WATER DEITIES AND SIRENS FROM OLDEN TIMES
Male and female water beings who are much more powerful than mermaids feature prominently in myths. They may be divine—as in the case of Poseidon and others—or at the very least have extraordinary powers.
The description of Oannes that follows comes from the writings of Berossus (also spelled Berosus), a third-century priest and historian of Babylonia, as processed through nineteenth-century English-language accounts. Oannes is fish shaped, but he also has features that allow him to exist on land and interact with humans: a man's head and feet and the ability to speak human language. Whether he was a fish god or merely a messenger of the ancient water god Ea, Oannes has been connected with the Mesopotamian god Dagon and the Syrian goddess Atargatis, who in turn, according to some ancient Greek writers, was also associated with Aphrodite or Venus, the Greco-Roman goddess born of the sea. Because at nightfall Oannes plunged back into the waters of what is now the Persian Gulf, some see him as a solar deity.
It is significant that Oannes educates humans: this resonates with the mythological understanding that, as also seen in the Sirens of the
Odyssey, hybrid creatures associated with the sea are holders of knowledge.
At Babylon there was (in these times) a great resort of people of various nations, who inhabited Chaldea, and lived without rule and order, like the beasts of the field.
In the first year there made its appearance, from a part of the Erythraean sea which bordered upon Babylonia, an animal endowed with reason, who was called Oannes. (According to the account of Apollodorus) the whole body of the animal was like that of a fish; and had under a fish's head another head, and also feet below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish's tail. His voice, too, and language was articulate and human; and a representation of him is preserved even to this day.
This Being, in the day-time, used to converse with men; but took no food at that season; and he gave them an insight into letters, and sciences, and every kind of art. He taught them to construct houses, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and showed them how to collect fruits. In short, he instructed them in everything which could tend to soften manners and humanise mankind. From that time, so universal were his instructions, nothing material has been added by way of improvement. When the sun set it was the custom of this Being to plunge again into the sea, and abide all night in the deep; for he was amphibious.
KALIYA, THE SNAKE
Drawn from the sacred Sanskrit text
Bhagavata Purana, the story of Krishna defeating the
Naga (great snake) Kaliya is famous in the Hindu tradition not only as a depiction of young Krishna's power, but because he does not kill the
Naga, and allows the snake and his family instead to move away from the river and out into the ocean. Krishna thus helps the people living near the river Yamuna, which had been polluted with the snake's venom, while acknowledging the
Naga's place in creation.
The description of the serpent king and his water-snake entourage aligns with those of other mythological sea "monsters" that are portrayed as dangerous. Homer tells us of Scylla's six long necks and multiple rows of powerful teeth in each mouth; along with Charybdis, Scylla challenges Odysseus just after his encounter with the Sirens, in the area that we now identify as close to the Messina Strait in Sicily. But like other water deities in myth, the
Naga is also an important symbol of transformation, an object of worship, and a significant living tradition.
Serpent worship is among the world's oldest and most wide-spread religious practices. Whether major or minor divinities, water serpents' interactions with humans run the gamut from benevolent to malevolent. Like other water beings, water snakes embody the life-giving and death-dealing aspects of water. As cosmic forces, they may symbolize creation and order or destruction and chaos—and at times, these opposing influences merge, when destruction becomes the catalyst for creation.
Moreover, in many cultures past and present, snakes—especially those associated with water—are phallic symbols. As benign entities, serpents may be tutelary spirits associated with healing, knowledge and arts, or fertility; or progenitors of certain lineages or entire peoples. As destructive beings, they may be predators, sexual or otherwise, or the origin of diseases and afflictions.
Once Krsna went into Vrndavana unaccompanied by Rama. Radiant with a garland of forest flowers, he roved about in the company of cowherds. Then he came upon the river Yamuna, whose waves were tossing about as if she were laughing, throwing patches of foam on the banks. But in the water he saw a dreadful sight—it was the hideous pool of the snake Kaliya, whose water was mixed with a fiery poison! The trees on the bank nearby, splashed by the burning poison, had been scorched while the birds were singed by sprays of that poisoned water tossed aloft in the wind.
