May 15, 2023 I Nick Redfern

The Phenomenon of Mermaids and Mermen: Legends or Cryptozoological Creatures?

It’s a little known fact that the term, “mermaid” is actually derived from two words. One is the word “mere.” It’s an ancient English word that translates as “sea.” While “maid,” of course, refers to a girl or a woman. Ancient tales tell of mermaids who would sing in an enchanting and hypnotizing style, while beckoning sailors to join them in the deep waters. The purpose was not quite as inviting as it might have seemed. In fact, the purpose was downright ruthless: to distract sailors from their work and cause their ships to run disastrously aground. It was death that the mermaids had on their minds. Other ancient tales tell of mermaids inadvertently squeezing the last breaths out of drowning men while attempting to rescue them. They are also said to particularly enjoy taking humans to their underwater lairs. In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, for example, it is said that mermaids often forget that humans cannot breathe underwater, while other legends suggest the sinister she-creatures deliberately drown men – out of sheer, venomous spite, no less. They were, then, creatures perceived as sometimes friendly and on other occasions, downright deadly.

The fabled Sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in folklore as being mermaid-like in nature and appearance. Other related types of mythical, legendary creatures that fall into this category include water-nymphs and selkies, animals that can allegedly transform themselves from seals into human beings – and vice-versa, too. Mermaids were noted in British folklore as being distinctly unlucky omens – occasionally foretelling disaster and sometimes even maliciously provoking it, too. As evidence of this, several variations on the ballad, Sir Patrick Spens, depict a mermaid speaking to the doomed ships. In some, she tells the crews they will never see land again, and in others she claims they are near the shore, which the men are wise and astute enough to know means that deep, malevolent deception is at work. The ballad itself is of Scottish origins, and may possibly refer to an actual event; namely, the bringing home of the Scottish Queen Margaret, Maid of Norway, across the North Sea in 1290. There is, however, some speculation that the ballad may actually relate to a voyage by the princess’ mother in 1281. But, regardless of the specific truth behind the ballad itself, its words are prime evidence of both the knowledge and the deep fear of mermaids that has existed in the British Isles for an untold number of centuries.

(Nick Redfern) Mermaids: folklore or reality?

One such account tells of a deadly mermaid inhabiting a small pool in the pleasant little village of Childs Ercall, England. In 1893, the writer Robert Charles Hope described the notable story as follows: “…there was a mermaid seen there once. It was a good while ago, before my time. I dare say it might be a hundred years ago. There were two men going to work early one morning, and they had got as far as the side of the pond in [a] field, and they saw something on the top of the water which scared them not a little. They thought it was going to take them straight off to the Old Lad himself! I can’t say exactly what it was like, I wasn’t there, you know; but it was a mermaid, the same as you read of in the papers. The fellows had almost run away at first, they were so frightened, but as soon as the mermaid had spoken to them, they thought no more of that. Her voice was so sweet and pleasant, that they fell in love with her there and then, both of them. Well, she told them there was a treasure hidden at the bottom of the pond – lumps of gold, and no one knows what. And she would give them as much as ever they liked if they would come to her in the water and take it out of her hands.

“So they went in, though it was almost up to their chins, and she dived into the water and brought up a lump of gold almost as big as a man s head. And the men were just going to take it, when one of them said: ‘Eh!’ he said (and swore, you know), ‘if this isn’t a bit of luck!’ And, my word, if the mermaid didn’t take it away from them again, and gave a scream, and dived down into the pond, and they saw no more of her, and got none of her gold. And nobody has ever seen her since then. No doubt the story once ran that the oath which scared the uncanny creature involved the mention of the Holy Name.”

