to be.'
Now the mermaid becomes a symbol of fun and fantasy rather than an accepted part of cultural, tradition and awe. She is seen as a figure of eroticism mixed with fear of the unknown, or the animal side of her nature. No matter how the mermaid is used or what role she plays she will always retain her mysterious air.