The Mermaid (from Latin mer, “sea”), a beautiful woman from the waist up and a fish from the waist down, is a favorite creature of legend and romance. She personifies the romance and treachery of the sea, especially the coastal shoals upon which many a ship is wrecked. Bare-breasted Mermaids are often shown sitting on rocks combing their long, green hair to entice sailors to a watery doom. They have been confused with Sirens, even giving that name to a class of marine mammals (Sirenia). However, the original Sirens of Greek mythology were not aquatic at all, but birds with the heads and breasts of women.
The folklore of Mer-people is ancient and widespread, crossing cultures, continents, and millennia. Inhabiting splendorous undersea kingdoms of coral castles, they are said to be as soulless as water, but they may acquire a soul by marrying a human. The heraldic Mermaid is commonly shown with a comb and a mirror which represents the moon, ruler of the tides.
The Mermaid of tradition is beautiful and dangerous. For a sailor to see a Mermaid is almost always a portent of disaster—storm, shipwreck, drowning. Merfolk are said to dwell in a kingdom ruled by
Neptune on the bottom of the sea, and with seductive singing they entice
sailors to leap into the water to join them. However, Mermaids do sometimes
rescue drowning sailors.
The Mermaid was believed to be real by both natural historians and explorers, who have reported many sightings and encounters over the centuries. The classic form of the Mermaid was provided by the influential 5th-century bestiary, the Physiologus, which describes the Mermaid as “a beast of the sea wonderfully shapen as a maid from the navel upward and a fish from the navel downward.”According to legend, the people of Eynhallow in Scotland’s Orkney Isles were once in communion with the Fin People of Finfolkaheen, a mirror village beneath the waves. If any of the Fin People could succeed in seducing a human, they would lose their fish tail and live on land. Hans Christian Anderson’s story of The Little Mermaid is based on such creatures, as was the 1984 hit movie Splash!
But the quintessential mythology of Merfolk that can become human is found in the legends of the Roane and Selchies (Orcadian, “seal”) from the Orkney and Shetland islands of Scotland, Ireland and Britain. Rather than sporting fish tails and human bodies, the shy Selkies and Roane appear as Grey Seals while in the water. However, they can remove the sealskins if they wish and walk upon land as humans. In that state, they can be captured by taking their skins and hiding them. If a Selkie or Roan thus captured is forced into a marriage, she will be a faithful and loyal wife, albeit somewhat sad. But if ever she should recover her sealskin she will return to the ocean and never look back.People born with webbed hands or feet are said to be “Selkie-born.”
In July of 1983, off the coast of
The animal flexed its back sharply, waved its wide, fluked tail high in the air when diving, and stayed underwater for periods of about ten minutes, surfacing for only two seconds. Although unable to approach closer than 50 feet, Wagner got a few murky photos of a rolling back and an uplifted tail.
In 1985, I led a diving expedition to
New Ireland to identify and videotape the Ri. We chartered an Australian dive boat
and sailed to , where Wagner had sighted the Ri/Ilkai two years
before. Nokon Bay
We arrived at Nokon on Feb. 17 and immediately sighted the tail flukes of an animal above the water. We also saw a rolling back, often with a head. Another smaller individual was also sighted. A native confirmed these as Ilkai, saying that there was a family living in the bay: a male, a female, and a baby.
Early in the morning of Feb.15 we saw villagers pulling a large animal out of the water onto the beach. Upon swimming to shore, I discovered it was an adult female dugong. My autopsy revealed that she had been shot. The night before, a Japanese tugboat, named the “Cuddles” had anchored in the bay. The next morning it was gone. We could only conclude that the Ilkai had been shot by someone on that boat.
There can now be little doubt that the animal variously known as the Ri or Ilkai, and associated with stories of Merfolk, is in reality the Indo-Pacific Dugong.
One may wonder how the myths of lovely Merfolk could arise from the reality of the rather homely dugong. The key elements are the breasts and genitals of the females, which are virtually identical in appearance to those of women. With long streamlined bodies and whale-like tails, they have a distinct head and shoulders, and their front flippers are jointed just like human arms. The mothers nurse their infants upright in the water, just as human mothers do.
Moreover, these are very shy creatures who keep a good distance away from human observers, and only surface for a few seconds every ten minutes or so. Living mainly in the open sea, they come into shallow water to feed only at dusk and dawn, when the light is poor; thus making it hard to get a really good close-up look at them.
And so another creature of legend turns out to be based on fact, albeit not quite as elegant as the myth!