NOTE: Due to the sheer number of footnotes on each page, I have not OCRed them, check the PDF extract for them if you want them.
. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .
The water-sprite figures most in the guise of a seamaiden, as her name, mermaid, literally signifies, whether we speak of the German Meerfrau, Danish Moremund, Icelandic Margyr, or Breton Marie Morgan, Welsh Morva or Morreth, Dutch Zee-wjf, Swedish Sjötrold, Anglo-Saxon Merewif, Cornish Morhuch, Irish Merrow, or by any of the special titles their class receives.
The idea of creatures beneath the wave, possessed of a human form with fish-like extremities, is not a modern one. Aside from the many fish-gods of antiquity, as Oannes, Dagon, and others, we are told by Megasthenes that a creature like a woman inhabits the seas of Ceylon, and AElian assures us there are whales formed like Satyrs. Tritons and Sirens were also figured half fish, in ancient representations. Demetrius says the Western islanders who died in hurricanes, were mermaids. Pliny says they came on board ships at night, and sunk them, and that Molos, making free with a sea-maiden, lost his head.
That ancient naturalist gave more circumstantial accounts of them. “Nor are we,” says he, “to disbelieve the stories told of Nereids, completely covered with rough scales, as one has actually been seen in the ––––––––, and the inhabitants heard at a great distance her lamentations, whinings, and howlings, when she was dying, and his lieutenant wrote to Augustus that a number of Nereids had been found dead on the coast of Gaul. Several distinguished persons of Equestrian rank have assured me that they themselves have seen off the coast of Gades a merman, whose body was of a human form. He was accustomed to appear on board ships in the night time, and the part on which he stood gradually subsided, as if sunk down by his weight.”
He also asserts their existence in India, and Solinus and Aulus Gellius speak of them. These accounts of Pliny are the first of the appearance of the real mermaid, although he does not speak of the fish-tail. This idea, however, as we have seen, was not a new one.
The Nereids, daughter of the Oceanid Doris, and of Nereus, and mothers of many heroes, were at first imagined beautiful maidens. A mural painting in Pompeii shows such a one. Later they were given the fish-tail, thus becoming mermaids.
Achelous, brother of Nereus, and Calliope, were parents of the Sirens, and as we have seen, they, too, were gradually transformed from human-faced birds to fish-tailed maidens.
So also with the Tritons, offspring of Neptune and Am-phitrite, who, at first regarded as men in form, were afterwards given the fish-tail and monstrous form, usually seen in art.
In the middle ages, stories of mermaids increased, and their characteristics were definitely settled.
Arabian writers often speak of them. El-Kazwini says the Arabs believed that certain fish-men lived in islands in the Indian Ocean, and ate drowned men. Abou Muzaine says a Siren named the Old Man of the Sea, often appeared, prognosticating the good harvests. It spoke an unknown tongue. A similar animal caught a woman and married her, and their son spoke the language of both. Another similar animal, the Old Jew, came to the surface in the Mediterranean, on Friday night, and played about ships all the Jewish Sabbath. Ibnala Bialsaths says sailors in his time caught on foreign shores marine women, with brown skin and black eyes, speaking a strange tongue. Ibn-Batuta, an old Arab writer, says he saw fish in the Persian Gulf with a human head as large as that of a child.
Theodore de Gaza saw several Sirens on board ship, in the Peloponnessian sea, which were put back in the water, after being kept on board some time. They were beautiful maidens. George of Trebizonde saw one in the open sea. Gyllius says the skin of sea men taken in Dalmatia is so tough that it is used to make saddle covers.
In the Nibelungen Lieb, Hagen steals a mermaid’s garments, but she foretold him good luck if he would give them back again. Another story is that a mermaid told Hagen’s fortune, but he, dissatisfied with it, cut off her head, which mysteriously joined the body again, and a storm thereupon ensued.
The old poets allude to them. Tasso makes two knights walk by a lake in a pleasure garden where,—
“Two blooming damsels on the water lave
And laugh and plunge beneath the lucid wave.
The blood of a mermaid was then thought a prophylactic. Ariosto relates that Orlando smeared his casque with the blood of a Siren;—
“Naught resists his touch of flame e iron
Save what has drunk the life blood of a Siren.”
Gower thus sings,—
“Sirenes of a wonder kind
Ben monstres as the bokes telleth
And in the gret sea they dwelleth.
Of body both and of visage
Lik vnto women of yonge age,
Up fro’ the navel on high they be,
And down benethe as men may see
They bene of fishes the figure.”
Spenser says they are,—
“Transformed into fish for their bold surqueedry.”
And Guyon shows two maidens disporting in a fountain. An old verse of “ Sir Patrick Spens “ speaks of them,—
“Upstarted the mermaid by the ship,
Wi’ a glass and a kame in her hand,
Says, ‘reek about, reek about, my merry men,
Ye are not very far from land.’ ”
Vincent de Beauvais says mermen were avoided by throwing a bottle overboard, when they will stop to play with them.
So learned a man as Joseph Scaliger believed in them. Two Epirote sailors told him they had seen a Siren. Valerio Tesio, a Valencian, told him one was taken in Spanish waters, but was restored to the sea soon after.
Many heroes, like the demi-gods of old, claimed descent from sea-maidens.
Wieland, or Waylund, a mythical Vulcan of the middle ages, is said to have descended from a mermaid.
So the French Counts of Lusignan, ancient kings of Cypress and Jerusalem, still claim as their ancestor and founder a water-maiden, Melusina, whom an ancestor saw bathing in a fountain, and whom he wedded.
The romances of the middle age often speak of them. Such are the maidens of the Rheingold, celebrated in Wagner’s melodious strains.
In the romantic legends of William of Orange, a mermaid is caught by a cavalier, but liberated. In gratitude therefore, she saves her captor, when his ship is wrecked. When mermaids appeared “then began they all to sing so high, so low, so sweet, and so clear, that the birds leave off flying, and the fish leave off swimming.”
The ballads of Chivalry extolled their beauty. Doolin says, of a beautiful woman, “I thought she was an angel, or a sea-siren.”
In a Sicilian tale, a maiden treacherously thrown into the sea, is carried off by a merman, and chained to his tail. A similar story is told by Gubernatis, but the maiden is here liberated, her brother feeding the siren meat, while seven blacksmiths sever the chain.
These mermaids particularly desire a human soul—a thing denied to them by the churchmen.
Paracelsus says: “So it follows that they woo men, to make them industrious and homelike, In the same way as a heathen wants baptism, to save his soul; and thus they create so great a love for men, that they are with men in the same union.” This of the maidens, but mermen were not so friendly, often dragging people down, like Nick.
In “The Eastern Travels of John of Hesse” (1389), we read: “We came to a smoky and stony mountain, where we heard sirens singing, proprie mermaids, who draw ships into danger by their songs. We saw there many horrible monsters, and were in great fear.”
