From a Picture by Otto Sinding.
The little book Sea Monsters Unmasked, recently issued as one of the Handbooks in connection with the Great International Fisheries Exhibition, has met with so favourable a reception, that I have been honoured by the request to continue the subject, and to treat also of some of the Fables of the Sea, which once were universally believed, and even now are not utterly extinct
The topic is not here exhausted. Other sea fables and fallacies might be mentioned and explained; but the amount of letter-press, and the number of illustrations that can be printed without loss for the small sum of one shilling—the price at which these Handbooks are uniformly published—is necessarily limited. I have, therefore, thought it better to endeavour to make each chapter as complete as possible than to crowd into the space allotted to me a greater variety of subjects less fully and carefully discussed.
I have the pleasure of acknowledging the kind assistance I have again received in the matter of illustrations. I gratefully appreciate Mr. Murray’s permission to use the woodcut of Hercules slaying the Hydra, taken from Smith’s Classical Dictionary and those of the golden ornaments found by Dr. Schliemann at Mycenae, and figured in the very interesting book in which his excavations there are described. I have also to thank the proprietors of the Illustrated London News, the Leisure Hour, and Land and Water, for the use of illustrations especially mentioned in the text
Some of the illustrations in the first edition of this book, and of Sea Monsters Unmasked having met with much commendation, I only do justice in mentioning that almost all those copied in fac-simile from old books, and in reduced size from periodicals, are the work of the Typographic Etching Company.
Sept. 4th, 1883.
Next to the pleasure which the earnest zoologist derives from study of the habits and structure of living animals, and his intelligent appreciation of their perfect adaptation to their modes of life, and the circumstances in which they are placed, is the interest he feels in eliminating fiction from truth, whilst comparing the fancies of the past with the facts of the present. As his knowledge increases, he learns that the descriptions by ancient writers of so-called “fabulous creatures” are rather distorted portraits than invented falsehoods, and that there is hardly one of the monsters of old which has not its prototype in Nature at the present day. The idea of the Lernean Hydra, whose heads grew again when cut off by Hercules, originated, as I have shown in another chapter, in a knowledge of the octopus; and in the form and movements of other animals with which we are now familiar we may, in like manner, recognise the similitude and archetype of the mermaid.
But we must search deeply into the history of mankind to discover the real source of a belief that has prevailed in almost all ages, and in all parts of the world, in the existence of a race of beings uniting the form of man with that of the fish. A rude resemblance between these creatures of imagination and tradition and certain aquatic animals is not sufficient to account for that belief. It probably had its origin in ancient mythologies; and in the sculptures and pictures connected with them, which were designed to represent certain attributes of the deities of various nations. In the course of time the meaning of these was lost; and subsequent generations regarded as the portraits of existing beings effigies which were at first intended to be merely emblematic and symbolical.
FIG. 1. NOAH, HIS WIFE, AND THREE SONS, AS FISH-TAILED DEITIES.
From a Gem in the Florentine Gallery. After Calmet.
Early idolatry consisted, first, in separating the idea of the One Divinity into that of his various attributes, and of inventing symbols and making images of each separately; secondly, in the worship of the sun, moon, stars, and planets, as living existences; thirdly, in the deification of ancestors and early kings; and these three forms were often mingled together in strange and tangled confusion.
Amongst the famous personages with whose history men were made acquainted by oral tradition was Noah. He was known as the second father of the human race, and the preserver and teacher of the arts and sciences as they existed before the Great Deluge, of which so many separate traditions exist among the various races of mankind. Consequently, he was an object of worship in many countries and under many names; and his wife and sons, as his assistants in the diffusion of knowledge, were sometimes associated with him.
According to Berosus, of Babylon,—the Chaldean priest and astronomer, who extracted from the sacred books of “that great city” much interesting ancient lore, which he introduced into his History of Syria, written, about B.C. 260, for the use of the Greeks,—at a time when men were sunk in barbarism, there came up from the Erythrean Sea (the Persian Gulf), and landed on the Babylonian shore, a creature named Oannes, which had the body and head of a fish. But above the fish’s head was the head of a man, and below the tail of the fish were human feet. It had also human arms, a human voice, and human language. This strange monster sojourned among the rude people during the day, taking no food, but retiring to the sea at night; and it continued for some time thus to visit them, teaching them the arts of civilized life, and instructing them in science and religion.
[Berosus, lib. i. p. 48.]
In this tale we have a distorted account of the life and occupation of Noah after his escape from the deluge which destroyed his home and drowned his neighbours. Oannes was one of the names under which he was worshipped in Chaldea, at Erech (“the place of the ark”), as the sacred and intelligent fish-god, the teacher of mankind, the god of science and knowledge. There he was also called Oes, Hoa, Ea, Ana, Ann, Aun, and Oan. Noah was worshipped, also, in Syria and Mesopotamia, and in Egypt, at “populous No,” [Nahum iii. 8.] or Thebes—so named from “Theba,” “the ark.”
FIG. 2. — HEA, OR NOAH, THE GOD OF THE FLOOD.
The history of the coffin of Osiris is another version of Noah’s ark, and the period during which that Egyptian divinity is said to have been shut up in it, after it was set afloat upon the waters, was precisely the same as that during which Noah remained in the ark.
The Mexican “Coxcox,” who was entitled Huehueton-acateo-cateo-cipatli) or “Fish-god of our flesh,” also resembled Noah; for the Mexican tradition related that in a great time of flood, when the earth was covered with water, he preserved himself and his wife Xochiquetzal in a boat made out of the trunk of a cypress tree—some say on a raft of cypress wood—and peopled the world with wise and intelligent beings. Paintings representing the deluge of Coxcox have been discovered amongst the Aztecs and other nations.
In the Aztec legend of the flood, as translated by the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg from the Codex Chimal-popoca [Nahum iii. 8], Nata and his wife Nena were the persons saved, and the deluge took place on the day Nahui-atl. We find in this word and in the name of this central-American Noah, Nata, the root Na, to which, in all the Aryan language, is attached the meaning of water, and which, pronounced with the broad sound of the a, is very like Noah, or Noe.
The ancient Peruvians also had their semi-fish gods, but the legends connected with them have not been preserved.
The North-American Indians relate that they were conducted from Northern Asia by a man-fish. Once upon a time, according to the legend, in the season of opening buds, the people of their nation were terrified by seeing a strange creature like a man riding upon the waves. He had upon his head long green hair, resembling the coarse weeds which mighty storms scatter along the margin of the strand. Upon his face, which was like that of a porpoise, he had a beard of the same colour, and they saw that from his breast down he was a fish, or rather two fishes, for each of his legs was a whole and distinct fish. He would sit for hours singing to the wondering Indians of the beautiful things he saw in the depths of the ocean, always closing his strange descriptions with the words: “Follow me, and see what I shall show you.” For many suns they dared, not venture upon the water, but when they became hungry they at last put to sea, and, following the man-fish, who kept close to their boat, reached the coast of America.
[Traditions of the North American Indians. J. A. Jones, 1830, p. 47.]
Amongst the Mandans, the landing of Noah from the ark and the events of the deluge are commemorated with religious ceremonies even at the present day, and a rude image of the ark, which has been handed down from generation to generation, is still preserved amongst them.
[George Catlin, in his North American Indians, vol. i. p. 88, says:—”In the centre of the village is an open space, or public square, 150 feet in diameter, and circular in form, which is used for all public games and festivals, shows and exhibitions. The lodges around this open space front in, with their doors toward the centre; and in the middle of this stands an object of great religious veneration, on account of the importance it has in connection with the annual religious ceremonies. This object is in the form of a large hogshead, some 8 or 10 feet high, made of planks and hoops, containing within it some of their choicest mysteries or medicines. They call it the ‘Big Canoe.’”
This is a representation of the ark, and further on, in the same volume (p. 158), Mr. Catlin describes the great annual rites and ceremonials of which it is the centre. He says:—
“On the day set apart for the commencement of the ceremonies, a solitary figure is seen approaching the village. During the deafening din and confusion within the pickets of the village, the figure discovered on the prairie continued to approach with a dignified step, and in a right line towards the village. All eyes were upon him, and he at length made his appearance within the pickets, and proceeded towards the centre of the village, where all the chiefs and braves stood ready to receive him, which they did in a cordial manner by shaking hands, recognizing him as an old acquaintance, and pronouncing his name Nu-mokh-muck-a-nah—the first or only man. The body of this strange personage, which was chiefly naked, was painted with white clay, so as to resemble at a distance a white man. He enters the medicine lodge, and goes through certain mysterious ceremonies. During the whole of this day Nu-mokh-muck-a-nah travelled through the village, stopping in front of each man’s lodge, and crying until the owner of the lodge came out and asked who he was, and what was the matter. To which he replied by relating the sad catastrophe which had happened on the earth’s surface by the overflowing of the waters, and saying that he was the only person saved from the universal calamity; that he landed his big canoe on a high mountain in the west, where he now resides; that he has come to open the medicine lodge, which must needs receive a present of an edged tool from the owner of every wigwam, that it may be sacrificed to the water, for if this is not done there will be another flood, and no one will be saved, as it was with such tools that the big canoe was made. Having visited every lodge in the village during the day, and having received such a present from each as a hatchet, a knife, &c. (which is undoubtedly always prepared ready for the occasion), he places them in the medicine lodge, and on the last day of the ceremony they are thrown into a deep place in the river—sacrificed to the Spirit of the Waters.”]
