Mythical Mermaids

Abare girl with a tempting body which ended up in a fish tail. That is how they occurred in Mediterranean, African and South-American legends. Aeneas, Horaz and Ovid described them,mermaid Odysseus paid them a visit, and uncounted renaissance artists painted them that way: human above waist, fishy below.

»First you will come to the Sirens
who enchant all who come near them.
If any one unwarily draws in too close
and hears the singing of the Sirens,
his wife and children
will never welcome him home again,
for they sit in a green field
and warble him to death
with the sweetness of their song.
There is a great heap
of dead men's bones lying all around,
with the flesh still rotting off them.«

from The Odyssey translated by Samuel Butler

spacerWhat a disappointment for the first modern times witness! Christopher Columbus wrote down: »In a bight at the coast of Hispaniola I saw three Sirens, but they were far less beautiful than Horaz described them«. (n.b. Columbus saw the Caribbean Manatee, which is considerably bulkier than the dugong)

Lamantin by Thevet
spacerHow could this bulky animal inspire the ancient storytellers to transform it into such an enchanting mermaid, or into sea witches cruelly strangling their beguiled victims, into Tritons, Satyrs and fishtailed monks? Quite interestingly the sirens of antique Greece originally had bird's abdomens, which only at a later stage became fishtails.

spacerMost probably it were sailors who created the myth. During the times of the classical antiquity dugong abounded along the coasts of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Indian MermaidGreek, Phoenician and Egyptian seafarers had been able to observe dugong in Arabian waters. When they observed a herd of dugong from a higher point of view such as a cape or masthead they saw elegant, slender creatures passing by with graceful yet powerful movements of their tail fin.

spacerSeveral human like features distinguish the seacows from the other marine mammals. Females have their teats at the front of their chest. When excited they shed tears. And the way a dugong mother cuddles her suckling baby in her arms surely touched the tough hellenic sailors. Back home the seafarers remembered these features.Assyrian merman The mermaid myth was born.

spacerGreek sailors yarn, spun during long lonely nights at sea? We know that fairy tales and sagas wander around the world over the centuries and millenniums, from one culture to the next, under constant transformation. Most probably the Siren Myth reaches far back into human dream time.


Readers of the Dugong Pages drew my attention to another interesting detail in the earlier human history:

In the 2nd Book Mose (Exodus, Book of Names) the Israel People were instructed to build the first Tabernacle. The tarpaulin of the inner tent should be made of the hide of a certain animal (hebrew: tachash skins, the exact identity of this animal is uncertain - Wikipedia). In some language versions the animal was specified as Seacow. Others specified dolphin, seal or, in Luther's version, badger.

We will never know for certain what material was requested in the original instruction. Older scientific names for the Dugong took account of this myth, E. Rupell called them Halicore tabernaculi.


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written 23 Jan 00
last edit 14 May 01