In 1187, a merman is said to have been taken near Suffolk, England. It resembled a man, but could not speak. It escaped one day, fled into the sea, and was not again seen.
But the accounts of the early appearances of the mermaid are more circumstantial in northern countries. Here, where Nick dragged people down, where Ran sucked the breath of the drowned, and where the Strömkarl and the Kelpie flourished, the mermaid was often seen, sitting on the rocks, combing her hair, and predicting disaster to the mariner.
Pontoppidan, Bishop of Norway, tells us much of the appearance of mermaids on the coasts of that country. Near Landscrona, on the Danish coast, three sailors in a boat saw something floating. On approaching it, it sank, then arose, and swam waist-deep. It appeared like an old man, with broad shoulders, small head, deep sunken eyes, thin face, black beard and hair, with fish-like extremities. A minister, Peter Angelí, of Sundmœr parish, told the bishop that he saw a merman lying on the strand dead. It was about six feet long, dark gray in color, with the lower part like a fish, and a tail like a porpoise, a man’s face, and arms joined by membranes to the body.
We have earlier notices of them in the “Royal Mirror,” which speaks of mermen and maids, calling the latter Mar-gyra, and ascribing to them the attribute of a fish-tail, but saying nothing about its possession by the merman, or Hafstrambr.
A later writer says: “Seamen and fishers in very tranquil waters sometimes see mermen and mermaids rise to the quiet top of the sea.” These are described as fair maidens, with fish-tail, long yellow hair, etc. Their children are called Marmaëler, “Sea-talkers.” “Sometimes the fishermen take them home, to get from them a knowledge of the future.” “Seamen are very sorry to see these creatures, thinking they portend a storm.”
Norwegian stories are numerous. When the sea is calm they say the mermen (Marmenill) and mermaids (Margyr) rise to the surface. The mermen are described as being oldish men, with long beard and black hair, man from the waist upwards and fish downwards, and the mermaid is described as usual. The appearance of these beings forebodes a storm, and it is thought dangerous to hurt them. A sailor enticed one to his boat and cut off her hand as it lay on the gunwale. He nearly perished in the storm that arose in consequence. If in diving they turn toward a ship, it is a bad omen; if from the ship, no evil will result.
St. Olaf, on one of his piratical cruises, met one of these sirens, who was wont to lure sailors to destruction.
Icelandic chronicles relate that three sea-monsters were seen near Greenland. The first, seen by Norwegian sailors in the water, had the body of a man, with broad shoulders, stumps of arms, and a pointed head. Heavy storms succeeded its appearance. The second was like a woman to the waist, with large breasts, disheveled hair, and large hands on the stumpy arms, webbed like a duck’s foot. It held fish in its hand and ate them, and the usual signs with regard to the manner of its eating or using the fish are then told.
The “Speculum Regali,” an Icelandic work, tells us: “A monster is seen also near Greenland, which people call the Margyr. This creature appears like a woman as far down as her 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 downward, 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 toward 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, then 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.”
This excellent account embodies most of the traditions regarding the appearance and prognostications from the sight of the mermaid, current since that time. The “Landnama,” or Icelandic records of land, tells us of Mar-menill, or mermen, caught off the island of Grimsey, and other annals tell us of their appearance there in 1305 and 1309.
We also read in the Chronicle of Storlaformus, of the Hafstrambr: “It resembles a man from the neck, in its head, its nose, and its throat, except that the head is extraordinarily high, and elongated in front. It had shoulders like a man, and attached to them two stumps of arms without hands. The body tapers below, but it has never been seen how it is formed below the waist.” He also describes the Marguguer. “It is formed like a woman, as far as the waist. It has a large bosom, thick hair, large hands, with fingers webbed like the foot of a goose, attached to its stumpy arms.”
Modern Icelandic folk-lore divides these beings into two classes.
First, there are the Margyr, Hafgyr (Sea and Harbor-troll) or Haf-fru (Sea-maid), the seductive maidens of the sea, who have long yellow hair, often sleep in the boats, and occasionally drag them down, and who can be prevented from doing harm by the repetition of a sacred hymn.
Then there are the Marmenill, or mermen, who never appear on the surface, but are occasionally caught in the nets, and who then become quite homesick, and earnestly beg to be put back into the water. These make the millepora, coral, called in Iceland, Marmenill’s Smt thi.
In a folk tale, a sea-troll appears in a stone boat, bringing luck to a ship, in good breezes and fine weather.
Mermaids are said still to be seen near Grimsey. They will pull men out of boats, but a credo will control them.
Mermaids are seen on the Swedish coast, sitting on a rock combing their hair, with a glass in their hands, or spreading out linen to dry. They are said to be fatal and deceitful, and storms and tempests follow their appearance. If a fisherman sees one, he should not speak of it to his comrades. They are said to dwell at the bottom of the sea, and have castles, palaces, and herds of brindled cattle.
A certain knight, Gunnar, dwelt by a lake in Sweden (Anten). He fell in one day, was rescued by a mermaid, and used thereafter to meet her weekly. Failing to do so once, the water rose and drowned him out of his castle, and he sank to the water-maiden’s abode while escaping in a boat. The stone near which his boat traditionally sank, is still called Gunnar’s stone. Fishermen rowing by it, salute by raising their hats, else they would have no luck.
THE PEASANT AND THE MERMAID
These mermaids are said to entice young men, prognosticate storms, and fortell the future. Often they carry a harp. One flung away her harp on hearing that she would not be saved like a Christian.
In Sweden, the door of a fisherman’s hut was opened at night, and a woman’s hand appeared. The next night a bold fellow watched, seized the hand, and disappeared. Some time afterward, when his wife remarried, he came back, saying that he had dwelt with the mermaid meanwhile, but was allowed to revisit the earth on condition of not entering the house. He did so, however, when the roof of the house was blown off, and the young man soon after died.
Another legend, given in a poem by Smaland, is of Duke Magnus, son of Gustavus Vasa, who saw a mermaid, who promises him, if he will marry her, among other thing, a fine ship. But he resisted her importunities, whereupon she declared he would always be crazy. He died insane.
It is deemed unlucky by Swedish fishermen to meet a meerwife. One story is told of a party of fishermen who were doubtingly joking about such beings, when one appeared and flung herself into the water. They caught no fish that day.
