Mermaid Tears & Other Salty Names

By Rebecca Ruger-Wightman

John William Waterhouse,  A Mermaid, 1900

Sea glass collectors are familiar with the alternate term for our treasured beach finds, Mermaids’ Tears. And likely, most know the very imprecise story behind the legend, that Neptune, the Roman god of the sea and the equivalent of the Greek’s Poseidon, forbid the sea nymphs to interfere with the nature of the sea. But one sea nymph had fallen in love with a sea captain and often watched him lovestruck from afar. When a fierce storm arose and her love’s life was endangered, she disregarded Neptune’s order and calmed the seas to save her love. For her disobedience, Neptune angrily banished her to the depths of the sea, never to swim to the surface and see her love again. She has for centuries shed great many tears over her misfortune and the loss of her love—these tears, it’s said, float to the surface where she cannot go and wash to the shore in the form of colored glass.

The merfolk have been, for hundreds of years, part of mythology, legend, and folklore in almost every country around the world. Ronald Murphy, author of  On Mermaids, An Exploration of Folklore from Ancient Origins to Modern Culture, states, “Mermaids, like the oceans themselves, are unknowable. They seem to be made of poetry more than flesh and blood.” The stories vary with the landscape upon which they’re told, but mostly align with one of the two commonly held beliefs—that mermaids either lured seafaring men to their deaths or were the watchful saviors of nearly doomed sailors. But it’s not only the mermaids and mermen to be feared or revered; history is filled with many different versions of human-like beings of the water, enchanting creatures just beyond our reality for whom entire collections of songs, literature, and lore have been imagined, and to which sea glass colors might be associated.

Mermaids (Aqua Sea Glass)

The first story of a mermaid appeared in the ancient Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria when the goddess of fertility, Atargatis, transformed her own self into a half-fish human when overcome with shame for killing her human lover. Later folklore is said to have been fashioned from the stories of the Greek Sirens (below). Most tales include elements of a mermaid falling in love with a human, or treacherous merfolk causing human death. While ‘sightings’ of real mermaids are plenty, perhaps the most famous is that of Christopher Columbus, who made a journal entry during one of his journeys to the Americas in 1493, “On the previous day [8 Jan 1493], when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.” Historians are since convinced that the admiral had only seen manatees, those slow moving aquatic mammals also known as sea cows.

Siren (Red Sea Glass)

Waterhouse, the Siren, 1900While not always imagined as a mermaid (half woman, half fish) the sirens of the Greek myths were beautiful women who rested on the shores of the oceans, most often on islands surrounded by cliffs, where they played instruments and sang songs of love, their melodious voices enchanting passing sailors who would drown trying to reach the sirens. In most accounts, sirens are depicted as half woman- half bird as some are told to fly near and around ships. The twelfth book of Homer’s Odyssey finds the wandering Odysseus passing through the Strait of Messina. Forewarned that he must resist “the heavenly-singing sirens’ harmony”, Odysseus plugs the crews’ ears with wax and further, orders his crew to strap him to the mast of his ship. When the sirens begin their song, Odysseus struggles mightily to be freed of his binds but the ropes hold and his crew apply themselves with vigor to the oars, sailing them safely away from the song of the sirens.

Because of the lethal tales associated with the sirens of mythology, today the word is often used to describe a dangerously alluring woman, or femme fatale, and usually implies a bad ending for those who love her. A siren’s song is a term generally accepted to mean tempting words or appeal, especially being seductive and/or deceptive, as in Elizabeth Lowell’s 1992. Only You, “The husky sound he drew from her throat was a siren song urging him to forget whatever danger might wait in the surrounding darkness.”

Mr. Murphy contends, “Mermaids represent the untamed spirit of the sea. As they are mostly portrayed as women, this is indeed a danger to the cultural norm. They are powerful female figures which men cannot domesticate.”

