“Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above. There dwell the Sea King and his subjects. We must not imagine that there is nothing at the bottom of the sea but bare yellow sand. No, indeed; the most singular flowers and plants grow there; the leaves and stems of which are so pliant, that the slightest agitation of the water causes them to stir as if they had life. Fishes, both large and small, glide between the branches, as birds fly among the trees here upon land. In the deepest spot of all, stands the castle of the Sea King. Its walls are built of coral, and the long, gothic windows are of the clearest amber. The roof is formed of shells, that open and close as the water flows over them. Their appearance is very beautiful, for in each lies a glittering pearl, which would be fit for the diadem of a queen.”
Excerpt from The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Anderson
Merfolk are some of the most enchanting creatures of myth and folklore. When we think of mermaids we probably think first and foremost of Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I remember seeing it in the theater when I was very little. The movie is considered a classic these days.
Almost all sea-faring peoples have stories of merfolk or similar creatures. Merfolk are usually described as having a human's upper body and a fish's tail. They are often considered beautiful and use this beauty to enchant unwary humans. They have also become associated in some stories with disasters, like shipwrecks, storms, and drownings. Mermaids are more commonly discussed than mermen.
An early depiction of merfolk, however, focuses on a merman. In Mesopotamia, kulullû was a mythical monster depicted as having the torso of a man and the tail of a fish. He appeared in sculptures and on boundary stones. Due to this, he was likely a type of household spirit as well, bringing prosperity and bounty to a home.
In Britain, mermaids were a bad omen, usually the sign of an impending disaster such as a shipwreck. In one ballad, a mermaid speaks to the ships that are doomed. In some versions she tells the sailors they will never again see the shore, in others, she hints that they are near shore, but will never reach it. Seeing a mermaid might also foretell bad weather, such as storms.
Ireland has the merrow, which is a fairly typical mermaid in appearance. She is described as half-human, half-fish; a gorgeous woman from the waist up with long flowing green hair and delicately webbed hands. The merrow has a magical cap, without which she cannot travel between water and land.
Selkies or seal folk are creatures capable of turning from seal to human and back again with the help of a magical seal coat. Like the merrow, they need their coat in order to travel between land and sea. The most well-known story of a selkie is that of the selkie-wife.
The tale starts with the selkie woman upon the shore. This selkie woman is typically described as beautiful. She is met by a man who steals her magical seal coat and compels her to become his wife. The selkie is unhappy, longing for her watery home. In some stories, she bears children with the man and her children find her skin. Others, she finds the skin on her own. Always, after finding her skin she returns home to the sea. She is either never seen again or, in some children’s tales, visits her family on land once a year. Sometimes she is seen again, but only in seal form.
Ningyo is a Japanese yokai which is analogous to the mermaid. The more literal translation is “human fish” and is non-gendered. Unlike the merfolk in European folklore, the ningyo is said to have the head of a human and body of a fish. One was said to have been caught in the 12th century, another washed ashore in the 13th century. The flesh of the ningyo was said to grant immortality and eternal youth if eaten. However, catching a ningyo was very risky and there are tales of curses placed on fishermen who were unwise enough to bring home a ningyo in their catch. Even more frightening are stories of whole villages swallowed by earthquakes or tidal waves.
The vodyanoy–also called the vodnik–is another type of water spirit. Originating in Slavic mythology, he is said to appear as an old man with a frog-like face and the tail of a fish. In addition, he has a long beard and hair, black fish scales, and is covered in algae and muck. In a lot of ways, the vodyanoy is similar to the kelpie in that he is also a shapeshifter. In some tales, the vodyanoy can walk on land.
Originally, the vodyanoy was neither good nor evil and was considered a guardian spirit of bodies of water like rivers and lakes. People left offerings to the vodyanoy to ensure bountiful fishing and plenty of water. If annoyed, however, the vodyanoy would cause floods, drown people and livestock, and make the fishing poor.