These Hafsfru are said to appropriate the bodies of drowned men that do not rise to the surface. Swedish folktales concerning them are numerous. In one, a maiden jumps overboard to save a ship in a gale, and is protected by the “mermaid who rules over all those that perish by sea.” She is allowed to return to earth. In a variant, the “sea-troll” bores a hole in the ship, changes the maiden into a serpent, then into a mermaid, and thus obtains her. In another tale, the troll raises a storm and wrecks many ships. In another, a Havmand appears to Svend, closes his ears and eyes, and carries him down to his habitation below the waves. Another mermaid stops a ship, obtains from a queen the promise of one of her sons, and then only allows the ship to proceed. The prince is one day riding on his horse near the sea, when suddenly the animal plunges in, and carries his rider to the sea-palace. After performing many herculean feats, the hero returned to earth, whither the maiden follows. In a variant, it is a king who promises his son, and substitutes for him various animals, which are in turn cast on shore dead.
In other stories, people assume the forms of fish, to escape from pursuing mermaids.
Danish legends are also numerous. In the neighborhood of Assen, many sea-people appeared on the strand, and fishermen often saw them with their children. In Nordstrand, a merwife grazing her cattle was captured by some people, and in revenge, covered the town with sand. In Aarhuus parish, a merman enticed a maiden to the bottom of the sea. But one day, after she had raised many children, she heard the bells and would go up. He allowed her to go on promise of returning, but she did not, and his wails from the depths are often heard. A ballad “Agnete og Harmandar,” and two others, were written on this tale, which is the original of the “Forsaken Merman,” of Matthew Arnold. An old Danish ballad says a mermaid foretold the death of Dagmar, queen of Frederick II, and the story goes: “In the year 1576 there came, late in the autumn, a simple old peasant from Samsö to the court, then being held at Kalundborg, who related that a beautiful female had more than once come to him, while working in his field by the sea-shore, whose figure from the waist downward resembled that of a fish, and who had repeatedly and strictly enjoined him to go and announce to the king that God had blessed his queen, so that she was progressed of a son (afterward Christian II), and would be safely delivered of him.”
H. C. Andersen tells a story of six mermaids, who were allowed to rise to the surface at sixteen years of age. The youngest saw a ship, and fell in love with a young prince on board. She was changed into an earth maiden by a water-witch, but the prince failed to marry her. Given a knife by her sisters to kill him, she fails to use it, plunges into the water, and is drowned herself.
John Philip Abelinus related in the first volume of his “Theatre of Europe,” that in the year 1619 two councillors of Christian IV., of Denmark, sailing between Norway and Sweden, discovered a merman swimming about with a bunch of grass on his head. They threw out a bait to him with a fish-hook concealed therein. The merman was fond of good living, it seems, and was caught with a slice of bacon. When caught, he threatened vengeance so loudly, that he was thrown back into the sea. Abelinus gives a picture of this merman.
In 1670, mermaids were seen on the islands off the Danish coast. Resenius says a mermaid prophesied and preached against drunkenness.
Ferrymen testified in 1723, to having seen a merman between Hveen and Saedland. It was an old man, with black hair and beard, small head and broad shoulders.
Popular tradition asserts that children frequently find little animals on the coast, a mixture between a man and a fish, but as soon as they have fed them, they set them into the water, for fear of misfortune, should the sea people be harmed.
The malignant character of the mermaid appears in an old ballad,—
“Drowned at sea
Seven ships of mine she has.”
In another ballad, a mermaid steals a bride away, but her lover,—
“Sail’d Norway’s shore along,
And there, at her cave, the mermaid found
Who wrought so grievous wrong.”
In the “Power of the Harp,” Sir Peter loses his bride in crossing a stream, but calls for his golden harp, whose dulcet tones charm his mermaid bride and her two sisters from the waves.
A mermaid in a certain tale, assumes the human form, but warns her lover never to approach her while she becomes a fish, as she is then very fierce.
In the Faroe Islands, there was a superstition that every ninth night, seals cast off their skins, assumed human forms, and danced on the beach. A fisherman found a skin one night, and obtained a wife thereby, but she got possession of the skin after years, and disappeared. Other stories similar to this are told, only it is a red cap, instead of a seal’s skin. The possessor will be transported over seas by it.
In 1670, mermaids were seen at the Faroe Islands.
Among Shetlanders, there was a firm belief in mermaids, and the seal-skin story is there told as in the Faroe Islands.
A fisherman of Unst saw a group dancing on the strand, picked up a seal-skin, and found a beautiful maiden in tears, who begged the skin, but perforce married him, when refused it. She often conversed with sea-people; one of her children found the seal-skin, showed it to her, and she was afterwards seen by her husband as a seal, diving from the rocks. They are thought to dwell in coral caves, resemble human beings, but are more beautiful. Wishing to come on earth, they cast off the hair garment. They are said particularly to love to revel about Ve Skerries (sacred rocks), are mortal, and are said to have been taken and killed by superstitious fishermen.
The mermen were, as Blind shows, known by the name of Finns, and were said to possess great nautical skill, rowing boats nine miles an hour. Sometimes they pursued ships, when nothing should be said to them, but silver pieces thrown overboard would prevent them from doing harm. Another authority says these men alone doffed the seal-skins, and could only resume the seal form by retaining possession of the skin. One tale is told of a merman caught by a fisherman, who grew larger and larger, until the fisherman complied with his request to throw him overboard, when he promised him luck. The stories of sea-brides obtained by mortals are numerous, and the mermaids are always endowed with a fish-tail.
Fishermen in the Hebrides are said to have caught a mermaid during the present century.
Scotch stories of them are not wanting. An old tale, the “Master of Weemys,” is of a ship encountering one at sea,—
“She held a glass with her richt hande,
In the other she held a kame;
And she kembit her hair, and aye she sang,
As she flotterit on the faem.
Sayle on, sayle on, said she;
Sayle on, and ne’er bluine
The wind at will your sayles may fill
But the land ye shall nevir win.”
In another legend a mermaid decoys a knight out to sea with her. In another, a fisherman catches a mermaid in a net. She ties two knots, and darkness comes; three, and a tempest. He shakes her off by a spell, and the storm ceases. Here we have the magic storm-causing witch-knots. We find in an old Scotch poem these lines,—
“A mermaid from the water rose
And spaed Sir Sinclair ill.”
A sea-maiden promised luck to a Scotch fisherman if he would give up his son in three years. She got him, but his mother finally obtained him from the sea-depths by playing music to the mermaid.
Sometimes the visits of mermaids were considered beneficial. A mermaid is said to have asked a Scotchman, who was reading the Bible, if there was comfort there for her. He said there was mercy for the sons and daughters of Adam, when she screamed and disappeared.
In the ballad, “Rosmer Hafmand,” the merman carries a maiden to his sea-palaces, but she finally deceives him, and is carried back in a chest along with a young lover, whom she has passed off as a relative.
A mermaid, who was accustomed to sing while seated on a stone in front of Knockdolin House, predicted disaster when the stone was removed, on account of her disturbing the young heir with her songs;—
“ Ye may think on your cradle, I’ll think on my stane,
And there’ll never be an heir to Knockdolin again.”