Amongst the historical chants of the Lenni-Lenape, or Delaware Indians, is one entitled the “Song of the Flood,” in which the ancestor of the new race of men is called Nana-Bush.
[The American Nations. C. S. Rafinesque, Philadelphia, 1836.]
The Chinese, in their early legends, connected their origin with a people who were destroyed by water in a tremendous convulsion of the earth. Associated with this event was a divine personage called Nin-va. In another account the name of Nai Hoang-ti, or Nai Korti, is given to the founder of Chinese civilization. In all these instances there is a remarkable resemblance between the names therein of the hero of the deluge and the Hebrew Noah.
From a bas-relief. Nimroud.
Dagon, also — sometimes called Odacon—the great fish-god of the Philistines and Babylonians, was another phase of Oannes. “Dag,” in Hebrew, signifies “a male fish,” and “Aun” and “Oan” were two of the names of Noah. “Dag-aun” or “Dag-oan” therefore means “the fish Noah.” He was portrayed in two ways. The more ancient image of him was that of a man issuing from a fish, as described of Oannes by Berosus; but in later times it was varied to that of a man whose upper half was human, and the lower parts those of a fish. The image of Dagon which fell upon its face to the ground before “the ark of the God of Israel,” was probably of this latter form, for we read [I Samuel v. 4.] that in its fall, “the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold : only the stump (in the margin, ‘the fishy part’) of Dagon was left to him.” This was evidently Milton’s conception of him :
“Dagon his name; sea-monster,
And downward fish.”
[Paradise Lost, Book i. l. 462.]
In some of the Nineveh sculptures of the fish-god the head of the fish forms a kind of mitre on the head of the man, whilst the body of the fish appears as a cloak or cape over his shoulders and back. The fish varies in length; in some cases the tail almost touches the ground; in others it reaches but little below the man’s waist.
From Lamy’s Apparatus Biblicus.
From an Agate Signet. Nineveh.
FIG. 6.—FISH AVATAR OF VISHNU.
After Calmet and Maurice.
In one of his “avatars,” or incarnations, the god Vishnu, “the Preserver,” is represented as issuing from the mouth of a fish. He is celebrated as having miraculously preserved one righteous family, and, also, the Vedas, the sacred records, when the world was drowned. Not only is this legend of the Indian god wrought up with the history of Noah, but Vishnu and Noah bear the same name — Vishnu being the Sanscrit form of “Ish-nuh,” “the man Noah.” The word “avatar “also means “out of the boat.” In fact the whole mythology of Greece and Rome, as well as of Asia, is full of the history and deeds of Noah, which it is impossible to misunderstand. In all the representations of a deity having a combined human and piscine form, the original idea was that of a person coming out of a fish — not being part of one, but issuing from it, as Noah issued from the ark. In all of them the fish denoted “preservation,” “fecundity,” “plenty,” and “diffusion of knowledge.”
[Some writers are of the opinion that the legend of Oannes contains an allusion to the rising and setting of the sun, and that his semi-piscine form was the expression of the idea that half his time was spent above ground, and half below the waves. The same commentators also regard all the “civilizing” gods and goddesses as, respectively, solar and lunar deities. A double character in one impersonation is so common in ancient mythology, and the attributes symbolized in the worship of Noah and the sun are so nearly alike, that the two interpretations are not incompatible.]
As the image was not the effigy of a divine personage, but symbolized certain attributes of Divinity, its sex was comparatively unimportant; although it is possible that, combined with the fecundity of the fish, the idea of Noah’s wife, as the second mother of all subsequent generations, according to the widely-spread and accepted traditions of the Deluge, may have influenced the impersonation.
FIG. 7.—NOAH AND HIS WIFE AS FISH-TAILED DEITIES.
On a Babylonian Seal. After Munster.
[From an electrotype kindly presented to me by Messrs. W. and R. Chambers, Edinburgh.]
Atergatis, the far-famed goddess of the Syrians, was also a fish-divinity. Her image, like that of Dagon, had at first a fish’s body with human extremities protruding from it; but in the course of centuries it was gradually altered to that of a being the upper portion of whose body was that of a woman and the lower half that of a fish. Gatis was a powerful queen of Sidon, and mother of Semiramis. She received the title of “Ater,” or “Ader,” “the Great,” for the benefits she conferred on her people; one of these benefits being a strict conservation of their fisheries, both from their own imprudent use, and from foreign interference. She issued an edict that no fish should be eaten without her consent, and that no one should take fish in the neighbouring sea without a licence from herself. It is not improbable that she and her celebrated daughter, who is said by Ovid and others to have been the builder of the walls of Babylon, were worshipped together; for that Atergatis was the same as the fish-goddess Ashteroth, or Ashtoreth, “the builder of the encompassing wall,” we have, amongst other proofs, a remarkable one in Biblical history. In the first book of Maccabees v. 43, 44, we read that “all the heathen being discomfited before him (Judas Maccabeus) cast away their weapons, and fled unto the temple that was at Carnaim. But they took the city, and burned the temple with all that were therein. Thus was Carnaim subdued, neither could they stand any longer before Judas.” In the second book of Maccabees xii. 26, we are told that “Maccabeus marched forth to Carnion, and to the temple of Atargatis, and there he slew five and twenty thousand persons.” In Genesis xiv. 5, this city and temple are referred to as “Ashteroth Karnaim.”
Fig. 8 is a representation of Atergatis on a medal coined at Marseilles. It shows that when the Phoenician colony from Syria, by whom that city was founded, settled there, they brought with them the worship of the gods of their country.
From a Phoenician coin.
Atergatis was worshipped by the Greeks as Derceto and Astarte. Lucian writes :—
[Opera Omnia, tom. ii. p. 884, edit. Bened. de Deβ Syr.]
“In Phoenicia I saw the image of Derceto, a strange sight, truly ! For she had the half of a woman, and from the thighs downwards a fish’s tail.”
Diodorus Siculus describes (lib. ii.) the same deity, as represented at Ascalon, as “having the face of a woman, but all the rest of the body a fish’s.” And this very same image at Ascalon, which Diodorus calls Derceto, or Atergatis, is denominated by Herodotus [έσύλησαν τής Ούρανίης ‘Αφροδίτης τό ίρόν.— Lib. i. cap. cv.] “the celestial Aphrodite,” who was identical with the Cyprian and Roman Venus. Of all the sacred buildings erected to the goddess, this temple was by far the most ancient; and the Cyprians themselves acknowledged that their temple was built after the model of it by certain Phoenicians who came from that part of Syria.
FIG. 9.—VENUS RISING FROM THE SEA, SUPPORTED BY TRITONS.
Thus the worship of Noah, as the second father of man-kind, the repopulator of the earth, passed through various phases and transformations till it merged in that of Venus, who rose from the sea, and was regarded as the representative of the reproductive power of Nature—the goddess whom Lucretius thus addressed:
“Blest Venus! Thou the sea and fruitful earth
Peoplest amain; to thee whatever lives
Its being owes, and that it sees the sun:”
and to whom refers the passage in the Orphic hymn :
“From thee are all things—all things thou producest
Which are in heaven, or in the fertile earth,
Or in the sea, or in the great abyss.”
Under this latter phase—the impersonation of Venus— the fish portion of the body was discarded, and the cast-off form was allotted in popular credence to the Tritons—minor deities, who acknowledged the supremacy of the goddess, and were ready to render her homage and service by bearing her in their arms, drawing her chariot, etc, but who still -possessed considerable power as sea-gods, and could calm the waves and rule the storm, at pleasure.
Figs. 10 and 11 are from two Corinthian medals, each shewing Venus in a car or chariot drawn by Tritons, one male, the other female. On the obverse of Fig. 10 is the head of Nero, and on that of Fig. 11 the head of his grandmother Agrippina.
FIG. 10 AND 11. VENUS DRAWN IN HER CHARIOT BY TRITONS.
From two Corinthian coins.
[Numbering is off due to this version having an extra image]
[It is worthy of note that the fish was also adopted as an emblem by the early Christians, and was frequently sculptured on their tombs as a private mark or sign of the faith in which the person there interred had died. It alluded to the letters which composed the Greek word Ιχθύς (“a fish”) forming an anagram, the initials of words which conveyed the following sentiment: Ιησούς, Jesus; Χρίστος, Christ; Θεοῦ, of God; Υἱός, Son; Σωτήρ, Saviour. But it doubtless bore, also, the older meaning of “preservation” and “reproduction,” of which the fish was the symbol, and betokened a belief in a future resurrection, as Noah was preserved to dwell in, and populate, a new world. In Sea Monsters Unmasked, page 55 [page 381 of this volume] I gave a figure, copied by permission from the Illustrated London News, of a rough sculpture in the Roman catacombs, of Jonah being disgorged by a sea-monster. Near to it was found, on another Christian tomb, one of these designs of the “fish; “and it is not a little curious that, whereas the animal depicted as casting forth Jonah is not a whale, but a sea-serpent, or dragon, the ichtheus in this instance is apparently not a fish, but a seal.
FIG. 12.—CHRISTIAN SYMBOL.
From the Catacombs at Rome.
