Posted on 4 Comments

Mermaids: Legends, Origins and More

Since I was a child playing on the beaches of Oregon and California, I have had a fascination with all things regarding the sea from its marine life to maritime history and especially the mysterious tales of its beings told in ancient to even modern folklore. One of those mystical beings of the sea I adore are Mermaids which can be seen in folklore tales all around the world. Today’s post is all about Mermaid folklore, their origins, mythology and more. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did putting it together for my readers.

Early origins of Mermaids

The roots of mermaid mythology are more varied than one would expect.  In modern myth we tend to see mermaids in a singular way – kind and benevolent to humans who keep to their own kind in the deep waters of the ocean.  Not all stories go this way, though, and in most cases the most ancient tales of mermaid mythology follow quite a different view.

The earliest known mermaid legends come from Syria around 1000 B.C. where the Syrian goddess Atargatis dove into a lake to take the form of a fish, but the powers there would not allow her give up her great beauty, so only her bottom half became a fish and she kept her top half in human form. 

As myths tend to do, the story changed over time and Atargatis became mixed with Syrian goddess Ashtarte, who is generally considered the counterpart to Greek mythology’s Aphrodite.  Though Aphrodite is rarely portrayed in mermaid form, this evolution of mermaid mythology is what led to Aphrodite’s role in the mythology of Pisces, which clearly has roots in Syrian mythology.

Later tales in the mythology of mermaids stem from Homer’s epic “The Odyssey”, where some mythologists believe the Sirens to have been in mermaid form.  This was an extremely popular version of the mermaid throughout history.  Many popular tales including legends from the British Isles and the famous Arabian Nights tales identify mermaids in exactly this fashion.  In these myths, mermaids would sing to men on ships or shores nearby, practically hypnotizing them with their beauty and song.  Those affected would rush out to sea only to be either drowned, eaten, or otherwise sent to their doom. Continue reading HERE.

An illustration of Derceto from the work of German scholar Athanasius Kircher, “Oedipus Aegyptiacus”, published in 1652.  (Image credit: Athanasius Kircher/Public Domain)

The Lorelei

“Flows the Rhine as flowing wine,
Bright in its unrest,
Sweet with odors of the vine;
Heaven in its breast.”

So the boatman Hugo sung,
Long, long ago,
By the Lurley-berg that hung
In the sunset glow.

At that fateful rock, upraised
From its foamy base,
Suddenly the boatman gazed
With a stricken face.

On its summit, wondrous fair,
Shining angel-wise,
Sat a maid, with golden hair
And beseeching eyes.

From a shoulder’s rosy sphere
All the robe that slid,
Ripple bright and water-clear,
Rather show’d than hid.

As her hair her fingers through
(Fingers pearly white)
Slowly pass’d, the diamond dew
Fell and broke in light.

But a gold harp from her feet
Lifted she ere long,
And its music, pulsing sweet,
Fed a wondrous song.

And the boatman, drifting fast,
Listen’d to his cost;
On the rocks before him cast!
In the whirlpool lost!

Then the Lorelei’s luring form
Faded from the eye,
As a cloud fades, rosy warm,
In a purple sky.”

– The Lorelei, 1869
From Harper’s Weekly,
January 16, 1869
The Mariners’ Museum Research Library and Archives
SOURCE

Though not as well known as their female counterparts, mermen have an equally fierce reputation for summoning storms, sinking ships and drowning sailors. One especially feared group, the Blue Men of the Minch, are said to dwell in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, according to The Scotsman. They look like ordinary men (from the waist up anyway) with the exception of their blue-tinted skin and gray beards. Local lore claims that before laying siege to a ship, the Blue Men often challenge its captain to a rhyming contest; if the captain is quick enough of wit and agile enough of tongue he can best the Blue Men and save his sailors from a watery grave. 

Japanese legends have a version of merfolk called kappa. Said to reside in Japanese lakes, coasts and rivers, these child-size water spirits appear more animal than human, with simian faces and tortoise shells on their backs, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Like the Blue Men, the kappa sometimes interact with humans and challenge them to games of skill in which the penalty for losing is death. Kappa are said to have an appetite for children and those foolish enough to swim alone in remote places — but they especially prize fresh cucumbers. 