Mermaids were often dangerous. The young Laird of Lorntie was about to rush into the water, to save a young creature whom he saw struggling there, but was restrained by his servant, who said, “That wailing madam was nae other, God sauf us, than the mermaid.” As they rode off, she exclaimed:
Were it na for your man
I had gart your hairt’s bluid
Skirl in my pan!”
Leyden’s poem, “ The Mermaid,” is based on a tradition that a certain McPhail of Colonsay Isle, was carried off by a mermaid, and married her, but afterwards deserted her. She sang to him,—
“The mermaids sweet sea-soothing lay
That charmed the dancing waves to sleep,
Before the Bark of Colonsay.
And ever as the year returns
The charm-bound sailors know the day
For sadly still the mermaid mourns
The lovely chief of Colonsay.’’
Many other ballads celebrate the adventures of these seamaidens, who entice mariners into the sea, are sometimes caught in nets, can raise storms by singing, or by knotting their hair, and can be conquered by certain spells.
In the Aberdeen Almanac of 1688, it was predicted, that if people should go to the mouth of the Dee on the 1st, 13th, or 29th of May, they would see “a pretty company of mermaids.”
A school-master of Thurso, testified in 1797, that he saw a mermaid on the rocks, combing her long hair, and twelve years afterward, others were seen in the same place. In 1871, John Mclsaac, of Kintyre, whose testimony was supported by others, averred he saw one on the coast of Scotland. They are often seen, by the islanders, sitting on the rocks between Jura and Scarba.
A Dr. Hamilton wrote to the Edinburg magazine, some years since, of the finding of a mermaid near the Shetland Islands, by two fishermen. They had it in the boat some two hours, but becoming superstitious, threw it overboard. It was gray in color, and had a fish tail, but neither scales nor hair on its body, nor webs nor fingers on its hands.
Waldron says: “Mermen and Mermaids have been frequently seen. Many surprising stories of these amphibious creatures have I been told.”
A young mermaid fell in love with a Manx shepherd, and in embracing him, held him so tight, that he feared she would do him harm. He accordingly repulsed her, when she flung a stone at him, and mortally wounded him.
Fishermen caught a sea maiden, but let her go, fearful of evil consequences. She was afterward asked what strange things she saw above the water, but the only thing she had particularly remarked, was that the water in which eggs were boiled was thrown away.
A Manx diver reported that he found “below the fishes,” palaces of mother-of-pearl, with floors of inlaid stones, and inhabited by mermen and maids.
Gervase of Tilbury reports the appearance of mermaids in English seas: “They attract sailors by their sweet songs, and lead them to wreck and destruction.”
Sir Thomas Browne says: “They are concieved to answer the shape of the ancient syren that attempted upon Ulysses, which, notwithstanding, were of another description, containing no fishy composition, but made up of man and bird.”
Coad says “ The mermaid, I take it as I find it, whether it were a reality or a spectre. I can promise spectres are seen at sea some times, and I believe also that there are such Mockyuga of Humane Nature seen, as an ape is on the mountain.”
The early English poets occasionally allude to them. Shakspeare was well versed in the mermaid lore, as he speaks of them in many plays.
John Taylor, the “water-poet,” thus sings of one,—
“Four miles from land, we almost were aground,
At last, unlook’d for, on our larboard side,
A thick turmoyling in the sea we spyed,
Like to a Merman, wading as he did,
All in the sea his nether parts were hid,
Whose brawny limbs and rough, neglected beard,
And grim aspect, made us half afraid.”
He spoke to them in good Kentish, and finally guided them out of danger.
Sabrina, goddess of the Severn river, was aided by them when she took refuge in the river depths,—
“The water-nymphs that in the bottom play’d,
Held up their pearled wrists, and took her in.”
The fish-exhibition alluded to by Autolycus, in “Winter Tale,” “Here’s another ballad of a fish that appeared upon the coast of a 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 not exchange flesh with one that loved her,” is paralleled by one in the “City Match,”
“ Why, ‘tis a man-fish,
An ocean centaur, begot between a siren
And a he stock-fish.”
An old mariner s song runs thus,—
“One Friday morning we set sail,
And, when not far from land,
We all espied a fair mermaid
With a comb and a glass in her hand;
The stormy winds they did blow.”
Thus embodying the storm-raising omens of sailing on Friday, and of seeing a mermaid.
The Stationers’ Company published, in 1684, an account of “a strange reporte of a monstrous fish that appeared in the form of a woman from the waist upward, scene in the sea.”
Early navigators chronicle their appearance. Columbus, in his “Journal,” relates the appearance of three, raising themselves above the waves. He says he had previously seen them on the coast of Africa. He does not represent them as beautiful maidens, and they were probably manatee or dugongs. Hudson tells us: “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 closely to the ship’s side, looking earnestly at the men. A little after, a sea came and overturned her. From the navel up, 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 color black. Seeing her go down, they saw her tail, which was like that of a porpoise, speckled like a mackerel.”
In 1812, a gentleman of Exmouth saw a creature like a mermaid sporting in the water. One was seen on the Argle-shire coast, on June 4, 1857, rising three or four times out of the water. Other appearances of them in 1817 and in 1863, near the Suffolk coast, are recorded. The skeleton of a so-called mermaid found on one of the islands, was ascertained to be that of a dugong.
A story is told among seafaring men that a diver once saw a beautiful mermaid outside of his glass diving-bell. She told him she would protect him, if he would always recognize her in any shape. He promised, but, some days afterwards, he crushed a polypus with his foot. The next time he went down, the mermaid told him it was her whom he had injured, and he soon after met his death in consequence.
Cornish fishermen call them merrymaids, or Morgan (sea-women). At a place on the coast, a sudden lifting of the fog disclosed seals on a rock, and these were said to be mermaids. Another rock on the Cornish coast, called Mermaid’s Rock, is said to be a haunt of these maidens just before a wreck. Certain young men visited these rocks at such a time, but never reappeared. Senten Harbor was traditionally choked up by a mermaid. One is said to have been caught by an old man, and, in return for carrying her to sea, she gave him the power of dispelling witches, and also bestowed on him her comb. A family in Cornwall still display this comb (really a piece of a shark’s jaw) in proof of this visit. A story entitled “The Mermaid’s Revenge” tells us that a certain poor couple bathed their child daily in the sea. One day it slipped from their hands, was exchanged for a mermaid, which grew up in their family. She was afterwards betrayed by a lover, and he was dragged into the water, while walking on the strand, some time afterwards, as a punishment for his crime.
So-called mermaids have been exhibited several times in England.