The article referred to appeared in the Illustrated London News of February 3rd, 1872, and the woodcut (Fig. 12), an electrotype of which was most kindly presented to me by the proprietors of that paper, was one of the sketches that accompanied it.]
From the very earliest period of history, then, the conjoined human and fish form was known to every generation of men. It was presented to their sight in childhood by sculptures and pictures, and was a conspicuous object in their religious worship. By the lapse of time its original import was lost and debased; and, from being an emblem and symbol, it came to be accepted as the corporeal shape and structure of actually-existent sea-deities, who might present themselves to the view of the mariner, in visible and tangible form, at any moment Thus were men trained and prepared to believe in mermen and mermaids, to expect to meet with them at sea, and to recognise as one of them any animal the appearance and movements of which could possibly be brought into conformity with their pre-conceived ideas.
Accordingly, and very naturally, we find that from north to south this belief has been entertained. Megasthenes, who was a contemporary of Aristotle, but his junior, and whose geographical work was probably written at about the period of the great philosopher’s death, reported that the sea which surrounded Taprobana, the ancient Ceylon, was inhabited by creatures having the appearance of women. Ælian stated that there were “whales,” or “great fishes,” having the form of satyrs. The early Portuguese settlers in India asserted that true mermen were found in the Eastern seas, and old Norse legends tell of submarine beings of conjoined human and piscine form, who dwell in a wide territory far below the region of the fishes, over which the sea, like the cloudy canopy of our sky, loftily rolls, and some of whom have, from time to time, landed on Scandinavian shores, exchanged their fishy extremities for human limbs, and acquired amphibious habits. Not only have poets sung of the wondrous and seductive beauty of the maidens of these aquatic tribes, but many a Jack tar has come home from sea prepared to affirm on oath that he has seen a mermaid. To the best of his belief he has told the truth. He has seen some living being which looked wonderfully human, and his imagination, aided by an inherited superstition, has supplied the rest.
Before endeavouring to identify the object of his delusion, it may be well to mention a few instances of the supposed appearance of mermen and mermaidens in various localities.
[Naturalis Historia, lib. ix. cap. v.]
“When Tiberius was emperor, an embassy was sent to him from Olysippo (Lisbon) expressly to inform him that a Triton, which was recognised as such by its form, had shown itself in a certain cave, and had been heard to produce loud sounds on a conch-shell. The Nereid, also, is not imaginary: its body is rough and covered with scales, but it has the appearance of a human being. For one was seen upon the same coast; and when it was dying those dwelling near at hand heard it moaning sadly for a long time. And the Governor of Gaul wrote to the divine Augustus that several Nereids had been found dead upon the shore. I have many informants—illustrious persons in high positions—who have assured me that they saw in the Sea of Cadiz a merman whose whole body was exactly like that of a man, that these mermen mount on board ships by night, and weigh down that end of the vessel on which they rest, and that if they are allowed to remain there long they will sink the ship.”
Ælian in one of his short, jerky, disconnected chapters, which rarely exceed a page in length, and some of which only contain two lines, writes:
[De Naturâ Animalium, lib. xvi. cap. xviii.]
“It is reported that the great sea which surrounds the island of Taprobana (Ceylon) contains an immense multitude of fishes and whales, and some of them have the heads of lions, panthers, rams, and other animals; and (which is more wonderful still) some of the cetaceans have the form of satyrs. There are others which have the face of a woman, but prickles instead of hair. In addition to these, it is said there are other creatures of so strange and monstrous a kind that it would be impossible exactly to explain their appearance without the aid of a skilfully drawn picture : these have elongated and coiled tails, and, for feet, have claws (*) or fins.
[* - “Forfices,” literally “shears,” or “nippers,” like the claws of a lobster.]
And I hear that in the same sea there are great amphibious beasts which are gregarious, and live on grain, and by night feed on the corn crops and grass, and are also very fond of the ripe fruit of the palms. To obtain these they encircle in their embrace the trees which are young and flexible, and, shaking them violently, enjoy the fruit which they thus cause to fall. When morning dawns they return to the sea, and plunge beneath the waves.”
Ælian seems to have derived this information from Megasthenes, already referred to; but in another chapter [Lib. xiii. cap. xxi.], he writes with greater certainty concerning these semi-human whales, and claims divine authority for his belief in the existence of tritons.
“Although,” he says, “we have no rational explanation nor absolute proof of that which fishermen are said to be able to affirm concerning the form of the tritons, we have the sworn testimony of many persons that there are in the sea cetaceans which from the head down to the middle of the body resemble the human species. Demostratus, in his works on fishing, says that an aged triton was seen near the town of Tanagra, in Bœotia, which was like the drawings and pictures of tritons, but its features were so obscured by age, and it disappeared so quickly, that its true character was not easily perceptible. But on the spot where it had rested on the shore were found some rough, and very hard scales which had become detached from it. A certain senator— one of those selected by lot to carry on the administration of Achaia and the duties of the annual magistracy” (the mayor, in fact)—“being anxious to investigate the nature of this triton, put a portion of its skin on the fire. It gave out a most horrible odour; and those standing by were unable to decide whether it belonged to a terrestrial or marine animal. But the magistrate’s curiosity had an evil ending, for very soon afterwards, whilst crossing a narrow creek in a boat, he fell overboard and was drowned; and the Tanagreans all regarded this as a judgment upon him for his crime of impiety towards the triton—an interpretation which was confirmed when his decomposing body was cast ashore, for it emitted exactly the same odour as had the burned skin of the triton. The Tanagreans and Demostratus explain whence the triton had strayed, and how it was stranded in this place. I believe that tritons exist, and I reverentially produce as my witness a most veracious god—namely, Apollo Didymaeus, whom no man in his senses would presume to regard as unworthy of credit. He sings thus of the triton, which he calls the sheep of the sea:
‘Dum vocale maris monstrum natst æquore triton
Neptuni pecus, in funes forte incidit extra
which I venture to translate as follows:
A triton, vocal monster of the deep,
One of a flock of Neptune’s scaly sheep,
Was caught, as o’er the wat’ry plain he strayed,
By lines which fishers from their boat had laid.
“Therefore,” Ælian concludes, “if he, the omniscient god, pronounces that there are tritons, it does not behove us to doubt their existence.”
Sir J. Emmerson Tennent, in his Natural History of Ceylon, quoting from the Histoire de la Compagnie de Jésus, mentions that the annalist of the exploits of the Jesuits in India gravely records that seven of these monsters, male and female, were captured at Manaar, in 1560, and carried to Goa, where they were dissected by Demas Bosquez, physician to the Viceroy, “and their internal structure found to be in all respects conformable to the human.” He also quotes Franηois Valentijn, one of the Dutch colonial chaplains, who, in his account of the Natural History of Amboyna [One of the Dutch spice-islands in the Banda Sea, between Celebes and Papua], embodied in his great work on the Netherlands’ possessions in India, published in 1727, devoted the first section of his chapter on the fishes of that island to a minute description of the “Zee-Menschen,” “Zee-Wyven,” and mermaids, the existence of which he warmly insists on as being beyond cavil.
[Beschrijving van Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien, etc., 5 vols, folio, Dordrecht and Amsterdam, 1727, vol. iii. p. 330.]
He relates that in 1653, when a lieutenant in the Dutch service was leading a party of soldiers along the sea-shore in Amboyna, he and all his company saw two mermen swimming at a short distance from the beach.
“They had long and flowing hair of a colour between grey and green, and from their swimming side by side it was presumed that they were male and female. Six weeks afterwards the creatures were again seen by him and more than fifty witnesses, at the same place, by clear daylight. If any narrative in the world,” adds Valentijn, “deserves credit it is this; since not only one, but two mermen together were seen by so many eye-witnesses. Should the stubborn world, however, hesitate to believe it, it matters nothing, as there are people who would even deny that such cities as Rome, Constantinople, or Cairo, exist, merely because they themselves have not happened to see them. But what are such incredulous persons,” he continues, “to make of the circumstance recorded by Albrecht Herport [Itinerarium Indicum, Berne, 1669.] in his account of India, that a merman was seen in the water near the church of Taquan on the morning of the 29th of April, 1661, and a mermaid at the same spot the same afternoon? Or what do they say to the fact that in 1714 a mermaid was not only seen but captured near the island of Boero, five feet, Rhineland measure, in height; which lived four days and seven hours, but, refusing all food, died without leaving any intelligible account of herself?”
[Valentijn’s arguments are as amusingly quaint as the description given by Stow, in his Annals (p. 157), from the Chronicle of Radulphus Coggeshale, of a merman taken on the coast of Suffolk in the time of Henry II. “Neare unto Orford in Suffolk,” he writes, “certain fishers of the sea tooke in their nets a fish having the shape of a man in all points; which fish was kept by Bartholomew de Glaun-ville, custos of the castle of Orford, in the same castle by the space of six moneths and more, for a wonder. He spake not a word. All manner of meates he did eate, but, most greedily, raw fish, after he had crushed out the moisture. Oftentimes he was brought to the church, where he shewed no signs of adoration. At length he stole away to sea, and never after appeared.”]
This last example is said to have been taken in 1712 by a district visitor of the church, who presented it to the Governor Vander Stell. Of this “well-authenticated” specimen Valentijn gives, on a large uncoloured plate, an elaborate portrait amongst those of the most remarkable fishes of the island.
