The Broad, Broad Ocean
Some of its Inhabitants

By William Jones, F.S.A.,
London 1871

Pages 261 to 267

The belief in Mermaids and Mermen, prevalent through the remotest ages, was also especially strong in the Scandinavian countries, and some traces of the delusions still linger on some of the out-of-way coasts of the Northern seas. A very high antiquity is claimed for these mythic creatures. Ancient history abounds with notices of them. One was called by the Babylonians Odakon, and is regarded by Seiden as identical with Dagon (from the Hebrew dag, “a fish”), the national god of the Philistines, so frequently mentioned in the Scriptures. It is always represented on medals as half fish and half woman, but the Hebrew writers speak of it as a masculine being. In the excavations of Khorsabad, M. Botta found a figure of Odunes, a creature half man and half fish. At the excavations at Nimroud, Mr. Layard discovered a gigantic figure with a fish's head as a cap, and the body of the fish depending over the shoulders. On the coins of Ascalon is figured a goddess, above whose head is a half-moon, and at her feet a woman with her lower extremities like a fish. It is singular (observes Mr. Gould) how the prevalence of the tales of mermaids exists among Celtic nations, indicating these water-nymphs as having been originally deities of the people. The Peruvians had also their semi-fish gods. These form the types of those imaginary creatures, the subjects of ancient poetry, the Tritons, who were represented as half men and half fish, having power to calm tempests; and probably, too, of the Syrens, whose songs were said to lure the unhappy seamen to destruction.

Innumerable are the stories that are told of mermaids and mermen : they have been made the subject of numberless songs by ancient and modern bards. Shakespere alludes to the vocal powers of these mythic creatures:

“I heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song.”

Our own Laureate inquires

“Who would be
    A mermaid fair?
        Singing alone,
    Combing her hair
Under the sea,
    In a golden curl,
    With a comb of pearl,
        On a throne?”

In the “Speculum Regale,” an Icelandic work of the twelfth century, is the following description of a mermaid: “A monster is seen also near Greenland, like a woman as far down as the waist; long hands and soft hair, the neck and head in all respects like that of a human being. The hands seem to people to be long, and the fingers not to be parted, but united by a web like that on the feet of water-birds. From the waist downwards this monster resembles a fish, with scales, tail, and fin. This prodigy is supposed to show itself more especially before heavy storms. The habit of this creature is to dive frequently, and rise again to the surface with fishes in its hands. When sailors see it playing with the fish, or throwing them towards the ship, they fear they are doomed to lose several of the crew; but when it casts the fish, or, turning from the vessel, flings them away from her, the sailors take it as a good omen that they will not suffer loss in an impending storm. The monster has a very horrible face, with broad brow and piercing eyes, a wide mouth, and double chin.”

Pontoppidan, from whose History of Norway I have already largely quoted, records the appearance of a merman, which was deposed to on oath by several observers.

“About a mile from the coast of Denmark, near Landscrona, three sailors, observing something like a dead body floating on the water, rowed towards it. When they came within seven or eight fathoms, it still appeared as at first, for it had not stirred; but at that instant it sank, and arose almost immediately in the same place. Upon this, out of fear, they lay still and let the boat float, that they might the better examine the monster, which by the help of the current came nearer to them. He turned his face and stared at them, which gave them an opportunity of examining him narrowly. He stood in the same place seven or eight minutes, and was seen on the water above breast-high. At last they grew apprehensive of some danger, and began to retire, upon which the monster blew up his cheeks and made a kind of lowing noise, diving away from view. In regard to his form, they declare that he appeared like an old man, strong limbed, with broad shoulders, but his arms they could not see. His head was small in proportion to his body, and had short black curled hair, which did not reach below his ears. His eyes lay deep in his head, and he had a meagre face with a black beard. About the body downwards this merman was quite pointed like a fish.”

Many of the so-called mermaids exhibited in a stuffed condition from time to time-have proved sometimes clever, but more frequently bungling “shams.” Among the latter may be classed the exhibition of the famous American, Barnum, a few years since, which proved to be the combination of the head of a monkey with the tail of a fish! The probability is that all the stories about these prodigies have originated in the appearance of seals, walruses, to which I have already alluded, and to what are called the herbivorous cetacea, from their living on sea-plants, and which consists amongst others of the manatee of the West Indies, the dugong of the Eastern seas, and the stellerus, an inhabitant of the Polar regions.

I will briefly describe these animals. The best-known species of the Manatee, or Lamantin, or Sea-Cow, is found in the West Indies and on the western coasts of tropical America. These sometimes attain a length of twenty feet, and a weight of three or four tons, and they live chiefly in shallow bays and creeks, and in the estuaries of rivers. The skin is very thick and strong, and is almost destitute of hair. The fingers can be readily felt in the swimming paws, and, connected together as they are, possess considerable power of motion, whence the name manatee (from the Latin manus, “a hand”). This animal is usually found in herds, which combine for mutual protection when attacked, placing the young in the centre. When one is struck with a harpoon, the others try to tear it out. The females show great affection for their young.