In 1755, a carefully made imposture representing a mermaid, said to have been captured in the Grecian seas, was exhibited in London. Another, said to have been captured at sea by a Captain Forster, was shown at Covent Garden at the same time, and there is an account of the exhibition of one in Chamber’s “Book of Days,” in 1809. In 1822, a figure made in the East Indies, and brought to London, consisting of a fish-tail joined to an ape’s body, was exhibited in London, purchased at a high figure by Barnum, and brought to America. I believe it is now in the Boston Museum. Scheie de Vere says a living mermaid was advertised in England, but was found to be a woman with a fish’s tail sewn to her body.
Welsh tales of mermaids are told by Sikes, and by other writers.
The story of the surgeons of Myddvai, relates that one of their ancestors, while sitting on the banks of the dark Lake Lyn y Van Vach, saw three maidens in the water, and courted them. They, however, called him “eater of baked bread,” and refused to have anything to do with him. One day, however, he saw unbaked bread floating on the lake, ate it, and was thereby possessed of one of the mermaids. She declared that she would leave him, should he strike her thrice. He did so, in angry moments, and she left him. It is related that she visited her sons, and taught them medicine, in which their descendants are yet skilled. Welsh mermaids, however, are scarce, all the water-sprites and water-fairies of their stories being without the fishy tail that characterizes the mermaid proper.
A mermaid, looking like a maiden of seventeen years, was seen at Ren-y-hold in 1782.
Gwenhidwy, whose sheep are the waves and who,
“Drives her white flocks afield, and warns in time
The wary fisherman,”
was fabled a mermaid. “Take the mermaid’s advice, and save thyself; take shelter when you see the mermaid driving her flocks ashore,” says an old Welsh poem.
The Irish mermaid is called Merrow, or Moruach (sea-maid). Mermen have green hair, red eyes and nose, and are fond of brandy. A man obtained a sea-wife, but on returning home one night, he saw two seals on the beach, and found that one was his wife, who had obtained her seal-skin.
An old Celtic legend says Liban and her family were drowned in Lough Neagh, but she became a mermaid, married a knight, whom she fascinated, and was baptized.
The first merman was Fintan, who came to Ireland before the deluge, was saved in the form of a fish, afterwards lived on shore, and was converted by St. Patrick, and became a saint himself. Old sculptures show him, like the Assyrian Dagon. In the cathedral of Omfert County, Ireland, a sculptured mermaid is seen, carrying a book in her hand.
A story of the Lady of Gollerns, given by Croker, relates that a mermaid was caught by getting possession of her enchanted cap (cohuleen druith). She says she is daughter of the king of the waves, marries her captor, but, as usual, finds the cap and disappears. The tale of the “Last of the Cantillons” relates that deceased members of that family were left the sea-side to be carried away by sea-men, but that a curious fellow watched these people, and they declared no more should be thus carried away. In the story of the Lord of Dunkerron, he encounters a mermaid,—
“For a beautiful spirit of ocean, ‘tis said,
The Lord of Dunkerron would win to his bed;
When by moonlight the waters were hush’d to repose
That beautiful spirit of ocean arose,
Her hair, full of lustre, just floated and fell
O’er her bosom that heav’d with a billowy swell.”
He follows her to sea-caverns, but, after a time, on visiting the earth and returning, he finds that she is dead, killed by the enraged mermen.
John Reid, of Cromarty, caught a mermaid, who begged to be put in the water, promising to fulfill three wishes. He did this, and obtained what he wished.
Rathlin Island is haunted by a mermaid:
“Tis said, at eve, when rude winds sleep,
And hush’d is every turbid swell,
A mermaid rises from the deep
And sweetly tunes her magic shell.”
In another legend, the daughter of the king of the land of youth appears to a young hunter, and he follows her to her courts beneath the waves.
A mermaid is said to have been found in a shark’s belly in Ireland, and is minutely described as being of the size of a nine-year-old boy, with long hair, olive skin, one thumb, webbed fingers, etc. It was thrown into the sea.
The Irish feared to kill seals, saying that they were the souls of those drowned at the flood, and that they can put aside their skin and appear in the guise of mortals, but cannot return to their watery element, if the skin is stolen.
Among the many legends of the famous piper, is that version in the tale of Maurice Connor, the Irish harper, who pipes a mermaid from the waters, but is in time charmed by her and accompanies her.
So Arion, in danger of sacrifice by the Greek crew, plays first and charms the fish, until he is borne ashore to Corinth. The romantic historians of Ireland assert that Tuire, or sea-maidens, played about the Milesian ships on their way to Ireland.
Breton stories of mermaids are abundant, and fishermen say they often see them on the coast. One (a “Siren”) caught by a peasant, brought bread, clothing, silver and gold, to purchase her freedom.
Brantôme says, “ Nereids were abundant in French waters during the middle ages.” The most celebrated one was Melusina, whose marriage to Raymond of Toulouse, was related above.
She was said afterwards to haunt the castle on the death of any one, becoming thus a banshee.
From the middle-age treatise of Paracelsus comes the legend of Undine, whose story is so charmingly told by Fouqué. She is really a water-sprite, who visits her foster-parents, and on one occasion sees and loves a wandering knight, who marries her, when she becomes the possessor of a soul, and various vicissitudes common to mortals await her. She once revisits the water-depths, and strange enough, returns unharmed, but the knight soon after dies.
There is a French legend of Poul Dahut, a rock on the Breton coast, where the daughter of a sea-king, Dahut, is said to sit in rough weather.
A Breton tale is told of a lady, who found a mermaid on the beach, and put her into the water. The grateful sea-maiden brought her a shell, with a drink in it, telling her to give it to her son. Instead, she gave it to her cat, which became wise, but malicious, while her son was always half-witted.
In Provence, a gold ring is thrown into the water, and verses repeated, to charm the water king.
A negro mermaid was exhibited at St. Germain Fair in Paris, in 1758, and a shop in Ostend contained, in 1881, a figure said to be a mermaid, a cut of which was shown in Harper’s Magazine.
In an old “History of the Netherlands,” we find this account of the appearance of one in 1493, at Haarlem: “At that time there was a great tempest at sea, with exceeding high tides, the which did drown many cities in Friseland and Holland; by which tempest there came a sea-woman swimming in the Zuyder-Zee, betwixt the towns of Campen and Edam, the which, passing by the Purmeric, entered into the strait of a broken dyke in the Purmermer, where she remained a long time, and could not find the hole by which she entered, for that the breach had been stopped after that the tempest had ceased. Some country women and their servants who did daily pass the Purmeric, to milk their kine in the next pastures, did often see this woman swimming on the water, whereof at the first they were much afraid; but in the end being accustomed to see it very often, they viewed it nearer, and at last they resolved to take it if they could. Having discovered it, they rowed toward it, and drew it out of the water by force, carrying it in one of their barks unto the town of Edam. When she had been well washed and cleansed from the sea-moss which was grown about her, she was alike unto another woman; she was apparalled, and began to accustom herself to ordinary meats like unto other mortals; yet she sought still means to escape, and to get into the water, but she was straightly guarded. They came from fare to see her. Those of Harlem made great sute to them of Edam to have this woman by reason of the strangenesse thereof. In the end they obtained her, where she did learn to spin, and lived many years (some say fifteen), and for the reverence which she bare unto the signe of the crosse whereupon she had been accustomed, she was buried in the churchyarde. Many persons worthy of credit have justified in their writings that they had seene her in the said towne of Harlem.”
