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Sea MonstersThe Kraken
In the legends and traditions of northern nations, sto...
The belief in the existence of sea-serpents of formida...
The mystery of the Kraken, of which I treated in a com...
The belief that some wild geese, instead of being hatc...
Next to the pleasure which the earnest zoologist deriv...
In the description given by Homer, in the twelfth book...
One of the sea-fallacies still generally believed, and...
Next to the pleasure which the earnest zoologist derives from study of the habits and structure of living animals, and his intelligent appreciation of their perfect adaptation to their modes of life, and the circumstances in which they are placed, is the interest he feels in eliminating fiction from truth, whilst comparing the fancies of the past with the facts of the present. As his knowledge increases, he learns that the descriptions by ancient writers of so-called "fabulous creatures" are rather distorted portraits than invented falsehoods, and that there is hardly one of the monsters of old which has not its prototype in Nature at the present day. The idea of the Lernean Hydra, whose heads grew again when cut off by Hercules, originated, as I have shown in another chapter, in a knowledge of the octopus; and in the form and movements of other animals with which we are now familiar we may, in like manner, recognise the similitude and archetype of the mermaid.
But we must search deeply into the history of mankind to discover the real source of a belief that has prevailed in almost all ages, and in all parts of the world, in the existence of a race of beings uniting the form of man with that of the fish. A rude resemblance between these creatures of imagination and tradition and certain aquatic animals is not sufficient to account for that belief. It probably had its origin in ancient mythologies, and in the sculptures and pictures connected with them, which were designed to represent certain attributes of the deities of various nations. In the course of time the meaning of these was lost; and subsequent generations regarded as the portraits of existing beings effigies which were at first intended to be merely emblematic and symbolical.
FIG. 1.—NOAH, HIS WIFE, AND THREE SONS, AS FISH-TAILED DEITIES. From a Gem in the Florentine Gallery. After Calmet.
Early idolatry consisted, first, in separating the idea of the One Divinity into that of his various attributes, and of inventing symbols and making images of each separately; secondly, in the worship of the sun, moon, stars, and planets, as living existences; thirdly, in the deification of ancestors and early kings; and these three forms were often mingled together in strange and tangled confusion.
Amongst the famous personages with whose history men were made acquainted by oral tradition was Noah. He was known as the second father of the human race, and the preserver and teacher of the arts and sciences as they existed before the Great Deluge, of which so many separate traditions exist among the various races of mankind. Consequently, he was an object of worship in many countries and under many names; and his wife and sons, as his assistants in the diffusion of knowledge, were sometimes associated with him.
According to Berosus, of Babylon,—the Chaldean priest and astronomer, who extracted from the sacred books of "that great city" much interesting ancient lore, which he introduced into his 'History of Syria,' written, about B.C. 260, for the use of the Greeks,—at a time when men were sunk in barbarism, there came up from the Erythrean Sea (the Persian Gulf), and landed on the Babylonian shore, a creature named Oannes, which had the body and head of a fish. But above the fish's head was the head of a man, and below the tail of the fish were human feet. It had also human arms, a human voice, and human language. This strange monster sojourned among the rude people during the day, taking no food, but retiring to the sea at night; and it continued for some time thus to visit them, teaching them the arts of civilized life, and instructing them in science and religion.
FIG. 2.—HEA, OR NOAH, THE GOD OF THE FLOOD. Khorsabad.
In this tale we have a distorted account of the life and occupation of Noah after his escape from the deluge which destroyed his home and drowned his neighbours. Oannes was one of the names under which or Thebes—so named from "Theba," "the ark."
FIG. 3.—DAGON. From a bas relief. Nimroud.
The history of the coffin of Osiris is another version of Noah's ark, and the period during which that Egyptian divinity is said to have been shut up in it, after it was set afloat upon the waters, was precisely the same as that during which Noah remained in the ark.
Dagon, also—sometimes called Odacon—the great fish-god of the Philistines and Babylonians, was another phase of Oannes. "Dag," in Hebrew, signifies "a male fish," and "Aun" and "Oan" were two of the names of Noah. "Dag-aun" or "Dag-oan" therefore means "the fish Noah." He was portrayed in two ways. The more ancient image of him was that of a man issuing from a fish, as described of Oannes by Berosus; but in later times it was varied to that of a man whose upper half was human, and the lower parts those of a fish. The image of Dagon which fell upon its face to the ground before "the ark of the God of Israel," was probably of this latter form, for we read that in its fall, "the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold: only the stump (in the margin, "the fishy part") of Dagon was left to him. This was evidently Milton's conception of him:
"Dagon his name; sea-monster, upward man
FIG. 4.—DAGON. After Calmet.
FIG. 5.—DAGON. From an Agate Signet. Nineveh.
In some of the Nineveh sculptures of the fish-god, the head of the fish forms a kind of mitre on the head of the man, whilst the body of the fish appears as a cloak or cape over his shoulders and back. The fish varies in length; in some cases the tail almost touches the ground; in others it reaches but little below the man's waist.
FIG. 6.—FISH AVATAR OF VISHNU. After Calmet and Maurice.
In one of his "avatars," or incarnations, the god Vishnu "the Preserver," is represented as issuing from the mouth of a fish. He is celebrated as having miraculously preserved one righteous family, and, also, the Vedas, the sacred records, when the world was drowned. Not only is this legend of the Indian god wrought up with the history of Noah, but Vishnu and Noah bear the same name—Vishnu being the Sanscrit form of "Ish-nuh," "the man Noah." The word "avatar" also means "out of the boat." In fact the whole mythology of Greece and Rome, as well as of Asia, is full of the history and deeds of Noah, which it is impossible to misunderstand. In all the representations of a deity having a combined human and piscine form, the original idea was that of a person coming out of a fish—not being part of As the image was not the effigy of a divine personage, but symbolized certain attributes of Divinity, its sex was comparatively unimportant, although it is possible that, combined with the fecundity of the fish, the idea of Noah's wife, as the second mother of all subsequent generations, according to the widely-spread and accepted traditions of the deluge, may have influenced the impersonation.
