Thursday, August 6, 2009


I would be a mermaid fair...
From under my starry sea-bud crown
Low adown and around,
And I should look like a fountain of gold....
~from Tennyson's "The Mermaid"

(Artwork from Hermes)
The idea of mermaids has fascinated people for a long time, the first recorded tales being those from Assyria in 1000 BC. Later, the ancient Greeks and the cultures that followed had their own unique renditions of the myth. According to one article:
In Greek mythology, the merpeople existed in the form of Triton and his offspring....

Greek geographer and writer, Pausanias claimed to have seen two Tritons. He wrote this of them in his Description of Greece. "Their bodies are bristling with very fine scales. They have gills behind the ears and a human nose, but a very big mouth and the teeth of a wild beast . . . from the breast and belly down they have a dolphin tail instead of feet."

In 1608, English navigator, Henry Hudson described something two of his crewmen saw in his journal. He wrote this of their account. "From the naval upward, her back and breasts were like a woman's . . . her body as big as one of us; her skin very white and long hair hanging down behind,of the color black; in her going down they saw her tail, which was the tail of a porpoise, and speckled like a mackerel."

Mermaid sightings have continued throughout history, one of the most famous being off the coast of Wales in 1603:

The creature was first seen by Thomas Raynold, a yeoman from Pendine, who then summoned others to keep watch for three hours. William Saunders of Pendine later examined Raynold and some of the other witnesses. Stories of mermaids were fairly common during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and there is even reference to a sighting in the journal of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) for 9 January 1493. It was believed that mermaids could save sailors from drowning but could also lure ships to their doom. Belief in mermaids, fairies and other mythical creatures persisted in many areas of Britain until the eighteenth century and sometimes even later. Gradually, however, opposition by the Protestant Church, greater levels of literacy, and industrialisation led to a demise of the belief in such creatures, although many stories have survived.
The Romantics and Victorians enshrined their interest in legends about mermaids in art and poetry, one of the famous stories being The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. Showmen such as P.T. Barnum made a great deal of money by charging people to view his hoax of a mermaid. But in spite of the hoax, as well as the scientific expeditions which claimed that mermaids were none other than manatees, merpeople have never quite gone away. Beneath it all perhaps lies a mystification with the otherness of the sea and the creatures, both real and imaginary, that dwell therein.



Lucy said...

This is so interesting. I'm always fascinated by the negative opinion I grew up with about mermaids..(I was taught that they lured the men off ships to never come back to land- lost forever at sea). And when I compare this to my daughter's fascination with Ariel and Walt's a world of difference!

Juliana said...

Living in South Florida my entire life, I've seen my fair share of manatees. But I've never heard that there were scientific expeditions claiming that mermaids were manatees! Fascinating!


Allison said...

While I do not purpose that mermaids exist, the descriptions of them do not sound like manatees...

Love the artwork! Was running across these beautiful depictions what got you thinking of mermaids?

elena maria vidal said...

I think so, Alison, although I have always found the idea of the enchanting.