Moving on, there is the story of Mermaid’s Pool (also referred to as Blakemere Pool), which can be found at the Staffordshire, England village of Thorncliffe, on the Staffordshire Moorlands, which are dominated by forests, lakes, rolling hills, and crags. It’s a story that dates back approximately 1,000 years. Lisa Dowley is someone who has spent a great deal of time and effort pursuing the story and sorting fact from legend. She says: “The story transpires that this particular mermaid was once a maiden of fair beauty, and it came to pass – for reasons that are unclear – that she was persecuted, and accused of various crimes, by a gentleman named Joshua Linnet. It is not clear whether these accusations included being a witch, or whether he may have had his amorous advances rejected. The said Mr. Linnet had this woman bound up, and thrown into the bottomless Blakemere Pool. As she fought for her breath and life, the woman screamed vengeance on her accuser, Joshua Linnet, and that her spirit would haunt the pool from that moment hence, and swore that one day she would drag her accuser and executioner deep down beneath the dark depths of the Blakemere Pool to his own death.

 “It is a recorded fact that three days later, Joshua Linnet was found face down, dead in the Blakemere Pool. When his body was dragged out and turned over by the locals, to their horror, what greeted them was that what was once his face, but was now nothing more than tattered shreds of skin, the injuries seemingly caused by sharp claws or talons.” Moving on, situated barely a stone’s throw from the Shropshire, England town of Newport and just over the border from rural Staffordshire, Aqualate Mere – at 1.5 kilometers long and 0.5 kilometers wide – is the largest natural lake in the Midlands; yet it is very shallow, extending down to little more than a uniform three-feet.  Legend has it that one day many years ago, when the Mere was being cleaned, a mermaid violently rose out of the water – quite naturally scaring the living daylights out of the work-men – while simultaneously making shrieking, disturbing and damning threats to utterly destroy the town of Newport if any attempt was ever made to empty Aqualate Mere of its precious waters. Very wisely, perhaps, the Mere was not – and, to date, never has been – drained.

(Nick Redfern) The picture from my book, Monsters of the Deep

Sea serpent authority Henry Lee spoke of mermaids, too. One story in particular stood out for Lee; a tale that really caght his attention. He stated: “In the year 1797, Mr. Munro, schoolmaster of Thurso, affirmed that he had seen "a figure like a naked female, sitting on a rock projecting into the sea, at Sandside Head, in the parish of Reay. Its head was covered with long, thick, light-brown hair, flowing down on the shoulders. The forehead was round, the face plump, and the cheeks ruddy. The mouth and lips resembled those of a human being, and the eyes were blue. The arms, fingers, breast, and abdomen were as large as those of a full-grown female," and, altogether, ‘That sea-nymph's form of pearly light, Was whiter than the downy spray, And round her bosom, heaving bright, Her glossy yellow ringlets play.’ “This creature,” Mr. Munro himself said, “‘was apparently in the act of combing its hair with its fingers, which seemed to afford it pleasure, and it remained thus occupied during some minutes, when it dropped into the sea.’ The Dominie saw the maiden there, Just as the daylight faded, Braiding her locks of gowden hair, An’ singing as she braided, but he did not remark whether the fingers were webbed. On the whole, he infers that this was a marine animal of which he had a distinct and satisfactory view, and that the portion seen by him bore a narrow resemblance to the human form. But for the dangerous situation it had chosen, and its appearance among the waves, he would have supposed it to be a woman. Twelve years later, several persons observed near the same spot an animal which they also supposed to be a mermaid.” Yet again, Henry Lee was onto the story:

“A very remarkable story of this kind is one related by Dr. Robert Hamilton in the volume already referred to, and for the general truth of which he vouches, from his personal knowledge of some of the persons connected with the occurrence. In 1823 it was reported that some fishermen of Yell, one of the Shetland group, had captured a mermaid by its being entangled in their lines. The statement was that ‘the animal was about three feet long, the upper part of the body resembling the human, with protuberant mammæ, like a woman; the face, forehead, and neck were short, and resembled those of a monkey; the arms, which were small, were kept folded across the breast; the fingers were distinct, not webbed; a few stiff, long bristles were on the top of the head, extending down to the shoulders, and these it could erect and depress at pleasure, something like a crest. The inferior part of the body was like a fish. The skin was smooth, and of a grey color. It offered no resistance, nor attempted to bite, but uttered a low, plaintive sound.

