Mermaid

Fish-tailed MERBEING of the Atlantic Ocean.

Etymology: Middle English, mere ("sea") + maide ("maid").

Variant names: Merfolk (plural), Merman (for the male). Also Ben-varrey (Manx), Bocto-gai (Irish), Ceasg (Gaelic), Dinny-mara (Manx), Doinney varrey (Manx, for the male), Hav-MAND, Homen marinho (Portuguese), Liban, Maighdean mhara (Irish), Merrow (Irish), Mer-rymaid (in Cornwall, England), Mhaidan mhare (Scots Gaelic), Morgan (Breton, "sea woman"), Morverch (Breton, "sea daughter"), Muirgheilt (Irish), Murdhucha'n (Irish), Mu-ruch (Irish).

PP'hysical description: Head and torso of a woman or man. Tapering fish body and tail instead of legs.

Behavior: Fond of combing its hair and basking on the rocks. Said to be able to assume human form and go ashore to markets and fairs. Lures mariners to destruction on rocks. Said to gather the souls of the drowned. Some families claim to be descended from Mermaids.

Habitat: Underwater cities.

Distribution: Atlantic Ocean, especially off the coast of Scotland.

Significant sightings: The Irish annals mention several Mermaid encounters: in A.D. 558, when the legendary Liban was caught in a net in Ul ster; in 887, when a 195-foot, white Mermaid (more likely a whale) was washed up on the coast; and in 1118, when two Mermaids were caught near Waterford.

A Merman was caught by fishermen at Or-ford, Suffolk, England, in 1197. It was bearded and hairy (but bald) and otherwise like a human. Sir Bartholomew de Glanville kept it at the castle for about two months before it managed to escape into the sea.

The medieval Fai RY Melusine of Lusignan, in the Poitou-Charentes Region of France, turned into a Mermaid (in some traditions, a serpent) every Saturday, a fact she was able to conceal from her husband, Raymond of Poitou, for many years, until he spoiled everything one weekend by spying on her in the bath.

In 1403, when the dikes near Edam, the Netherlands, broke in a storm, some young girls found a Mermaid floundering in shallow water. They got it into their boat, took it home, and gave it clothes, but they were unable to make it speak. It was said to have lived for fifteen years afterward.

On his second voyage in search of a northeast passage, two of Henry Hudson's crew, Thomas Hilles and Robert Raynar, saw a Mermaid off Novaya Zemlya, Russia, at about 75° north latitude on June 15, 1608. It was as big as a human and had a woman's back and breasts, white skin, and long, black hair. When it dived, they could see its speckled, porpoiselike tail.

Capt. Richard Whitbourne was one of several witnesses to a Mermaid in the harbor at St. Johns, Newfoundland, in 1610. Its shoulders and back were square, white, and smooth, while its lower part was like a "broad hooked arrow."

In about 1667, Thomas Glover saw an unidentified seal or Merman with a fishlike tail on the Rappahannock River, Virginia.

Around 1698, a Merman with the bearded face of an old man was seen off the Orkney Islands, Scotland.

Sometime before 1791, Henry Reynolds ran across what looked to be a youth of about sixteen sitting in the sea near Castlemartin, Dyfed, Wales. As he came closer, he realized it had a huge, eel-like tail that moved constantly in a circular pattern. Its arms and hands seemed thick

and short. Brownish, ribbonlike streamers came out of its forehead and flowed over its back. Reynolds watched it for about an hour as it swam near a rock only 35 feet away.

Schoolmaster William Munro of Thurso, Highland, Scotland, was walking along the coast at Sandside Bay in 1798 when he came across what seemed to be a naked human female sitting on a partially submerged rock and combing its long, light-brown hair. He watched for about three minutes before it dropped into the sea and disappeared. Had it not been for the dangerous place where it was sitting and other reports in which people had seen a Mermaid for an hour or more, he might have thought it was human.

On October 18, 1811, farmer John M'Isaac saw a classic Mermaid sitting on a rock on the Kintyre Peninsula near Cambeltown, Argyll and Bute, Scotland. Its human-shaped upper half was white, while the lower half was a reddish-gray tail covered with hair. It seemed to be combing its head-hair with its arms, which seemed to be short in proportion to its body. M'Isaac watched the animal for two hours, after which it tumbled clumsily into the water and remained some minutes stroking and washing its chest. He then saw its face clearly, which he described as human, with hollow eyes and a short neck. Other witnesses came forward, and they all signed depositions testifying to the truth of the incident.