Witnessing this sight, horrible as the maw of death, Madhusudana thought to himself, "This must be the dwelling place of the evil-souled Kaliya, whose weapon is poison, that wicked serpent who abandoned the ocean when I defeated him there once before. Now the entire Yamuna is polluted by him, all the way to the sea, so that neither cows nor men suffering from thirst are able to use it. I must tame this king of snakes so that the inhabitants of Vraja can move around happily, without fear. I have descended into the world for this purpose, to pacify those hard-souled ones whose domain is evil. Let me now climb this broad-branched kadamba
tree nearby and fall into the pool of this snake who feeds on the wind!" So thinking, and tightly tucking up his garment, Kaliya dived at once into the pool of the serpent king.
So roiled up by the force of Kaliya's fall was the vast pool that it flooded even huge trees growing far away. They burst at once into flame, smitten by the wind that carried water burning with that snake's evil fiery poison; and that holocaust filled all of space.
Then, in the serpent's pool, Kaliya slapped his arm defiantly. Hearing the sound, the serpent king rapidly approached, his eyes coppery-red with rage. He was surrounded by other venomous wind-feeding snakes with mouths full of fiery poison, accompanied by their snake wives by the hundreds adorned with fetching necklaces, who were beautiful with jangling bracelets that trembled when their bodies moved.
Then the snakes encircled Kaliya, making fetters of their coils, and bit him with their poison-filled mouths. When the cowherds saw that he had fallen into the pool and was being crushed by the serpents' coils, they fled to Vraja. Wholly overcome with grief, they cried aloud, "Kaliya, distracted, has gone and fallen into Kaliya's pool where he is being eaten alive by the snake king! Come and see him!"
The cowherds and their wives, thunderstruck at these words, hurried immediately to the pool, with Yasoda ahead of them. "Oh oh, where is he?" cried the agitated crowd of cowherd women as they hastened, confused and stumbling, along with Yasoda. The cowherds Nanda and Rama, of wondrous valor, also sped to the Yamuna determined to see Kaliya. There they saw him at the mercy of the serpent king, rendered powerless, wrapped in the coils of the snake. Staring at the face of his son, the cowherd Nanda was immobilized, excellent seer, and so was the lady Yasoda. The other cowherds, too, disheartened with grief, looked on weeping while, stammering with fear, they beseeched Kesava with love. . . .
When Kaliya was called to mind by the cowherds, the petals of his lips blossomed into a smile, and he split open that snake, freeing his own body from the coils. Using his two hands to bend over the middle head of that serpent with curving hoods, the wide-striding Kaliya mounted that head and began to dance on it. The serpent's hood expanded with his life's breath as it was pounded by Kaliya's feet. Wherever the snake's head swelled up, Kaliya trod it down again. Squeezed in this manner by Kaliya, the snake fainted away with a quiver, vomiting blood because of the blows of Kaliya's staff.
When his wives saw the serpent king with his neck and head arched over the blood streaming from his mouth, they went to Madhusudana and said piteously, "Overlord of the gods, you are known to be omniscient, without equal, the ineffable light supernal of which the supreme lord is but a portion. You are he whom the gods themselves are not able to praise. How then can I, a mere woman, describe you? . . . Since silly women and miserable creatures are to be pitied by the virtuous, please forgive this wretched creature, you who are eminent among the forgiving! You are the support of the whole world; this is but a feeble snake. Crushed by your foot, he will soon die! How can this weak, lowly snake compare with you, the refuge of all beings? Both hate and love are within the province of the superior, O imperishable one. Therefore be gracious to this snake who is sinking fast, O master of the world. Our husband is dying! O lord of creation, grant us his life as alms!" . . .
[Then Kaliya himself begged for mercy:] "I am not capable of honoring nor of praising you, overlord of the gods, but please take pity on me, O god whose sole thought is compassion! The race of snakes into which I was born is a cruel one; this is its proper nature. But I am not at fault in this matter, Acyuta, for it is you who pour forth and absorb the whole world; classes, forms and natures have all been assigned by you, the creator Now I am powerless, having lost my poison. You have subdued me, Acyuta; now spare my life! Tell me what to do!"