[With the permission and assistance of Messrs. Longman, the accompanying wood-cut of this picture, and that of the Dugong, on page 231, are copied from Sir J. Emerson Tennent’s book published in 1861.]
This plate and the others in the third volume of his fine work, in which the fishes of the Bornean Archipelago are depicted in gorgeous hues, are copied in smaller size from a series of drawings from nature by Samuel Fallours, which had been previously published in 1717 by Louis Renard, in two handsome volumes, dedicated by him to King George III of England.
FIG. 13.—MERMAID AND FISHES OF AMBOYNA.
These plates are tinted by hand in such resplendent colours that the editor felt it necessary to obtain certificates from clergymen and others that they were true to Nature, and that the brilliancy of the coloration was not exaggerated. Amongst them is the picture of the mermaid reproduced by Valentijn, and the following description is given of it.
“Zee-wyf. A monster resembling a Siren taken on the coast of the Island of Bornι or Boeren, in the department of Amboyna. It was fifty-nine inches long, and of the thickness of an eel of proportionate size. It lived on land, in a large tub full of water, during four days and seven hours. It occasionally uttered little cries, like those of a mouse. It would not take food, although small fishes, mollusks, crabs, crayfishes, &c, were placed before it. After its death some excrements, like those of a cat, were found in its tub.”
[Poissons, Ecrivisses, et Crabbes des Isles Moluques et Terres Australes. L. Renard. Amsterdam.]
The Emperor Peter the Great of Russia, happening to visit Renard, who was then the British representative at Amsterdam, whilst he was preparing these plates for publication, saw and admired them, and was so much interested by the figure of the mermaid that he expressed a desire to know more about it, and to have some confirmation of the description given of it Renard accordingly wrote at once (on the 17th of December, 1716) to Valentijn, who had returned from the Indies, and was then a minister of the gospel at Dordrecht, informing him that he was instructed to apply to him by the Czar, who thought it possible that the mermaid might have been sent to him from Amboyna by the governor, Vander Stell. Valentijn replied that it was not impossible that, after he had left Amboyna, the mermaid might have been seen by Fallours, but that, up to that date, he had neither seen nor heard of the original of the drawing enclosed in Renard’s letter. But he assured his correspondent that there are such monsters, and, in proof thereof, declared that in addition to other trustworthy evidence, which he mentioned,
“He could himself affirm that, during his voyage home from the East, he saw on the 1st of May, 1714, in lat. 12° 18', and on the meridian, during clear, calm weather, and at a distance of only three or four ships’ lengths, a monster which was apparently a sea-man. It was of a ‘sea-grey’ colour, stood well up out of the water, and seemed to have on its head a kind of fisherman’s cap made of moss. All the ship’s crew saw it also. Although its back was towards them, it perceived that they were approaching too near, and dived suddenly beneath the surface, and was seen no more.”
To complete his proofs of the existence of mermen and merwomen, Valentijn, in his subsequently published work, points triumphantly to the historical fact that in Holland, in the year 1404, a mermaid was driven, during a tempest, through a breach in the dyke of Edam, in West Friesland, and was taken alive in the lake of Purmer. Some girls going in a boat to milk their cows observing her in the shallow water, and embarrassed in the mud, took her home, dressed her in female attire, and taught her to spin.
[Panval’s Delices de Hollande.]
Thence she was taken to Haarlem, where she lived for several years, always showing a strong inclination for water, and where, several years after, she died in the Roman Catholic faith;—“but this,” says the pious Calvinistic chaplain, “in no way militates against the truth of her story.” The worthy minister citing the authority of various writers as proof that mermaids had in all ages been known in Gaul, Naples, Epirus and the Morea, comes to the conclusion that as there are “sea-cows,” “sea-horses,” “sea-dogs,” as well as “sea-trees,” and “sea-flowers,” which he himself had seen, there are no reasonable grounds for doubt that there may also be “sea-maidens” and “sea-men.”
In an early account of Newfoundland [Whitbourne’s Discourse of Newfoundland], Whitbourne describes a “maremaid or mareman,” which he had seen “within the length of a pike,” and which “came swimming swiftly towards him, looking cheerfully on his face, as it had been a woman. By the face, eyes, nose, mouth, chin, ears, neck and forehead, it appeared to be so beautiful, and in those parts so well proportioned, having round about the head many blue streaks resembling hair, but certainly it was no hair. The shoulders and back down to the middle were square, white, and smooth as the back of a man, and from the middle to the end it tapered like a broad-hooked arrow.” The animal put both its paws on the side of the boat wherein its observer sat, and strove much to get in, but was repelled by a blow.
In 1676, a description was given by an English surgeon named Glover, of an animal of this kind. The author did not designate it by any name, but his account of it was communicated to the Royal Society, and was duly recorded in the Philosophical Transactions.
[Glover’s Account of Virginia, ap. Phil. Trans, vol. xi. p. 625.]
“About three leagues from the mouth of the river Rappahannock, in America, while alone in a vessel, I observed, at the distance of about half a stone-throw,” he says, “a most prodigious creature, much resembling a man, only somewhat larger, standing right up in the water, with his head, neck, shoulders, breast and waist, to the cubits of his arms, above water, and his skin was tawny, much like that of an Indian; the figure of his head was pyramidal and sleek, without hair; his eyes large and black, and so were his eyebrows; his mouth very wide, with a broad black streak on the upper lip, which turned upwards at each end like mustachios. His countenance was grim and terrible. His neck, shoulders, arms, breast and waist, were like unto the neck, arms, shoulders, breast and waist of a man. His hands, if he had any, were under water. He seemed to stand with his eyes fixed on me for some time, and afterwards dived down, and, a little after, rose at somewhat a greater distance, and turned his head towards me again, and then immediately fell a little under water, that I could discern him throw out his arms and gather them in as a man does when he swims. At last, he shot with his head downwards, by which means he cast his tail above the water, which exactly resembled the tail of a fish, with a broad fane at the end of it.”
Dr. John Hill tells us
[A Review of the Works of the Royal Society of London, 1751, p. 96.]
that soon after the publication of this “transaction” it was ascertained that “the creature was no other than an Indian of the country diverting himself with swimming, and having a high cap upon his head made of split wood, in the manner of our basket-work, to keep up his hair.”
Thormodus Torfæus [Historia rerum Norvegicarum] maintains that mermaids are found on the south coast of Iceland, and, according to Olafsen [Voyage en Islande, tom. iii. p. 223], two have been taken in the surrounding seas, the first in the earlier part of the history of that island, and the second in 1733. The latter was found in the stomach of a shark. Its lower parts were consumed, but the upper were entire. They were as large as those of a boy eight or nine years old. Both the cutting teeth and grinders were long and shaped like pins, and the fingers were connected by a large web. Olafsen was inclined to believe that these were human remains, but the islanders all firmly maintained that they were part of a “marmennill,” by which name the mermaid is known among them.
Of course the worthy bishop of Bergen, Pontoppidan, has something to tell us about mermaids in his part of the world.
“Amongst the sea monsters,” he says, [Natural History of Norway, vol. ii. p. 190.] “which are in the North Sea, and are often seen, I shall give the first place to the Hav-manden, or merman, whose mate is called Hav-fruen, or mermaid. The existence of this creature is questioned by many, nor is it at all to be wondered at, because most of the accounts we have had of it are mixed with mere fables, and may be looked upon as idle tales.”
As such he regards the story told by Jonas Ramus in his History of Norway, of a mermaid taken by fishermen at Hordeland, near Bergen, and which is said to have sung an unmusical song to King Hiorlief. In the same category he places an account given by Besenius in his life of Frederic II. (1577), of a mermaid that called herself Isbrandt, and held several conversations with a peasant at Samsoe, in which she foretold the birth of King Christian IV., “and made the peasant preach repentance to the courtiers, who were very much given to drunkenness.” Equally “idle” with the above stories is, in his opinion, another, extracted from an old manuscript still to be seen in the University Library at Copenhagen, and quoted by Andrew Bussaeus (1619), of a merman caught by the two senators, Ulf Rosensparre and Christian Holch, whilst on their voyage home to Denmark from Norway. This sea-man frightened the two worshipful gentlemen so terribly that they were glad to let him go again; for as he lay upon the deck he spoke Danish to them, and threatened that if they did not give him his liberty “the ship should be cast away, and every soul of the crew should perish.”
“When such fictions as these,” says Pontoppidan, “are mixed with the history of the merman, and when that creature is represented as a prophet and an orator; when they give the mermaid a melodious voice, and tell us that she is a fine singer, we need not wonder that so few people of sense will give credit to such absurdities, or that they even doubt the existence of such a creature.” The good prelate, however, goes on to say that “whilst we have no ground to believe all these fables, yet, as to the existence of the creature we may safely give our assent to it,” and, “if this be called in question, it must proceed entirely from the fabulous stories usually mixed with the truth.” Like Valentijn, he argues that as there are “sea-horses,” “sea-cows,” “sea-wolves,” “sea-dogs,” “sea-hogs,” &c, it is probable, from analogy, that “we should find in the ocean a fish or creature which resembles the human species more than any other.” As for the objection “founded on self-love and respect to our own species which is honoured with the image of God, who made man lord of all creatures, and that, consequently, we may suppose he is entitled to a noble and heavenly form which other creatures must not partake of,” he thinks “its force vanishes when we consider the form of apes, and especially of another African creature called ‘Quoyas Morrov’ described by Odoard Dapper in his work on Africa,” and which appears to have been a chimpanzee. Pontoppidan regarded it as being the Satyr of the ancients. He therefore claims that “if we will not allow our Norwegian Hastromber the honourable name of merman, we may very well call it the ‘Sea-ape,’ or the ‘Sea-Quoyas-Morrov;’” especially as the author already quoted says that, “in the Sea of Angola mermaids are frequently caught which resemble the human species. They are taken in nets, and killed by the negroes, and are heard to shriek and cry like women.”
