Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mermaids: A fishy tale.

We’re covered by the sacred fire
When you cut me, you cut me to the bone
--Lorelei, The Cocteau Twins

I have to thank a completely random conversation with Lydia Kang about the movie Mermaids and feeding children with appetizers for today's inspiration on Sunday Mythbusters.  

Thanks to the power of Disney, most people picture a perky redhead when they think of mermaids.

However, these mythical creatures of the sea were around way before the advent of cartoon sexuality thinly veiled as family-friendly cinema.  In contrast to Ariel’s innocent ingenue, mermaids were seldom considered a good omen--in fact, sightings often meant bad weather or worse.  Sailors enchanted by mermaid's songs followed them to a watery death, drowned by a vixen turned vicious.  And what of those who did find love with a mermaid?
“A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own.
Pressed her body to his body.
Laughed and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.”
--W.B. Yeats
Mermaids traditionally have been seen as half man, half fish.  However, merfolk encompass all creatures from the sea that shapeshift to human form.  Nearly every culture has a type of mermaid:  selkies, melusines, roanes, rusalkas, undines, loreleis and nixies to name a few.
The first mermaids represented sea gods.  The Babylonians worshipped a sea god named Ea--the earliest version of Neptune.  Atargatis was a Syrian goddess who banished herself to the sea because she was so distraught over getting knocked up by her mortal lover.
No word on how he took it.
Atargatis eventually adapted to pregnancy and became known as Derketo to the Greeks (and to Robert E. Howard’s Conan).  In Greek myth she is sometimes confused with Aphrodite.  Even today there are mermaid deities.  In Africa, a fertility goddess named Mami Wata heals the sick but will drown those who dare disobey her.  In the Caribbean and Haiti, La Siren is worshipped in the Vodou religion.  And in America, we have Cher.

Not all mermaid legends came from such lofty ancestors.  The Roman poet Ovid claimed mermaids formed from the burning wood of Trojan ships during the Trojan war.  Indeed, mermaids are mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey as attempting to lure Ulysses away from his ship as he sailed home from Troy.  Irish mermaids are reported to be the souls of old pagan women banished from the land by St. Patrick.  In China, mermaids are believed to be simple-minded water nymphs who bring happiness or sadness based on the color--and smell--of their tails.  Apparently a purple tail smells like happiness.  Red tail smells like sorrow.  Don’t ask what the brown tail smells like.  
Slavic myths (always my favorite) tell the story of the rusalka, a mermaid demon who lives in lakes and waterways.  Generally the rusalka is a woman who has died a violent death before her time, often from suicide or at the hands of a lover.  During Rusalka days in June, they come out of the water and take to the trees to try to woo men to their deaths with song.  Antonin Dvorak wrote his opera, Rusalka, based on this folktale. 
The Rusalka by illustrator Ivan Bilibin
There have been numerous mermaid sightings throughout history.  Columbus in 1493 saw three mermaids in the area of the Dominican Republic.  According to his journal, he was quite dismayed that they weren’t at all beautiful--in fact, they looked manly in the face.  Most scholars now believe he saw a group of manatees.  In his memoirs, John Smith claimed to see mermaids by Massachusetts, although he also claimed to see blue men with square heads, Pocahontas, and cannibalistic women warriors who wanted him for sexual slavery.  Henry Hudson in 1608 sighted a mermaid with 2 other crew members.  They described it as half porpoise and half woman, skin spotted like a mackerel, and with large, "magnificent" breasts.  Which just goes to show you men love T&A, no matter what the species.  And if you need a more recent sighting, in 1998 in Kona, Hawaii, a team of divers following a school of dolphins photographed a real mermaid--the Weekly World News said so.  And on the next page they had a story about Hilary Clinton’s alien baby.
Photo of a "real" mermaid in Hawaii
Perhaps those divers were actually vacationing at a Florida resort called Weeki Wachee, the City of the Mermaids.  In 1946, a former Navy Seal trainer got the idea to teach attractive young women to free dive using an air hose.  He took his plan one step further, and had them wear elaborate mermaid costumes.  Thanks to capitalism and post WWII sexual curiosity, Weeki Wachee became an aquarian Vegas and is still in existence.
Get your 2011 calendar on the website!
With so many mermaid sightings, one would think a corporal mermaid would be discovered and studied.  The anatomy of the mermaid was first described around the fifth century A. D. in a text called the Physiologus, which was basically a listing of beasties of the day--like a medieval Encyclopedia Britannica.  There are a few descriptions of “mermaid autopsies,” but none have been verified.
P.T. Barnum is credited with bringing the mermaid to the masses in the 19th century with his sideshow exhibit called “The Feejee (Fiji) mermaid.”  However, he likely got the idea--or even the exhibit itself--from the son of an English captain who traded his ship and its contents for what was eventually revealed to be a monkey’s torso sewn to the body of a fish.  Versions of the Feejee mermaid have been seen even in Renaissance times, well before P.T. Barnum saw an opportunity to profit in the era of Darwinism during the 1860s.  Unfortunately for Barnum, this oddity was not at all popular in America--and even caused riots when folks expected a half naked Daryl Hannah and got a wrinkled piece of taxidermy.  On a tangential note, a Feejee mermaid was a murder suspect in an X-files episode.  The killings eventually were found to be done by a parasitic twin.  I really miss the X-files. 
What we were hoping the Fiji mermaid would look like.
What the Fiji mermaid did look like.