"Leave the waters of the Yamuna, snake, and return to the ocean, along with your children and your retinue. And in the sea, O serpent, when Garuda, enemy of snakes, sees my footprints on your head, he will? not harm you." So speaking, lord Hari released the serpent king, who bowed to Kaliya and returned to the ocean of milk.
In the sight of all creatures, Kaliya abandoned his pool, along with his dependents, his children and all his wives. When the snake had gone, the cowherds embraced Kaliya like one returned from the dead and lovingly drenched his head with tears. Other happy cowherds, with minds amazed, sang praises to Kaliya, who is unwearied by action, when they saw the river water safe. Hymned by the cowherd women and praised by the cowherd men for the fine deed he had done, Kaliya returned to Vraja.
ODYSSEUS AND THE SIRENS
Nowadays Sirens and mermaids are both symbols of dangerous femininity, but they emerged from different waters and cultures. Sirens, as their visual representations on ancient Greek vases and funerary monuments show us, had human heads, wings, and chicken feet or the talons of birds of prey. But as they became conflated with the mermaids of northern European folklore, sirens began to be represented as part flying fish and part human female. It is the power of their song and music—rather than their appearance—that characterizes them across time. This means that the Sirens' hybrid bodies morphed into human-piscine shapes based on the power that, in stories, Sirens share with mermaids. Like mermaids, Sirens seduce: lead astray, divert, lead elsewhere, persuade to desert one's al legiance, corrupt. But while the sexual connotation of seduction is now prevalent, there was no such connotation in the Latin
seducere or in English before the 1550s. Thus, the lure and knowledge the Sirens held in antiquity had to do with life and death, or knowing the future beyond human ability—not so much with sexuality.
This episode of Homer's
Odyssey captures the power of Sirens in classic mythology. A twenty-four-book epic poem probably composed in the eighth century
The Odyssey follows Odysseus and his crew as they make their way home to Ithaca from the Trojan War, encountering storms, monstrous beings, and tests of all sorts along the way. The poem has been canonized for its artful narrative and poetic form as well as its reflections on heroism, hospitality, and the aspirations and limits of human nature.
Odysseus and his men encounter the Sirens in book 12. He is ready for them thanks to the goddess Circe, who has warned him and suggested how he and his men can pass them unscathed. As perpetuated in future traditions, the Sirens' song is their deathly lure. While the crewmen—with wax stuffed in their ears—do the physical work of rowing to get the ship past the Sirens' shore, Odysseus is tightly roped to the ship's mast. Thus immobilized, he alone is privileged to hear, in Alexander Pope's translation, the "celestial music" of the "sweet deluders."
Odysseus is subject to erotic temptation more than once in the course of his homecoming, but the Sirens' lure is of a different kind. Homer's Sirens sing a song that promises knowledge—a wisdom that bridges worlds—instead of pleasure. While their appearance differs from that of the mermaids with whom they are later conflated, the Sirens' music is still a portal that draws humans into a different dimension. This tempting song would perhaps have had even further intensity in oral performances of the Homeric poem.
The friendly goddess stretch'd the swelling sails;
We drop our oars; at ease the pilot guides;
The vessel light along the level glides.
When, rising sad and slow, with pensive look,
Thus to the melancholy train I spoke:
"'O friends, oh ever partners of my woes,
Attend while I what Heaven foredooms disclose.
Hear all! Fate hangs o'er all; on you it lies
To live or perish! to be safe, be wise!
"'In flowery meads the sportive Sirens play,
Touch the soft lyre, and tune the vocal lay;
Me, me alone, with fetters firmly bound,
The gods allow to hear the dangerous sound.
Hear and obey; if freedom I demand,
Be every fetter strain'd, be added band to band.'
"While yet I speak the winged galley flies,
And lo! the Siren shores like mists arise.
Sunk were at once the winds; the air above,
And waves below, at once forgot to move;
Some demon calm'd the air and smooth'd the deep,
Hush'd the loud winds, and charm'd the waves to sleep.
