I'm Daniel, the Editor of JUNIOR SKEPTIC. In this issue, we'll look at the ancient legend of mermaids!
For many centuries, tales have been told of fish-tailed people who live beneath the sea. Today, big-budget television specials claim that these stories are true. Could such creatures really exist? Or if these underwater beings are purely mythological, can we explain sightings of mermaids and the strange, mummified, fish-tailed bodies exhibited in museums?
Let's find out!
THE SEA-MAID'S MUSIC
Few creatures from myth and story have more romantic appeal than mermaids. Whether singing over the sound of the surf, rescuing drowning princes, or lounging on wave-washed rocks to comb their hair, mermaids embody the wild beauty--the joys and dangers and loneliness--of the sea. William Shakespeare captured some of this feeling in his play A Midsummer Night's Dream, written over 400 years ago:
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.
By Shakespeare's day, the mermaid legend was already ancient. Everyone in his audience instantly understood the image conjured up in those lines. Many other monsters and creatures of mystery are modern, recent ideas (Bigfoot is younger than my father) but the notion of mer-people goes all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome--and beyond.
Indeed, the roots of the mermaid legend are so old that their origins are unclear to scholars today. But like so many ancient tales of monsters and magic, it seems it all began with stories of the gods....
MERMAIDS AND THE GODS
Images and stories of beings who were part-human and part-fish stretch back thousands of years--right back to the dawn of civilization. The earliest stories and art did not describe a type of creature that people actually thought they saw in the oceans, but specific powerful magical beings--usually gods--that were part of the religious beliefs of the time.
In ancient Babylon, for example, the mythical hero Adapa was associated with a kind of carp considered holy in that region, and he was also banished to a watery underworld. In another version of this story, Adapa was called Oannes, and emerged from the real sea as a fish-man--but not as a fish-tailed mer-man.
Oannes, whose whole body ... was that of a fish; that under the fish's head he had another head, with feet also below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish's tail.
Oannes was a teacher who brought humankind the secrets of
letters and sciences, and arts of every kind. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and shewed them how to collect the fruits; in short, he instructed them in every thing which could tend to soften manners and humanize their lives.
Each night, Oannes returned to the sea.
Over centuries, stories change with the telling, mixing together with other tales from other lands. Water-associated gods and heroes began to be drawn, sculpted, and described with the tails of fish. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Fish-tailed mermen (or mermaids) are an easy-to-imagine form for water-beings: the thinking, tool-using head and hands of a human, combined with the swimmiest part of a fish.
Around 1,900 years ago, a Roman writer named Lucian of Samosata described one such fish-tailed goddess he had seen: "I have seen the semblance of Derceto in Phoenicia, and a wonderful sight it is; one half is a woman, but the part which extends from the thighs to the feet ends in a fish's tail. …