Atergatis, the far-famed goddess of the Syrians, was also a fish-divinity. Her image, like that of Dagon, had at first a fish's body with human extremities protruding from it; but in the course of centuries it was gradually altered to that of a being the upper portion of whose body was that of a woman and the lower half that of a fish. Gatis was a powerful queen of Sidon, and mother of Semiramis. She received the title of "Ater," or "Ader," "the Great," for the benefits she conferred on her people; one of these benefits being a strict conservation of their fisheries, both from their own imprudent use, and from foreign interference. She issued an edict that no fish should be eaten without her consent, and that no one should take fish in the neighbouring sea without a licence from herself. It is not improbable that she and her celebrated daughter, who is said by Ovid and others to have been the builder of the walls of Babylon, were worshipped together; for that Atergatis was the same as the fish-goddess Ashteroth, or Ashtoreth, "the builder of the encompassing wall," we have, amongst other proofs, a remarkable one in Biblical history. In the first book of Maccabees v. 43, 44, we read that "all the heathen being discomfited before him (Judas Maccabeus) cast away their weapons, and fled unto the temple that was at Carnaim. But they took the city, and burned the temple with all that were therein. Thus was Carnaim subdued, neither could they stand any longer before Judas." In the second book of Maccabees xii. 26, we are told that "Maccabeus marched forth to Carnion, and to the temple of Atargatis, and there he slew five and twenty thousand persons." In Genesis xiv. 5, this city and temple are referred to as "Ashteroth Karnaim."
Fig. 7 is a representation of Atergatis on a medal coined at Marseilles. It shows that when the Phœnician colony from Syria, by whom that city was founded, settled there, they brought with them the worship of the gods of their country.
FIG. 7.—ATERGATIS. From a Phœnician coin.
Atergatis was worshipped by the Greeks as Derceto and Astarte. Lucian writes "the celestial Aphrodite," who was identical with the Cyprian and Roman Venus. Of all the sacred buildings erected to the goddess, this temple was by far the most ancient; and the Cyprians themselves acknowledged that their temple was built after the model of it by certain Phœnicians who came from that part of Syria.
FIG. 8.—VENUS RISING FROM THE SEA, SUPPORTED BY TRITONS. After Calmet.
Thus the worship of Noah, as the second father of mankind, the repopulator of the earth, passed through various phases and transformations till it merged in that of Venus, who rose from the sea, and was regarded as the representative of the reproductive power of Nature—the goddess whom Lucretius thus addressed:
"Blest Venus! Thou the sea and fruitful earth Peoplest amain; to thee whatever lives Its being owes, and that it sees the sun:"
and to whom refers the passage in the Orphic hymn:
"From thee are all things—all things thou producest Which are in heaven, or in the fertile earth, Or in the sea, or in the great abyss."
Under this latter phase—the impersonation of Venus—the fish portion of the body was discarded, and the cast-off form was allotted in popular credence to the Tritons—minor deities, who acknowledged the supremacy of the goddess, and were ready to render her homage and service by bearing her in their arms, drawing her chariot, etc., but who still possessed considerable power as sea-gods, and could calm the waves and rule the storm, at pleasure.
VENUS DRAWN IN HER CHARIOT BY TRITONS. From two Corinthian coins.
Figs. 9 and 10 are from two Corinthian medals, each shewing Venus in a car or chariot drawn by Tritons, one male, the other female. On the obverse of Fig. 9, is the
From the very earliest period of history, then, the conjoined human and fish form was known to every generation of men. It was presented to their sight in childhood by sculptures and pictures, and was a conspicuous object in their religious worship. By the lapse of time its original import was lost and debased; and, from being an emblem and symbol, it came to be accepted as the corporeal shape and structure of actually-existent sea-deities, who might present themselves to the view of the mariner, in visible and tangible form, at any moment. Thus were men trained and prepared to believe in mermen and mermaids, to expect to meet with them at sea, and to recognise as one of them any animal the appearance and movements of which could possibly be brought into conformity with their pre-conceived ideas.
Accordingly, and very naturally, we find that from north to south this belief has been entertained. Megasthenes, who was a contemporary of Aristotle, but his junior, and whose geographical work was probably written at about the period of the great philosopher's death, reported that the sea which surrounded Taprobana, the ancient Ceylon, was inhabited by creatures having the appearance of women. Ælian stated that there were "whales," or "great fishes," having the form of satyrs. The early Portuguese settlers in India asserted that true mermen were found in the Eastern seas, and old Norse legends tell of submarine beings of conjoined human and piscine form, who dwell in a wide territory far below the region of the fishes, over which the sea, like the cloudy canopy of our sky, loftily rolls, and some of whom have, from time to time, landed on Scandinavian shores, exchanged their fishy extremities for human limbs, and acquired amphibious habits. Not only have poets sung of the wondrous and seductive beauty of the maidens of these aquatic tribes, but many a Jack tar has come home from sea prepared to affirm on oath that he has seen a mermaid. To the best of his belief he has told the truth. He has seen some living being which looked wonderfully human, and his imagination, aided by an inherited superstition, has supplied the rest.
Before endeavouring to identify the object of his delusion, it may be well to mention a few instances of the supposed appearance of mermen and mermaidens in various localities.
