1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mermaids and Mermen

MERMAIDS and MERMEN, in the folk-lore of England and Scotland, a class of semi-human beings who have their dwelling in the sea, but are capable of living on land and of entering into social relations with men and women.[1] They are easily identified, at least in some of their most important aspects, with the Old German Meriminni or Meerfrau, the Icelandic Hafgufa, Margygr, and Marmennill (mod. Marbendill), the Danish Hafmand or Maremind, the Irish Merrow or Merruach, the Marie-Morgan of Brittany and the Morforwyn of Wales;[2] and they have various points of resemblance to the vodyany or water-sprite and the rusalka or stream-fairy of Russian mythology. The typical mermaid has the head and body of a woman, usually of exceeding loveliness, but below the waist is fashioned like a fish with scales and fins. Her hair is long and beautiful, and she is often represented, like the Russian rusalka, as combing it with one hand while in the other she holds a looking-glass. For a time at least a mermaid may become to all appearance an ordinary human being; and an Irish legend (“The Overflowing of Lough Neagh and Liban the Mermaid,” in Joyce's Old Celtic Romances) represents the temporary transformation of a human being into a mermaid.

The mermaid legends of all countries may be grouped as follows. (a) A mermaid or mermaids either voluntarily or under compulsion reveal things that are about to happen. Thus the two mermaids (merewip) Hadeburc and Sigelint, in the Nibelungenlied, disclose his future course to the hero Hagen, who, having got possession of their garments, which they had left on the shore, compels them to pay ransom in this way. According to Resenius, a mermaid appeared to a peasant of Samsoe, foretold the birth of a prince, and moralized on the evils of intemperance, &c. (Kong Frederichs den andens Kroni/ee, Copenhagen, 1680, p. 302). (b) A mermaid imparts supernatural powers to a human being. Thus in the beautiful story of “The Old Man of Cury” (in Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England, 1871) the old man, instead of silver and gold, obtains the power of doing good to his neighbours by breaking the spells of witchcraft, chasing away diseases, and discovering thieves. (c) A mermaid has some one under her protection, and for wrong done to her guard exacts a terrible penalty. One of the best and most detailed examples of this class is the story of the “Mermaid’s Vengeance” in Hunt's book already quoted. (d) A mermaid falls in love with a human being, lives with him as his lawful wife for a time, and then, some compact being unwittingly or intentionally broken by him, departs to her true home in the sea. Here, if its mermaid form be accepted, the typical legend is undoubtedly that of Mélusine (q.v.), which, being made the subject of a romance by Jean d'Arras, became one of the most popular folk-books of Europe, appearing in Spanish, German, Dutch and Bohemian versions. (e) A mermaid falls in love with a man, and entices him to go to live with her below the sea; or a merman wins the affection or captures the person of an earth born maiden. This form of legend is very common, and has naturally been a favourite with poets. Macphail of Colonsay successfully rejects the allurements of the mermaid of Corrievrekin, and comes back after long years of trial to the maid of Colonsay.[3] The Danish ballads are especially full of the theme; as “Agnete and the Merman,” an antecedent of Matthew Arnold's “Forsaken Merman ”; the “Deceitful Merman, or Marstig's Daughter”; and the finely detailed story of Rosmer Hafmand (No. 49 in Grimm).

In relation to man the mermaid is usually of evil issue if not of evil intent. She has generally to be bribed or compelled to utter her prophecy or bestow her gifts, and whether as wife or paramour she brings disaster in her train. The fish-tail, which in popular fancy forms the characteristic feature of the mermaid, is really of secondary importance; for the true Teutonic mermaid—probably a remnant of the great cult of the Vanir—had no fish-tail;[4] and this symbolic appendage occurs in the mythologies of so many countries as to afford no clue to its place of origin. The Tritons, and, in the later representations, the Sirens of classical antiquity, the Phoenician Dagon, and the Chaldaean Oannes are all well-known examples; the Ottawas and other American Indians have their man-fish and woman-fish (jones, Traditions of the North American Indians, 1830); and the Chinese tell stories not unlike our own about the sea-women of their southern seas (Dennis, Folklore of China, 1875).

