Sep 10, 2022 I Bibhu Dev Misra

The Earliest Architectural Depictions of Mermaids and Mermen: What Do They Tell Us?

Tales of mermaids and mermen have been with us for thousands of years. Over time, the stories have been tinged with human imagination, and the merfolk have aquired various shades of reputations, some not so flattering. If we go back to the earliest times, however, to explore the architectural depictions of mermen and mermaids, we find that the merfolk, in general, were thought of as semi-divine beings who were beneficent to humanity, and bestowed prosperity and good luck. They were an integral part of the beliefs and ritual customs of our ancestors. 

However, the depictions of mermaids in art and architecture declined sharply after the beginning of the Christian era, which could be an indication that interactions between humans and mermaids were becoming quite rare. There was a revival in mermaid depictions during the Late Medieval period, but by that time, mermaids had already turned into objects of fantasy, and elaborate stories were spun around them. In many cases, unfortunate drowning events were blamed on water spirits or mermaids, because of which they were painted as sinister or vicious creatures who lured people to their death – a far cry from the way in which they were regarded in the ancient times. 

Possibly, the earliest depiction of a mermaid or a merman, is on an Old Babylonian (2004 BCE -1595 BCE)  sculpture of Enki, who was the Sumerian god of wisdom, waters, abundance, fertility, civilization and crafts. Enki was the lord of the “apsu” which meant the underground aquifers. During the Akkadian period, Enki was also called Ea, which ties him to the Cannanite god of the sea Yam, and the Vedic lord of the underworld Yama.

This statue shows Enki enthroned and holding a pot containing life-giving waters in his left hand. The waters probably signify the waters of the “apsu” which feeds all the freshwater bodies of the world. At the base of Enki’s throne, are a pair of reclining mermen, holding water pots in their hands. 

Figure 1: God Enki (Ea), seated, holding a cup. A pair of mermen are reclining at the base of the throne. Old-Babylonian period, 2004-1595 BCE, Iraq Museum, Baghdad. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin CC BY-SA 4.0

Enki was the god who had sent the hybrid fish-men called the apkallu – also known as the Seven Sages – to Babylon in the antediluvian period, who had taught the people all the skills and laws of civilization. I had discussed about the apkallu in my previous article. The apkallu, even though they were also human-fish hybrids, should not be confused with mermen. The apkallu have a distinctive fish-head cap and a fish-skin cloak fused with their human bodies, whereas mermen have the upper body of a human and the lower body of a fish.

A specific term was used for the mermen in the Old Babylonian period – kulullu (fish-man), while the term for mermaids was kuliltu (fish-woman). Clay figurines of the kulullu - smeared with bitumen and clad in white paste - used to be made for apotropaic rituals to prevent the entry of evil in the house. Wiggerman notes in his book, Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts that, “the orders put into the mouth of the kulullu characterize him as one concerned with attracting prosperity and divine benevolence to the house.”[1] The clay figurines were buried under the floor of the house after the rituals were completed. 

The Mesopotamian ritual texts also tell us that kulullu icons were placed on the gate of Marduk’s shrine, possibly for warding away evil influences. The kulullu were said to be spawned by the enormous sea dragon called Tiamat, who had been killed in an epic battle with Marduk, as described in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic.[2]

A cylinder seal (click for the image) from the Late Babylonian period (c. 7th century BCE), on display at the British Museum, depicts an apkallu along with a merman (kulullu) and a mermaid (kuliltu). The British Museum website provides the following description of the seal:

“A naturalistic palm-tree is flanked by an 'apkallu' in a fish-cloak with cone and bucket on the left and by a bearded merman and a mermaid on the right… The merman and mermaid both raise their right hand and extend the other downwards; they wear round-topped horned head-dresses (the horns of the merman are damaged by a chip) and mermaid has a band hanging down the back which ends in three drill-holes.” 

The fact that the merman and the mermaid wear horned helmets – a sign of divinity in Mesopotamian art – indicates that the merfolk were believed to be of divine origin. One of the strange things about this seal is that, it shows a “palm tree” flanked by the apkallu and the mermaid and the merman. While the apkallu can walk on land, merfolk can’t, and in this seal image they appear to be floating in water. This means that the palm tree is underwater. The Babylonians seemed to have believed that within the “apsu” i.e. the underground aquifers, there are islands of green, where all sorts of plants and trees grow; and some of them were regarded as sacred and worthy of reverence. Could this be the paradise of Enki in the apsu? 

During the Neo-Assyrian period (c.900 – 600 BCE), figurines of mermen and mermaids continued to be used in household apotropaic rituals for warding off evil. Wall reliefs at the palace of King Sargon II at Dur-Sharrukin, Khorsabad, shows Assyrians transporting timber by boats for building their new capital city at Dur-Sharrukin. In addition to various aquatic animals – such as fish, turtles, snakes etc. - the wall-reliefs depict a pair of mermen, swimming casually through the waters. Their hands are raised in an act of blessing or prayer, as if they are wishing the mariners a safe journey. This tallies with the belief held in many folkloric tales throughout the ages that mermaids and mermen have prophetic powers and they can warn sailors about bad weather and impending storms by singing or throwing rocks into the sea. Their goodwill and blessings were considered necessary for a safe oceanic voyage.