On August 15, 1814, two fishermen saw a black Merman with a flat nose, curly hair, and long arms swimming upright in the water off Portgordon, Moray, Scotland. It was accompanied by a female, who had breasts and long, straight hair.

In May 1817, somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean at latitude 44°6', the crew of the ship Leonidas observed a strange animal with a fish's tail and humanlike upper parts, swimming erect about 2 feet out of the water for about six hours. It had a whitish face, short arms, and black hair. It remained looking at them for fifteen minutes at a time, then dived underneath and appeared on the other side of the ship. It was about 5 feet long from head to tail.

Around 1830, some people cutting seaweed near Griminis on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland discovered a small Mermaid splashing about in the sea. They tried chasing it, but it swam farther away until a boy killed it by throwing a rock at it. The creature washed up on the shore a few days later. Its skin was white, it had long, dark hair, and it looked like a three-or four-year-old child with abnormally developed breasts and a salmonlike tail, though without scales. The villagers made a coffin for it and buried it nearby.

In July 1833, three fishermen swore before a justice of the peace that they had caught a Mermaid some 30 miles off the coast of Yell in the Shetland Islands, Scotland. It was about 3 feet long, had breasts like a woman, arms about 9 inches long, and small hands with webbed fingers. There were fins on each shoulder. Its head was pointed, and it had blue eyes, two nostrils between which was a thick facial bristle, a wide mouth, and no ears or chin. The skin was white on the front and light gray on the back. Its navel was 9 inches below the breasts. The tail had two lobes and resembled a halibut's. It moaned pitifully, so they threw it back after three hours.

P. T. Barnum exhibited a 3-foot, faked "Fee-jee mermaid" both in his American Museum in New York and on his "Greatest Show on Earth" circus tour from 1842 until 1864, when the museum burned down. A similar monkey-fish was donated to Harvard's Peabody Museum in 1897.

In 1900, Alexander Gunn saw a Mermaid near Sandwood, Highland, Scotland, as he went to rescue a sheep lodged in a gully. It was human-sized, with curly, reddish-yellow hair, greenish-blue eyes, and arched eyebrows. Its back was arched, and it looked frightened and angry.

Around 1921, an animal with a fishlike tail and a woman's head and breasts was seen by a fisherman at Dassen Island off Western Cape Province, South Africa.

Fake MERMAID at Aden, apparently constructed from a dugong's body. From an old postcard. (Fortean Picture Library)

Sometime before 1936, a Scandinavian hunter encountered a Mermaid with green hair, beaming eyes, and a sad voice in the Strait of Magellan near Punta Arenas, Chile.

Between 1960 and 1962, a Mermaid resembling a normal woman was seen frequently off Kilconly Point, County Kerry, Ireland.

PP'ossible explanations:

(1) Manatees and Dugongs (Suborder Sirenia) have been held responsible for Mermaid stories for hundreds of years, but it is difficult to see how these bulky, small-headed, flippered mammals could be mistaken for slender, long-haired, distinctly human females, even at a distance by lonely sailors. The explanation has always seemed too glib and ironic. Sirenians live in the warm waters of the Caribbean, the Amazon, West Africa, Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific, while Mermaids of the European type are most often reported in the North Atlantic. However, manatees and dugongs often sit vertically in the water to hold their young, which suckle the pectoral mammary glands located at the base of each flipper. Seaweed could conceivably masquerade as hair. Their fishlike tails are reminiscent of the SIREN and are the primary reason for this order's scientific name.

(2) Seals (Suborder Pinnipedia) are much more likely contenders, both physically and behaviorally. The seal's head is round, the flippers flexible, the body sleek, and the vocalizations expressive. Seals also like to bask on rocks. Many cultures have myths of seal-folk—humans descended from or changed into seals (see SeLKIE).

(3) Some Mermaid sightings could be based on occasional visits to the British Isles by sealskin-clad, kayaking, nomadic Saami peoples from northern Norway. This might well explain lore about the Mermaid's upright appearance in the water, remarkably human appearance, and liaisons with the locals.

(4) An unknown species of seal with strikingly humanlike characteristics.