 The crew, six in number, took it within their boat, but, superstition getting the better of curiosity, they carefully disentangled it from the lines and a hook which had accidentally become fastened in its body, and returned it to its native element. It instantly dived, descending in a perpendicular direction." Mr. Edmonston, the original narrator of this incident, was ‘a well-known and intelligent observer,’ says Dr. Hamilton, and in a communication made by him to the Professor of Natural History in the Edinburgh University gave the following additional particulars, which he had learned from the skipper and one of the crew of the boat. ‘They had the animal for three hours within the boat: the body was without scales or hair; it was of a silvery grey color above, and white below; it was like the human skin; no gills were observed, nor fins on the back or belly. The tail was like that of a dog-fish; the mammæ were about as large as those of a woman; the mouth and lips were very distinct, and resembled the human. Not one of the six men dreamed of a doubt of its being a mermaid, and it could not be suggested that they were influenced by their fears, for the mermaid is not an object of terror to fishermen: it is rather a welcome guest, and danger is apprehended from its experiencing bad treatment." Mr. Edmonston concludes by saying that "the usual resources of skepticism that the seals and other sea-animals appearing under certain circumstances, operating upon an excited imagination, and so producing ocular illusion, cannot avail here. It is quite impossible that six Shetland fishermen could commit such a mistake.”

(Nick Redfern) Mermaids and ancient pools are said to join together

It’s interesting to note that the Shetland Isles are only 158 miles from the Orkney Islands, where a strange affair was reported in the 1800s. It suggests nothing less than the ongoing presence of unusual and unidentified animals in the area. It dates from 1808 and the island of Stronsa: “According to the narrative, it was first seen entire, and measured by respectable individuals. It measured fifty-six feet in length, and twelve in circumference. The head was small, not being a foot long from the snout to the first vertebra; the neck was slender, extending to the length of fifteen feet. All the witnesses agree in assigning it blow-holes, though they differ as to the precise situation. On the shoulders something like a bristly mane commenced which extended to near the extremity of the tail. It had three pairs of fins or paws connected with the body; the anterior were the largest, measuring more than four feet in length, and their extremities were something like toes partially webbed. The skin was smooth and of a greyish colour; the eye was of the size of a seal’s. When the decaying carcass was broken up by the waves, portions of it were secured (such as the skull, the upper bones of the swimming paws, &c.) by Mr. Laing, a neighbouring proprietor, and some of the vertebræ were preserved and deposited in the Royal University Museum, Edinburgh, and in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, London. An able paper,’ says Dr. Robert Hamilton, in his account of it,  ‘on these latter fragments and on the wreck of the animal was read by the late Dr. Barclay to the Wernerian Society, and will be found in Vol. I. of its Transactions, to which we refer. We have supplied a wood-cut of the sketch" (of which I give a facsimile here) "which was taken at the time, and which, from the many affidavits proffered by respectable individuals, as well as from other circumstances narrated, leaves no manner of doubt as to the existence of some such animal.”

Now, let us take a look at the male equivalents of Mermaids: Mermen. George Brisbane Scott Douglas (1856-1935) was the author of such acclaimed books as Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales and New Border Tales. He was someone who had a fascination for mysteries of the oceans, and particularly so mermaids and the far-less-mentioned matter of mermen. He said of mermen and mermaids that there were many strange tales emanating from Scotland’s Shetland Isles. Beneath the depths of the ocean, according to these stories, Douglas said…   “…an atmosphere exists adapted to the respiratory organs of certain beings, resembling in form the human race, possessed of surpassing beauty, of limited supernatural powers, and liable to the incident of death. They dwell in a wide territory of the globe, far below the region of fishes, over which the sea, like the cloudy canopy of our sky, loftily rolls, and they possess habitations constructed of the pearl and coral productions of the ocean. Having lungs not adapted to a watery medium, but to the nature of atmospheric air, it would be impossible for them to pass through the volume of waters that intervenes between the submarine and supramarine world, if it were not for the extraordinary power they inherit of entering the skin of some animal capable of existing in the sea, which they are enabled to occupy by a sort of demoniacal possession.”