Figure 2: Merman depicted on timber transportation wall relief from the palace of Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin, Khorsabad, Iraq. On display at the Louvre. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Gary Todd, Public Domain
Figure 3: Merman depicted on timber transportation wall relief from the palace of Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin, Khorsabad, Iraq. Sketch by Botta, 1949. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

There are a couple of intriguing terracotta plaques depicting a mermaid, from the archaeological site of Chadraketugarh, located close to the city of Kolkata in Eastern India. These terracotta plaques of amazing workmanship were made sometime between 200 BCE – 100 BCE. The first plaque shows a mermaid swimming in a lake, holding what could be a mirror. The mirror has been associated with mermaids in many folkloric tales, and is taken as an indication of the mermaid’s vanity. But one could argue that, perhaps, the mermaid uses the mirror to foretell the future, just as a soothsayer gazes into a crystal ball. After all, mermaids were said to be prophetic.

Coming back to the plaque, we can see that a throng of people have gathered on the shore, staring at the mermaid. A chieftain has arrived at the scene, and one of his assistants is pointing out the mermaid to him. Three fishermen are standing on the shore, with a big fishing net hanging over their shoulders.

Figure 4: Terracotta plaque from Chandraketugarh, India. c.200 - 100 BCE, Shunga Period. Source: www.sylph-ocular.com, Public Domain

The second plaque shows the same mermaid trapped in a fishing net. The scene has changed somewhat, and she is not holding the mirror anymore, which suggests that this could be another day. A few fishermen are holding the net and have formed a barricade around her. Some people on the shore are waving to the mermaid. Once again, the chieftain has arrived on a horse drawn carriage, presumably all excited to hear about the “catch of the day”.

Figure 5: Terracotta plaque from Chandraketugarh, India. c.200 - 100 BCE, Shunga Period. Source: www.sylph-ocular.com, Public Domain

This is possibly the only instance where we see a mermaid being trapped in a fishing net. It’s somewhat strange, since mermaids were regarded as semi-divine beings with supernatural powers, and therefore they should be able to easily evade fishermen. Did this mermaid actually want to be trapped in order to meet the handsome chieftain? Was a love story brewing between the two of them that we don’t know of? Or is it possible that mermaids could be captured using fishing nets? There is a parallel for this scene in a Korean folktale of unknown antiquity. 

“Fisherman Choe, of Janbong Island, was facing destitution because his daily catch of fish was very poor. One day he thought he had at last caught a very large fish, but when he drew up his net he found instead a very beautiful ineo (mermaid). She did not speak but gazed at him, imploring him to let her go. He took pity on the ineo and carefully returned it to the sea. On the following day, and subsequent days, his net was full of fish. He thought that this abundance was a gift from the ineo in return for her release.”[3]

These are some of earliest, pre-Christian archaeological depictions of mermen and mermaids. It appears from these artifacts that, mermaids and mermen were generally regarded as divine or semi-divine beings, who could confer prosperity, and ward away evil, if they were propitiated. They were closely associated with Enki – the lord of the apsu (underground aquifers) – and with the apkallu sages. From the ancient times, sailors believed that the merfolk could assist them in their sea voyages by warning them of impending storms – a role that has now been taken over by weather forecasters. Apparently, mermaids could even be trapped by fishing nets, and when they were released, they expressed their gratitude by bestowing good fortune.

Perhaps, was this one of the reasons why mermaid sightings and interactions declined after the beginning of the Christian era? As humans started to disrespect their natural environment, dump garbage and toxic chemicals in the waterbodies, make attempts to capture or hurt these exotic marine creatures, maybe they decided to retreat to the underground aquifers to avoid human contact. Who could blame them for that?

References

1 F. A. M. Wiggermann, Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts, IYX&PP Publications, Groningen, 1992, p 52,53
2 “Kulullu”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kulull%C3%BB
3 Sarah Keith, Sung-Ae Lee, "Legend of the Blue Sea: Mermaids in South Korean folklore and popular culture", Scaled for Success: The Internationalisation of the Mermaid(2018) edited Philip Hayward, Indiana University Press, p 78–79

Bibhu Dev Misra

Bibhu Dev Misra is an independent researcher and writer on ancient civilizations and ancient mysteries. His passion is to explore the knowledge left behind by the ancients in the form of inscriptions, artifacts, monuments, symbols, glyphs, myths and legends. His articles have been published in different magazines and websites such as the New Dawn, Science to Sage, Nexus, Viewzone, Graham Hancock's website, Waking Times etc. and he has been featured on podcasts, interviews and online conferences organized by Earth Ancients, Portal to Ascension, OSOM, Watcher's Talk, Times FM and others. He is an engineer from IIT and a MBA from IIM, and has worked in the Information Technology industry for more than two decades. He can be reached at [email protected] and via his website Ancient Inquiries: www.bibhudevmisra.com

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