Pliny writes: "When Tiberius was emperor, an embassy was sent to him from Olysippo (Lisbon) expressly to inform him that a Triton, which was recognised as such by its form, had shown itself in a certain cave, and had been heard to produce loud sounds on a conch-shell. The Nereid, also, is not imaginary: its body is rough and covered with scales, but it has the appearance of a human being. For one was seen upon the same coast; and when it was dying those dwelling near at hand heard it moaning sadly for a long time. And the Governor of Gaul wrote to the divine Augustus that several Nereids had been found dead upon the shore. I have many informants—illustrious persons in high positions—who have assured me that they saw in the Sea of Cadiz a merman whose whole body was exactly like that of a man, that these mermen mount on board ships by night, and weigh down that end of the vessel on which they rest, and that if they are allowed to remain there long they will sink the ship."
Ælian in one of his short, jerky, disconnected chapters, or fins. And I hear that in the same sea there are great amphibious beasts which are gregarious, and live on grain, and by night feed on the corn crops and grass, and are also very fond of the ripe fruit of the palms. To obtain these they encircle in their embrace the trees which are young and flexible, and, shaking them violently, enjoy the fruit which they thus cause to fall. When morning dawns they return to the sea, and plunge beneath the waves."
Ælian seems to have derived this information from Megasthenes, already referred to; but in another chapter,the administration of Achaia and the duties of the annual magistracy" (the mayor, in fact,) "being anxious to investigate the nature of this triton, put a portion of its skin on the fire. It gave out a most horrible odour; and those standing by were unable to decide whether it belonged to a terrestrial or marine animal. But the magistrate's curiosity had an evil ending, for very soon afterwards, whilst crossing a narrow creek in a boat, he fell overboard and was drowned; and the Tanagreans all regarded this as a judgment upon him for his crime of impiety towards the triton—an interpretation which was confirmed when his decomposing body was cast ashore, for it emitted exactly the same odour as had the burned skin of the triton. The Tanagreans and Demostratus explain whence the triton had strayed, and how it was stranded in this place. I believe," continues Ælian, "that tritons exist, and I reverentially produce as my witness a most veracious god—namely, Apollo Didymæus, whom no man in his senses would presume to regard as unworthy of credit. He sings thus of the triton, which he calls the sheep of the sea:
'Dum vocale maris monstrum natat æquore triton, Neptuni pecus, in funes forte incidit extra Demissos navim';"
which I venture to translate as follows:
A triton, vocal monster of the deep, One of a flock of Neptune's scaly sheep, Was caught, whilst swimming o'er the watery plain, By lines which fishers from their boat had lain.
"Therefore," Ælian concludes, "if he, the omniscient god, pronounces that there are tritons, it does not behove us to doubt their existence."
Sir J. Emerson Tennent, in his 'Natural History of Ceylon,' quoting from the Histoire de la Compagnie dewith a minute description of each for the satisfaction of men of science.
FIG. 12.—MERMAID AND FISHES OF AMBOYNA. After Valentyn.
The fame of this creature having reached Europe, the British minister in Holland wrote to Valentyn on the 28th of December, 1716, whilst the Emperor Peter the Great, of Russia, was his guest at Amsterdam, to communicate the desire of the Czar that the mermaid should be brought home from Amboyna for his inspection. To complete his proofs of the existence of mermen and merwomen, Valentyn points triumphantly to the historical fact that in Holland, in the year 1404, a mermaid was driven, during a tempest, through a breach in the dyke of Edam, and was taken alive in the lake of Purmer. Thence she was carried to Haarlem, where the Dutch women taught her to spin, and where several years after, she died in the Roman Catholic faith;—"but this," says the pious Calvinistic chaplain, "in no way militates against the truth of her story." The worthy minister citing the authority of various writers as proof that mermaids had in all ages been known in Gaul, Naples, Epirus, and the Morea, comes to the conclusion that as there are "sea-cows," "sea-horses," "sea-dogs," as well as "sea-trees," and "sea-flowers," which he himself had seen, there are no reasonable grounds for doubt that there may also be "sea-maidens" and "sea-men."
In an early account of Newfoundland, was no hair. The shoulders and back down to the middle were square, white, and smooth as the back of a man, and from the middle to the end it tapered like a broad-hooked arrow." The animal put both its paws on the side of the boat wherein its observer sat, and strove much to get in, but was repelled by a blow.
In 1676, a description was given by an English surgeon named Glover, of an animal of this kind. The author did not designate it by any name, but the incident has the honour of being recorded in the Philosophical Transactions.water, which exactly resembled the tail of a fish, with a broad fane at the end of it."
Thormodus Torfæus two have been taken in the surrounding seas, the first in the earlier part of the history of that island, and the second in 1733. The latter was found in the stomach of a shark. Its lower parts were consumed, but the upper were entire. They were as large as those of a boy eight or nine years old. Both the cutting teeth and grinders were long and shaped like pins, and the fingers were connected by a large web. Olafsen was inclined to believe that these were human remains, but the islanders all firmly maintained that they were part of "a marmennill," by which name the mermaid is known among them.
Of course the worthy bishop of Bergen, Pontoppidan, has something to tell us about mermaids in his part of the world. "Amongst the sea monsters," he says,herself Isbrandt, and held several conversations with a peasant at Samsoe, in which she foretold the birth of King Christian IV., "and made the peasant preach repentance to the courtiers, who were very much given to drunkenness." Equally "idle" with the above stories is, in his opinion, another, extracted from an old manuscript still to be seen in the University Library at Copenhagen, and quoted by Andrew Bussæus (1619), of a merman caught by the two senators, Ulf Rosensparre and Christian Holch, whilst on their voyage home to Denmark from Norway. This sea-man frightened the two worshipful gentlemen so terribly that they were glad to let him go again; for as he lay upon the deck he spoke Danish to them, and threatened that if they did not give him his liberty "the ship should be cast away, and every soul of the crew should perish."