Throughout West, South and Central Africa, the mythical water spirit called Mami Wata, which means “Mother of the Waters”, was once worshiped for their ability to bestow beauty, health and wisdom to their followers, according to the Royal Museums Greenwich. Mami Wata is often portrayed as a mermaid or snake charmer, however, her appearance has been influenced by presentations of other indigenous African water spriest as well as European mermaids and Hindu gods and goddesses, according to the Smithsonian. Continue reading HERE.

Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales From Around the World by Heidi Anne Heiner
Ramakien Murals depicting the hero Hanuman meeting the mermaid Suvannamaccha, Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok, Thailand (Ramakien Murals depicting the hero Hanuman meeting the mermaid Suvannamaccha, Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok, Thailand (1831)

Southeast Asian folklore includes the story of a mermaid princess, Suvannamaccha (meaning “golden fish”).

In the Ramayana, the countries retellings of the Indian epic poem, one of the heroes, Hanuman attempts to build a bridge of stones across the sea.

His plans are hampered by Suvannamaccha who has been instructed to prevent the causeway’s completion. The two meet and fall in love and Suvannamaccha ends up helping Hanuman finishing the path. The mermaid is now seen as a herald of good luck and her figure is depicted in charms, streamers and icons throughout Cambodia, Thailand and Lao. SOURCE

Further Resources

Behind the Mythology: Mermaids

Origin of the Mermaid Myth

Mermaids – Myth and Folklore

On the Origins of Mermaids

21 Facts about Mermaids

Mermaid Mythology – Mermaids Myths and Legends

Known throughout mythology, folklore and modern adaptation, we take a look at Mermaids and some stories that suggest they may be out there, lurking in the bottom of the ocean.
Mermaids – Today we take a look at the stories behind Mermaids from Greek mythology, Mesopotamian mythology, Russian & British folklore.
Posted on 4 Comments

The Legends of the Selkies

Being a man of the sea myself I have always been fascinated with all myths and folklore of the sea and its shores. Whether is be Sea Nymphs, Mermaids, Water Horses, Ghost Ships and more. Today I want to talk about the mystical and alluring Selkies. These mysterious beings of the sea are wrapped up in the folklore specifically on the Orkney Islands of Scotland and the Faroe Islands. I put together for this my favorite resources that go quite in-depth of the Selkies. I hope you enjoy this topic as much as I do.

Amorous, affectionate and affable, Selkies are the hidden gems of sea mythology. Gentle souls who prefer dancing in the moonlight over luring sailors to their death, Selkies are often overlooked by mythological enthusiasts for the more enthralling forms of mermaids or sirens. Yet Selkies play a prominent role in the mythology of Scandinavia, Scotland and Ireland. Their myths are romantic tragedies, a common theme for land/sea romances, however it is the Selkies who suffer rather than their human lovers and spouses. While the tales of Selkies always begin with a warm and peaceful “once upon a time”, there are no true happy ending for the tales of Selkies—someone always gets his/her heart broken.

The mythology of selkies is similar to that of the Japanese swan maidens, though historically it appears that the tales of the swan maidens predate the western tradition. Selkies can be either men or women, but are seals while in the water. What differentiates them from mermaids (aside from the choice of animal) is that they undergo a full body transformation upon coming to shore: they do not merely transform seal tails into human legs, but rather completely shapeshift from the sea animals into a human. This is accomplished by shedding their seal-skin when they come to land. Selkies are predominately mythological creatures from Irish, Scottish (particularly in Orkney and the Shetland Islands) and Faroese folklore, however there is a similar tradition in Iceland as well.

Their name descends from the Scottish selich, and there does not appear to be a Gaelic term for these creatures. This is likely indicative of their prominence in early modern Scottish culture. It is believed that the Selkies arose in legends when early Scottish settlers and shipwrecked Spaniards married dark-haired, fur-wearing Finnish and Saami native women… Continue reading here.

Kópakonan: A statue of the Seal Woman was raised in Mikladagur on the island of Kalsoy on 1 August, 2014. The statue is 2.6 metres long, weighs 450 kilograms, and is made of bronze and stainless steel.
Picture: Frítíðargrunnurin.

The origin of the selkie-folk

The seal-folk of Scotland and Ireland

The Secret History Hidden in the Selkie Story

The legend of Kópakonan

The Seal People – Selkies

Click Image for Selkie: Norse Mermaids