The most recent merfolk hoaxes occurred after the devastation of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.  The following video depicts a "real" mermaid that washed up on a shore after the storm.

Some mermaid myth is likely based on a congenital defect that occurs in 1 of approximately 90,000 births known as sirenomelia, in which an infant is born with its legs fused together.  Generally, this is a fatal malformation due to kidney and urinary tract abnormalities.  Currently there are only two people in the world known to be living with sirenomelia according to Wikipedia.  A Peruvian child named Milagros Cerron received worldwide attention when she underwent a series of operations to separate her legs in 2005.
Milagros at the beginning of her surgeries.

Milagros in 2010.  Pics from
Most scholars now attribute the historical sightings of mermaids to the the animal group Sirenia, which includes manatees, dugongs, and the extinct Steller's sea cow.  However, the sounds that a manatee makes are generally high pitched squeaks, whistles and clicking noises, not easy to be confused with the haunting and beautiful melodies associated with mermaids.  We may never know what sailors were really seeing on those lonely nights at sea.
Give us a kiss!
Mermaids will always hold a soft spot in my heart--I'm an Aquarius after all.  The idea of a creature crawling on the shore to form legs and walk may be more fact than fiction depending on your beliefs.
There are some amazing paranormal novels dealing with merfolk--they are enjoying "new shiny thing" status in fiction currently.  It seems fitting that one of the most popular icons of the 21st century represents the sailor’s muse--and perhaps the writer’s as well.


    For real, this was amazing. I love folklore, any type of mythical creature, and this was utterly fascinating and awesome. I loved every word. SO GOOD.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. An informative and fun read.

  3. I'm partial to selkies myself :)

    Brilliant post! I love all the info you've gathered here.

    As for the sailors, I think scurvy messed with their minds, LOL. But I still love the myths.

  4. When you quoted Husker Du in your last post, I was pretty impressed. But now that you have quoted Cocteau Twins you have my full respect. And also because of this awesome post.

  5. Yes, we all hoped the Fiji mermaid looked like Daryl Hannah. And I guess the last Pirates movie was closer to the myth - those mermaids were vicious.
    I know someone who used to be in a mermaid show - Helen Ginger at the blog Straight From Hel!

  6. Wow, that's a tightly packed can of info. I've always loved the selkie and mermaid tales. Great post, though I'm not sure I'll forgive you for that Feejee/Fiji photo.

  7. All I know about mermaids is that the original Little Mermaid wasn't so much with the happy. And I used to sing "Part Of Your World" 500 times a day. I probably still know all of the I'm tempted to burst into song.

  8. I always learn so much from reading your blog. Never noticed that the Starbucks logo features a mermaid.

  9. A worthy Sunday break from my psychotic cleaning frenzy that reared its head out of nowhere. So now, not only do I have an organized "junk" cabinet, I'm clear on the difference between selkies and lattes! Outstanding!

    I've never understood the male fascination with mermaids...I mean, wouldn't they be relatively cold and clammy with that fishy smell? Great T&A aside, the rest of the anatomy seems...confusing.

    And that Fiji Mermaid episode of the X-files scared the crap out of me.

  10. Regected--thank you, I'm glad you liked it. I never knew there was so much mermaid lore out there.

    Jack--thanks for stopping by!

    Raelyn--not to mention all that time on a ship full of dudes in the hot sun. I would think hallucinations would be a daily thing.

    Elliot--Ah, you are a man of discerning taste in music! Love Husker Du, one of my favorites and have been for (gulp) over twenty years.

    Alex--seriously? I have to go visit. What a job--to be a mermaid. I think I've found my Halloween costume for this year.

    L.G.--I am just amazed at the extent people will go to fool others. And I feel bad for all the monkeys.

    Liz--yep, the Hans Christian Andersen version is pretty bleak, really, although I guess the mermaid ends up getting to continue on as a spirit and eventually gets a soul. And I loved that song--I used to also do the Ah-ah-ah thing that she sang in the shower because the echo made it sound so cool.

    Sprinkles--yep, when I read about that, I guess there was a big hubbub over the first logo because the mermaid was showing her breasts. Naughty Starbucks.

  11. I love this post! Mermaids will continue to entrance every writer, reader, and sailor's imagination.

  12. Kel--lattes taste much better than selkies. Just sayin'. And I had a deep conversation with my husband about the nitty gritty of getting it on with a mermaid during this post. I have come to the conclusion that men just aren't that picky.

  13. Cherie--Thanks! I agree, there's just something amazing about shape-shifters that will always be fodder for the imagination.