"When such fictions as these," says Pontoppidan, "are mixed with the history of the merman, and when that creature is represented as a prophet and an orator; when they give the mermaid a melodious voice, and tell us that she is a fine singer, we need not wonder that so few people of sense will give credit to such absurdities, or that they even doubt the existence of such a creature." The good prelate, however, goes on to say that "whilst we have no ground to believe all these fables, yet, as to the existence of the creature we may safely give our assent to it," and, "if this be called in question, it must proceed entirely from the fabulous stories usually mixed with the truth." Like Valentyn, he argues that as there are "sea-horses," "sea-cows," "sea-wolves," "sea-dogs," "sea-hogs," etc., it is probable from analogy, that "we should find in the ocean a fish or creature which resembles the human species more than any other." As for the objection "founded on self-love and respect to our own species which is honoured with the image of God, who made man lord of all creatures, and that, consequently, we may suppose he is entitled to a noble and heavenly form which other creatures must not partake of," he thinks "its force vanishes when we consider the form of apes, and especially of another African creature called 'Quoyas Morrov' described by Odoard Dapper" in his work on Africa, and which appears to have been a chimpanzee. Pontoppidan regarded it as being the Satyr of the ancients. He therefore claims that "if we will not allow our Norwegian Hastromber the honourable name of merman, we may very well call it the 'Sea-ape,' or the 'Sea-Quoyas-Morrov;'" especially as the author already quoted says that, "in the Sea of Angola mermaids are frequently caught which resemble the human species. They are taken in nets, and killed by the negroes, and are heard to shriek and cry like women."
The Bishop adds that in the diocese of Bergen, as well as in the manor of Nordland, there were hundreds of persons who affirmed with the strongest assurances that they had seen this kind of creature; sometimes at a distance and at other times quite close to their boats, standing upright, and formed like a human creature down to the middle—the rest they could not see—but of those who had seen them out of water and handled them he had not been able to find more than one person of credit who could vouch it for truth. This informant, "the Reverend Mr. Peter Angel, minister of Vand-Elvens Gield, on Suderoe," assured his bishop, when he was on a visitation journey, that "in the year 1719, he (being then about twenty years old) saw what is called a merman lying dead on a point of land near the sea, which had been cast ashore by the waves along with several sea-calves (seals), and other dead fish. of a mermaid seen in 1670 at Faroe, westward of Qualboe Eide, by many of the inhabitants, as also by others from different parts of Suderoe. She was close to the shore, and stood there for two hours and a half, and was up to her waist in water. She had long hairs on her head, which hung down to the surface of the water all round about her, and she held a fish in her right hand.
Pontoppidan mentions other instances of similar appearances, and says that the latest he had heard of was of a merman seen in Denmark on the 20th of September, 1723, by three ferrymen who, at some distance from the land, were towing a ship just arrived from the Baltic. Having caught sight of something which looked like a dead body floating on the water, they rowed towards it, and there, resting on their oars, allowed it to drift close to them. It sank, but immediately came to the surface again, and then they saw that it had the appearance of an old man, strong-limbed, and with broad shoulders, but his arms they could not see. His head was small in proportion to his body, and had short, curled, black hair, which did not reach below his ears; his eyes lay deep in his head, and he had a meagre and pinched face, with a black, coarse beard, that looked as if it had been cut. His skin was coarse, and very full of hair. He stood in the same place for half a quarter of an hour, and was seen above the water down to his breast: at last the men grew apprehensive of some danger, and began to retire; upon which the monster blew up his cheeks, and made a kind of roaring noise, and then dived under water, so that they did not see him any more. One of them, Peter Gunnersen, related (what the others did not observe) that this merman was, about the body and downwards, quite pointed, like a fish. This same Peter Gunnersen likewise deposed that "about twenty years before, as he was in a boat near Kulleor, the place where he was born, he saw a mermaid with long hair and large breasts." He and his two companions were, by command of the king, examined by the burgomaster of Elsineur, Andrew Bussæus, before the privy-councillor, Fridrich von Gram, and their testimony to the above effect was given on their respective oaths.
Brave old Henry Hudson, the sturdy and renowned navigator, who thrice, in three successive years, gave battle to the northern ice, and was each time defeated in his endeavour to discover a north-west or north-east passage to China, though he stamped his name on the title-page of a mighty nation's history, records the following incident: "This evening (June 15th) one of our company, looking overboard, saw a mermaid, and, calling up some of the company to see her, one more of the crew came up, and by that time she was come close to the ship's side, looking earnestly on the men. A little after a sea came and overturned her. From the navel upward, her back and breasts were like a woman's, as they say that saw her; her body as big as one of us, her skin very white, and long hair hanging down behind, of colour black. In her going down they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise and speckled like a mackarel's. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner."
Steller, who was a zoologist of some repute, reports having seen in Behrings Straits a strange animal, which he calls a "sea-ape," and in which one might almost recognise Pontoppidan's "Sea-Quoyas-Morrov." It was about five feet long, had sharp and erect ears and large eyes, and on its lips a kind of beard. Its body was thick and round, and it tapered to the tail, which was bifurcated, with the upper lobe longest. It was covered with thick hair, grey on the back, and red on the belly. No feet nor paws were visible. It was full of frolic, and sported in the manner of a monkey, swimming sometimes on one side of the ship and sometimes on the other. It often raised one-third of its body out of the water, and stood upright for a considerable time. It would frequently bring up a sea-plant, not unlike a bottle-gourd, which it would toss about and catch in its mouth, playing numberless fantastic tricks with it.