Douglas noted something that most people – having only a cursory knowledge of the merman/mermaid phenomenon – would likely be completely unware of. He acknowledged that although most people viewed such creatures as “of an animal human above the waist, yet terminating below in the tail and fins of a fish,” that was far from always being the case. He explained that the “most favorite form” was actually that of the “larger seal.”  He explained that, “…possessing an amphibious nature, they are enabled not only to exist in the ocean, but to land on some rock, where they frequently lighten themselves of their sea-dress, resume their proper shape, and with much curiosity examine the nature of the upper world belonging to the human race. Unfortunately, however, each merman or merwoman possesses but one skin, enabling the individual to ascend the seas, and if, on visiting the abode of man, the garb be lost, the hapless being must unavoidably become an inhabitant of the earth.”  Douglas was someone who not only was deeply familiar with mermen lore, but someone who collected a number of fascinating accounts of encounters with what appear to have been – rather incredibly – real half-man, half-fish-like entities. As one example of many, we have the following from Douglas:

“A story is told of a boat’s crew who landed for the purpose of attacking the seals lying in the hollows of the crags at one of the stacks. The men stunned a number of the animals, and while they were in this state stripped them of their skins, with the fat attached to them. Leaving the carcases on the rock, the crew were about to set off for the shore of Papa Stour, when such a tremendous swell arose that every one flew quickly to the boat. All succeeded in entering it except one man, who had imprudently lingered behind. The crew were unwilling to leave a companion to perish on the skerries, but the surge increased so fast that after many unsuccessful attempts to bring the boat close in to the stack the unfortunate wright was left to his fate.” Douglas continued, detailing how things quickly developed, and in a strange and unforeseen fashion: “A stormy night came on, and the deserted Shetlander saw no prospect before him but that of perishing from cold and hunger, or of being washed into the sea by the breakers which threatened to dash over the rocks. At length he perceived many of the seals, who in their flight had escaped the attack of the boatmen, approach the skerry, disrobe themselves of their amphibious hides, and resume the shape of the sons and daughters of the ocean. Their first object was to assist in the recovery of their friends, who, having been stunned by clubs, had, while in that state, been deprived of their skins. 

“When the flayed animals had regained their sensibility,” said Douglas, “they assumed their proper form of mermen or merwomen, and began to lament in a mournful lay, wildly accompanied by the storm that was raging around, the loss of their sea-dress, which would prevent them from again enjoying their native azure atmosphere and coral mansions that lay below the deep waters of the Atlantic.” The chief lamentation of the mermen, said Douglas, was for one Ollavitinus, the son of Gioga, who, “…having been stripped of his seal's skin, would be forever parted from his mates, and condemned to become an outcast inhabitant of the upper world. Their song was at length broken off by observing one of their enemies viewing, with shivering limbs and looks of comfortless despair, the wild waves that dashed over the stack. Gioga immediately conceived the idea of rendering subservient to the advantage of her son the perilous situation of the man. She addressed him with mildness, proposing to carry him safe on her back across the sea to Papa Stour, on condition of receiving the seal-skin of Ollavitinus.” 

A bargain was struck, added Douglas, and “…Gioga clad herself in her amphibious garb; but the Shetlander, alarmed at the sight of the stormy main that he was to ride through, prudently begged leave of the matron, for his better preservation, that he might be allowed to cut a few holes in her shoulders and flanks, in order to procure, between the skin and the flesh, a better, fastening for his hands and feet. The request being complied with, the man grasped the neck of the seal, and committing himself to her care, she landed him safely at Acres Gio in Papa Stour; from which place he immediately repaired to a skeo at Hamna Voe, where the skin was deposited, and honorably fulfilled his part of the contract by affording Gioga the means whereby her son could again revisit the ethereal space over which the sea spread its green mantle.” And that's the end of our story.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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