The Sunday TimesPlus

13th April 1997



Part I: Mysterious sightings in the Gulf of Mannar

Hear the mermaid's music

In this two-part article, Richard Boyle explores the indestructible legend of the mermaid, its association with Sri Lanka, and the mysterious dugong of the Gulf of Mannar which appears to have spawned the legend.

The Mermaid, a beautiful girl to her waist but a fish from the waist down, and her male counterpart, the Merman, are still among the most popular of legendary creatures, especially in Northern Europe. Yet it is interesting to note that during the past the island of Sri Lanka, in particular the Gulf of Mannar, was firmly linked with mermaid-lore, and sightings of mermaid-like creatures.

Mermaid StatueThe mermaid statue in Copenhagen

Traditionally, the mermaid is a seductive and dangerous enchantress, who personifies the beauty and treachery of the sea, and especially of the shoals and rocks of the coastline. She is also closely associated with the moon, which is represented by the mirror she holds in her hand. Her long hair is said to be composed of seaweed. For a sailor to see a mermaid is almost always a portent of danger and disaster, such as a storm, shipwreck or drowning.

Some gods and goddesses of the ancient world were associated with fish, and some appeared in the form of fish. For instance the Mesopotamian god Oannes was sometimes depicted with the tail of a fish, and there was the Philistine god Dagon, of whom Milton wrote in Paradise Lost: 'Dagon his name, sea monster, upward man and downward fish'.

Fishes were sacred to Aphrodite, who was born from the sea, and to other love goddesses such as Atargatis.

Among the predecessors of the medieval and modern mermaid were the Sirens, who lured sailors to destruction, though exactly when and why they changed from bird-women to fish-women is uncertain. The mer-people were supposed to dwell in an underwater world of great splendour, to which the mermaids lured their victims and where they kept their souls prisoner. This theme occurs again and again in the lore of the sea, with a constant emphasis on the presence of a mermaid as foreshadowing some calamity.

It seems that mermaids are largely symbols of the temptations scattered along the path of life which impede the evolution of the human spirit by bewitchment. They may well be representations of the inferior forces believed to be incorporated in women, or of woman as the inferior. On the other hand, however, it has been maintained that the mermaid is quite simply a symbol of woman, and that the woman is a true incarnation of the spirit of the earth, as opposed to the man who is the son of heaven.

Fortunately, you could always obtain power over a mermaid if you could get possession of her cap or her belt. There are many tales in which a human being brings a mermaid on shore to be his wife. For instance, in The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, a mermaid takes human shape so as to acquire a soul, which will allow her to be near the man she loves for eternity. There are also many stories of marriages between merman and women.

The folklore of Northern Europe is littered with references to mermaids and mermen. In Britanny, the Morgans or sea women were extremely dangerous to men. The people of the Channel Islands believed in a strange sea creature called the King of the Auxcrinier. In Norse forklore the Havemand is a merman with a black beard and green hair. The Estonian Nakk is someone who has drowned and reappears to swallow people.

The Nakki of Finland are very similar, and they have gleaming white bodies and breasts so long that they can throw them over their shoulders.

The famous explorer Henry Hudson reported a sighting of mermaids in 1608 in the Arctic Ocean. He described one of them as being "as big as one of us, her skin very white and long hair hanging down behind, the colour black. In her going down they saw her tail which was like the tail of a porpoise, speckled like a mackerel, and from the navel upwards her back and breasts were like a woman's".

According to John Shaw, author of Speculum Mundi (1635), the song of the mermaid was not as tuneful as was popularly supposed, 'But above all the Mermaids and Men-fish seem to me the most strange fish in the waters. Some have supposed them to be devils or spirits in regard to the whooping noise that they make'. However, this contradicts the older tradition, as expressed so eloquently by William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

"Since once I sat upon a promontory, And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath, That the rude sea grew civil at her song, And certain stars" shot madly from their spheres, To hear the sea-maid's music.

In fact the motif of the mermaid appears extensively in verse and song. Laurie Lee's poem "Song of the Sea" tells the tale of the lover who runs into the mermaid's embrace:

"Oh suck me down to your weeds and fates, Green horizontal girl."

In addition, the mermaid is a well-known character in popular ballads, and in the days of sail, seamen sang:

"Twas Friday morn when we set sail, And we were not far from the land, When the Captain he spied a lovely mermaid, With a comb and glass in her hand."

Pliny, the first naturalist to discuss mermaids at length, would have been intrigued by the amount of evidence for the existence of mermaids which came to light in Europe from the 16th Century onwards, in the shape of fish-tailed sub-humans, most of whom found their way into fairground booths or were exhibited at inns.

For instance, in 1830 a mermaid was on show in London, and Phineas Barnum's celebrated "Greatest Show on Earth" of the 1870s even included a mermaid.

The great upholders of the mermaid myth were the Japanese, who during the last century became adept in the manufacture of synthetic mermen and mermaids, using stuffed monkey skins sewn onto fish-tails.

They exploited the fears of seamen, who wanted to secure a specimen but were afraid that the purchase would bring calamity, by selling each of their customers a photograph of a mermaid as a lucky charm giving protection against mermaid magic.

Sightings of mermaids of one sort or another, have still not ceased. In June 1857 the London Shipping Gazette reported the appearance off Britain of a mermaid with 'full breast, dark complexion, and comely face'. In 1937 a mermaid was reported in the Far East. And in 1956 in Nigeria, a bank cashier was persuaded to hand over $ 1000 from the till to a confidence trickster disguised as a mermaid, who offered to double his money for him!