(5) A surviving primitive ape that at some point took to the water, perhaps an evolved Oreopithecus, suggested by Mark A. Hall. It is true that Oreopithecus lived in the Late Miocene, 8-7 million years ago, in a swampy forest habitat and perhaps subsisted on aquatic plants. Presumably, such an evolved ape would have developed webbed hands and feet rather than a fish tail, so it couldn't account for seal- or manatee-shaped animals.

(6) In the nineteenth century, many of the fake mermaids exhibited in traveling shows in Europe and the United States were said to be manufactured by Japanese taxidermists or Javan fishermen, who skillfully grafted monkey torsos onto the bodies and tails of large salmon or other fishes, augmented by papier-mache.

(7) An expression of the myth of the fish-tailed gods and goddesses of antiquity. Sources: Four Masters, Annals of the

Kingdom oflreland, ed. John O'Donovan (Dublin: Hodges and Smith, 1851), vol. 1, pp. 201-203, 541; Henry Hudson, "A Second Voyage or Employment of Master Henry Hudson," in Samuel Purchas, ed., Purchas His P^ilgrimes [1625] (Glasgow: James MacLehose, 1905-1907), vol. 13, p. 318; Richard Whitbourne, "Captaine Richard Whitbourne's Voyages to New-found-land," in Samuel Purchas, ed., Purchas His P^ilgrimes [1625] (Glasgow: James MacLehose, 1905-1907), vol. 19, pp. 439-440; John Swan, Speculum mundi: or, A Glasse Representing the Face of the World (Cambridge: Printers to the Universitie, 1635); Thomas Glover, "An Account of Virginia," Philosophical Transactions 11 (1676): 623, 625-676; John Brand, A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, P^ightland-Firth & Caithness (Edinburgh: G. Mosman, 1701); George Waldron, Description of the Isle of Man [1731] (Douglas, Isle of Man: Manx Society, 1864); Benoit de Maillet, Talliamed (London: T. Osborne, 1750); Mary Morgan, A Tour to Milford Haven in the Year 1791 (London: John Stockdale, 1795), pp. 302-306; Times (London), September 8, 1809; Asa Swift, "Mermaid," American Journal of Science, ser. 1, 2 (1820): 178-179; Robert Hamilton, "Amphibious Carnivora," in William Jardine, ed., The Naturalist's Library (Edinburgh: W. H. Lizars, 1845), vol. 25, pp. 280-283; Andrew Steinmetz, Japan and Her P^eople (London: Routledge, Warnes, and Routledge, 1859), pp. 193-194; Philip

Henry Gosse, The Romance of Natural History, Second Series (London: James Nisbet, 1862); Henry Lee, Sea Fables Explained (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1883); Fletcher S. Bassett, Legends and Superstitions of the Sea and Sailors (Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1885), pp. 148-201, 445, 451; Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (London: Longmans, Green, 1892), pp. 471-523; Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica (Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable, 1900); John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927); J. M. McPherson, Primitive Beliefs in the North-East ofScotland (London: Longmans, Green, 1929), pp. 72-73; W. Walter Gill, A Manx Scrapbook (London: Arrowsmith, 1929), p. 241; Cherry Kearton, The Island of Penguins (New York: R. M. McBride, 1931); Hakon Mielche, Journey to the World's End (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1941); R. MacDonald Robertson, Wade the River, Drift the Loch (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1948); R. MacDonald Robertson, Selected Highland Folktales (Isle of Colonsay, Scotland: House of Lochar, 1961), pp. 148-170; Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh, Sea Enchantress (London: Hutchinson, 1961); Dublin Evening Press, August 4, 1962, p. 5a; Tim Dinsdale, The Leviathans (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), pp. 138-146; Ernest W. Marwick, The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland (London: B. T. Batsford, 1975), pp. 24-25; A. H. Saxon, P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989); Richard Ellis, Monsters ofthe Sea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 75-112; Jim Higgins, Irish Mermaids: Sirens, Temptresses and Their Symbolism in Art, Architecture and Folklore (Galway, Ireland: Crow's Rock Press, 1995); John M. MacAulay, Seal Folk and Ocean Paddlers (Cambridge: White Horse, 1998); Meri Lao, Sirens: Symbols ofSeduction (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 1999); Jan Bondeson, The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999); Marc Potts, The

Mythology ofthe Mermaid and Her Kin (Chieveley, England: Capall Bann, 2000).

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