Saturday, 6 December 2014

Creatures From the Deep: Mermaids - Part One

Mermaid by Pygar

Mermaid myths and legends are a worldwide phenomenon, with our fascination with these water spirits going back through centuries.  Often described as beautiful enchantresses, mermaids were also depicted as treacherous and destructive, perfectly personifying the ocean they were believed to inhabit.  But how did the mermaid come into being, what is their origin and how have they evolved over the years?  Let us take a look.

Our perception of the mermaid is believed to date back to the ancient Babylonian god of the sea, Oannes and his counterpart Atargatis, with the earliest accounts dating back to around 5,000BC.  In mythology, Oannes is an amphibious deity who taught the gift of wisdom to mankind.  He was pictured as having the form of a fish, with the head of a man beneath his fish head and feet beneath his fish tail.  During the day, Oannes came onto land and taught human's the arts, sciences and writing.  At night he returned to the ocean.  The following is an account from Berossus, a Babylonian priest of the 3rd century BC.

Oannes of the Sea
At first they led a somewhat wretched existence and lived without rule after the manner of beasts. But, in the first year appeared an animal endowed with human reason, named Oannes, who rose from out of the Erythian Sea, at the point where it borders Babylonia. He had the whole body of a fish, but above his fish's head he had another head which was that of a man, and human feet emerged from beneath his fish's tail. He had a human voice, and an image of him is preserved unto this day. He passed the day in the midst of men without taking food; he taught them the use of letters, sciences and arts of all kinds. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and showed them how to collect the fruits; in short he instructed them in everything which could tend to soften human manners and humanize their laws. From that time nothing material has been added by way of improvement to his instructions. And when the sun set, this being Oannes, retired again into the sea, for he was amphibious. After this there appeared other animals like Oannes.

Atargatis, known to the Greeks as Derketo, is a goddess of Assyrian mythology.  She is portrayed much in the same way as we picture mermaids today, with the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a fish.  She is, by many, considered to be the mother of mermaids and dates back to around 1,000 BC.

Sailor Atargatis by Cionie
According to Assyrian legend, Atargatis fell in love with a human shepherd, who she accidentally kills.  In shame and grief, Atargatis threw herself into a lake, intending to take the form of a fish.  But the water refused to hide her beauty from the world so she was instead transformed, with her lower body becoming that of a fish and her upper body remaining human and retaining her

It is believed that both Oannes and Atargatis were first portrayed as mortals wearing fish cloaks which were, over time, evolved into tails.  Oannes was considered to represent the positive side of the ocean, 'rising from the waves each morning and sinking below the waves each night, like a sun god.'  Atargatis, on the other hand, represented the dark and destructive side of the ocean and was worshipped as a moon goddess.  

The Foam Born Goddess by oneoftheabove
The story of Atargatis became entwined with many other myths and cultures.  Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, or Venus in Roman mythology, can be linked to Atargatis.  While Aphrodite is not portrayed as a mermaid, she is a product of the ocean and her name is believed to derive from the word 'foam', with many interpreting her name as 'risen from the foam'.  Aphrodite began her life as the genitals of Uranus, which were cut off by Cronus and thrown into the sea. 

'And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden.  First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet.  Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam...'
                                               The Theogony of Hesiod

Matsya, avatar of Vishnu
Some tales of merpeople depict them as benevolent and helpful to humanity, as in the account of Oannes.  Ancient Hindu mythology tells us of the coming of the Great Flood, when Vishnu appeared to Manu.  As Manu washed his hands in the river, a fish pleaded with him to save it.  So Manu put the fish into a jar and, as it grew, he found larger vessels to contain the fish until he eventually released the fish into the ocean.  The fish eventually appeared as Vishnu, a man with a fish tail.  He warned Manu of the coming flood, commanding Manu to take everything onto a boat.  When the deluge came, the boat was pulled by a great golden fish.  And so Vishnu, the fish-tailed merman saved the entire human race from extinction.