Quasi-historical instances of the appearance or capture of mermaids are common enough[5] and serve, with the frequent use of the figure on signboards and coats of arms, to show, how thoroughly the myth had taken hold of the popular imagination.[6] A mermaid captured at Bangor, on the shore of Belfast Lough, in the 6th century, was not only baptized, but admitted into some of the old calendars as a saint under the name of Murgen (Notes and Queries, Oct. 21, 1882); and Stowe (Annales, under date 1187) relates how a man-fish was kept for six months and more in the castle of Orford in Suffolk. As showing how legendary material may gather round a simple fact, the oft-told story of the sea-woman of Edam is particularly interesting. The oldest authority, Joh. Gerbrandus a Leydis, a Carmelite monk (d. 1504), tells (Annales, &c., Frankfort, 1620) how in 1403 a wild woman came through a breach in the dike into Purmerlake, and, being found by some Edam milkmaids, was ultimately taken to Haarlem and lived there many years. Nobody could understand her, but she learned to spin, and was wont to adore the cross. Ocka Scharlensis (Chroniik van Friesland, Leeuw., 1597) reasons that she was not a fish because she could spin, and she was not a woman because she could live in the sea; and thus in due course she got fairly established as a genuine mermaid. Vosmaer, who has carefully investigated the matter, enumerates forty writers who have repeated the story, and shows that the older ones speak only of a woman (see “Beschr. van de zoogen. Meermin der stad Haarlem,” in Verh. van de Holl. Maatsch. van K. en Wet., part 23, No. 1786).

The best account of the mermaid-myth is in Baring-Gould’s Myths of the Middle Ages. See also, besides works already mentioned, Pontoppidan, who in, his logically credulous way collects much matter to prove the existence of mermaids; Maillet, Telliamed (Hauge, 1755); Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, i. 404, and Altdän. Heldenlieder (811); Waldron’s Description and Train’s Hist. and Stat. Acc. of the Isle of Man; Folk-lore Society’s Record, vol. ii.; Napier, Hist. and Trad. Tales connected with the South of Scotland; Sébillot, Traditions de la haute Bretagne (1882), and Contes des marins (1882).

  1. The name mermaid is compounded of mere, a lake, and mcegd, a maid; but, though mere wif occurs in Beowulf, mere-maid does not appear till the Middle English period (Chaucer, Romaunt of the Rose, &c.). In Cornwall the fishermen say merry-maids and merry-men. The connexion with the sea rather than with inland waters appears to be of later origin. “The Mermaid of Martin Meer” (Roby's Traditions of Lancashire, vol. ii.) is an example of the older force of the word; and such “meer-women” are known to the country-folk in various parts of England (e.g. at Newport in Shropshire, where the town is some day to be drowned by the woman's agency).
  2. See Rhys, “Welsh Fairy Tales,” in Y Cymmrodor (1881, 1882).
  3. See Leyden's “The Mermaid,” in Sir Walter Scott's Border Minstrelsy.
  4. Karl Blind, “New Finds in Shetlandic and Welsh Folk-Lore,” in Gentleman's Magazine (1882).
  5. Compare the strange account of the quasi-human creatures found in the Nile given by Theophylactus, Historiae, viii; 16, pp. 299-302, of Bekker's edition.
  6. See the paper in Journ. Brit. Arch. Assoc., xxxviii., 1882, by H. S. Cuming, who points out that mermaids or mermen occur in the arms of Earls Caledon, Howth and Sandwich, Viscounts, Boyne and Hood-, Lord Lyttelton and Scott of Abbotsford, as well as in those of the Ellis, Byron, Phené, Skeffington and other families. The English heralds represent the creatures with a single tail, the French and German heralds frequently with a double one.