Now every sail we furl, each oar we ply;
Lash'd by the stroke, the frothy waters fly.
The ductile wax with busy hands I mould,
And cleft in fragments, and the fragments roll'd;
The aerial region now grew warm with day,
The wax dissolved beneath the burning ray;
Then every ear I barr'd against the strain,
And from access of frenzy lock'd the brain.
Now round the masts my mates the fetters roll'd,
And bound me limb by limb with fold on fold.
Then bending to the stroke, the active train
Plunge all at once their oars, and cleave the main.
"While to the shore the rapid vessel flies,
Our swift approach the Siren choir descries;
Celestial music warbles from their tongue,
And thus the sweet deluders tune the song:
"'Oh stay, O pride of Greece! Ulysses, stay!
Oh cease thy course, and listen to our lay!
Blest is the man ordain'd our voice to hear,
The song instructs the soul, and charms the ear.
Approach! thy soul shall into raptures rise!
Approach! and learn new wisdom from the wise!
We know whate'er the kings of mighty name
Achieved at Ilion in the field of fame;
Whate'er beneath the sun's bright journey lies.
Oh stay, and learn new wisdom from the wise!'
"Thus the sweet charmers warbled o'er the main;
My soul takes wing to meet the heavenly strain;
I give the sign, and struggle to be free;
Swift row my mates, and shoot along the sea;
New chains they add, and rapid urge the way,
Till, dying off, the distant sounds decay;
Then scudding swiftly from the dangerous ground,
The deafen'd ear unlock'd, the chains unbound."
THE TUNA (EEL) OF LAKE VAIHIRIA
The male-centric view of the female water spirit as a dangerous "other" is reversed in this mythological tale. A high-ranking young woman is promised to a king who, unbeknownst to her, is an eel. ("Tuna"—or its linguistic cognates, like "duna," "funa," and "kuna"—denotes freshwater eel in several Pacific Island languages, including Samoan, Tongan, Maori, Niuean, Tahitian, Tuamotuan, Cook Islander, Rapa, Fijian, Rotuman, and Hawaiian.) She is repulsed by him, but he aggressively pursues her. She escapes with the help of Maui, a pan-Polynesian cultural hero who kills the eel and gives her its head, telling her it will provide her with valuable resources. In the end, it grows into a coconut tree.
A supernatural eel who may sometimes appear as a man figures prominently in a number of Polynesian tales about the origin of the coconut, an important plant for Pacific Islanders, who use every part of it: the tree's trunk is carved into drums; its long, wide fronds are used to cover roofs and walls, and to make mats, bowls, hats, and brooms; the hard shell of its large, round seeds is used to make bowls, cups, spoons, combs, and fishhooks; the fibrous husk is used to make sennit; and the inner part of the seed provides coconut meat and water.
In this Tahitian variant of the coconut's origin story, the female protagonist is named Hina. Elsewhere, she is known as Sina (Samoa), Heina (Tonga), Hine (Aotearoa), and Ina (Cook Islands). Hina-Sina-Heina-Hine-Ina is usually of high rank, and sometimes semidivine. Depending on the version, she may either fall in love with the eel or find him repulsive. With their long, sinuous bodies, eels are phallic symbols. Indeed, in a Samoan variant, Sina is scorned because the eel takes her virginity as she swims in the pool where it makes his home.
