Mermaids — Common Threads Of Mythologies & Folk-Stories From Around The World (Melusine, Merrow, Rusalkas, & Finfolk Of The Orkneys)
November 24, 2016 in Stories
The word mermaid originates with the Old English compound of mere (meaning “sea”) and maid (meaning unmarried “girl/woman”). Older stories sometimes used the term merewif. In many of the stories of the region (British Isles), such “mermaids” were depicted similarly to the sirens of Greek stories such as the Odyssey — beautiful women with enchanting voices, who tried to lure sailors to shipwreck and stranding on the islands that they inhabited. That certainly paints a different picture than the pop culture image of a mermaid doesn’t it?
There are some early depictions of mermaids though that aren’t vastly different in nature than modern ones, but there are also some that hold nothing in common with modern depictions as well. The culture that the associated stories spring from predictably seems to have a lot to do with the nature of the “mermaids” in question. For instance, the Slavic corollary, Rusalkas, are usually depicted as being the restless spirits of young women who died violent, or untimely deaths. These Rusalkas inhabit the rivers, streams, and lakes, of the region, and attempt to lure young men to their drowning — presumably as resolution for their own violent or untimely deaths.
As recounted in the Science Heathen article on manatees, the story of the Assyrian goddess Atargatis is one of the stories that has something in common with modern depictions of mermaids. Notably, the story is one of the oldest (known of) with something like a mermaid in it. Whether the story has its origination in the Assyrian culture, or is a re-telling of a far older story, though, is an open question.
“The Assyrian story of Atargatis, which dates back at least 3000 years (1000 BC), is a good example. The goddess Atargatis fell in love with a mortal, a shepherd, but unintentionally killed him, owing to the differences of their natures (as a mortal and an immortal). Ashamed of herself for what happened, she jumped into a lake and took on the form of a fish. The waters would not conceal her divine nature/beauty though, and she thereafter took a form that appeared to be human above the waist and fish below. The earliest known depictions of Atargatis, though, show her as being a fish with a human head and arms, rather than with the full upper body of a human. This is similar to common depictions of the Babylonian god Ea.”
With regard to stories with a very different take on mermaids, there are a number of interesting stories recounted in the One Thousand and One Nights collection that fit that parameter.
These include various stories featuring “sea peoples,” such as “Djullanar the Sea-girl” and “Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman” — where the “sea peoples” are more or less human, not part-fish + part-human, but they live underwater, and can breathe there.
The story of Abdullah the Fisherman is interesting, as the protagonist of the story travels to an underwater kingdom where he experiences what seems to be an inverse of the society of his time. Such stories are fairly common all around the world — a journey made to a sort of mirror world, where the “people” are in some ways very similar but in some ways very different.
As these sorts of stories are seemingly found all throughout the world (including in various American Indian populations, and amongst the Sami of far Northern Europe), there seems to be something pretty basal to them — either with regard to the human mind, or to the world, or to both.
As a bit of a detour here…
Notably, there were a “Sea Peoples” that were active throughout the Mediterranean region — the Near/Middle East, Southern Europe, North Africa, etc — during the late Bronze Age collapse some 3500-3000 years ago. They were described by many of the reports of the time as people who lived mostly on boats, keeping their women, children, and farm/domesticated animals on them as well. They were raiders, and were responsible for a fair number of city-destructions and invasions, whether successful or not. They are thought to have possibly originally been displaced peoples resulting from a major eruption of the Santorini volcano sometime between 1642-1540 BC. The late Bronze Age collapse saw many such situations and mass migrations, with Europe being colonized at the time by the Celts (from the Middle East), and also a great any others, from the Near East and Middle East.
Most modern Europeans would trace some of their origins to these peoples that moved into the vacuum left by the collapse/displacement of the local cultures of the time, if they were to look. The vast majority of modern “European” genetics relates to various peoples that mass-migrated into Europe from the Middle East and West Asia over the last 8,000 or so years (Germanics ~2,000 years ago; Celts ~3500 years ago; Italics before; Iberians before; etc). Original ice-age European genetics are now only found in notable quantities in marginalized groups (the Sami in far Northern Europe), and in some quantities in peoples at the edges, and in mountain refugia (parts of Finland, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Friesland, Catalonia, Basque Country, Andalusia, and in parts of Croatia, Hungary, Ukraine, Bulgaria, etc).
Now, back to the subject of the article…
In the stories of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man, mermaids are depicted in a variety of ways. Sometimes as oracles of disasters, sometimes as purveyors of treasure, or as saviors, and sometimes as friends or lovers of the stories’ protagonists.
Interestingly, some stories describe mermaids as being of enormous size — even up to 2,000 feet in height. Traditionally, they were, for whatever reasons, considered to be a sign of impending rough weather in the region.