Later, with the advent of Christianity to the region, the vodyanoy took on a more demonic aspect. Now the tales of the vodyanoy included glowing red eyes and devilish horns. In these stories, the vodyanoy drowned people for pleasure and out of a sense of vindictiveness. The stories also included a way to prevent being drowned: making the sign of the cross before entering the water or wearing a cross.
Also from Slavic mythology is another water spirit that far more resembles the mermaids we’re used to. The rusalka takes the form of a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish. Her hair is always loose and may be black, green, or fair. Rusalki were linked to the fertility of the land, as they rose from the rivers and streams to bring life-giving water to the crops.
Later stories took a darker turn. The rusalki became ghostly spirits of the dead and lured men to their deaths. These stories told of women who drowned or were murdered by the water that became rusalki. Rusalki would lure young men to the waterways and drown them, laughing all the while.
Rusalki have a particular week in which they are considered the most dangerous. During Rusalka Week, which takes place in early June, they would leave their watery homes to sing and dance. It was forbidden to swim during this week for fear that the rusalki would drag the swimmer under to drown. At the end of the week, there was a ritual banishment of the rusalki to keep the men safe for another year.
Melusine is a familiar figure, whether you know it or not. She appears as the logo of the well-known coffee company, Starbucks. She is a guardian fairy, protecting springs and freshwater in European folklore, especially France, Luxemburg, and the area called the Low Countries. Her mother was the fairy Pressina and her father King Elinas of Albany, which is present-day Scotland. She is also said to be the ancestor of royal houses, such as the House of Plantagenet of England. Melusine is depicted as having the upper body of a beautiful woman and the lower body of either a fish or a serpent, but her tail is usually split in two.
The story goes that one day King Elinas of Albany was out hunting and came upon the beautiful fairy Pressina. He was so taken that he persuaded her to marry him. She agreed, upon one condition. He was to never look upon her when she birthed or bathed their children. Pressina soon gave bith to triplets–Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne. But King Elinas let his curiosity get the better of him and he spied upon his wife, breaking his promise to her. Pressina then left Albany and took her three children to the isle of Avalon.
Some years later, Melusine asked why she and her sisters had been brought to Avalon. Upon hearing of her father’s betrayal she grew enraged and sought revenge. Melusine and her sisters captured their father and shut him away deep in a mountain. When they returned to Avalon and proudly told their mother what they had done, Pressina punished them for disrespecting their father. Melusine was cursed to become a serpent (or fish) from the waist down every Saturday. The only escape from this punishment was to find a husband who would promise never to look upon her on Saturday and keep his word.
In most stories, a knight (or sometimes prince or king) is out hunting and comes across the beautiful Melusine and immediately proposes marriage to her. She agrees, on the condition that he will not look upon her on Saturday. Unbeknownst to him, this is the time when she transforms into a half-serpent.
All goes well for some years, but as King Elinas before him, Melusine’s husband is tempted to break his word. He looks upon her on Saturday and is horrified to behold her half-serpent form. As he was not able to stay faithful to his promise, Melusine is cursed to wander the world as a lost spirit.
Africa has many of its own legends of mermaids. Zimbabwe has the Mondao, who has sharp teeth and pulls people into deeper water. South Africa has the Karoo, which lives in a waterfall deep in the desert. In West Africa, the Mami Wata is described as a being that is half-human and half-fish, though sometimes like Melusine she is described as half-serpent. She is known to abduct followers and sometimes random people while swimming or boating.
Iara is a figure in Brazilian mythology and folklore, based on even older mythology. She is a beautiful mermaid found in the Amazon River, with long green hair and copper skin. Her tail is like a freshwater river dolphin or manatee. She would sit on a rock, combing her hair or simply sunning herself, singing gently to lure men to her. In some tales, the men would leave everything to live underwater with her, in others, she drowned them.
