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  • By Kara Newcastle

Myth Monday: Mermaids and Their Kin

Myth Monday: Mermaids and Their Kin

The Mermaid by John William Waterhouse

If you spend as much time researching mythology as I do, you start to notice certain things that are universally true. For example, every culture/society in the world either believes in or has legends regarding certain creatures, and any culture that largely bases its existence on being near the water has stories of aquatic humanoids. What, you thought that Hans Christian Andersen invented mermaids? Oh, no, no, no, they’re everywhere, they’ve been around for a while, and there have been some instances were people have found that they might actually be real. Here’s just a few of the most interesting ones:

Mermaids (Europe): Mermaids and the slightly less popular mermen are of course the most well known of the aquatic humanoids, appearing in legends and artwork from Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Germany, Norway and beyond. These creatures, collectively called merfolk, are mostly considered to be sea-dwelling, though there have been stories of them living in pools of water inland. The females, or mermaids, have the upper torsos of beautiful human women, though below the waist they are depicted as having a long, scaly tail like a fish (though interestingly artwork usually shows them as having the up and down tail design of ocean mammals like dolphins, whereas fish have tails that swing from side to side.) Mermaids were reported by sailors as approaching their boats, swimming alongside them, or perching on rocks in the ocean, frequently brushing their hair. Typically, seeing a mermaid wasn’t good; stories abound of mermaids trying to lure sailors into the water with them where they would grab the poor sap and drag him underwater to drown him, or offering to guide the ships to safety while in reality they intend to cause the ships to crash upon hidden rock and reefs, killing everyone on board. Worse than the mermaids were the mermen, who, though possessing a generally human-like torso, was a little more like the Creature from the Black Lagoon on top than, say, Michael Phelps-ish, and they were much nastier than mermaids, often directly attacking passing ships in order to kill everyone on board. Christopher Columbus saw a group of mermaids (probably manatees, but how the hell do you mistake a manatee for a mermaid?) shortly before discovering the New World, and the psychotic pirate Blackbeard was so terrified of them that he'd steer his ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, far from areas that were said to be populated with merfolk.

The Mermaid of Zennor, by John Reinhard Weguelin

Orang Ikan (Indonesia): The orang ikan (“Fish man”) doesn’t quite fall into the category of mermaid, but, as an aquatic humanoid, can be classified as the same species. Said to look like a cross between an ape and a fish, the pinkish-colored bipedal orang ikan lives primarily in the lagoons of the Kei Islands, occasionally journeying out onto the beaches but largely remaining in the water where they can be seen hunting fish with great speed. Ugly and smelly, the native Indonesians choose to keep a respectful distance away from the creatures, and the orang ikan do likewise … with the exception of World War 2. In 1943, the Japanese had occupied the Kei Islands, and during the occupation soldiers periodically ran into groups (schools? pods?) of orang ikan. There were reports of the orang ikan growling at the soldiers and at least one instance of an orang ikan appearing to charge them through the water, but no actual physical interactions are known. The story goes that a commander and his men tried several times to trap one with no success, and when the commander returned to Japan after the war, he urged zoologists to look for the creatures, but no one took him seriously.

Selkies (Scotland): Selkies are a unique breed of merfolk; in the sea, they take on the forms of seals, but when they come upon land, they shuck off their sealskins and walk about as humans. Selkies can be either male or female (though, again, females are more widely reported) and are said to be extremely attractive as humans and known to seek out regular humans for romantic interludes. When a selkie is done with whatever business they had on land, they return to wherever they tucked away their sealskins, pull them on like furry scuba suits, and return to the ocean. If a human (and honestly, they’d have to be a real asshole to do this) found the selkie’s skin and hid it, the selkie would be so desperate to get it back that they would do anything for it. A famous folktale tells how a man stole a beautiful selkie woman’s skin and hid it, telling her that she’d get it back if she did what he wanted. He took the selkie home and married her, keeping her on land for years until one of their children accidentally discovered the hidden skin and showed the selkie. Overjoyed to have her freedom back, the selkie took the skin and ran down to the beach, never to be seen again. If you go to Scotland and ask if anyone can claim selkie ancestry, they’ll be easy to find—legend says that the children of selkies have webbed fingers.

Selkie statue in Mikladalur, photo by Siegfried Rabanser

Oceanids (Ancient Greece): The Oceanids were the three thousand beautiful daughters of the Titan Oceanus and the Titaness Tethys. Among them were the goddess Metis, the mother of Athena, Styx, the goddess of the Underworld river of blood that separated the land of the dead from the land of the living and Doris, the mother of the Nereids. The goddess Amphitrite, who is the unwilling wife of the sea god Poseidon, is sometimes referred to as an Oceanid (sometimes as a Nereid, sometimes as both … mythology can be confusing) and is the mother of the merman Triton. Each Oceanid is the guardian goddess of a sea, lake, pond, fountain or spring (and because there aren’t three thousand different bodies of water in Greece, some were in charge of things like flowers and clouds), and the Greeks frequently made sacrifices to them to ensure a safe journey over the waters. In ancient art the Oceanids are portrayed as ordinary but beautiful young women who live in the sea. And in case you’re wondering, the Oceanids had three thousand brothers, called the Potomoi, who were the gods of rivers and also normal-looking.

Les Oceanides Les Naiades de la mer, by Gustave Dore

Nereids (Ancient Greece): The Nereids were the 50 beautiful and human-looking daughters of Doris, an Oceanid, and Nereus, a shape-shifting river god who was sometimes portrayed with the upper torso of a human man and the lower body of a fish or eel-like animal. The most famous of the Nereids was Thetis, a sea-dwelling goddess who inherited her father’s shapeshifting ability and is best known as the mother of Achilles, though some sources also cite her as the creator of the Amazons as well.