There was once a beautiful young princess of Papeuriri, Tahiti, of the highest lineage, whose celestial patrons, the sun and moon, had named her Hina (Gray). When this young girl had reached the stature of womanhood and was becoming much admired for her beauty—flashes of light emanating from her person restricted her to a very select circle—the sun and moon espoused her to the king of Lake Vaihiria, before she had any personal acquaintance with him or her even seen him. The king's name was Fa'arava'ai-anu (Cause-to-fish-in-the-cold), and as her parents agreed to the marriage Hina felt no doubt of the suitableness of the match and entered happily into all the preparations for her wedding. Hina chose for her maids of honor, two childhood companions, named Varua (Spirit) and Te-roro (Brain), and when at last the marriage day arrived they were attractively dressed in white tapa gracefully wound around their persons, with garlands of maire fern interwoven with red fara
strobile tips and snow-white tiare
, and in their flowing raven hair they entwined similar wreaths. The bride also wore, in token of her rank, a necklet and girdle of rich red and yellow 'ura
At length the bridal party set out to meet the bridegroom, accompanied with the measured beat of the drum and the soft notes of the bamboo flute and other primitive musical instruments, and they had gone half way up the valley to Lake Vaihiria, when, lo, the bridegroom was seen descending the declivity to meet them. And there in the distance Hina saw to her great horror, an immense eel, as great and long as the trunk of a tall coconut tree; this was Fa'arava'ai-anu, king of Lake Vaihiria, the intended bridegroom for the beautiful Hina!
Terror-stricken, she turned to her parents and exclaimed: "It is indeed this, O my parents? Do you wish me to be wedded to a monster and not a person? O how cruel of you! And now I shall seek my own salvation!" And she fled out of the valley to her home.
On arriving there, the people were surprised to see her and enquired what had happened. On knowing her grief and disappointment, sorrow and sympathy filled their hearts towards her.
"And now," she said, "farewell. I must seek my salvation quickly away from here. If all be well, I shall return again; but meanwhile, my dear friends, I entrust all my treasures to your care. If I live, I shall return to my own district, to be with you, my dearly loved ones."
Willing hands quickly prepared a swift canoe, and just as the moon was rising in its full glory, Hina, with trusted retainers, set off for Vairao, Taiarapu, to seek the aid and protection of the great Ma-u-i who had noosed and controlled the sun, and there they arrived just before daybreak.
On entering his cave, Hina found Ma-u-i was out, but she was kindly received by his wife. Shortly afterwards he came in and enquired of his wife what caused the brilliant flashes of light in their dark abode, and she replied:
"'This is Hina of the 'ura
girdle, Hina of lightning flashes in the east, Hina, child of the sun and moon; her wind is the northeast
Then Ma-u-i welcomed Hina, and kindly addressed her saying, "O Hina, beloved daughter of Mataiea, what is your errand, my Princess?"
"O Ma-u-i," she exclaimed, "save me from the hideous monster, the king of Vaihiria, who will be coming here to claim me as his wife! Have pity on me, behold now outside, and what is the wind? It is possessed, darkness is overshadowing the land, and the sea is foaming so that the ocean beyond cannot be seen?" And then, while Hina told her sad story, they saw the eel king breaking an entrance passage in the reef.
Ma-u-i was horrified, and he hastened to place his two stone gods upon the cliffs and to sharpen his axe and make ready his fishhook for action. Then, as the eel was approaching the shore, Ma-u-i placed some tempting bait upon the fishhook and secured it with Hina's hair.
As soon as the eel saw him, he roared out in a thundering voice, "Ma-u-i, deliver me my bride!"
And Ma-u-i cast his fishhook into the sea, saying, "This is I, Ma-u-i the brave! No king can escape me here in my heritage; he will become food for my images."
Then the eel, perceiving the food, opened wide his mouth and swallowed the fishhook and bait, and soon Ma-u-i drew him up on to the shore. He chopped off his great head, which he wrapped in tapa, and presented it to Hina, saying:
"Hold this, and put it not down an instant until you arrive home; then take and plant it in the center of your marae ground. This eel's head contains for you great treasures; from it you will have material to build and complete your house, besides food to eat and water to drink. But remember my warning, that you lose not your valuable property by putting it down before you reach home. Then you will ever be remembered as Hina-vahine-e-anapa-te-uira-i-te-Hiti'a-o-te-ra (Hina-of-lightning-flashes-in-the-east)."
So Hina took the great bundle, which became light by magic, and sending on her canoe along the coast, she and an attendant maid preferred walking a few miles. So they went on their way rejoicing, and arrived at a place called Pani (To-close), where they saw a nice deep stream of water, at which they stopped to drink. In doing this, Hina thoughtlessly put down her bundle. Soon the two girls made up their minds to take a bath. So in they plunged and dove first upwards in the stream and then downwards, when Hina all at once remembered her eel's head and left the water quickly to go and take it up again. But lo, as she approached it, she found the tapa removed, and there the head stood erect, rooted to the ground and sprouting! It had become a young coconut tree. Then Hina saw and understood why Ma-u-i had told her only to put it down at her own marae, and she wept bitterly.