The Dugong—numbers of which frequent the coasts of Ceylon, allured by the still waters and the abundance of sea-weeds—is, perhaps, one of the most likely representatives of what is considered a “mermaid” that could be found. There is a rude approach to the human outline in the shape and attitude of the mother dugong while suckling her young, holding it to her breast by one flipper while swimming with the other, the heads of both being above water; and when suddenly disturbed, diving and displaying her fishlike tail. These, together with her habitual demonstrations of strong natural affection, might readily give rise to the fable of the mermaid.

Megasthenes records the existence of a creature in the ocean near Taprobane (Ceylon), with the aspect of a woman; and Ælian, adopting and enlarging on his information, peoples the seas of Ceylon with fishes having the heads of lions, panthers, and rams; and, stranger still, in the form of satyrs! Statements such as these must have had their origin in the hairs which are set round the mouth of the dugong, somewhat resembling a beard. The Portuguese cherished for a long time their belief in the mermaid; and the historian of the proceedings of the Jesuits in India gravely records that seven of these monsters, male and female, were captured at Ceylon in 1560, and carried to Goa, where they were dissected by the physician to the Viceroy, and “their internal structure found to be in all respects similar to the human!” A dugong, killed at Ceylon in 1847, measured upwards of seven feet in length, but specimens considerably larger have been taken.

The female dugong, or sea-cow of Sumatra, will follow her young to the death, and is usually taken with them. The sea-calves have a short, sharp, pitiable cry, which they frequently repeat, and, like the stricken deer, are also said to shed tears, which, according to Sir Stamford Raffles, were carefully bottled by the common people, and preserved as charms to secure affection.

Only one species of the Stellerus—of the same genus as the two I have mentioned—has been known, about twenty-five feet in length, a native of the Polar seas, and never observed since the middle of [the] last century, so that it is supposed to be extinct. The characteristic features of this animal would lead one to suppose, also, that it may have contributed to the misconceptions about the mermaid.

Mr. Rimbault, in Notes and Queries, remarks that the exhibition of strange fishes appears to have been at its height in the reign of Elizabeth. Shakespere twice alludes to it: once in the Winter's Tale (Act IV., Scene 3), where Autolycus says: “Here's another ballad of a fish that appeared upon the coast on Wednesday, the fourscore of April, forty thousand fathoms above water, and sung this ballad against the hard hearts of maids. It was thought she was a woman, and was turned into a cold fish, for she would no exchange flesh with one that loved her. The ballad is very pitiful and as true;” and again in the Tempest (Act II., Scene 2). A printed notice, dated 1566, has for its title The Description of a Rare or rather Most Monstrous Fishe, taken on the East Coast of Holland, the 17th November, Anno 1566, with a woodcut of the fish, and underneath the following lines:

“The workes of God, how great and strange they be!
A picture plaine, behold, heare you may see.”

Two years later there is another printed notice of “a moste true and marvellous straunge wonder, the lyke hathe seldom been seene, of xvii monstrous fishes, taken in Suflulke, at Downam Brydge, within a myle of Ipswiche, the xi daye of October, in the yeare of our Lorde God 1568.” Stow, in his Annates, gives a particular description of this “wondrous draught of fishes,” some of them being “eight and twentie foote in length at least.”

Wolfe, in 1586, printed a broadside containing an account of a monster fish found in the stomach of a horse! The registers of the Stationers' Company contain an entry in 1604 of “a strange reporte of a monstrous fish that appeared in the form of a woman from the waist upwards, seene in the sea.”

Even in 1822, a so-called mermaid was publicly exhibited in London, which continued to be shown to the curious in these matters for many months, but the monster was found to have been constructed of the members of various animals, dexterously put together. Some amusing lines appeared at the period, which I will transcribe:

Come, mistress mermaid, tell us, for you've seen
    The deeps and things proud Science pines to see;
Be kind, and say if you have ever been
    In worlds the poets deck with imagery.
Say, as you floated on the green sea's billow,
Didst e'er see Neptune's car, or Amphitrite's pillow?
“Now, are there really coral caves below,
    Or beds of amber, or of precious stone,
To which the blushing Nereids languid go
    In idle hours to recline upon?
And are there fays to fan them while they're dreaming,
Whose wings seem like two diamonds' purest gleaming?
“Come, tell the truth, for none, dear mermaid,'s by,
    To stop you short, or tweak you by the nose,
Or contradict you should you tell a lie,
    As you the secrets of the deep disclose.
Therefore be candid, and declare this minute
The wonders of the sea, and all that's in it.
“Alas! you 're dumb, and cannot even say,
    As quick you speed from giant sea to sea,
How many sharks you've numbered in a day,
    Or, if you fought them, or thought it best to flee.
Quite mute you are, and quite absurd the notion,
For thee to pump for secrets of the ocean.
Farewell, dumb thing! perhaps the next we find
    So long a time may not require to woo,
T will speak, perchance, and haply prove most kind,
    And tell us all we've useless sought of you—
Rare information yielding on the morning
She's clapped within the glass case you're adorning.”