Somewhat similar accounts have been brought from the Southern Hemisphere, two, at least, of which are worth transcribing.
Captain Colnett, in his 'Voyage to the South Atlantic,' says:—"A very singular circumstance happened off the coast of Chili, in lat. 24° S., which spread some alarm amongst my people, and awakened their superstitious apprehensions. About 8 o'clock in the evening an animal rose alongside the ship, and uttered such shrieks and tones of lamentation, so much like those produced by the female human voice when expressing the deepest distress as to occasion no small degree of alarm among those who first heard it. These cries continued for upwards of three hours, and seemed to increase as the ship sailed from it. I never heard any noise whatever that approached so near those sounds which proceed from the organs of utterance in the human species."
Captain Weddell, in his 'Voyage towards the South Pole' (p. 143), writes that one of his men, having been left ashore on Hall's Island to take care of some produce, heard one night about ten o'clock, after he had lain down to rest, a noise resembling human cries. As daylight does not disappear in those latitudes at the season in which the incident occurred, the sailor rose and searched along the beach, thinking that, possibly, a boat might have been upset, and that some of the crew might be clinging to the detached rocks.
"Roused by that voice of silver sound, From the paved floor he lightly sprung, And, glaring with his eyes around, Where the fair nymph her tresses wrung,"
guided by occasional sounds, he at length saw an object lying on a rock a dozen yards from the shore, at which he was somewhat frightened. "The face and shoulders appeared of human form and of a reddish colour; over the shoulders hung long green hair; the tail resembled that of a seal, but the extremities of the arms he could not see distinctly."
"As on the wond'ring youth she smiled, Again she raised the melting lay,"
for the creature continued to make a musical noise during the two minutes he gazed at it, and, on perceiving him, disappeared in an instant.
FIG. 13.—A JAPANESE ARTIFICIAL MERMAID.
The universality of the belief in an animal of combined human and fish-like form is very remarkable. That it exists amongst the Japanese we have evidence in their curious and ingeniously-constructed models which are occasionally brought to this country. I have one of these which is so exactly the counterpart of that which my friend Mr. Frank Buckland described, originally in Land and Water, and which forms the subject of a chapter in his 'Curiosities of Natural History,' ivory or bone. The head is like that of a small monkey, and a little wool covers the crown, so thinly and untidily that if the mermaid possessed a crystal mirror she would see the necessity for the vigorous use of her comb of pearl. The teeth are those of some fish—apparently of the cat-fish, (Anarchicas lupus). These Japanese artificial mermaids have brought many a dollar into the pockets of Mr. Barnum and other showmen.
Somewhat different in appearance from this, but of the same kind, was an artificial mermaid described in the Saturday Magazine of June 4th, 1836. Fig. 14 is a facsimile of the woodcut which accompanied it. This grotesque composition was exhibited in a glass case, some years previously, "in a leading street at the west end" of London. It was constructed "of the skin of the head and shoulders of a monkey, which was attached to the dried skin of a fish of the salmon kind with the head cut off, and the whole was stuffed and highly varnished, the better to deceive the eye." It was said to have been "taken by the crew of a Dutch vessel from on board a native Malacca boat, and from the reverence shown to it, it was supposed to be a representative of one of their idol gods." I am inclined to think that it was of Japanese origin.
FIG. 14.—AN ARTIFICIAL MERMAID, PROBABLY JAPANESE.
Fig. 15 is described in the article above referred to as having been copied from a Japanese drawing, and as being a portrait of one of their deities. Its similarity to one of those of the Assyrians (Fig. 2, page 3) is remarkable. The inscription, however, does not indicate this. The Chinese characters in the centre—"Nin giyo"—signify "human fish;" those on the right in Japanese Hira Kana, or running-hand, have the same purport, and those on the left, in Kata Kana, the characters of the Japanese alphabet, mean "Ichi hiru ike"—"one day kept alive." The whole legend seems to pretend that this human fish was actually caught, and kept alive in water for twenty-four hours, but, as the box on which it is inscribed is one of those in which the Japanese showmen keep their toys, it was probably the subject of a "penny peep-show."
We need not travel from our own country to find the belief in mermaids yet existing. It is still credited in the north of Scotland that they inhabit the neighbouring seas: and Dr. Robert Hamilton, F.R.S.E., writing in 1839, expressed emphatically his opinion that there was then as much ignorance on this subject as had prevailed at any former period.
FIG. 15.—A MERMAID. From a Japanese picture.
In the year 1797, Mr. Munro, schoolmaster of Thurso, affirmed that he had seen "a figure like a naked female, sitting on a rock projecting into the sea, at Sandside Head, in the parish of Reay. Its head was covered with long, thick, light-brown hair, flowing down on the shoulders. The forehead was round, the face plump, and the cheeks ruddy. The mouth and lips resembled those of a human being, and the eyes were blue. The arms, fingers, breast, and abdomen were as large as those of a full-grown female," and, altogether,
"That sea-nymph's form of pearly light Was whiter than the downy spray, And round her bosom, heaving bright, Her glossy yellow ringlets play."