The Bishop adds that in the diocese of Bergen, as well as in the manor of Nordland, there were hundreds of persons who affirmed with the strongest assurances that they had seen this kind of creature; sometimes at a distance and at other times quite close to their boats, standing upright, and formed like a human creature down to the middle—the rest they could not see—but of those who had seen them out of water and handled them he had not been able to find more than one person of credit who could vouch it for truth. This informant, “the Reverend Mr. Peter Angel, minister of Vand-Elvens Gield, on Suderoe,” assured his bishop, when he was on a visitation journey, that
“In the year 1719, he (being then about twenty years old) saw what is called a merman lying dead on a point of land near the sea, which had been cast ashore by the waves along with several sea-calves (seals), and other dead fish. The length of this creature was much greater than what has been mentioned of any before, namely, above three fathoms. It was of a dark grey colour all over; in the lower part it was like a fish, and had a tail like that of a porpoise. The face resembled that of a man, with a mouth, forehead, eyes, etc. The nose was flat, and, as it were, pressed down to the face, in which the nostrils were very visible. The breast was not far from the head; the arms seemed to hang to the side, to which they were joined by a thin skin, or membrane. The hands were, to all appearance, like the paws of a sea-calf. The back of this creature was very fat, and a great part of it was cut off, which, with the liver, yielded a large quantity of train-oil.”
The author then quotes a description by Luke Debes [Feroa Reserata, or Description of the Feroe Islands. 8vo. Copenhagen, 1673.] of a mermaid seen in 1670 at Faroe, westward of Qualboe Eide, by many of the inhabitants, as also by others from different parts of Suderoe. She was close to the shore, and stood there for two hours and a half, and was up to her waist in water. She had long hairs on her head, which hung down to the surface of the water all round about her, and she held a fish in her right hand.
Pontoppidan mentions other instances of similar appearances, and says that the latest he had heard of was of a merman seen in Denmark on the 20th of September, 1723, by three ferrymen who, at some distance from the land, were towing a ship just arrived from the Baltic. Having caught sight of something which looked like a dead body floating on the water; they rowed towards it, and there, resting on their oars, allowed it to drift close to them. It sank, but immediately came to the surface again, and then they saw that it had the appearance of an old man, strong-limbed, and with broad shoulders, but his arms they could not see. His head was small in proportion to his body, and had short, curled, black hair, which did not reach below his ears; his eyes lay deep in his head, and he had a meagre and pinched face, with a black, coarse beard, that looked as if it had been cut. His skin was coarse, and very full of hair. He stood in the same place for half a quarter of an hour, and was seen above the water down to his breast: at last the men grew apprehensive of some danger, and began to retire; upon which the monster blew up his cheeks, and made a kind of roaring noise, and then dived under water, so that they did not see him any more. One of them, Peter Gunnersen, related (what the others did not observe) that this merman was, about the body and downwards, quite pointed, like a fish. This same Peter Gunnersen likewise deposed that “about twenty years before, as he was in a boat near Kulleor, the place where he was born, he saw a mermaid with long hair and large breasts.” He and his two companions were, by command of the king, examined by the burgomaster of Elsineur, Andrew Bussaeus, before the privy-councillor, Fridrich von Gram, and their testimony to the above effect was given on their respective oaths.
Brave old Henry Hudson, the sturdy and renowned navigator, who thrice, in three successive years, gave battle to the northern ice, and was each time defeated in his endeavour to discover a north-west or north-east passage to China, though he stamped his name on the title-page of a mighty nation’s history, records the following incident :—
“This evening (June 15th) one of our company, looking overboard, saw a mermaid, and, calling up some of the company to see her, one more of the crew came up, and by that time she was come close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly on 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 and speckled like a mackerel’s. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner.”
Steller, who was a zoologist of some repute, reported having seen in Behrings Straits a strange animal, which he called a “sea-ape,” and in which one might almost recognise Pontoppidan’s “Sea-Quoyas-Morrov.” It was about five feet long, had sharp and erect ears and large eyes, and on its lips a kind of beard. Its body was thick and round, and tapered to the tail, which was bifurcated, with the upper lobe longest. It was covered with thick hair, grey on the back, and red on the belly. No feet nor paws were visible. It was full of frolic, and sported in the manner of a monkey, swimming sometimes on one side of the ship and sometimes on the other. It often raised one-third of its body out of the water, and stood upright for a considerable time. It would frequently bring up a sea-plant, not unlike a bottle-gourd, which it would toss about and catch in its mouth, playing numberless fantastic tricks with it.
But it is probable that Steiler afterwards recognised the animal, which he at the time compared to the ape; for he gives the following description of the sea-otter, which is now so rare and shy, but which in his time, and on the previously unvisited islands in Behring’s Sea, was both common and free from timidity at the sight of man.
“With respect to playfulness,” he says, “it surpasses every other animal that lives either in the sea or on the land. When it comes up out of the sea it shakes the water from its fur, and dresses it, as a cat does its head with its fore-paws, stretches its body, arranges its hair, throws its head this way and that, contemplating itself and its beautiful fur with evident satisfaction. The animal is so much taken up with this dressing of itself, that while thus employed it may be easily approached and killed. If it eludes an attack it makes the most laughable gestures to the hunter. It looks at him, placing one foot above the head, as if to protect it from the sunlight, throws itself on its back, and, turning to its enemy, as if in scorn, scratches itself on the belly and legs. The female is very fond of her young. When attacked she never leaves it in the lurch, and when danger is not near she plays with it in a thousand ways, throws it up in the air, and catches it in her fore-feet like a ball, swims about with it in her bosom, throws it away now and then, to let it exercise itself in the art of swimming, but takes it to herself with caresses when it is tired.”
Accounts somewhat similar to that of Steiler have been brought from the Southern Hemisphere, two, at least, of which are worth transcribing.
Captain Colnett, in his Voyage to the South Atlantic, says :—
“A very singular circumstance happened off the coast of Chili, in lat. 24o S., which spread some alarm amongst my people, and awakened their superstitious apprehensions. About 8 o’clock in the evening an animal rose alongside the ship, and uttered such shrieks and tones of lamentation, so much like those produced by the female human voice when expressing the deepest distress, as to occasion no small degree of alarm among those who first heard it. These cries continued for upwards of three hours, and seemed to increase as the ship sailed from it I never heard any noise whatever that approached so near those sounds which proceed from the organs of utterance in the human species.”
Captain Weddell, in his Voyage towards the South Pole (p. 143), writes that one of his men, having been left ashore on Hall’s Island to take care of some produce, heard one night about ten o’clock, after he had lain down to rest, a noise resembling human cries. As daylight does not disappear in those latitudes at the season in which the incident occurred, the sailor rose and searched along the beach, thinking that, possibly, a boat might have been upset, and that some of the crew might be clinging to the detached rocks.
“Roused by that voice of silver sound,
From the paved floor he lightly sprung,
And, glaring with his eyes around,
Where the fair nymph her tresses wrung.”
Guided by occasional sounds, he at length saw an object lying on a rock a dozen yards from the shore, at which he was somewhat frightened. “The face and shoulders appeared of human form and of a reddish colour; over the shoulders hung long green hair; the tail resembled that of a seal, but the extremities of the arms he could not sec distinctly.”
“As on the wond’ring youth she smiled,
Again she raised the melting lay,”
for the creature continued to make a musical noise during the two minutes he gazed at it, and, on perceiving him, disappeared in an instant
The universality of the belief in an animal of combined human and fish-like form is very remarkable. That it exists amongst the Japanese we have evidence in their curious and ingeniously-constructed models which are occasionally brought to this country. I have one of these which is so exactly the counterpart of that which my friend Mr. Frank Buckland described, originally in Land and Water, and which forms the subject of a chapter in his Curiosities of Natural History, [Third Series, vol. ii. p. 134, 2nd ed.] that the portrait of the one (Fig. 14) will equally well represent the other. The lower half of the body is made of the skin and scales of a fish of the carp family, and fastened on to this, so neatly that it is hardly possible to detect where the joint is made, is a wooden body, the ribs of which are so prominent that the poor mermaid has a miserable and half-starved appearance. The upper part of the body is in the attitude of a Sphinx, leaning upon its elbows and fore-arms. The arms are thin and scraggy, and the fingers attenuated and skeleton-like.
FIG. 14.—A JAPANESE ARTIFICIAL MERMAID.
The nails are formed of small pieces of ivory or bone. The head is like that of a small monkey, and a little wool covers the crown, so thinly and untidily that if the mermaid possessed a crystal mirror she would see the necessity for the vigorous use of her comb of pearl. The teeth are those of some fish—apparently of the catfish, (Anarchicas lupus). These Japanese artificial mermaids have brought many a dollar into the pockets of Mr. Barnum and other showmen.
