Mermaids and Mermen

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Mermaids and Mermen

Legendary supernatural sea people, human from the head to the waist but with a fish tail instead of legs. In German folklore, 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. Baring-Gould 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 twelfth-century 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 well-authenticated 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 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 )


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.