1902 Encyclopedia > Mermaids and Mermen

Mermaids and Mermen

MERMAIDS AND MERMEN, in the popular mythology of England and Scotland, are a class of beings more or less completely akin to man, who have their dwelling in the sea, but are capable of living on land and of entering into social relations with men and women.' They are easily identified, at least in some of their most important aspects, with the Old German Meriminni or Meerfrau, the Icelandic Hafgufa, Margygr, and Marmennill (mod. Marbendill), the Danish Hafmand or Maremind, the Irish .Merrow or Merruach, the Marie-Morgan of Brittany and the Morforwyn of Wales ; 2 and they have various points of resemblance to the vodyany or water-sprite and the rusalka or stream-fairy of Russian mythology. The typical mermaid (who is much more frequently described than the merman) has the head and body of a woman, usually of exceeding loveliness, but below the waist is fashioned like a fish with scales and fins. Her hair is long and beautiful, and she is often represented, like the Russian rusalka, as combing it with one hand while in the other she holds a looking-glass. At other times, like the rusalka, she is seen engaged in the more prosaic occupation of washing or beating clothes ; but this, as, for example, in Hugh Miller's terrible Loch Slin legend, is a sign of some impending calamity. For a time at least a mermaid may become to all appearance an ordinary human being ; and from a very striking Irish legend ("The Overflowing of Lough Neagh and Liban the Mermaid," in Joyce's Old Celtic Romances) it is evident that a human being may also for a. time be transformed into a mermaid.

The mermaid legends, both English and other, may be grouped as follows. A. A mermaid or mermaids either voluntarily or under compulsion reveal things that are about to happen. Thus the two mermaids (merewip) Hadeburc and Sigelint, in the Xibelungenlied, disclose his future course to the hero Hagen, who, having got possession of their garments, which they had left on the shore, compels them to pay ransom in this way. According to Resenius, a mermaid appeared to a peasant of Samsoe, foretold the birth of a prince, and moralized on the evils of internperance, &c. (Kong Fredericks den, andens Kronike, Copenhagen, 1680, p. 302). B. A Mermaid imparts supernatural powers to a human being. Thus in the beautiful story of "The Old Man of Cury " (in Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England, 1871) the old man, instead of silver and gold, obtains the power of doing good to his neighbours by breaking the spells of witchcraft, chasing away diseases, and discovering thieves. John Reid, the Cromarty shipmaster, was more selfish, - his "wishes three" being that neither he nor any of his friends should perish by the sea, that he should be uninterruptedly successful in everything he undertook, and that the lady who scorned his love should scorn it no more. C. A mermaid has some one under her protection, and for wrong done to her ward exacts a terrible penalty. One of the best and most detailed examples of this class is the story of the "Mermaid's Vengeance" in Mr Hunt's book already quoted. D. A mermaid falls in love with, a human being, lives with him as his lawful wife for a time, and then, some compact being unwittingly or intentionally broken by him, departs to her true home in the sea. Here, if its mermaid form be accepted, the typical legend is undoubtedly that of Melusina, which, being made the subject of a full-fledged romance by Jean d'Arras, became one of the most popular folk-books of Europe, appearing in Spanish, German, Dutch, and Bohemian versions. Melusina, whose name may be a far-off echo of the Mylitta (Venus) of the Phoenicians, was married to Raymond of Lusignan, and was long afterwards proudly recognized as one of their ancestors by the Luxembourg, Rohan, and Sassenaye families, and even by the emperor Henry VII. Her story will be found in Baring Gould's Myths of the Middle Ages. E. A mermaid falls in love with a man, and entices him to go and live with her below the sea ; or .a merman, wins the afection or captures the person of an earthborn maiden. This form of legend is very common, and has naturally been a favourite with poets. Macphail of Colonsay successfully rejects the allurements of the mermaid of Corrievrekin, and comes back after long years of trial to the maid of Colonsay.4 The Danish ballads are especially full of the theme ; as "Agnete and the Merman," an antecedent of Matthew Arnold's " Forsaken Merman" ; the "Deceitful Merman, or Marstig's Daughter " ; and the finely detailed story of Rosmer Hafmand (No. 49 in Grimm).

In relation to man the mermaid is usually of evil issue if not of evil intent. She has generally to be bribed or compelled to utter her prophecy or bestow her gifts, and whether as wife or paramour she brings disaster in her train. In itself her sea-life is often represented as one of endless delights, but at other times a mournful mystery and sadness broods over it. The fish-tail, which in popular fancy forms the characteristic feature of the mermaid, is really of secondary importance ; for the true Teutonic mermaid - probably a remnant of the great cult of the Vanir - had no fish-tail ; 2 and this symbolic appendage occurs in such remote mythological regions as to give no clue to historical connexion. The Tritons, and, in the later representations, the Sirens of classical antiquity, the Phoenician Dagon, and the Chaldean Oannes are all well-known examples ; the Ottawas and other American Indians have their man-fish and woman-fish (Jones, Traditions of the North American Indians, 1830) ; and the Chinese tell stories not unlike our own about the sea-women of their southern seas (Dennis, Folklore of China, 1875).

Quasi-historical instances of the appearance or capture of mermaids are common enough,3 and serve, with the frequent use of the figure on signboards and coats of arms, to show how thoroughly the myth had taken hold of the popular imagination.4 A mermaid captured at Bangor, on the shore of Belfast Lough, in the 6th century, was not only baptized, but admitted into some of the old calendars as a saint under the name of Murgen (Totes and Queries, Oct. 21, 1882) ; and Stowe (Jimmies, under date 1187) relates how a.man-fish was kept for six months and more in the castle of Orforde in Suffolk. As showing how legendary material may gather round a simple fact, the oft-told story of the sea-woman of Edam is particularly interesting. The oldest authority, Joh. Gerbrandus a Leydis, a Carmelite monk (ob. 1504), tells (Jimmies, &c., Frankfort, 1620) how in 1403 a wild woman came through a breach in the dike into Purmerlake, and, being found by some Edam milkmaids, was ultimately taken to Haarlem and lived there many years. Nobody could understand her, but she learned to spin, and was wont to adore the cross. Ocka Scharlensis (Chronijk van Friesland, Leeuw., 1597) reasons that she was not a fish because she could spin, and she was not a woman because she could live in the sea ; and thus in due course she got fairly established as a genuine mermaid. Vosmaer, who has carefully investigated the matter, enumerates forty writers who have repeated the story, and shows that the older ones speak only of h woman (see " Beschr. van de zoogen. Meermin der stad Haarlem," in Verh. van de Moll. Maatsch. van K en Wet., part 23, No. 1786). As for the stuffed mermaids which have figured from the days of Bartholomew Fair downwards, it is enough to mention that exhibited in the Turf Coffee-house, London, in 1822, and carefully drawn by Cruikshank (compare Chambers, Book of Days).

The best account of the mermaid-myth is in Baring Gould's Myths of the Middle Ages. See also, besides works already mentioned, Pontoppidan, who in his logically credulous way collects much matter to prove the existence of mermaids; Maillet, amid, Hague, 1755 ; Grimm, Deutsche Mythologic, i. 404, and Altdan. Heldenlieder, 1811 • 1-Valdron's Description and Train's Mist. and Stat. Ace. of the Isle of Man ; Folklore Society's Record, vol. ii.; Napier, Mist. and Trad. Tales connected with the South of Scotland ; Sebillot, Traditions de la Haute Bretagne, 7.882, and Coates des Mm-ins, 1882. (II. A. W.)

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