In Inuit culture, the goddess Sedna is half-woman, half-fish. There are many different versions of the legend. One version states that she is a beautiful maiden who refuses to marry, but is tricked into marrying a man who turns out to be Raven. Sedna is miserable as Raven’s wife and calls out for help. Her father hears her and comes to rescue her in a kayak. They flee, but Raven chases them and sends a storm to that tosses the kayak dangerously. Her father panics and throws Sedna overboard in an attempt to appease Raven. Sedna clings to the side of the kayak, but her father cuts off her fingers. Her fingers become the seals, walruses, and whales and she sinks to the bottom of the ocean and grows a fish tail to become the ruler of sea.
Sedna was linked with the food supply. If she is angered, she will stop the hunters from being able to find sea creatures, thus causing famine. For this reason, she is often placated with offerings to keep her happy.
Because mermaids are so fantastical and enchanting, people have sought proof of their existence for centuries. There is anecdotal evidence in the form of many sightings throughout history.
Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, wrote of seeing mermaids off the coast of what is present-day Portugal. He also claimed their corpses frequently washed ashore. It has been presumed that the sightings and carcasses were actually seals.
Christopher Columbus claimed to have sighted mermaids in the Caribbean. He stated they were not as beautiful as legends stated, but rather more masculine in features. It is thought that he spotted manatees.
Henry Hudson claimed to have spotted mermaids in the Arctic Ocean. Dutch explorer David Danell also claimed to see them during his expeditions to Greenland. Even the pirate Blackbeard believed in mermaids and avoided certain areas out of fear of them.
Today, in Lake Huron in the United States, you’ll find tales of the Lake Huron mermaids.
There have also been many hoaxes claiming to be proof of mermaids. The most famous being the Fiji mermaid, which was created using the upper body of a monkey and the tail of fish. It was shown by P.T. Barnum and described by him as "an ugly dried-up, black-looking diminutive specimen, about 3 feet long. Its mouth was open, its tail turned over, and its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony."
The specimen was likely created in the early 1800s by a Japanese fisherman. Perhaps in an effort to recreate the look of a ningyo or simply as a joke. Whatever the reason, it was then sold to an American sea captain, Samuel Barret Edes for $6,000, which would be upwards of $140,000 today. Edes didn’t have the money, so he took it from the ship’s expense account. His embezzlement wasn’t discovered until 1822 while the Fiji mermaid was on display in London. Captain Edes willed the specimen to his son, who then sold it to a man named Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum. It was Kimball who showed the specimen to Barnum, who then insisted on displaying it in his own museum.
The exhibit was a hit and resulted in many copies over the years. Unfortunately, the original mermaid is lost to history, possibly destroyed in one of the many fires that ravaged Barnum’s collections.
On a poplar by the pool
The Goblin sat at twilight cool:
'Glow, moon, glow,
That my thread may sew.
For myself new boots I'm sewing
On dry land and water going:
Glow, moon, glow,
That my thread may sew.
'Thursday now—tomorrow's Friday—
sew a coat all trim and tidy:
Glow, moon, glow,
That my thread may sew.
Coat of green and boots of red
For tomorrow I'll be wed:
Glow, moon, glow,
That my thread may sew.'
The Water Goblin by K. J. Erben (translated to English by Susan Reynolds)
This week our recommendation is a newer fictional book. Published in 2021, Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen is about a Mami Wata.
From Goodreads: “Simi prayed to the gods, once. Now she serves them as Mami Wata–a mermaid–collecting the souls of those who die at sea and blessing their journeys back home.
But when a living boy is thrown overboard, Simi goes against an ancient decree and does the unthinkable--she saves his life. And punishment awaits those who dare to defy the gods.
To protect the other Mami Wata, Simi must journey to the Supreme Creator to make amends. But all is not as it seems. There's the boy she rescued, who knows more than he should. And something is shadowing Simi, something that would rather see her fail . . .
Danger lurks at every turn, and as Simi draws closer, she must brave vengeful gods, treacherous lands, and legendary creatures. Because if she fails, she risks not only the fate of all Mami Wata, but also the world as she knows it.”