Encantados (South America): Ladies, if you’re ever near the Amazon River and you’re about to get it on with a handsome, hat-wearing local for says he needs to get home before the sun rises, check under the hat first—there could be a blowhole on top of his head! Much like the selkies, the encantados are actually river dolphins that emerge from the water and transform into handsome men in order to hook up with beautiful human women. For some reason that I haven’t found out yet, the encantados can’t get rid of their blowholes, so they hide them by wearing hats. In addition, the encantados can only transform into men at night, and they must return to the Amazon River before daybreak, when they’ll be forced to turn back into dolphins. The native South Americans take the existence of the encantados seriously, and even today there are stories of human women having sex with encantados and then giving birth to their children.

Merrow (Ireland): Remember the merrows from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? The merrow is a mermaid native to the coasts of Ireland. The females have a beautiful woman’s upper torso and a fish tail, and the mermen are ugly, as they always seem to be, and both sexes have webbed fingers. What sets them apart from other merfolk is that the merrows genuinely like humans and want to help them. Sailors still fear them because the merrows will surface to warn them about violent storms, but the merrows don’t actively try to hurt humans, and are known to fall in love and marry them, with their half-human children being born with scales on their bodies. Merrows can come on land, but only in the shape of hornless cattle (I have no idea why yet). In the sea, merrows wear bright red caps that help them swim underwater, and if a human is able to snag one of these caps, the merrow cannot return to the sea. A famous story from Ireland recounts how a female merrow was caught in a fisherman’s nets and, knowing that she was dying, she asked the fisherman to take her to a church so she could be baptized as a Christian. The merrow passed away soon after and was buried in the churchyard. A chair was carved with an image of the merrow on the back to celebrate the event.

Nixies (Germany): Nixies are nymph-like beings that live in freshwater lakes and rivers. Unlike sea-going mermaids, Nixies aren’t usually reported as being good-looking. In fact, they’re wrinkled and ugly (both the males and the females), and they actively try to lure humans to the water in order to drown them. Strangely, male Nixies look like old men from the neck up, but with a fox body and horse hooves.

Sirens (Ancient Greece): I have to include the Sirens here, even though they’re generally said to be half woman and half bird instead of half fish. The Sirens lived on a large rock in the Mediterranean Sea, and their sweet singing often hypnotized sailors, causing them to drift off course and smash into the rocks, where the Sirens would then devour them. Only one man was able to listen to the monsters and survive: Odysseus, king of Ithaca. En route home from the Trojan War, Odysseus was warned that he would pass the Sirens. Curious to hear what they sounded like but not wanting his men to be affected, Odysseus plugged the ears of his crew with beewax and had them tie him to the mast of his ship to keep him from taking a flying leap overboard. Odysseus got to hear the Sirens’ song and, so distraught that a mortal man had heard them but escaped, one of the Sirens threw herself into the sea and killed herself. The term siren came to mean any ocean-dwelling mermaid that sang to lure men to their deaths, and the medical term Sirenomelia describes a condition where infants are born with flipper-like feet.

Ulysses and the Sirens by H.J. Draper

Rusalki (Russia): Rusalki (singular; Rusalka) are beautiful but deadly water maidens that live in rivers, ponds and lakes. They are human-shaped and have translucent skin, but sometimes have tails that give them away. They can transform into various water creatures and even horses, and are known for their enticing singing. They sing to draw the attention of handsome young men, hoping to seduce them (though some stories say they aim merely to kill the poor saps) and drag them down into their watery world. One folktale recounts how a young man named Ivan was playing music in his house when he noticed a beautiful Rusalka dancing outside. Falling instantly in love, Ivan followed her down into the water, where they lived together for some time. Eventually, Ivan became homesick, but when Rusalka refused to set him free, he made the sign of the cross, scaring the pagan creature off. He managed to escape, but never dared to go near the water again. Sometimes the rusalki are lonely (or just malicious) and try to lure children into the water to keep them company.

Rusalka by Ivan Bilibin

Ningyo (Japan): Possibly the weirdest-looking mermaid yet, the Ningyo is usually described as a fish with the head of a lovely woman, though the head is also sometimes described as being ape-like, and occasionally the Ningyo has scaly arms with clawed hands. She is peaceful and benevolent … and humans try to catch them to eat them. The story goes that if one were to eat the flesh of the Ningyo then they would live forever, or that old women would become youthful and beautiful again. Stories abound of the Ningyo being caught in fishermen’s nets and pleading for their lives. Sometimes the fishermen let them go, and sometimes they don’t. It was recorded that one was captured in the year 619 and kept for two days in a tank in Empress Suiko’s court before it finally expired.

Mondao (Zimbabwe): While there are many types of merfolk from Africa, I just wanted to end this already-long list with the Mondao. The Mondao is a particularly vicious type of mermaid, said to look like a pale-skinned human with black hair and a fish tail. I didn’t find any particular myth, but in 2012 construction on the Gowke and the Manicaland dams was suspended because terrified local workers claimed that they were being attacked and pursued by angry Mondao, and that a few of them had even vanished. As a solution, the local workers were shipped out and white workers—hired because they didn’t believe in Zimbabwean legends and superstition—were trucked in … only to refuse to work because they were being continuously stalked by angry merfolk. Tribal shamans and chieftains were asked to come in to appease the spirits. The rituals were carried out and the Mondao relented, though the chiefs warned it would only be a matter of time before they became angry again.

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