While mermaids are most often depicted as beautiful and sometimes as benevolent, this is not true for all.  Norse folklore tells of the Margygr.  In the Korungs-Sknaggsja or King's mirror, a 12th century Icelandic or Norse piece of literature, we are given the following descripton:

A monster is seen also near Greenland, which people call the Margygr.  This creature appears like a woman as far down as the waist, with breast and bosom like a woman, long hands, and soft hair; the neck and head in all respects like those of a human being.  The hands seem to people to be long, and the fingers not to be parted, but united by a web like that on the feet of water birds.  From the waist downwards, this monster resembles a fish, with scales, tail and fins.  This prodigy... is believed to show itself especially before heavy storms.  The habit of this creature is to dive frequently and rise again to the surface with fishes in its hands.  When sailors see it playing with the fish, or throwing the towards the ship, they fear that they are doomed to lose several of the crew; but when it eats the fish, or turning from the vessel flings them away from her, then the sailors take it as a good omen that they will not suffer loss in the impending storm.  This monster has a very horrible face, with broad brow and piercing eyes, a wide mouth and double chin.
                                                                          King's mirror translated by Laurence Marcellus Larson

While some mermaids were said to give omens of good and bad, other mermaids could be down right nasty.  The Nix, Nixe or Nixie are German river merpeople which are said to lure sailors and swimmers to their deaths.  The female Nixie is believed to be more common and is alluring and beautiful.  The male Nixen is also believed to be physically beautiful but is said to have green teeth.  Both are believed to wear green hats.   The Nixie is said to take the form of a human woman and, when on land, she would sing and dance.  They were said to be capable of telling the future, although not to help people but to make them trust.  Once the Nixie felt she had a human's trust, she would lure them into deeper water where she drowned them.

Come With Me by raradolly
In this, the Nixie is similar to the modern percepton of the Greek Siren.  Sirens (bewitching ones), born from the drops of blood which hit the ground from the broken horn of Acheloos, or the offspring of the ancient sea god Phorcys depending on your source, are a type of malicious nymph.  In ancient stories they are depicted as half bird and half woman.  Over many years they have evolved into mermaid like beings which sit on the rocks near the shore, luring sailors into shallow waters where their ships would wreck with their beautiful song.  In these later myths, the only way to kill a Siren was to resist their song, causing the Siren to kill herself.

Sirens Of The Seven Seas by Spellsword95
'So far so good,' said she, when I had ended my story, 'and now pay attention to what I am about to tell you - heaven itself, indeed, will recall it to your recollection.  First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them.  If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.  There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.  Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear, but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on the cross-piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope's ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening.  If you beg and pray the men unloose you, then they must bind you faster.'
                                                                                     The Odyssey by Homer

Sailors, it seems, had every reason to fear these monsters of the ocean but they were not the only ones to suffer at the hands of a mermaid.  According to one account, a mermaid was responsible for the extinction of an entire Native American tribe.

The River Mermaid by crazy4coral
 According to the legend, the Pascagoula Indians, also known as the Biloxi, 'marched into a raging river at the comman of a mermaid-like sea goddess and drowned.'  Before 1579 the Pascagoula tribe, also known as the Biloxi Indians, lived peacefully along the Pascagoula river.  They loved and respected a river mermaid that dwelt in the river, even building a statue of her within the temple in their village.  Every evening they worshiped the mermaid at the bank of the river and listened to her sweet song, which is said to have made 'brave warriors... weep under its spell.'
   According to F. Randall Floyd, 'the Biloxi Indians did suddenly and inexplicably vanish during the early sixteenth century, only weeks after a white-bearded priest had appeared to them with a crucifix in his hand, demanding that they abandon their superstitious belief in an underwater goddess.'  The priest somehow convinced the tribe that the mermaid wasn't worthy of their worship and that they should convert to Christianity.
   The tribe took their temple down and threw the mermaid statue into the river.  The mermaid became aware of what had happened and rose from the water, calling to her people to join her in the river, in paradise.  The tribe believed they had made a mistake, joined hands and together leaped into the river, with every man, woman, and child drowning.  It is said that the river still sings to this day, with one reporter stating that the river 'emits a low, mournful humming or singing in certain areas.'

That's all for today.  Next time we will learn about accounts of the merpeople from ancient to modern times.

Useful Resources

The Story of Oannes
Classical Mythology by Mark P. O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon
A Dictionary of Nature Myths by Tamra Andrews
The Mermaid's Tail by Sophia Delaat
Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas by Sabine Baring-Gould
Mermaids by Lucille Recht Penner
Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane
Water Monsters by Gail B. Stewart
Creatures in the Mist: Little People, Wild Men, and Spirit Beings by Gary R. Varner

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