So she poured out the liquid music of her voice to quench the thirst of his spirit. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne
Welcome to the March mythical creatures installment. You can find the previous posts here (on dragons, fantastical horses, and mythical creatures of the sky).
I have too many mythical creatures of the sea to cover, so I've split it into two posts. Don't worry, I won't make you wait until April! The second half will be up next week.
We’re probably all familiar with the contemporary depictions of this mythological sea creature, a female human from the waist up with the tail of a fish. A male version of a mermaid is known as a ‘merman’ and collectively they are known as ‘merfolk’ or ‘merpeople’. But what is the origin of the myth?
As it happens, mermaids are depicted in many cultures, far too many legends to cover here.
In British folklore, mermaids are considered unlucky omens, either foretelling disaster or causing it. Mermaids may also be a sign of approaching bad weather.
A popular Greek legend has it that Alexander the Great’s sister turned into a mermaid after she died (can I have this afterlife?). When she encountered a ship, she would ask the sailors ‘Is King Alexander alive?’ If the sailors replied ‘He lives and reigns and conquers the world’ she would be pleased enough to calm the sea and bid the sailors farewell. Any other answer enraged her and caused her to raise a terrible storm, dooming the ship and every sailor on board.
Mermaids typically live in the ocean, using their beauty and charm to lure sailors to their deaths. They have also been described as being capable of swimming up rivers or streams to freshwater lakes. One legend recounts the Laird of Lorntie going to the aid of a drowning woman, only to be dragged back by his servant. Uncharitable man! But no, the servant warned, the woman is a mermaid, whereupon the mermaid screamed she would have killed the laird if not for the lucky intervention of the servant. Whew! Close escape.
Traditionally the mermaid was depicted unclothed, but censorship in modern culture has resulted in mermaids shown partially clothed or with hair covering their breasts. Interestingly, some mermaids are described as 2000 feet long! That is not a fish I want to have an argument with…
Most lore deals with the female, with mermen described as uglier and wilder than mermaids and having little interest in humans. Looks like us gals are safe from this creature!
The mermaid appears frequently in popular culture. There is, of course, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and quite recently, mermaids made an appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Or were they sirens…
The sirens come from Greek mythology and were depicted in later folklore as mermaid like, and thus often confused, but they are not the same thing at all!
The sirens were originally described as ‘winged maidens’, but later portrayed as ‘fish-like’, thus creating the confusion with mermaids. Early Greek art shows the sirens as birds with large women's heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. This transformed to female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, and playing musical instruments, most often harps. Later, Sirens were sometimes depicted as beautiful women, whose bodies, not only their voices, are seductive. Lastly, the mermaid-like depiction appeared.
As mentioned, mermaids used their beauty and charm to lure sailors to their deaths (often compelling the men to jump overboard to drown in the mermaid’s arms) but sirens instead used their singing to lure sailors toward rocks, thus sinking the ship on the rocky coast of their island. The siren’s song is beautiful and irresistible, described as:
‘Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.’
From this legend comes the expression ‘siren song’ referring to an appeal that is hard to resist but, if heeded, will have terrible consequences.
One version of the legend goes that sirens ate their victims. Another, based on the depiction of victims with rotting flesh, suggests the sirens do not kill sailors for food. Instead, the sirens lure sailors to be their companions but, with their feathers lost, cannot feed their new companions, who starve to death when they refuse to leave. I like that version better myself.
Dangerous seductresses, the sirens were considered the daughters of the river god Acheolus and their number ranged from two to five. The Greeks did not regard them as sea deities, although the Romans more closely linked them to the sea as daughters of Phorcys (primordial sea god of hidden dangers of the deep – now isn’t that a mouthful?). The sirens did not live in the sea, but in a flowery meadow on their island.
One tale has the sirens as companions of a young Persephone (daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess, Demeter) and given wings by Demeter to allow them to search for Persephone when she was abducted by Hades to become queen of the underworld. An alternative version of the myth has Demeter cursing the sirens for failing to intervene in Persephone’s abduction. The sirens searched for Persephone but eventually gave up and settled on their island home. Later, they were provoked by Hera (wife of Zeus) to enter a contest with the Muses and, defeated, were deprived of their wings.
Sirens are fated to live only until the mortals who heard their songs could pass on by. In Homer's classic The Odyssey, Odysseus plugged his ears with wax so he could not hear the siren’s song and so the sirens cast themselves into the sea and drowned (or turned into rocks, or so says the alternative version... go figure!).
According to the mermaids in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, they were not sirens, but did the bidding of sirens.
The sirens are not truly creatures of the sea, but I have covered them here because they are sea-related and so often confused with mermaids.
Triton is a Greek god, son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and Amphitrite, goddess of the sea, whose herald he is. He is most often represented as a sea-coloured merman.
Over time, Triton's name and image came to be associated with mermaid-like creatures, the Tritons. Tritons were both male and female and formed the escort of marine divinities. Tritons were a race of sea gods and goddesses born from Triton.
Tritons are often considered the aquatic versions of satyrs. We haven’t covered satyrs yet – we’ll get to them in a future post, but think Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Another description of Tritons is that of the Centaur-Tritons, also known as Ichthycentaurs, depicted with two horse's feet in place of arms.
Tritons are the trumpeters of the sea, using great trumpets of conch. Blowing the conch would calm the waves, or stir them up.
Triton (the god) appears in The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan. He helps his father fight against the Titans of the sea, and is very rude to Percy Jackson, who is his half brother. In the book he is described as a young-looking merman with two fish tails instead of one, green skin, black hair tied into a ponytail, and wearing armour studded with pearls.
Another one from Greek mythology! Those Greeks sure did get around. The Nereids were the nymphs of the sea, daughters of Nereus, god of the sea (how many sea gods are there, I ask you?). He had fifty daughters, so he sure knew how to party.
These lovely ladies were friendly folk. Finally, a mythical creature that wants to be my friend instead of eat me, drown me or kill me! Nereids were known for helping sailors through rough storms and lived mostly in the Mediterranean. Too bad if you’re sailing across the Atlantic when a storm blows up…
The Nereids also often accompanied Poseidon (another sea-god if you recall…) and lived with their father in a silvery cave. The most well-known is Thetis, mother of Achilles. Who knew? First time I heard Achilles was half-sea-nymph!
Other notable Nereids included Amphitrite, Poseidon’s wife (who else would a sea-god wed than the daughter of another sea-god?) and Galatea, who had the dubious honour of being the love of Cyclops.
I’m off to consult my mythical creatures bestiary for next week’s Part 2 – Beasties of the Deep: Mythical Creatures Beneath the Waves.
You can find other posts in mythical creatures series here - Dragons, Fantastical Horses, Creatures of the Sky, Mythical Creatures of the Sea - Part 2, and Spirits of Inland Waterways.
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