There is no fish-maiden here. If we are to believe the story at all, we may reasonably suspect this to be some outcast like Caspar Hauser, a human being trained to the shallow water of the pond, and placed to live there and be adopted by her finder, or we may account it the designed fraud of some sharp Hollander. In fact, more careful study has demonstrated that the earliest accounts of her only described her as a water-woman, and the mermaid myth was afterward invented.
A mermaid is said to have appeared to Antwerp whalers and said,—
“Sailors, throw out a cask
So soon you whales shall have.”
A mermaid prophesied the destruction of Zevenbergen, a wicked city of Holland, in 1721, and also of Minden,—
“Zevenbergen must perish
And Lobbeken’s seven towers still remain.”
Gaspar Schott gives a curious sketch of a Triton with human body, arms and head, and fish tail.
Ludovicus Vivus relates that in his time a mermaid was taken in Holland, and carefully kept for two years; that she began to speak, or at least to make a very disagreeable noise in imitation of speech; that she found an opportunity, and got into the sea. The same writer says that Lieutenant Transmale saw at the time he was sent with some men on an expedition in the Bay of Hodudela, as did all the people that were with him, in clear daytime, two mermaids, the one greater, the other smaller, which they took to be man and wife, swimming together, and the hair of their heads hung over their neck, and that it appeared between a green and grayish color; and that they could see that they had breasts. They were all above the waists shaped exactly as a human creature, but from thence downward they seemed to go off tapering to a point. About six weeks afterward, near the same place, a like appearance was seen by upward of fifty people.
TRITON, FROM SCHOTT.
Holland afterward became celebrated for its mermaids, so much so that in that country, and its colonies, the mermaid was deemed a native production.
Valentin, a curate of Amboyna, published in the Dutch tongue a large collection of facts, in support of the existence of the mermaid. Many certificates accompanied his description, and the beautifully colored figures, in the curious work referred to.
In 1611 it is said a mermaid or sea-woman was taken alive near the island of Boro, which was fifty-nine inches long. She lived four days and seven hours and then died, as she would not eat anything. She was never heard to articulate any noise. One Samuel Falvers, in Amboyna, preserved the body for some time, and made out an exact
THE MOLUCCA SIREN.
description of it, by which it appears that her head was like a woman’s, properly proportioned, with eyes, nose and mouth, only the eyes, which were light blue, seemed to differ a little from the human species. The hair, that just reached over the neck, appeared of sea-green and grayish color. She had breasts, long arms, hands, and all the upper parts of the body almost as white as a woman’s, but leaning somewhat to the sea-gray. The lower part of her body appeared like the hinder part of a fish.
Dr. Kerschur, in one of his scientific reports, relates that another mermaid was caught in the Zuyder Zee, and dissected at Leyden by Professor Peter Pau, and in the same learned report, he makes mention of still another, who was found in Denmark, and who was taught to knit, and foretell future events. This mermaid had a pretty face, mild, sparkling eyes, a small, tiny nose; long, drooping arms; the fingers of her hands joined by a cartilage like a goose’s foot; the breasts round and hard, and the skin covered with white shells. He asserted that the mermaids and mermen constitute a submarine population, which, partaking of the skill of the ape and the beaver, build their grottoes of stone in places inaccessible to all divers, and where they spread out their beds of sand, in which they he, sleep and enjoy their loves.
The mermaid of the Royal Museum at the Hague was seen by Alexandre Dumas, during a visit there. He describes it as quite dried and withered, and in color very like the head of a Caribbee. Her eyes were shut, her nose flattened, her lips sticking to the teeth, of which only a few remained; her bosom was conspicuous, though sunk; a few short hairs stood out upon the head; finally, the lower part of the body terminated in a fish’s tail. There was no opening for dispute. It was really and trully a siren, a mermaid, a sea-nymph. “If, after all this, there shall be found those who disbelieve the existence of such creatures as mermaids, let them please themselves. I shall give myself no more trouble about them.”
Dimas Bosque, physician to the viceroy of the island of Manara, relates in a letter inserted in Bartholdi’s “History of Asia,” that walking one day on the sea-shore with a Jesuit father, a party of fishermen came running up to them to invite the father to enter their barge, if he wished to behold a prodigy. There were sixteen fishes with human faces in the barge—nine females and seven males—all of which the fishermen had just drawn up with a single cast of their net. Their teeth were square and closely set together. The chest was broad and covered with a skin, singularly white, which left visible the blood-vessels. Their ears were elevated like our own, cartilaginous, and covered with a fine skin. Their eyes were similar to ours in color, shape and position; they were inclosed in their orbits, below the forehead, furnished with lids, and did not possess, like fishes, different axes of vision. Their nose only differed from the human nose, by its being rather flatter, like the negro’s, and partially slit up, like a bulldog’s. In all of them the mouth and lips were perfectly similar to ours.
The females had round, full and firm bosoms, and some of them appeared to be suckling their young, as when the breasts were pressed upon, a very white and delicate milk jetted out. Their arms, two cubits in length, and much fuller and plumper than the men’s, had no joints; their hands were joined to the cubitus. Lastly, the lower portion, beginning with the haunches and thighs, was divided into a double tail, as we see in ordinary fishes.
German tales of the mermaid proper are not numerous. Goethe’s “Waterman” is a pretty version of a Danish tale of a mermaid. A merman visits the church, and weds a maiden who falls in love with him. He brings a ship for her, and they embark,—
“But when they were out in the midst of the sound,
Down went they all in the deep profound.”
In German legend, there is a queen of the sea, Merreimne (Norse Marmenille, mer-woman). She was fished up from the sea in a net, but the terrified fishermen hastily threw her overboard.
Three men are said to have caught a mermaid at Weningstede, in Schleswick-Holstein, but they put her back in the water, on hearing her cries. It is there believed that they foretell a storm, when seen about the bows of a ship. A “Waterman” is said to have stopped a ship at sea, and to have refused to let it go until the queen, a passenger thereon, should descend to his palace, where a midwife was needed.
Goethe’s ballad, “Sir Peter of Stauffen,” depicts the power of the mermaid’s song; and there is another old ballad, where a waterman
“Drags her down to his ocean cave
The gentle Amelie.”
