By Rebecca Ruger-Wightman
As amazing as our ocean is—covering more than 70% of the earth’s surface—it’s no surprise that tales of the goings-on within its depths have had an indelible place in the history of our civilization. Scientists themselves will admit they really don’t know all the creatures that live under the sea, which explains a bit why the stories of those half-human, half-fish creatures—the merfolk—have captured the imaginations of full bodied humans for thousands of years. One Thousand and One Nights, known more familiarly as Arabian Nights, is a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled between the 8th and 13th centuries which describes mermaids as having “moon faces and hair like a woman’s but their hands and feet were in their bellies and they had tails like fishes.” Luckily, the portrayal of mermaids over the last few hundred years has changed for the better, leaving us with some very enduring tales.
The Little Mermaid
Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairy tale in 1836 as a children’s story, though Andersen’s rather disturbing original doesn’t finish with the same happily-ever-after of the 1989 Disney film of the same name. In Andersen’s version, the little mermaid has no name (and merfolk have no souls), trades her tongue (not her voice) for her human legs, and while using those legs and feet suffers excruciating pain with each step—like ‘walking on knives,” according to Andersen’s sea witch. But wait, there’s more: the prince patronizes her and treats her like a pet and wants to watch her dance all the time and oh, he marries someone else and has the little mermaid actually dance at his wedding. So, she doesn’t get the guy but can still be saved (not dissolve into the foam of the sea) if she will kill the prince. But she does not. She is only ‘saved’ by the ‘daughters of the air’, who tell her that she’s now one of them and that, if she flies around the world doing good deeds for 300 years, she might get a soul after all, though not life or love.
Curiously, this was not Andersen’s original intent for the ending. Initially, the story ended with the mermaid’s turning to sea foam and this came under some criticism to which Andersen defended in a letter to a friend in 1837, “I have not, like de la Motte Fouqué in Undine, allowed the mermaid’s acquiring of an immortal soul to depend upon an alien creature, upon the love of a human being. I’m sure that’s wrong!”
Lorelei is a steep mountain cliff on the bank of the Rhine river in Germany, whose nearby waterfall and strong Rhine currents create a relentless murmuring sound, heard less and less as the area was further developed. In 1801, German author Clemens Brentano penned a romantic ballad, Lorelay (alternate spelling) about a beautiful woman—Lore Lay—betrayed by her true love who sits atop the cliff, contemplating taking her own life. But her beauty has caused a stir upon the river and she is accused of bewitching men and causing their deaths. The bishop, captivated by her beauty and modesty, sends her to a convent. En route to the nunnery, she asks for one more view of her beloved Rhine and once she reaches the Lorelei rock, she believes she spies her love riding away, and throws herself off the cliff in despair. The constant echoing sound heard for many centuries was attributed to the mournful cries of the young maiden Lorelei.
Several decades later, Heinrich Heine adapted Brentano’s work into “Die Lorelei”, which describes the title character as a siren who sits upon the cliff, combing her long blonde hair, unintentionally causing ships to crash upon the rocks.
In the now familiar pattern of unfaithful lovers, Undine (sometimes named Ondine) is an old German tale of a sea nymph who loses her immortality when she bears the children of her mortal lover, a knight in some tales. When she begins to age, he grows tired of her and seeks another. She discovers this and reminds him of his pledge to love her with every waking breath, before robbing him of his, thereby killing him. Undine has since been applied to any water nymph or mermaid who falls in love with a human and loses her immortality.
In science, Ondine’s Curse is an actual respiratory syndrome akin to a sleep apnea that can be genetic or acquired, and fatal if left untreated.
Melusine was a female spirit of freshwater springs and rivers in European mythology. She is usually represented as a kind of mermaid, though with a serpent’s tail, but may also have wings in some pictures. The story was put to paper in 1387, but was known long before then. It starts when Melusine disobeys her mother and is sentenced to her mermaid state every Saturday for the rest of her life. Soon, she meets and falls in love with Raymond, Lord of Forez in Poitou, a poor but noble gentleman. Mélusine agrees to marry Raymond, but on the condition that he vow not to attempt to see her on Saturday when she will go into seclusion. Many years and ten sons later, her husband breaks his vow and spies on her one Saturday evening. He finds her enjoying her bath but soon realizes that she has a long serpent tail instead of legs. He confronts her, calling her a “serpent”. In anger for his breaking his vow, Mélusine transforms into winged dragon and flies off. It was said that Mélusine would return periodically to keep watch over her sons, flying around the castle crying mournfully. In parts of Europe they speak of the whining of Mélusine as “the sound the wind makes swirling around the chimney breast.” Some agree that the Starbucks logo is actually a representation of Melusine, though it has never been verified.
To a certain degree, mermaids became accepted as reality in medieval times, where they were routinely depicted alongside actual aquatic animals such as whales and fish. For about as long, sailors and ordinary people have reported sightings of real live mermaids in coastal towns and across the ocean.
• A story from 17th century Holland tells of a mermaid found injured, who was taken to a nearby lake and nursed back to health by the locals. She stayed in the town even after she had recovered and reportedly became a very productive citizen.
• Ferry passengers passing through Active Pass, near the Mayne Island, British Columbia in 1967 reported spying a mermaid sitting leisurely about the banks of the strait, eating a live salmon. She was topless, with a crown of long blonde hair and the lower half of a fish. “Several witnesses said the mermaid had a large fish, apparently coho salmon, and one swore she had taken bite out of it,” the Times Colonist said on June 13, 1967. “Long, silver-blond hair and topless condition were generally agreed upon.”
• More recently, a mermaid sighting in the town of Kiryat Yam in Isreal captured public attention in 2009. One of the first people to see the mermaid, Shlomo Cohen, said, “I was with friends when suddenly we saw a woman laying on the sand in a weird way. At first I thought she was just another sunbather, but when we approached she jumped into the water and disappeared. We were all in shock because we saw she had a tail.” Locals and tourists began flocking to the water each evening, hoping for a glimpse. The town’s tourism board, thrilled with this free marketing, offered a $1 million reward for the first person to photograph the creature. Not so surprisingly, the reports vanished almost as quickly as they surfaced, and to this day, no one has ever claimed the reward.
• In 2012 an Animal Planet special, “Mermaids: The Body Found,” presented a ‘documentary’ of scientists finding proof of real mermaids in the oceans. Turns out, it was actually docu-fiction but created enough of an uproar that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was forced to issue a public statement, officially denying the existence of mermaids. (But what do they know?)