"This creature," continued Mr. Munro, "was apparently in the act of combing its hair with its fingers, which seemed to afford it pleasure, and it remained thus occupied during some minutes, when it dropped into the sea." The Dominie
"saw the maiden there, Just as the daylight faded, Braiding her locks of gowden hair An' singing as she braided,"
but he did not remark whether the fingers were webbed. On the whole, he infers that this was a marine animal of which he had a distinct and satisfactory view, and that the portion seen by him bore a narrow resemblance to the human form. But for the dangerous situation it had chosen, and its appearance among the waves, he would have supposed it to be a woman. Twelve years later, several persons observed near the same spot an animal which they also supposed to be a mermaid.
A very remarkable story of this kind is one related by Dr. Robert Hamilton in the volume already referred to, and for the general truth of which he vouches, from his personal knowledge of some of the persons connected with the occurrence. In 1823 it was reported that some fishermen of Yell, one of the Shetland group, had captured a mermaid by its being entangled in their lines. The statement was that apprehended from its experiencing bad treatment." Mr. Edmonston concludes by saying that "the usual resources of scepticism that the seals and other sea-animals appearing under certain circumstances, operating upon an excited imagination, and so producing ocular illusion, cannot avail here. It is quite impossible that six Shetland fishermen could commit such a mistake." It would seem that the narrator demands that his readers shall be silenced, if unconvinced; but
"He that complies against his will Is of his own opinion still."
This incident is well-attested, and merits respectful and careful consideration; but I decline to admit any such impossibility of error in observation or description on the part of the fishermen, or the further impossibility of recognising in the animal captured by them one known to naturalists. The particulars given in this instance, and also of the supposed merman seen cast ashore dead in 1719 by the Rev. Peter Angel (p. 22), are sufficiently accurate descriptions of a warm-blooded marine animal, with which the Shetlanders, and probably Mr. Edmonston also, were unacquainted, namely, the rytina, of which I shall have more to say presently; and these occurrences afford some slight hope that this remarkable beast may not have become extinct in 1768, as has been supposed, but that it may still exist somewhat further south than it was met with by its original describer, Steller.
Turning to Ireland, we find the same credence in the semi-human fish, or fish-tailed human being. In the autumn of 1819 it was affirmed that "a creature appeared on the Irish coast, about the size of a girl ten years of age, with a bosom as prominent as one of sixteen, having a profusion of long dark-brown hair, and full, dark eyes. The hands and arms were formed like those of a man, with a slight web connecting the upper part of the fingers, which were frequently employed in throwing back and dividing the hair. The tail appeared like that of a dolphin." This creature remained basking on the rocks during an hour, in the sight of numbers of people, until frightened by the flash of a musket, when
"Away she went with a sea-gull's scream, And a splash of her saucy tail,"
for it instantly plunged with a scream into the sea.
From Irish legends we learn that those sea-nereids, the "Merrows," or "Moruachs" came occasionally from the sea, gained the affections of men, and interested themselves in their affairs; and similar traditions of the "Morgan" (sea-women) and the "Morverch" (sea-daughters) are current in Brittany.
In English poetry the mermaid has been the subject of many charming verses, and Shakspeare alludes to it in his plays no less than six times. The head-quarters of these "daughters of the sea" in England, or of the belief in their existence, are in Cornwall. There the fisherman, many a time and
"Oft, beneath the silver moon, Has heard, afar, the mermaid sing,"
and has listened, so they say, to
"The mermaid's sweet sea-soothing lay That charmed the dancing waves to sleep."
Mr. Robert Hunt, F.R.S., in his collection of the traditions and superstitions of old Cornwall, records several curious legends of the "merrymaids" and "merrymen" (the local name of mermaids), which he had gathered from the fisher-folk and peasants in different parts of that county.
And, in a pleasant article in 'All the Year Round,' mentions some of the superstitions of the people in his neighbourhood, and the perplexing questions they occasionally put to him. One of his parishioners, an old man named Anthony Cleverdon, but who was popularly known as "Uncle Tony," having been the seventh son of his parents, in direct succession, was looked upon, in consequence, as a soothsayer. This "ancient augur" confided to his pastor many highly efficacious charms and formularies, and, in return, sought for information from him on other subjects. One day he puzzled the parson by a question which so well illustrates the local ideas concerning mermaids, and the sequel of which is, moreover, so humorously related by the vicar, that I venture to quote his own words, as follows:—
"Uncle Tony said to me, 'Sir, there is one thing I want to ask you, if I may be so free, and it is this: why should a merrymaid, that will ride about upon the waters in such terrible storms, and toss from sea to sea in such ruckles as there be upon the coast, why should she never lose her looking-glass and comb?' 'Well, I suppose,' said I, 'that if there are such creatures, Tony, they must wear their looking-glasses and combs fastened on somehow, like fins merrymaid that eye could behold, and she was twisting about her long hair, and dressing it, just like one of our girls getting ready for her sweetheart on the Sabbath-day. The old man made sure he should greep hold of her before ever she found him out, and he had got so near that a couple of paces more and he would have caught her by the hair, as sure as tithe or tax, when, lo and behold, she looked back and glimpsed him! So, in one moment she dived head-foremost off the rock, and then tumbled herself topsy-turvy about in the water, and cast a look at my poor father, and grinned like a seal.'" And a seal it probably was that Tony's "poor father" saw.
What, then, are these mermaids and mermen, a belief in whose existence has prevailed in all ages, and amongst all the nations of the earth? Have they, really, some of the parts and proportions of man, or do they belong to another order of mammals on which credulity and inaccurate observation have bestowed a false character?
Mr. Swainson, a naturalist of deserved eminence, has maintained on purely scientific grounds, that there must exist a marine animal uniting the general form of a fish with that of a man; that by the laws of Nature the natatorial type of the Quadrumana is most assuredly wanting, and that, apart from man, a being connecting the seals with the monkeys is required to complete the circle of quadrumanous animals.