The Lorelei, who is fabled to sit on the rocks in the Rhine, and lure boats to destruction, is celebrated in song by Heine and Doenninger, and mermaids are represented in Wagner’s Rheingold.
An old German legend is told of a certain countess, who was seized while bathing, by mermaids and men, and stripped of her jewels. She expressed a great desire to recover her wedding-ring, at least, and on the seventh day thereafter, it was found in the stomach of a fish, caught near the spot where she had bathed.
A Hamburg skipper, Jan Schmidt, saw a mermaid in 1610, while at sea near Bayonne, just at daylight. He knew she would drag some one down, so had his men repulse her with long poles and pikes. When she found them prepared for her, she uttered a piercing cry, and dove down into the sea.
At Nidden, in West Prussia, a mermaid sits on the rocks and decoys persons to her, but they are drowned ere they reach her.
Frisians say there are but seven mermaids, and that a man devoting himself to one of them, will suffer death, should he ever abandon her.
In an Esthonian tale, a fisherman sees a daughter of the “Mother of the Seas,” falls in love with her, and marries her. She leaves him on every Thursday, and, on watching her, he finds she has a fish-tail.
In the Finnish Epic, the “Hostess of the Sea,” rises at the sound of Waïnamoïnen’s harp (the wind), and combs her long locks by the seaside. That hero catches a mermaid, but as he is about to cut her open and eat her, she disappears.
Wallachian, Wendic, and Russian stories of water-sprites are told, some of whom assume the shape of birds, and fly through the air. Many of these are a kind of a cross between mermaids and sirens.
Mermaids are said to have been seen near Portugal in 1531, and Spanish and Italian stories of them are recorded.
Lamia is a water-maiden in modern Greece, who is represented as malicious, greedy, and sensual, dragging people into the water. Mermaids are not, however, so abundant in southern waters, as in the colder seas of the north.
Chinese say mermaids are of the shape of demons, and are ruled by a harpy, Nükira, who, when the heavens were torn, mended them, but left a hole in the northwest, whence emerge the cold winds. They call mermaids sea-women (hai-nii), and numerous stories are told of them. One is said to have been captured at Nanchow in 1800, and many saw her; and another was found at Nüshan. A cabinet councillor is said to have found one on the beach in Corea, and carried her to sea, putting her in it.
In the Loochoo Islands also, one is said to have lived with a native ten years, but finally she climbed a tree, and disappeared. Here we have a nymph of the sky-sea.
Japan is, however, the headquarters of these coy maidens of the sea. Here an old Dutch navigator obtained the first “veritable” mermaid, and they may still be procured of ingenious natives. Numbers have been shown in museums, etc., deftly made by uniting a child’s head to a fish’s body. At Bartholomew fair, in 1825, there was exhibited a mermaid, obtained by a Dutch ship from Japan, and the Ottoman minister to Paris, in 1840, related that he had seen a veritable sea-woman, brought from Eastern seas.
A Japanese legend relates that a mermaid prophesied an epidemic.
Ottawa Indians believed in the existence of a mermaid with two fish-like extremities, and called her daughter of the flood. Pascagouia Indians had traditions of a race emerging from the sea, who worshiped a mermaid.
An Ottawa tale is told of a certain Wassaur conveyed by a spirit-maiden to the “ Spirit of the Sand Dunes,” in Lake Superior.
B. Gould tells a tale of an Ottawa chieftain who saw a beautiful woman arise from the water. She wished to have a human soul, but could only have one by marrying a mortal.
The tribe drove her away, and the result was a war of extermination with another tribe (Adirondacks), and finally one was left, who was carried down by the water-maiden at St. Anthony’s Falls.
These maidens have often been seen on our shores.
Captain John Smith saw, in 1614, off an island in the West Indies, a mermaid, with the upper part of the body perfectly resembling a woman. She was swimming about with all possible grace when he descried her near the shore. Her large eyes, rather too round, her finely-shaped nose, somewhat short, it is true, her well-formed ears, rather too long, however, made her a very agreeable person, and her long green hair imparted to her an original character by no means unattractive. Unfortunately the beautiful swimmer made a slip, and Captain Smith, who had already begun to experience the first effects of love, discovered that from below the waist the woman gave way to the fish.
Jocelyn also tells of them: “One Mr. Miller, relates of a triton or mermaid, which he saw in Casco bay; the gentleman was a great forder, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small island, there being many islands in the bay, he encountered with a triton, who, laying his hands upon the sides of the canoe, had one of them chopped off with a hatchet by Mr. Miller, which was in all respects like the hands of a man; the triton presently sunk, dyeing the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.”
The following account from a newspaper, of a similar occurrence, is given,—
“John Dilercy related a curious story of some American fishermen One night, it being a perfect calm, they observed a mermaid coming into their vessel, and fearing it to be some mischievous fish, in the fright of one of them, cut the creature’s hand off with a hatchet, when it sank immediately, but soon came up again and gave a deep sigh as one feeling pain. The hand was found to have five fingers and nails like a woman’s hand.”
The Richmond Dispatch, of July, 1881, published an account of a negro woman who said that she, being pursued to death by some one in Cuba, jumped overboard, and was, after drifting for hours, rescued by a band of mermaids, who took her to their sea-caverns, and finally placed her on board a vessel bound for New Orleans.
In a daily (Boston) paper of October 31, 1881, is contained the following account of a mermaid captured in As-pinwall Bay and brought to New Orleans,—
“This wonder of the deep is in a fine state of preservation. The head and body of a woman are very plainly and distinctly marked. The features of the face, eyes, nose, mouth, teeth, arms, breasts and hair are those of a human being. The hair on its head is of a pale, silky blonde, several inches in length. The arms terminate in claws closely resembling an eagle’s talons, instead of fingers with nails. From the waist up. the resemblance to a woman is perfect, and from the waist down, the body is exactly the same as the ordinary mullet of our waters, with its scales, fins and tail perfect. Many old fishermen and amateur anglers who have seen it pronounce it unlike any fish they have ever seen. Scientists and savants alike are ‘all at sea’ respecting it, and say that if the mermaid be indeed a fabulous creature, they cannot class this strange comer from the blue waters.”
Torquemada says that Mexican legends of the mermaid related that she, the tortoise and the whale, formed a bridge of their bodies for a man to pass the House of the Sun.
Herbert Smith says there are stories on the lower Amazon, of water-maidens with long black hair, who sing and entice young men into the water. Uangaia, King of the Fishes, assumes many shapes, and entices women into the waters.
Moravian missionaries in South America brought from thence wonderful stories of mermen and mermaids, some having seen these beings, with brown skin and long hair, in the water. The natives feared them and would not harm them, fearing disaster.
Negroes of Surinam told English officers, in 1801, that they often saw mermaids playing in the river on moonlight nights.