Some local stories of mermaids involve them occasionally teaching humans the cures, or means of treatment, of certain diseases or afflictions.
Interestingly, mermen have generally been described as having little interest in humans, and as being much “wilder and uglier.”
Durham Castle’s Norman chapel, built shortly after the Norman conquest by Saxon stonemasons, sometime around 1078, features one of the oldest known physical depictions of a mermaid in England. (It’s found above one of the Norman stone pillars, on a south-facing capital, for those in the region who want to take a look.)
Going a bit further southeast, to Cornwall (Kernow), you get a legend concerning a mermaid who would regularly visit the village of Zennor in order to listen to the chorister Matthew Trewhella sing. The story goes that the two fell in love, and that Trewhella went back with the mermaid to her home at Pendour Cove, and that you can sometimes hear the two singing in the area on summer nights.
Interestingly, the Church of Saint Senara in Zennor is home to a chair that’s decorated with mermaid carvings that’s thought to be at least 600 years old.
Depictions of mermaids on the Isle of Man are somewhat similar, with them often being described as being benign and sometimes even beneficent to people. They are known there as ben-varrey, and are reported to sometimes help humans in need, or to provide them with gifts for services rendered.
There’s a local story, for instance, of a fisherman who once helped a stranded mermaid back into deeper waters, and was provided with the location of a treasure as a form of thanks.
Another relates the events surrounding a baby mermaid who took a doll from a young human girl. When the baby mermaid’s mother found about the theft, the baby mermaid was, according to the story, sent back to the young human girl with a pearl necklace in order to make things right.
A more humorous, third story tells how a family of fishing people would regularly make gifts of apples to a local mermaid, and that they were “rewarded with prosperity.”
As recounted at the start of this article, the Slavic equivalent of mermaids, rusalkas, are perhaps even more similar to Greek depictions of sirens and naiads than those from the British Isles are. Perhaps this is because the British Isles were until recently home to a great many peoples who had a strong relationship with the sea? Wheres Slavic countries are generally more land-locked, and thus more distant from it?
Rusalkas of course relate to spirits that are said to inhabit lakes and rivers, rather than the sea. But something of the nature of the two could be said to be similar. The open ocean, and rivers and lakes, certainly have their differences as well.
Depictions of rusalkas do vary somewhat, though, based on the folk tradition in question. Common elements, though, typically include: an origin as the restless spirits of young women that have been violently killed, whether murdered or dead through suicide; that they are beautiful; that they are pale of body, and have long pale green hair; that they are met most commonly after dark; and that they sometimes attempt to lure young men to a death by drowning.
“…suggesting a connection with floating weeds and days spent underwater in faint sunlight. They can be seen after dark, dancing together under the moon and calling out to young men by name, luring them to the water and drowning them.”
Such a depiction is common throughout western Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Other depictions, particularly in more recent stories from the 19th century, are of a more romantic nature.
A particularly interesting take on rusalkas is in the medieval Russian epic known as “Sadko” (Садко). In the story, the character whom the story is named after is a gusli musician/adventurer/merchant from Novgorod that travels to and lives in the underwater kingdom of a “Sea Tsar.” He marries the Sea Tsar’s daughter, but eventually returns to his home.
When discussing “mermaids” the story of Melusine, in some recountings known as Melusina, looms large. Melusine is usually depicted as being a freshwater spirit that takes the form of half-human, half-snake or half-fish. The upper body being human, and the lower body being snake or fish. Some depictions show her with wings and/or a tail.
The legends concerning Melusine seem to mostly be based around the northern and western parts of what’s now France, and also the Low Countries. Notably, there’s also a connection with Cyprus — the French Lusignan royal house that ruled the island from 1192 to 1489 claimed to be descended from Melusine.
The basic story:
During the time of the Crusades, the King of Albany (Alba or Scotland), Elynas, came across a beautiful lady while in the forest hunting. While the circumstances were strange, and it wasn’t clear what the lady was doing in the middle of the forest, the king wanted to marry the lady. And he convinced her to marry, but only on one condition… That he must not witness the births of their children, and that he never witness her bathing the children. (Marriages between mortals and those that aren’t quite mortal in mythology often have easily breakable stipulations such as this one.)
And so they were married, the forest lady Pressyne and the king Elynas, and she eventually gave birth to triplets. The king eventually violated the taboo that Pressyne had requested, and she then left the king’s land with her three daughters following that. And traveled to the disappearing island of Avalon, in the fog.
The triplets — Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne — then grew up on Avalon, away from their father. Melusine, the oldest, on her fifteenth birthday asked Pressyne why they had been brought to the isolated island. Following being told the story, Melusine apparently set her mind on getting “revenge” on her father, for the broken taboo.