Mr. Gossehas an odd way of mocking at our impossibilities, and" that "it may be that green-haired maidens with oary tails, lurk in the ocean caves, and keep mirrors and combs upon their rocky shelves;" and the conclusion he arrives at is that the combined evidence "induces a strong suspicion that the northern seas may hold forms of life as yet uncatalogued by science."
That there are animals in the northern and other seas with which we are unacquainted, is more than probable: discoveries of animals of new species are constantly being made, especially in the life of the deep sea. But I venture to think that the production of an animal at present unknown is quite unnecessary to account for the supposed appearances of mermaids.
We have in the form and habits of the Phocidæ, or earless seals, a sufficient interpretation of almost every incident of the kind that has occurred north of the Equator—of those in which protuberant mammæ are described, we must presently seek another explanation. The round, plump, expressive face of a seal, the beautiful, limpid eyes, the hand-like fore-paws, the sleek body, tapering towards the flattened hinder fins, which are directed backwards, and spread out in the form of a broad fin, like the tail of a fish, might well give the idea of an animal having the anterior part of its body human and the posterior half piscine.
In the habits of the seals, also, we may trace those of the supposed mermaid, and the more easily the better we are acquainted with them. All seals are fond of leaving the water frequently. They always select the flattest and most shelving rocks which have been covered at high tide, and prefer those that are separated from the mainland. They generally go ashore at half-tide, and invariably lie with their heads towards the water, and seldom more than a yard or two from it. There they will often remain, if undisturbed, for six hours; that is, until the returning tide floats them off the rock. As for the sweet melody, "so melting soft," that must depend much on the ear and musical taste of the listener. I have never heard a seal utter any vocal sounds but a porcine grunt, a plaintive moan, and a pitiful whine. But another habit of the seals has, probably more than anything else, caused them to be mistaken for semi-human beings—namely, that of poising themselves upright in the water with the head and the upper third part of the body above the surface.
One calm sunny morning in August, 1881, a fine schooner-yacht, on board of which I was a guest, was slowly gliding out of the mouth of the river Maas, past the Hook of Holland, into the North Sea, when a seal rose just ahead of us, and assumed the attitude above described. It waited whilst we passed it, inspecting us apparently with the greatest interest; then dived, swam in the direction in which we were sailing, so as to intercept our course, and came up again, sitting upright as before. This it repeated three times, and so easily might it have been taken for a mermaid, that one of the party, who was called on deck to see it, thought, at first, that it was a boy who had swam off from the shore to the vessel on a begging expedition.
Laing, in his account of a voyage to the North, mentions having seen a seal under similar circumstances.
A young seal which was brought from Yarmouth to the Brighton Aquarium in 1873, habitually sat thus, showing his head and a considerable portion of his body out of water. His bath was so shallow in some parts that he was able to touch the bottom, and, with his after-flippers tucked under him, like a lobster's tail, and spread out in front, he would balance himself on his hind quarters, and look inquisitively at everybody, and listen attentively to everything within sight and hearing. When he was satisfied that no one was likely to interfere with him, and that it was unnecessary to be on the alert, he would half-close his beautiful, soft eyes, and either contentedly pat, stroke, and scratch his little fat stomach with his right paw, or flap both of them across his breast in a most ludicrous manner, exactly as a cabman warms the tips of his fingers on a wintry day, by swinging his arms vigorously across his chest, and striking his hands against his body on either side. He was very sensitive to musical sounds, as many dogs are, and when a concert took place in the building a high note from one of the vocalists would cause him to utter a mournful wail, and to dive with a splash that made the water fly, the audience smile, and the singer frown.
Captain Scoresby tells us that he had seen the walrus with its head above water, and in such a position that it required little stretch of imagination to mistake it for a human being, and that on one occasion of this kind the surgeon of his ship actually reported to him that he had seen a man with his head above water.
Peter Gunnersen's merman (p. 24), who "blew up his cheeks and made a kind of roaring noise" before diving, was probably a "bladder-nose" seal. The males of that species have on the head a peculiar pad, which they can dilate at pleasure, and their voice is loud and discordant.
The appearance and behaviour of Steller's "sea-ape," described on p. 25, may, I think, be attributed to one of the eared seals, the so-called sea-lions, or sea-bears. Every one who has seen these animals fed must have noticed the rapidity with which they will dive and swim to any part of their pond where they expect to receive food, and how, like a dog after a pebble, they will keenly watch their keeper's movements, and start in the direction to which he is apparently about to throw a fish, even before the latter has left his hand. This may be seen at the Zoological Gardens, Regent's Park, and, better than anywhere else in Europe, at the Jardin d'Acclimatation, Paris. It would be quite in accordance with their habits that one of these Otaria should dive under a ship, and rise above the surface on either side, eagerly surveying those on board, in hope of obtaining food, or from mere curiosity.
The seals and their movements account for so many mermaid stories, that all accounts of sea-women with prominent bosoms were ridiculed and discredited until competent observers recognised in the form and habits of certain aquatic animals met with in the bays and estuaries of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the west coast of Africa, and sub-tropical America, the originals of these "travellers' tales." These were—first, the manatee, which is found in the West Indian Islands, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and Brazil, and in Africa in the River Congo, Senegambia, and the Mozambique Channel; second, the dugong, or halicore, which ranges along the east coast of Africa, Southern Asia, the Bornean Archipelago, and Australia; and, third, the rytina, seen on Behring's Island in the Kamschatkan Sea by Steller, the Russian zoologist and voyager, in 1741, and which is supposed to have become extinct within twenty-seven years after its discovery, by its having been recklessly and indiscriminately slaughtered.accepting Jack's introduction to his fish-tailed innamorata, classed these three animals together as a sub-order of the animal kingdom, and bestowed on them the name of the Sirenia. This was, of course, in allusion to the Sirens of classical mythology, who, in later art, were represented as having the body of a woman above the waist, and that of a fish below, although the lower portion of their body was originally described as being in the form of a bird.
