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“The oldest recorded merpeople were known as sirens (Greece) and it is in warmer waters that we find the beautiful mermaids more frequently depicted in Muggle literature and painting. The selkies of Scotland and the merrows of Ireland are less beautiful, but they share that love of music which is common to all merpeople.”
– Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, J.K. Rowling
“Pale rays of light tiptoed across the waters; and by and by there was to be heard a sound at once the most musical and the most melancholy in the world: the mermaids calling to the moon.” ― Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
Water has been as important to folklore as it has been to life itself. It has an equivocal ability to both nourish and destroy. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that at the centre of these myths and stories are aquatic beings that are both as benevolent and malevolent as the waters they inhabit. Tales of mermaids, or variations of them, are told around the world from Europe to Africa, from Inuit to Hindu, and from the Aegean Sea to the Caribbean Sea. Epic adventures of half-human hybrids either rescuing their land-dwelling neighbors from poverty, illness, danger and loneliness, or acting as harbingers of death are told in all places throughout all times.
Mermaids have become associated with many mythological water-dwelling races:
Here are a few of the most surprising things I have recently learned about mermaids:
The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli
Mermaid Goddesses? Yes! Syrian Goddess, Atargatis comes up repeatedly when researching the subject of mermaids not because she is a particularly significant deity, but because she is the oldest mention of a half-fish, half-humanoid being we know of (1250 BC). Myths about her vary, but all include her plunging herself into a lake out of shame (for either killing her lover or bearing his child) and turning into a fish while retaining her human-like head. She gives birth to a daughter. The birth of her daughter bears resemblance to the Greco-Roman myth of the birth of Venus/Aphrodite. Venus is nicknamed the “Syrian Goddess” by the Romans after the place of her birth. Another similarity between these two goddesses is that myths of both Atargatis and Aphrodite have been used to explain the constellation of Pisces.
Mami Wata – by Wen-M
Mami Wata is a reincarnation of ancient African water deities. She is described as having the upper body and head of a woman and the lower body of a fish or serpent. Imagery of Mami Wata started cropping up after the arrival of Europeans on the West Coast of African in the late 15th century. The likeness of European mermaids were quickly adopted into the African pantheons and spread rapidly across Africa and the Caribbean. Today, ceremonies are held in her honor and rituals are performed by trained priests and priestesses.
Ved-eva is a Baltic sea goddess, most known to those nations who are dependant on fishing. She has long hair, large breasts and the lower body of a fish.
What is most interesting is that all of these mermaid goddesses, despite their geographic origin are deities of love, sex and fertility. No wonder the mermaid has evolved into such a sexy seductress!
The first (non-divine) mermaid mentioned in written history was actually a merman! The story of Nicholas Pipe, Man of the Sea was first published by 12th century Latin author, Walter Map. The tale describes a man who frequented the bottom of the ocean unharmed and could go without taking a breath for months or even a year. He would warn ships of coming storms and collect human artifacts to bring down to the sea with him. In the original story, he looked like any human man with legs and all, but had the aptitudes of a fish.
Mermaids rarely had names. Even Hans Christian Andersen did not provide his classic fairytale heroine from The Little Mermaid with a name.The name “Ariel” was invented by Disney. Besides Nicholas Pipe, the only other classic mermaid with a name is Mary Chinidh (pron. Kinney). Her story, An Mhaighdean Mhara (The Sea Maiden or The Mermaid) is a traditional Irish folk song. Mary Chinidh, a sea maiden who lost her seal skin had no other choice but to stay ashore for she could not return to the sea, so she married a mortal and bore him children. One day, she finds her seal skin again and is compelled to return to the ocean leaving her family behind forever. The lyrics of the song are a conversation between Mary and her daughter (also named Mary) on the day of her departure.
Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper
Not all mermaids had tails! Weird, right? Mary Chinidh and Nicholas Pipe were sea-people, but they had legs instead of tails and often came to shore. Selkies took the form of seals when they were in the water, but transformed into beautiful maidens on land. Merrows also came to shore and would fall in love with human men and marry them without the help of a sea witch’s spell. Sirens used their beautiful singing voices to lure sailors to their deaths, but they were never part fish despite 20th century artists depicting them as such – in fact, they were part bird!
Feathers or Scales …or hooves? Sirens were not the only merfolk with feathers. Merrows wore red feather caps to propel themselves underwater. Like a selkie’s seal skin, if a merrow lost their cap, they could not return to the sea. Stealing these precious objects was an underhanded way for lustful mortal men to trick their owners into marrying them. Although fish scales and tails are the modern favorite when it comes to merfolk appendages, some classic merfolk had hooves! Glastigs are nasty goat-footed maidens that haunt waterfalls. Selkies, both male and female, would not always come ashore in their very attractive human forms, but occasionally they would show themselves in the form of cattle.
Mermaids are herbologists? Some say that Mugwort was a gift to humankind from the mermaids. There is an old Scottish folktale of a mermaid perched on a rock watching the funeral procession of a young girl go by. She shouted at them:
If they wad drink nettles in March, and eat muggins in May, Sae mony braw maidens Wad not go to clay.
In other words, she was giving the people a remedy for consumption.
Mermaid schools – they exist! Have you always wanted to be a mermaid? Now you can! Mermaid schools are popping up all over North America. Go be a mermaid! Go!
“My gentle Puck, come hither.
Thou rememberest since
Once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music?” – Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream -excerpt-, by William Shakespeare
“…the Leprechauns can be bitterly malicious if they are offended, and one should he very cautious in dealing with them, and always treat them with great civility, or they will take revenge and never reveal the secret of the hidden … Continue reading →