Somewhat different in appearance from this, but of the same kind, was an artificial mermaid described in the Saturday Magazine of June 4th, 1836. Fig. 15 is a facsimile of the woodcut which accompanied it.
FIG. 15.—AN ARTIFICIAL MERMAID, PROBABLY JAPANESE.
This grotesque composition was exhibited in a glass case, some years previously, “in a leading street at the west end” of London. It was constructed “of the skin of the head and shoulders of a monkey, which was attached to the dried skin of a fish of the salmon kind with the head cut off, and the whole was stuffed and highly varnished, the better to deceive the eye.” It was said to have been “taken by the crew of a Dutch vessel from on board a native Malacca boat, and from the reverence shown to it, it was supposed to be a representative of one of their idol gods.” I am inclined to think that it was of Japanese origin.
Fig. 16 is described in the article above referred to as having been copied from a Japanese drawing, and as being a portrait of one of their deities.
FIG. 16.—A MERMAID.
From a Japanese picture.
Its similarity to one of those of the Assyrians (Fig. 2, page 187) is remarkable. The inscription, however, does not indicate this. The Chinese characters in the centre — “Nin giyo” — signify “human fish”; those on the right in Japanese Hira Kana, or running-hand, have the same purport, and those on the left, in Kata Kana, the characters of the Japanese alphabet, mean “Ichi hiru ike” — “one day kept alive.” The whole legend seems to pretend that this human fish was actually caught, and kept alive in water for twenty-four hours, but, as the box on which it is inscribed is one of those in which the Japanese showmen keep their toys, it was probably the subject of a “penny peep-show.”
We need not travel from our own country to find the belief in mermaids yet existing. It is still credited in the north of Scotland that they inhabit the neighbouring seas : and Dr. Robert Hamilton, F.R.S.E., writing in 1839, expressed emphatically his opinion that there was then as much ignorance on this subject as had prevailed at any former period.
[Naturalist’s Library, Marine Amphibiae, p. 291.]
In the year 1797, Mr. Munro, schoolmaster of Thurso, affirmed that he had seen “a figure like a naked female, sitting on a rock projecting into the sea, at Sandside Head, in the parish of Reay. Its head was covered with long, thick, light-brown hair, flowing down on the shoulders. The forehead was round, the face plump, and the cheeks ruddy. The mouth and lips resembled those of a human being, and the eyes were blue. The arms, fingers, breast, and abdomen were as large as those of a full-grown female,” and, altogether,
“That sea-nymph’s form of pearly light
Was whiter than the downy spray,
And round her bosom, heaving bright,
Her glossy yellow ringlets play.”
“This creature,” continued Mr. Munro, “was apparently in the act of combing its hair with its fingers, which seemed to afford it pleasure, and it remained thus occupied during some minutes, when it dropped into the sea.”
“saw the maiden there,
Just as the daylight faded,
Braiding her locks of gowden hair
An’ singing as she braided,”
[The Ettrick Shepherd.]
but he did not remark whether the fingers were webbed. On the. whole, he infers that this was a marine animal of which he had a distinct and satisfactory view, and that the portion seen by him bore a narrow resemblance to the human form. But for the dangerous situation it had chosen, and its appearance among the waves, he would have supposed it to be a woman. Twelve years later, several persons observed near the same spot an animal which they, also, supposed to be a mermaid.
A very remarkable story of this kind is one related by Dr. Robert Hamilton in the volume already referred to, and for the general truth of which he vouches, from his personal knowledge of some of the persons connected with the occurrence. In 1823 it was reported that some fishermen of Yell, one of the Shetland group, had captured a mermaid by its being entangled in their lines. The statement was that
“The animal was about three feet long, the upper part of the body resembling the human, with protuberant mammae, like a woman; the face, forehead, and neck were short, and resembled those of a monkey; the arms, which were small, were kept folded across the breast; the fingers were distinct, not webbed; a few stiff, long bristles were on the top of the head, extending down to the shoulders, and these it could erect and depress at pleasure, something like a crest. The inferior part of the body was like a fish. The skin was smooth, and of a grey colour. It offered no resistance, nor attempted to bite, but uttered a low, plaintive sound. The crew, six in number, took it within their boat, but, superstition getting the better of curiosity, they carefully disentangled it from the lines and a hook which had accidentally become fastened in its body, and returned it to its native element. It instantly dived, descending in a perpendicular direction.”
Mr. Edmonston, the original narrator of this incident, was “a well-known and intelligent observer,” says Dr. Hamilton, and in a communication made by him to the Professor of Natural History in the Edinburgh University gave the following additional particulars, which he had learned from the skipper and one of the crew of the boat:—
“They had the animal for three hours within the boat: the body was without scales or hair; it was of a silvery grey colour above, and white below; it was like the human skin; no gills were observed, nor fins on the back or belly. The tail was like that of a dog-fish; the mammas were about as large as those of a woman; the mouth and lips were very distinct, and resembled the human. Not one of the six men dreamed of a doubt of its being a mermaid, and it could not be suggested that they were influenced by their fears, for the mermaid is not an object of terror to fishermen; it is rather a welcome guest, and danger is apprehended from its experiencing bad treatment.”
Mr. Edmonston concludes by saying that
“The usual resources of scepticism that the seals and other sea-animals appearing under certain circumstances, operating upon an excited imagination, and so producing ocular illusion, cannot avail here. It is quite impossible that six Shetland fishermen could commit such a mistake.”
It would seem that the narrator demands that his readers shall be silenced, if unconvinced; but
“He that complies against his will
Is of his own opinion still.”
This incident is well-attested, and merits respectful and careful consideration. If Mr. Edmonston himself had seen the animal, his evidence would have been still more important; but I decline to admit any such impossibility of error in observation or description on the part of the fishermen, or the further impossibility of recognising in the animal captured by them one known to naturalists. The particulars given in this instance, and also of the supposed merman seen cast ashore dead in 1719 by the Rev. Peter Angel (p. 210), are sufficiently accurate descriptions of a warm-blooded marine animal, with which the Shetlanders, and probably Mr. Edmonston also, were unacquainted, namely, the rytina, of which I shall have more to say presently (p. 228).
It would be hazarding too much to identify them with that Sirenian, for its only known habitat is far away northward in Behring’s Sea; yet these occurrences seem to me to afford some indication that as this remarkable beast, which was supposed to have become extinct in 1768, is now known to have been still in existence in 1854, it is not impossible that, at rare intervals, individuals of this genus may have been carried by ice, or driven by currents or weather, further south than it was met with by its original describer, Steiler.
Turning to Ireland, we find the same credence in the semi-human fish, or fish-tailed human being. It was affirmed—
“That in the autumn of 1819 a creature appeared on the Irish coast, about the size of a girl ten years of age, with a bosom as prominent as one of sixteen, having a profusion of long dark-brown hair, and full, dark eyes. The hands and arms were formed like those of a man, with a slight web connecting the upper part of the fingers, which were frequently employed in throwing back and dividing the hair. The tail appeared like that of a dolphin.”
This creature remained basking on the rocks during an hour, in the sight of numbers of people, until frightened by the flash of a musket, when
“Away she went with a sea-gull’s scream,
And a splash of her saucy tail,”
[Thomas Hood. The Mermaid at Margate.]
for it instantly plunged with a scream into the sea.
From Irish legends we learn that those sea-nereids, the “Merrows,” or “Moruachs” came occasionally from the sea gained the affections of men, and interested themselves in their affairs; and similar traditions of the “Morgan” (sea-women) and the “Morverch” (sea-daughters) are current in Brittany.
In English poetry the mermaid has been the subject of many charming verses, and Shakspeare alludes to it in his plays no less than six times. The head-quarters of these “daughters of the sea” in England, or of the belief in their existence, are in Cornwall. There the fishermen, many a time and
“Oft, beneath the silver moon,
Has heard, afar, the mermaid sing,”
and has listened, so they say, to
“The mermaid’s sweet sea-soothing lay
That charmed the dancing waves to sleep.”
Mr. Robert Hunt, F.R.S., in his collection of the traditions and superstitions of old Cornwall [Romances and Drolls of the West of England. London : Hotten, 1871.], records several curious legends of the “merrymaids” and “merrymen” (the local name of mermaids), which he had gathered from the usher-folk and peasants in different parts of that county.
And, in a pleasant article in All the Year Round, [Vol xiii. p. 336.] 1865, “A Cornish Vicar” mentions some of the superstitions of the people in his neighbourhood, and the perplexing questions they occasionally put to him.
[The “Cornish Vicar” was, evidently, the Rev. Robert Stephen Hawker, M.A., Vicar of Morwenstow, and author of Echoes from Old Cornwall, Footprints of Former Men in Cornwall, &c.]