  14. Fun read! And men WOULD believe there are big breasted half woman/fish swimming naked in the sea.
    And how did I not ever realize that the Starbucks logo has a mermaid on it? ANy reason why??? (I don't drink coffee so that is the reason for my ignorance. :)

  15. I have to say that mermaids have a special place in my heart, at least the red haired one. :) My absolute favorite movie is "The Little Mermaid". Very interesting read! Thanks for the information!

  16. "And on the next page they had a story about Hilary Clinton’s alien baby." Great line! That's hilarious. I'm always well educated and entertained when I visit. Thank you, Julie. You are great.

  17. what a plethora of knowledge about mermaids!
    amazing! thanks =)

  18. Who knew Mermaids were real:) Great post! I feel loads smarter about mermaids of every size shape and form. Very cool!

  19. Weirdly, I was just discussing mermaids with a friend the other day, and of all the sea creatures (real or imagined), we both agreed we didn't want to be mermaids. The no-legs thing is sort of the deal breaker.

    Great post, so much interesting stuff here!

  20. I meant to say, the half-human no-legs thing is the deal breaker. I don't think ANY sea creatures have legs! :)

  21. Awesome post, Julie. I never realized the Starbucks logo was a mermaid. Wow, I'm observant. LOL

    The mermaid song? I've heard people say what the sailors were really hearing was humpback whales at night. =o)

  22. Great post! It's good that mermaids are taking their rightful place in fiction. They're so many possibilities...

  23. Fiji mermaid = creepy!

    Loved the movie "Mermaids" though. Used to be one of my favorites!

  24. 'Columbus in 1493 saw three mermaids in the area of the Dominican Republic. According to his journal, he was quite dismayed that they weren’t at all beautiful--in fact, they looked manly in the face.'

    That made me do a double-take.

    The first image of the infant was heart-rending. I'm glad you posted a follow-up. Love the Cocteau Twins, btw.

  25. What a fantastic post. I have a soft spot in my heart for mermaids, as well. But not the creepy, scary looking ones. haha! I thought it was funny that you put Cher, as the American mermaid. I was just talking to a friend of mine about that movie.
    By the way, I had a dream about you the other night, apparently I missed getting together with you for coffee...I must've been reading your blog before I went to bed. haha.
    Anyway, great post, so informative, I now know way more about mermaids then I thought possible. I knew that Ariel didn't live happily ever after and I saw the creepy mermaids in Harry Potter, but now I am fully educated. Thank you! I love it.

  26. I love the mermaid post. You always throw me off by posting on Sundays. :) I have been to Weeki Wacki. It's great. They even have a fantastic man maid ocean. When I was a kid I used to pretend there were mermen in the ocean...and they were totally hot. I think I might have hit puberty a little early. Did you know that there was an old version of the Little Mermaid? And it wasn't a happy ending at all. As I recall, the girl flung herself into the sea and drowns. I can't see the creature that was washed ashore...and the little mermaid kids always break my heart.

  27. Kelly--men are a very imaginative creatures!

    Krista--I have fangirl love for mermaids, too. I'm going as one for Halloween

    Robyn--you are too nice! Thanks for saying such sweet things. I miss the Weekly World News, it was the best supermarket rag.

    Tara--I was floored how much info was out there on mermaids--even Oscar Wilde had a story about them!

    Deana--this way if you ever run into a mermaid, you will be completely prepared.

    Jennifer--I thought about this at length, too, because technically if you are a fish from the waist down, well, all of the good parts are sort of gone--male and female. And I'm not into fish love, they just shoot out some eggs and a male fish sprays love juice on them. And after my research I learned that fish don't usually have a penis. Totally not romantic. And probably TMI.

    B.E.--the Starbucks mermaid confuses me--it looks like she split her tail in two. Which is sort of creepy. And I'm not sure what mermaids have to do with coffee. Maybe if you drink enough, you float? Bad joke.

    Jadi--I love merfiction. Should be a new genre.

    Alleged--Cher is awesome. That's all I have to say.

    Suze--Apparently Columbus was hoping for Daryl Hannah. I was happy that the little girl appeared to be doing ok recently. And I love the Cocteau Twins, too. Voices like mermaids, if they existed.

    Heather--Wow, you are dreaming of me and coffee? If only we could turn that into reality. We'd have to go to Starbucks and hassle them about mermaids. Which makes me wonder if you are a tad bit psychic--you dream of me and coffee, I write about coffee. Coincidence? I think not.

    Laila--YOU WENT TO THE CITY OF THE MERMAIDS!? I am fishy green with envy--that would be totally awesome. I got out my mermaid costume last night and wore it while making salad. My husband didn't even say a word. He knows better.

  28. Oh goodness I love this post! Not only was it full of mythological goodness (I love mythology and its beasties) and random bits of trivia, but it was funny too! Very much enjoyed your voice.

    And now I know so much more about mermaids! They never really caught my fancy too much before, but now I want to read up on some of these other types of merfolk.


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