And so Melusine and her two sisters eventually kidnapped their father Elynas, and imprisoned him in a mountain. When Pressyne found out about this, she apparently became enraged, and Melusine ended up cursed to take the form of a serpent from the waist down every Saturday (the lower body of a mermaid/fish in some stories).
Many years after this, Melusine herself is then approached in a forest of Coulombiers by Raymond of Poitou, and he asks her hand in marriage. She consents, but imposes a similar condition as her mother did — he must never enter her chamber on Saturdays. He eventually breaks this promise in the stories, and witnesses her in her part-serpent or mermaid form. Following this, they reconcile, for a time. At a later point, though, during a disagreement in ‘court,’ Raymond of Poitou then refers to her as a serpent, she assumes the form of a dragon, gives him two magic rings, and then flies off. And that’s where most of the stories end.
The stories of Melusine have much in common with stories of other pre-Christian water-spirits, such as the “Lady of the Lake” that features in Arthurian legends, and Lorelei.
Merrow & Murdúchann (Ireland)
The merrow of Irish folklore are very similar to mermaids in many ways, though the basic design of many of them stories can be a bit different. The Irish word itself for ‘merrow’ is murúch, from the Middle Irish murdúchann, murdúchu. The word apparently means something like ‘siren’ or ‘sea singer.’
The terminology murdúchann is from Middle Irish and was used to denote the siren-like creatures recounted in the Book of Invasions to have been encountered by the Milesians or Goidels (in the Caspian Sea). The music sung by these murdúchann apparently put the crew to sleep until Caicher the Druid reportedly got them to put wax earplugs in. Notably, physical descriptions aren’t provided in these accounts, so it’s not clear if the ‘sirens’ here were mermaid-like, or bird-like as the Greek sirens were.
Other terminology used for ‘mermaids’ includes: muirgheilt, suire, samguba, and maighdean mhara (the modern terminology).
The music of the merrow, going by some stories, comes from the deepest parts of the ocean, but once it reaches the surface travels across the waters without rising much above.
Notably, in the Annals of the Four Masters — a 17th century amalgamation of older annals — there’s an entry for 887 AD that reports a ‘mermaid’ that washed ashore on the coast of Alba (Scotland). This mermaid was 195 feet long, with 18 feet of hair, fingers 7 feet long, a nose 7 feet long, and skin that was white as a swan.
The Annals of the Four Masters also features an entry for 558 AD that notes of the capture of “Lí Ban as a mermaid.” Notably, the Annals of Ulster have an entry dated 571 AD for the capture of the “sea lunatic” Muirgheilt — Lí Ban’s nickname.
The Finfolk Of The Orkneys
The Finfolk, or Finnfolk, of the Orkney Islands are shape-shifters who live in the sea and are thought to regularly travel to the islands from Finfolkaheem — particularly in the spring or summer. The idea being to kidnap humans and force them to live in servitude as a spouse (this sounds to me like it’s, at least partly, obliquely in reference to slave raiding in the region by those from elsewhere). Notably, the finfolk apparently also have an eye for silver and gold, and for jewelry and coinage of other various types.
With regard to the home of the finfolk, Finfolkaheem, it’s reportedly an enormous underwater palace filled with crystal halls and seaweed gardens. This home of the finfolk is apparently never dark, as tiny phosphorescent sea life keeps the place lit all of the time in a dusky sort of light. (Sounds like the sort of thing you would tell someone before drowning them? A “sleep with the fishes” sort of comment.)
(As a bit of a probably not accurate at all speculation, I’ve wondered if the ‘crystal’ ships and towers recounted in the Book of Invasions and some other earlier sources don’t relate to floating icebergs. Particularly to ice-bergs made of old, glass-clear ice. And possibly to ones that had been outfitted and modified in some ways to serve as bases of operation for boating peoples. Like a giant floating igloo boat-hub, possibly with carved out rooms, and space for stored foods. If designed thoughtfully, and with judicious use of animal skins and furs, something like that could probably work fairly well, depending on the climate of the time, as a seasonal base of operations.)
The Sirenia are an order of aquatic mammals that live throughout the oceans, estuaries, swamps, and rivers of the world. The best known are the manatees, the dugong, and the Stellar’s Sea Cow are/were classified within Sirenia as well. They have sometimes been referred to as mermaids — in particular manatees and dugongs have been. I suppose that the Stellar’s Sea Cow may have as well at some point, but that would have been a very big mermaid.
Image Credits: Melusine statue, Ludwig Michael von Schwanthaler, 1845; John William Waterhouse; Frederic Leighton, 1856