One of his parishioners, an old man named Anthony Cleverdon, but who was popularly known as “Uncle Tony,” having been the seventh son of his parents, in direct succession, was looked upon, in consequence, as a soothsayer. This “ancient augur” confided to his pastor many highly efficacious charms and formularies, and, in return, sought for information from him on other subjects. One day he puzzled the parson by a question which so well illustrates the local ideas concerning mermaids, and the sequel of which is, moreover, so humorously related by the vicar, that I venture to quote his own words, as follows :—
“Uncle Tony said to me, ‘Sir, there is one thing I want to ask you, if I may be so free, and it is this: why should a merrymaid, that will ride about upon the waters in such terrible storms, and toss from sea to sea in such ruckles as there be upon the coast, why should she never lose her looking-glass and comb?’ ‘Well, I suppose,’ said I, ‘that if there are such creatures, Tony, they must wear their looking-glasses and combs fastened on somehow, like fins to a fish.’ ‘See !’ said Tony, chuckling with delight, ‘what a thing it is to know the Scriptures, like your reverence; I should never have found it out. But there’s another point, sir, I should like to know, if you please; I’ve been bothered about it in my mind hundreds of times. Here be I, that have gone up and down Holacombe cliffs and streams fifty years come next Candlemas, and I’ve gone and watched the water by moonlight and sunlight, days and nights, on purpose, in rough weather and smooth (even Sundays, too, saving your presence), and my sight as good as most men’s, and yet I never could come to see a merry-maid in all my life : how’s that, sir ?’ ‘Are you sure, Tony,’ I rejoined, ‘that there are such things in existence at all ?’ ‘Oh, sir, my old father see her twice! He was out one night for wreck (my father watched the coast, like most of the old people formerly), and it came to pass that he was down at the duck-pool on the sand at low-water tide, and all to once he heard music in the sea. Well, he croped on behind a rock, like a coastguardsman watching a boat, and got very near the music .... and there was the merrymaid, very plain to be seen, swimming- about upon the waves like a woman bathing—and singing away. But my father said it was very sad and solemn to hear—more like the tune of a funeral hymn than a Christmas carol, by far—but it was so sweet that it was as much as he could do to hold back from plunging into the tide after her. And he an old man of sixty-seven, with a wife and a houseful of children at home. The second time was down here by Holacombe Pits. He had been looking out for spars—there was a ship breaking up in the Channel—and he saw some one move just at half-tide mark; so he went on very softly, step by step-, till he got nigh the place, and there was the merrymaid sitting on a rock, the bootyfullest merrymaid that eye could behold, and she was twisting about her long hair, and dressing it, just like one of our girls getting ready for her sweetheart on the Sabbath-day. The old man made sure he should greep hold of her before ever she found him out, and he had got so near that a couple of paces more and he would have caught her by the hair, as sure as tithe or tax, when, lo and behold, she looked back and glimpsed him ! So, in one moment she dived head-foremost off the rock, and then tumbled herself topsy-turvy about in the water, and cast a look at my poor father, and grinned like a seal.’“
And a seal it probably was that Tony’s “poor father” saw.
What, then, are these mermaids and mermen, a belief in whose existence has prevailed in all ages, and amongst all the nations of the earth? Have they, really, some of the parts and proportions of man, or do they belong to another order of mammals on which credulity and inaccurate observation have bestowed a false character?
Mr. Swainson, a naturalist of deserved eminence, has maintained on purely scientific grounds, that there must exist a marine animal uniting the general form of a fish with that of a man; that by the laws of Nature the natatorial type of the Quadrumana is most assuredly wanting, and that, apart from man, a being connecting the seals with the monkeys is required to complete the circle of quadrumanous animals.
[Geography and Distribution of Animals]
Mr. Gosse [Romance of Natural History, 2nd Series.] argues that all the characters which Mr. Swainson selects as making the natatorial type of animals belong to man, and that he being, in his savage state, a great swimmer, is the true aquatic primate, which Mr. Swainson regards as absent Mr. Gosse admits, however, that “nature has an odd way of mocking at our impossibilities, and” that “it may be that green-haired maidens with oary tails, lurk in the ocean caves, and keep mirrors and combs upon their rocky shelves and the conclusion he arrives at is that the combined evidence “induces a strong suspicion that the northern seas may hold forms of life as yet uncatalogued by science.”
That there are animals in the northern and other seas with which we are unacquainted, is more than probable— discoveries of animals of new species are constantly being made, especially in the life of the deep sea—but I venture to think that the production of an animal at present unknown is quite unnecessary to account for the supposed appearances of mermaids.
We have in the form and habits of the Phocidœ, or earless seals, a sufficient interpretation of almost every incident of the kind that has occurred north of the Equator—of those in which protuberant mammœ are described, we must presently seek another explanation. The round, plump, expressive face of a seal, the beautiful, limpid eyes, the hand-like fore-paws, the sleek body, tapering towards the flattened hinder fins, which are directed backwards, and spread out in the form of a broad fin, like the tail of a fish, might well give the idea of an animal having the anterior part of its body human and the posterior half piscine.
In the habits of the seals, also, we may trace those of the supposed mermaid, and the more easily the better we are acquainted with them. All seals are fond of leaving the water frequently. They always select the flattest and most shelving rocks which have been covered at high tide, and prefer those that are separated from the mainland. They generally go ashore at half-tide, and invariably lie with their heads towards the water, and seldom more than a yard or two from it There they will often remain, if undisturbed, for six hours; that is, until the returning tide floats them off the rock. As for the sweet melody, “so melting soft,” that must depend much on the ear and musical taste of the listener. I have never heard a seal utter any vocal sounds but a porcine grunt, a plaintive moan, and a pitiful whine. But another habit of the seals has, probably more than anything else, caused them to be mistaken for semi-human beings—namely, that of poising themselves upright in the water with the head and the upper third part of the body above the surface.
One calm sunny morning in August, 1881, a fine schooner-yacht, on board of which I was a guest, was slowly gliding out of the mouth of the river Maas, past the Hook of Holland, into the North Sea, when a seal rose just ahead of us, and assumed the attitude above described. It waited whilst we passed it, inspecting us apparently with the greatest interest; then dived, swam in the direction in which we were sailing, so as to intercept our course, and came up again, sitting upright as before. This it repeated three times, and so easily might it have been taken for a mermaid, that one of the party, who was called on deck to see it, thought, at first, that it was a boy who had swam off from the shore to the vessel on a begging expedition.
Laing, in his account of a voyage to the North, mentions having seen a seal under similar circumstances.
A young seal which was brought from Yarmouth to the Brighton Aquarium in 1873, habitually sat thus, showing his head and a considerable portion of his body out of water. His bath was so shallow in some parts that he was able to touch the bottom, and, with his after-flippers tucked under him, like a lobster’s tail, and spread out in front, he would balance himself on his hind quarters, and look inquisitively at everybody, and listen attentively to everything within sight and hearing. When he was satisfied that no one was likely to interfere with him, and that it was unnecessary to be on the alert, he would half-close his beautiful, soft eyes, and either contentedly pat, stroke, and scratch his little fat stomach with his right paw, or flap both of them across his breast in a most ludicrous manner, exactly as a cabman warms the tips of his fingers on a wintry day, by swinging his arms vigorously across his chest, and striking his hands against his body on either side. He was very sensitive to musical sounds, as many dogs are, and when a concert took place in the building a high note from one of the vocalists would cause him to utter a mournful wail, and to dive with a splash that made the water fly, the audience smile, and the singer frown.
Captain Scoresby tells us that he had seen the walrus with its head above water, and in such a position that it required little stretch of imagination to mistake it for a human being, and that on one occasion of this kind the surgeon of his ship actually reported to him that he had seen a man with his head above water.
Peter Gunnersen’s merman (p. 212), who “blew up his cheeks and made a kind of roaring noise” before diving, was probably a “bladder-nose” seal. The males of that species have on the head a peculiar pad, which they can dilate at pleasure, and their voice is loud and discordant
The appearance and behaviour of Steller’s “sea ape,” described on p. 213, was, as he subsequently perceived, in exact conformity with the observed habits of the sea-otter, and they might, I think, be attributed, with almost equal probability to one of the eared seals, the so-called sea-lions, or sea-bears. Every one who has seen these animals fed must have noticed the rapidity with which they will dive and swim to any part of their pond where they expect to receive food, and how, like a dog after a pebble, they will keenly watch their keeper’s movements, and start in the direction to which he is apparently about to throw a fish, even before the latter has left his hand. This may be seen at the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, and, better than anywhere else in Europe, at the Jardin d’Acclimatation, Paris. It would be quite in accordance with their habits that one of these Otaria should dive under a ship, and rise above the surface on either side, eagerly surveying those on board, in hope of obtaining food, or from mere curiosity.
The seals and their movements account for so many mermaid stories, that all accounts of sea-women with prominent bosoms were ridiculed and discredited until competent observers recognised in the form and habits of certain aquatic animals met with in the bays and estuaries of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the west coast of Africa, and sub-tropical America, the originals of these “travellers’ tales.” These were—first, the manatee, which is found in the West Indian Islands, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and Brazil, and in Africa in the River Congo, Senegambia, and the Mozambique Channel; second, the dugong, or halicore, which ranges along the east coast of Africa, Southern Asia, the Bornean Archipelago, and Australia; and, third, the rytina, seen on Behring’s Island in the Kamschatkan Sea by Steiler, the Russian zoologist and voyager, in 1741, and which is supposed to be now utterly extinct, in consequence of its having been recklessly and indiscriminately slaughtered.