It has been found difficult to determine to which order these Manatidæ are most nearly allied. In shape they most closely resemble the whales and seals. But the cetacea are all carnivorous, whereas the manatee and its relatives live entirely on vegetable food. Although, therefore, Dr. J. E. Gray, following Cuvier, classed them with the cetacea in his British Museum catalogue, other anatomists, as Professor Agassiz, Professor Owen, and Dr. Murie, regard their resemblance to the whales as rather superficial than real, and conclude from their organisation and dentition that they ought either to form a group apart or be classed with the pachyderms—the hippopotamus, tapir, etc.—with which they have the nearest affinities, and to which they seem to have been more immediately linked by the now lost genera, Dinotherium and Halitherium. With the opinion of those last-named authorities I entirely agree. I regard the manatee as exhibiting a wonderful modification and adaptation of the structure of a warm-blooded land animal which enables it to pass its whole life in water, and as a connecting link between the hippopotamus, elephant, etc., on the one side, and the whales and seals on the other.
The Halitherium was a Sirenian with which we are only acquainted by its fossil remains found in the Miocene formation of Central and Southern Europe. These indicate that it had short hind limbs, and, consequently, approached more nearly the terrestrial type than either the manatee, the rytina, or the dugong, in which the hind limbs are absent. The two last named tend more than does the manatee to the marine mammals; but there is a strong likeness between these three recent forms. They all have a cylindrical body, like that of a seal, but instead of hind limbs there is in all a broad tail flattened horizontally; and the chief difference in their outward appearance is in the shape of this organ. In the manatee it is rounded, in the dugong forked like that of a whale, in the rytina crescent-shaped. The tail of the Halitherium appears to have been shaped somewhat like that of the beaver. The body of the manatee is broader in proportion to its length and depth than that of the dugong. In a paper read before the Royal Society, July 12th, 1821, on a manatee sent to London in spirits by the Duke of Manchester, then Governor of Jamaica, Sir Everard Home remarked of this greater lateral expansion that, as the manatee feeds on plants that grow at the mouths of great rivers, and the dugong upon those met with in the shallows amongst small islands in the Eastern seas, the difference of form would make the manatee more buoyant and better fitted to float in fresh water.
FIG. 16.—THE DUGONG. From Sir J. Emerson Tennent's 'Ceylon.'
In all the Manatidæ the mammæ of the female, which are greatly distended during the period of lactation, are situated very differently from those of the whales, being just beneath the pectoral fins. These fins or paws are much more flexible and free in their movements than those of the cetæ, and are sufficiently prehensile to enable the animal to gather food between the palms or inner surfaces of both, and the female to hold her young one to her breast with one of them. Like the whales, they are warm-blooded mammals, breathing by lungs, and are therefore
I believe the dugong to be more especially the animal referred to by Ælian as the semi-human whale, and that which has led to this group having been supposed by southern voyagers to be aquatic human beings. In the first place, the dugong is a denizen of the sea, whereas the manatee is chiefly found in rivers and fresh-water lagoons; and secondly, the dugong accords with Ælian's description of the creature with a woman's face in that it has "prickles instead of hairs," whilst the manatee has no such stiff bristles.
In the case of either of these two animals being mistaken for a mermaid, however, "distance" must "lend enchantment to the view," and a sailor must be very impressible and imaginative who, even after having been deprived for many months of the pleasure of females' society, could be allured by the charms of a bristly-muzzled dugong, or mistake the snorting of a wallowing manatee for the love-song of a beauteous sea-maiden.
FIG. 17.—THE MANATEE. ITS USUAL POSITION.
Unfortunately both the dugong and the manatee are being hunted to extinction.
The flesh of the manatee is considered a great delicacy. Humboldt compares it with ham. Unlike that of the whales, which is of a deep and dark red hue, it is as white as veal, and, it is said, tastes very like it. It is remarkable for retaining its freshness much longer than other meat, which in a tropical climate generally putrefies in twenty-eight hours. It is therefore well adapted for pickling, as the salt has time to penetrate the flesh before it is tainted. The Catholic clergy of South America do not object to its being eaten on fast days, on the supposition that, with whales, seals, and other aquatic mammals, it may be liberally regarded as "fish." The "Indians" of the Amazon and Orinoco are so fond of it that they will spend many days, if necessary, in hunting for a manatee, and having killed one will cut it into slabs and slices on the spot, and cook these on stakes thrust into the ground aslant over a great fire, and heavily gorge themselves as long as the provision lasts. The milk of this animal is said to be rich and good, and the skin is valuable for its toughness, and is much in request for making leathern articles in which great strength and durability are required. The tail contains a great deal of oil, which is believed to be extremely nutritious, and has also the property of not becoming rancid. Unhappily for the dugong, its oil is in similarly high repute, and is greatly preferred as a nutrient medicine to cod-liver oil. As its flesh also is much esteemed, it is so persistently hunted on the Australian coasts that it will probably soon become extinct, like the rytina of Steller. The same fate apparently awaits the manatee, which is becoming perceptibly more and more scarce.
I fear that before many years have elapsed the Sirens of the Naturalist will have disappeared from our earth, before the advance of civilization, as completely as the fables and superstitions with which they have been connected, before
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