The DugongDugongs: "Most strange fish in the waters"

With the passing of the age of magic, dedicated rationalists attempted to discover in natural history the true source of the mermaid. Manatees and dugongs have been considered likely candidates. Both are marine mammals of the order Sirenia, and during the days of sail were found in fair numbers in the coastal waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Most importantly, they suckle their young, holding them with their flippers in the manner of a woman with a baby. However, as one naturalist has commented: 'I have seen many women but never yet one so plain as the face of a dugong'.

James Emerson Tennent wrote in 1859, 'The rude approach to the human outline observed in the head of this creature and the attitude of the mother while suckling her young, clasping it to her breast with one flipper, while swimming with the other, holding the heads of both above water; and when disturbed suddenly diving and displaying her fish-like tail - these, together with her habitual demonstration of strong maternal affection probably gave rise to the fable of the mermaid; and thus that earliest invention of mythical physiology may be traced to the Arab seamen and the Greeks who had watched the movements of the dugong in the waters of Mannar.'

Tennent's conviction that it was the dugong of the Gulf of Mannar in particular that gave rise to the mermaid legend is probably fanciful, because in those times dugongs were found along the Arabian coast. Nevertheless, the Gulf of Mannar, which was given the name of Salubham or "Sea of Grain" by Arab seamen, played a significant part in early maritime and mercantile history. For instance, in AD 47 a Roman ship accidentally discovered the monsoon winds and was carried to Kudramalai. The King dispatched an Embassy to Rome, and it was from these envoys that Pliny learned of the island, in particular the Gulf of Mannar.

In addition, the port of Mantota became a recognised trading centre throughout the ancient world, due to its strategic location and proximity to India. The main exports of the island during antiquity - such as pearls, gems, spices and elephants - were consequently shipped out of the country chiefly through the Gulf.

As the Gulf had been well-frequented by sailing craft from time immemorial, it was not surprising that early mariners who had caught a glimpse of this strange creature, began to speculate upon its identity. To superstitious peoples who believed in a variety of sea monsters, the sight of a dugong basking on the surface and then diving when surprised, could easily have suggested the idea of being, half-fish, half beautiful woman.

It was one Ones critus, a navigator in Alexander the Great's Indian expedition, who first alluded to the abundance of herbivorous marine mammals in the waters around the island (such as whalebone whales, dolphins, porpoise and dugongs). The existence of a sea creature with the aspect of a woman was recorded by Megasthenes, a Macedonian ambassador to India soon after Alexander the Great's death. Later on, Aelian supplemented Megasthenes' information by populating the ocean near Taprobane with fishes having the heads of lions, panthers and rams, and stranger still, whales in the form of satyrs.

Tennent was of the opinion that, 'Statements such as these must have had their origin in the hairs which are set around the mouth of the dugong somewhat resembling a beard which Aelian and Megasthenes both particularise from their resemblance to the hair of a woman'.

It appears that the Portuguese cherished the belief in the mermaid, for according to an analyst of the exploits of the Jesuits in India, seven of these creatures were captured in the Gulf of Mannar in 1560.

The Viceroy's physician, Demas Bosquez, dissected the carcasses in Goa and is quoted as having pronounced that, 'their internal structure to be in all respects conformable to the human.

Tennent informs us: 'The Dutch were no less inclined to the marvellous and they propagated the belief in the mermaid with earnestness and particularity'.

In fact the first recorded capture of a mermaid in Holland was in 1403, when one was driven during a storm through a breach in the dyke at Edam. She apparently became accustomed to life on land and was even taught how to spin, but she never learned to speak. Some 15 years after her capture she died and was given a Christian burial.

Francois Valentyn, a Dutch chaplain, gives detailed descriptions of "zee-menschen," "zee-wyven" and mermaids in his account of the Netherlands' possessions in the Indian subcontinent, published in 1727. As far as the dugong is concerned, Valentyn admits its resemblance to the mermaid, but rejects the notion that it gave rise to the fable.

To give credence to his assertion, Valentyn lists various sightings of both mermaids and mermen. He even relates several instances when mermaids were supposedly captured. One of these specimens 'lived four days and seven hours, but refusing all food, died without leaving any intelligible account of herself'.

News of another captured mermaid - the subject of an elaborate engraving in Valentyn's work - reached Europe and prompted the British Minister in Holland, who at the time was playing host to Emperor Peter the Great of Russia, to write to Valentyn to request that the specimen be despatched to Amsterdam for the Emperor's imperial inspection.

Valentyn goes on to cite the testimonies of Pliny, Theodore Gaza, George of Trebisond and Alexander ab Alexandro, to demonstrate that mermaids have been encountered throughout the ages. From these and more modern references he comes to the conclusion that as there are such things as "sea-horses" and "sea-trees", there is no reason to doubt that there may also be "sea-maidens" and "sea-men".

Another Dutch Chaplain, Philip Baldeus, was more down-to-earth when he wrote in 1672: 'They have a peculiar fish (probably a sea-calf) of an amphibious nature; the females have breasts and give suck, and the flesh, when well-boiled, tastes not unlike our sturgeon, and might easily be mistaken for veal.'

Nearly 200 years later, Tenant introduced the dugong of the Gulf of Mannar to readers of English in a scientific manner. 'One of the most remarkable animals on the coast is the dugong, a phytophagous cetacean, numbers of which are attracted to the inlets, from the bay of Calpentyn to Adam's Bridge, by the still water and the abundance of marine algae in these parts of the Gulf. One which was killed at Mannar and sent to me to Colombo in 1847, measured upwards of seven feet in length; but specimens considerably larger have been taken at Calpentyn.'

(To be continued next week)

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