[Almost all that is known of the living rytina is from an account published in 1751, in St. Petersburg, by Steiler, who was the surgeon of Behring’s ship wrecked on an unknown and uninhabited island in the Kamschatkan Sea, thenceforth called “Behring’s Island.” When the unfortunate crew landed there, on November 17th, 1741, the “sea-cows,” as they were named, pastured along the shore in herds; but during the ten months that the party remained on the island, they found the flesh of this animal so palatable that the fame of it was published by them on their return home, and it became a practice for the crews of all Russian vessels fitted out for the capture of the sea-otter to pass the winter on Behring’s Island, in order to lay in a sufficient provision of sea-cow meat to last them during the hunting season. The rytina thus became more and more scarce, and until within the last few years it was believed to have been exterminated in the year 1768, only twenty-seven years after its first discovery by Steiler. This supposition was, however, incorrect, for Professor Nor-denskiold, when he visited Behring’s Island in the “Vega,” in 1879, obtained evidence of a living rytina having been seen as recently as 1854.]
Then science, in the person of Illeger, made the amende honorable, and frankly accepting Jack’s introduction to his fish-tailed innamorata, classed these three animals together as a sub-order of the animal kingdom, and bestowed on them the name of the Sirenia. This was, of course, in allusion to the Sirens of classical mythology, who, in later art, were represented as having the body of a woman above the waist, and that of a fish below, although they were originally figured as having wings at their shoulders, and the lower portion of their body like that of a bird.
It has been found difficult to determine to which order these Manatidœ are most nearly allied. In shape they most closely resemble the whale and seals. But the cetacea are all carnivorous, whereas the manatee and its relatives live entirely on vegetable food. Although, therefore, Dr. J. E. Gray, following Cuvier, classed them with the cetacea in his British Museum catalogue, other anatomists, as Professor Agassiz, Professor Owen, and Dr. Murie, regard their resemblance to the whales as rather superficial than real, and conclude from their organisation and dentition that they ought either to form a group apart, or be classed with the pachyderms—the hippopotamus, tapir, etc.—with which they have the nearest affinities, and to which they seem to have been more immediately linked by the now lost genera, Dinotherium and Halitherium. With the opinion of those last-named authorities I entirely agree. I regard the manatee as exhibiting a wonderful modification and adaptation of the structure of a warm-blooded land animal which enables it to pass its whole life in water, and as a connecting link between the hippopotamus, elephant, etc. on the one side, and the whales and seals on the other.
The Halitherium was a Sirenian with which we are only acquainted by its fossil remains found in the Miocene formation of Central and Southern Europe. These indicate that it had short hind limbs, and, consequently, approached more nearly the terrestrial type than either the manatee, the rytina, or the dugong, in which the hind limbs are absent The two last named tend more than does the manatee to the marine mammals; but there is a strong likeness between these three recent forms. They all have a cylindrical body, like that of a seal, but instead of hind limbs there is in all a broad tail flattened horizontally; and the chief difference in their outward appearance is in the shape of this organ. In the manatee it is rounded, in the dugong forked like that of a whale, in the rytina crescent-shaped. The tail of the Halitherium appears to have been shaped somewhat like that of the beaver. The body of the manatee is broader in proportion to its length and depth than that of the dugong. Ina paper read before the Royal Society, July 12th, 1821, on a manatee sent to London in spirits by the Duke of Manchester, then Governor of Jamaica, Sir Everard Home remarked of this greater lateral expansion that, as the manatee feeds on plants that grow at the mouths of great rivers, and the dugong upon those met with in the shallows amongst small islands in the Eastern seas, the difference of form would make the manatee more buoyant, and better fitted to float in fresh water.
In all the Manatidœ the mammae of the female, which are greatly distended during the period of lactation, are situated very differently from those of the whales, being just beneath the pectoral fins. These fins or paws are much more flexible and free in their movements than those of the cetae, and are sufficiently prehensile to enable the animal to gather food between the palms or inner surfaces of both, and the female to hold her young one to her breast with one of them. Like the whales, they are warm-blooded mammals, breathing by lungs, and are therefore obliged to come to the surface at frequent intervals for respiration. As they breathe through nostrils at the end of the muzzle, instead of, like most of the whales,
FIG. 17.—THE DUGONG.
From Sir J. Emerson Tennent’s ‘Ceylon’
through a blow-hole on the top of the head, their habit is to rise, sometimes vertically, in the water, with the head and fore part of the body exposed above the surface, and often to remain in this position for some minutes. When seen thus, with head and breast bare, and clasping its young one to its body, the female presents a certain resemblance to a woman from the waist upward. When approached or disturbed it dives; the tail and hinder portion of the body come into view, and we see that if there was little of the “mulier formosa superne,” at any rate “desinit in piscem.” The manatee has thence been called by the Spaniards and Portuguese the “woman-fish,” and by the Dutch the “manetje,” or mannikin. The dugong, having the muzzle bristly, is named by the latter the “baard-manetje,” or “little bearded man.” There are no bristles or whiskers on the muzzle of the manatee; all the portraits of it in which these are shown are in that respect erroneous. The origin of the word “manatee” has by some been traced to the Spanish, as indicating “an animal with hands.” On the west coast of Africa it is called by the natives “Ne-hoo-le.” By old writers it was described as the “sea-cow.” Gesner depicts it in the act of bellowing; and Mr. Bates, in his work, The Naturalist on the Amazon, says that its voice is something like the bellowing of an ox. The Florida “crackers” or “mean whites,” make the same statement. Although I have had opportunities of prolonged observation of it in captivity, I have not heard it give utterance to any sound—not even a grunt —and Mr. Bartlett, of the Zoological Gardens, tells me that his experience of it is the same. His son, Mr. Clarence Bartlett, says that a young one he had in Surinam used to make a feeble cry, or bleat, very much like the voice of a young seal. This is the only sound he ever heard from a manatee.
[For a full description of the habits of this animal in captivity, see an article by the present writer in the Leisure Hour of September 28, 1878; from which the illustration, Fig. 18, is borrowed by the kind consent of the Editor of that publication.]
I believe the dugong to be more especially the animal referred to by Ælian as the semi-human whale, and that which has led to this group having been supposed by southern voyagers to be aquatic human beings. In the first place, the dugong is a denizen of the sea, whereas the manatee is chiefly found in rivers and fresh-water lagoons; and secondly, the dugong accords with Ælian’s description of the creature with a woman’s face in that it has “prickles instead of hairs,” whilst the manatee has no such stiff bristles.
FIG. 18 – THE MANATEE. ITS USUAL POSITION
In the case of either of these two animals being mistaken for a mermaid, however, “distance” must “lend enchantment to the view,” and a sailor must be very impressible and imaginative who, even after having been deprived for many months of the pleasure of females’ society, could be allured by the charms of a bristly-muzzled dugong, or mistake the snorting of a wallowing manatee for the love-song of a beauteous sea-maiden.
Unfortunately both the dugong and the manatee are being hunted to extinction.
The flesh of the manatee is considered a great delicacy. Humboldt compares it with ham. Unlike that of the whales, which is of a deep and dark red hue, it is as white as veal, and, it is said, tastes very like it It is remarkable for retaining its freshness much longer than other meat, which in a tropical climate generally putrefies in twenty-eight hours. It is therefore well adapted for pickling, as the salt has time to penetrate the flesh before it is tainted. The Catholic clergy of South America do not object to its being eaten on fast days, on the supposition that, with whales, seals, and other aquatic mammals, it may be liberally regarded as “fish.” The “Indians” of the Amazon and Orinoco are so fond of it that they will spend many days, if necessary, in hunting for a manatee, and having killed one will cut it into slabs and slices on the spot, and cook these on stakes thrust into the ground aslant over a great fire, and heavily gorge themselves as long as the provision lasts. The milk of this animal is said to be rich and good, and the skin is valuable for its toughness, and is much in request for making leathern articles in which great strength and durability are required. The tail contains a great deal of oil, which is believed to be extremely nutritious, and has also the property of not becoming rancid. Unhappily for the dugong, its oil is in similarly high repute, and is greatly preferred as a nutrient medicine to cod-liver oil. As its flesh also is much esteemed, it is so persistently hunted on the Australian coasts that it will probably soon become extinct, like the rytina of Steiler.
The same fate apparently awaits the manatee, which is becoming perceptibly more and more scarce.
I fear that before many years have elapsed the Sirens of the Naturalist will have disappeared from our earth, before the advance of civilization, as completely as the fables and superstitions with which they have been connected, before the increase of knowledge; and that the mermaid of fact will have become as much a creature of the past as the mermaid of fiction. With regard to the latter—the Siren of the poets,—the water-maiden of the pearly comb, the crystal mirror, and the sea-green tresses,—there are few persons, I suppose, at the present day who would not be content to be classed with Banks, the fine old naturalist and formerly ship-mate of Captain Cook. Sir Humphry Davy in his “Salmonia” relates an anecdote of a baronet, a profound believer in these fish-tailed ladies, who on hearing some one praise very highly Sir Joseph Banks, said that “Sir Joseph was an excellent man, but he had his prejudices—he did not believe in the mermaid.” I confess to having a similar “prejudice;” and am willing to adopt the further remark of Sir Humphry Davy:—“I am too much of the school of Izaac Walton to talk of impossibility. It doubtless might please God to make a mermaid, but I don’t believe God ever did make one.”
[Allusion is here made by Sir H. Davy to a paragraph in The Complete Angler, in which Izaak Walton says: “Indeed, we may say of angling as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries, ‘Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did’; and so (if I might be judge) God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.”]