Sea Sprite (Blue or Green Sea Glass)

Also known as a water sprite or water fairy, sea sprite is a general term for any elemental spirit of the sea, or any body of water. To Ancient Greeks they were known as nyads that guarded the lakes and streams for the gods. While not purely physical, as a mermaid, they are able to breathe both air and water and are said to have human form with skin the color of the sea. Tradition portrays them as harmless, unless or until threatened by humans.

The Water Sprite, a poem by German Andreas Justinus Kerner (1786-1862) tells of a yet another young man smitten by a beguiling water creature and giving up his land-life to be with her:

He bears her to halls of crystal sheen,
“Farewell! my mates in the valley green! “


Water Nymph (Sea Foam Sea Glass)

Les Oceanides Les Naiades de la mer. Gustave Doré, 1860s

More lore from the legends of Greek mythology, nymphs are female entities usually bound to a certain location or physical earthen trait. There are land nymphs and tree nymphs and nymphs of the evening who guarded beautiful gardens. The sea nymphs, or Naiads, were the daughters of Oceanus and Nereus, the gods of the sea. Though Nymphs cannot die with old age and illness, the very essence of a sea nymph was bound to the water body she inhabited. If the water dried, the naiad within it died.

As with mermaids, some stories describe sea nymphs as dangerous creatures who would lure men to their deaths with their beauty. But typically, Greek mythology portrays naiads as friendly creatures—often with powers of foresight—that have helped sailors fight perilous storms.

Similary, Oceanids, or Oceanides, are the water nymphs of Greek and Roman mythology, being the 3000 daughters of Oceanus and wife, Tethys who supervised the fresh water sources of earth, from rain clouds to springs and fountains. Sailors routinely honored and entreated the Oceanids, offering prayers and sacrifices to them to ensure safe travels. The Argonauts, before  beginning their fabled voyage to Colchis in search of the golden fleece, made an offering of honey and flour and sacrificed bulls to the ocean deities, seeking protection from the dangers of their journey.

Selkie (Brown Sea Glass)

The Selkies were a group of “mermaids” from northern European folklore, most likely of Scottish origin.  It is believed that the Selkies arose in legends when early Scottish settlers and shipwrecked Spaniards married dark-haired, fur-wearing Finnish or Swedish native women. Selkies are seals that transform to beautiful humans when they shed their skin upon land. Purportedly affectionate and agreeable, selkies prefer dancing in the moonlight to wrecking ships along the coast. There are tales of human women summoning male Selkies to the shore by sending seven tears to the sea; however, Selkies can only remain in the presence of humans for a short period of time, and then must commonly wait seven years to return the shore. Yet a Selkie whose shed skin is stolen while in human form is then beholden to the taker of their skin, and this usually played out in folklore as a forced marriage, with the female Selkie being torn between her love of the sea and her growing love for her husband and children that follow.

Kelpie (White Sea Glass)

A kelpie is a shape-changing water spirit of Scottish legend, said to haunt rivers, lochs, and streams, usually in the shape of a horse. While they may appear tame, their hide is magical and a person who mounts a kelpie cannot dismount, and is dragged to the bottom of the loch and eaten. But kelpies can also take a human form,most often as—you guessed it!—a tantalizing young maiden, hoping to lure men to their deaths. The sound of a kelpie’s tail entering the water is said to resemble that of thunder. Legend says a kelpies weak spot is its bridle and any who can grab hold of the bridle will have command over that and any other kelpie. The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, references kelpies in his poem, “Address to the Deil”:

“…When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord
An’ float the jinglin’ icy boord
Then, water-kelpies haunt the foord
By your direction
And ‘nighted trav’llers are allur’d
To their destruction…”

Mermaids, George Willoughby Maynard, 1889

There are likely more aquatic entities known or discussed throughout history, and because history is written every day, likely more will follow over the next few centuries. Dismiss the possibility if you must; but the mermaid, and indeed all the water beings, real or imagined, are kept within the oceans of our minds for a reason—they represent hope for things unseen. The world, and life, cannot just be what we see, not just black and white—how boring would that be? There should always remain some mystery, a thing believed though unproven that keeps wonder in our minds and hearts.

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine May/June 2018 issue.

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