The tradition of the mermaid will long survive in nautical nomenclature. English fishermen call the frog-fish Meermaid, although no reference to the mermaid is intended. The Spongia palmata is called the mermaid’s glove, and the outer covering of shark’s eggs, as well as the hollow root of the sea-weed Fucus polyschides, are named the mermaid’s purse.
Having thus traced the history of the mermaid, and given an account of her in all corners of the earth, we are prepared to believe her origin not an unnatural one, but a development of ideas originating in antiquity, and fostered during an age of credulity and superstition. Her origin is undoubtedly mythical, but various causes natural and legendary have assisted the myth in its growth. As before said, these maidens are originally cloud-nymphs. This ancestry has already been partially traced in the present chapter. Analogies between the mermaids and these ancient mythical beings have been given. Like Proteus, they may (at least the water-sprites can) change their forms at will. This is an attribute of their primitive form, that of the Apsaras, or “formless ones,” whose cloud bodies arose from the vaporous deep. Like Nereus, they are possessed of great wisdom. This is also an attribute of all the primitive beings who arose from the deep, as Oannes, Hea, Viracocha, etc. Like the ancient sea-deities, they are benificent, since they possess great wealth. This latter characteristic is alleged of all the sea beings. The hoard of the Niflungs, the golden palace of Neptune, and of AEgir, the Rheingold, and other instances of this wealth, will be remembered.
If they are malicious, or diabolic, they derive such a temperament from Nick, or from Typhon, from their ancestors the Sirens, or their prototypes, the harpies. The bad omen derived from their appearance may be traced at least to Melusinar, who, after her death, becomes a banshee or evil apparition. Perhaps the Christian influence in the degradation of heathen deities, may have aided in establishing a diabolic character. The song of the mermaid, by which she often lures to destruction listening mortals, is but the dangerous lay of the Sirens, or the sweet attractions of Circe.
The Myth is ancient, as Hylas was so charmed in the Argonautic voyages.
This lay is none other, as we have seen, than the sweet strains of Orpheus’ harp, and here perhaps is the origin of the mermaid’s comb, doubtless the ancient lyre. Being thus always malevolent, when seen at sea, and ominous in appearance, she would be naturally connected with the weather, a significant fact corrobating her cloud-parentage. The fish tail peculiar to the mermaid is doubtless derived primarily from the Assyrian Oannes, and we have seen Tritons and Nereids thus represented. The Sirens, anciently birds, became, later, beauteous maidens, and were finally endowed with the scaly appendage.
Price has thus embodied these ideas: “The Nereids of antiquity, the daughters of the sea, born seers, are evidently the same with the mermaids of the British and Northern shores; the habitations of both are fixed in crystal caves or coral palaces, beneath the waters of the ocean; and they are alike distinguished for their partiality to the human race, and their prophetic power in disclosing the events of futurity. The Naiads differ only in name from the Nixen of Germany and Scandinavian Nissen, or the water-elves of our countrymen Aelfric.”
Philologists find, however, that even this difference does not exist, since from a Sanskrit word Sna, to fiow, are derived the names for Naiad, Nereid, Nymph, Nick, etc.
These beings require some recompense for their services, which represents the ancient sacrifices to the water-deities. The priestly influence is again visible in the notion that this gift is baptism, or salvation. The myth of marriage to mor-tals of more difficult interpretation, and is closely connected with the legends of their having the power of changing their form, and of the possession of some mysterious, garment whereby the change is effected. This garment was originally a swan’s plumage, but is sometimes a peculiar cap, a seal-skin, or even a girdle. The swan story is first told in the Katha Sarit Sagatha.
Svidatta saw a swan in the Ganges, plunged in, and followed the maiden to her palace beneath the waves. The story is common to many lands, and is even known among the Mongols and Tartars. AEschylus says the Phorkides were swan-shaped. In the Hymn to Apollo, the clouds are swan-nymphs, attendant on Phoebus, the sun. “Here, then, we have the groundwork of all those tales which speak of men as wedded to fairies, nymphs, nixies, mermaids, swan-maidens or other supernatural beings.” “From the thought which regarded the cloud as an eagle or swan, it was easy to pass to the idea that the birds were beautiful maidens; and hence that they could at will, or on the ending of the enchantment, assume their human form.” “Then would follow the myth that the only way to capture these beings was to seize their garments of swan’s or eagle’s plumes, without which they were powerless.”
But while we may acknowledge the mythical origin of these beings, there are many natural causes whose influence aided in the formation and perpetuation of the mermaid myth. Much of the testimony recorded above is too circumstantial to be accounted a mere trick of the imagination, or morbid fancy of the writers.
Species of existing sea-animals have certainly aided in perpetuating these many stories of maidens of the sea. The dugong and manatee especially have a human look, having large breasts and short, arm-like fins. Scoresby says the front view of a young walrus without tusks resembles a human face. Speaking of their habit of rearing the head above the water, he says, “I have myself seen a sea-horse in such a position, and under such circumstances, that it required very little stretch of the imagination to mistake it for a human being; so like, indeed, was it, that the surgeon of the ship actually reported to me his having seen a man with his head just appearing above the water.” French and German heraldic signs represent mermaids with one or two tails.
The French call the manatee femme marine, the Dutch name the dugong mannetje (little man) and Baardanetzee (little beard). Professor Owen thinks these animals are the mermaids of fable.
In Oriental legend, the dugong is the mermaid of the Indian ocean, and their tears are pearls, and attract persons to them. Stories of mermaids singing or talking may also have arisen from hearing the cries of the seal, said by navigators to resemble those of an infant. The well-known frendliness of that animal to man, and its gentleness, would favor the current ideas concerning mermaids.
Thus, while the mythical idea grew up in a superstitious age, the reports of mariners of these strange animals to a people equally ignorant in science, would foster and preserve the growths of the myths.
Scheie de Veré, in alluding to the accounts given of mermaids by the Moravian missionaries, in South America, conjectures these mermaids to be the Canthoeirus, a race of savages who almost live in the waters of the great rivers of the Amazon valley, often attack boats, and are greatly feared by the natives. Here would be a natural element in the growth of the mermaid myth. Hone tells a story of a certain Vega, who, in 1674, leaped into the sea and was drawn ashore five years afterwards, covered with scales. He had forgotten his language, but was recognized by his family. He lived several years afterwards, but finally disappeared. Tieck pronounces the story authentic.
These, along with the other phantoms of the deep, no longer appear to the intelligent mariner of this scientific age. Yet in remote corners, and to skeptical vision, such apparitions still are recorded.
But in spite of the occasional reports of such visions, we may reasonably conclude with the Swedish poet, Stagneli, that,—
“The Neck no more upon the river sings,
And no mermaid to bleach her linen plays
Upon the waves in the wild solar rays.”