Just then a woman of the people, but of good standing in the land, came along and enquired of the girl her trouble, and when Hina told her, the woman whose name was Ru-roa (Great-haste), said comfortingly:
"Be not troubled for this land is ours; come and sojourn with me so as to watch the growth of your new tree, which shall always be yours."
Hina, comforted, accepted the woman's kind invitation, and after sending her companion on to the canoe with word for her people to return home, she committed herself to the care of her new friend, who soon made her very comfortable in her home not far off.
After partaking of a hearty breakfast, Hina threw herself down upon a mat, and fell asleep, which rest she needed, and towards evening as she awoke, she heard voices outside not far from the house. Looking out she perceived two handsome young men, sons of Ru-roa, who had been out fishing; and she heard them enquire of their mother as to the cause of flashes of lightning that they saw coming out of their dwelling, to which she replied:
"It is Hina, princess of Papeuriri, and child of the sun and moon. She has a young coconut tree growing yonder, which she is staying here to watch until it matures."
Awe-struck, the young men would not enter the house but remained outside. The younger brother went to see the new tree, and found it loaded with coconuts. So he picked one and husked it and took it to his mother and brother, and while they were examining and admiring it, Hina, wishing to place them all at ease in her presence, called to them to come in. She said to the elder brother:
"Your name must be Mahana-e-anapa-i-te-po'ipo'i" (Sun-that-flashes-in-the-morning). And to the younger brother she said: "You must be called Ava'e-e-hiti-i-te-ahiahi" (Moon-that-rises-in-the-evening).
By giving them these names, which plebeians never dared to adopt in times of yore, she created them nobles, an act which also gave rank to their mother. Thus united in bonds of friendship, they all lived happily together, the family being charmed with the beautiful and affable Hina, and they enjoyed eating the coconuts, which had become the admiration of all Tai'arapu.
Hina and Mahana-e-anapa-i-te-po'ipo'i became much attached to each other, and they were married, and in due time she had a daughter whom they named Te-ipo-o-te-marama (Pet-of-the-moon). But to her great sorrow Hina's husband soon died. She afterwards married the younger brother, who reminded her much of her deceased husband, and by him she had another daughter, whom they named Te-ipo-o-te-here (Pet-who-loved).
One day, as each child held a matured coconut in her hand, they were caught up by the gods on to a rainbow, by which they were conducted to Taka-horo, in the atoll of Ana (Chain Island), in the Tuamotus. The younger sister, finding that her coconut was without water, changed it for that of her elder sister, unbeknown to her, which displeased the gods; and causing her to drop the coconut, which was sprouting, they carried her away in the clouds, and she was never seen again. So Te-ipo-o-te-marama became the sole owner of this, the first coconut tree that grew at Ana, from which were produced all the coconut trees that have spread throughout the group and have developed into many varieties. The tree stood, towering high above all other trees of the group, until the cyclone of February 8, 1906, broke it off in three pieces, which were washed away by the sea.
Hina lived long and happily with her husband, sometimes in Tai'arapu, sometimes in Pape'uriri, and she had numerous issue.
MERMAIDS AND OTHER MERBEINGS IN EUROPE
MERFOLK IN THE WATERS OF GREENLAND AND ICELAND
'There have been accounts of human-merfolk encounters on these northern islands ever since they were settled. Set in the waters of Greenland, the account we include here,
The Marvels of the Waters About Greenland, comes from the translation of a Norwegian manuscript dating back to approximately 1250. In it, mermen and mermaids are referred to as "monsters" and "prodigies"—that is, amazing beings that are not ordinarily found in nature—and as omens of possibly fatal sea storms. More generally, in another Icelandic account from the twelfth century the
marmennill (merman) is consulted for his power to foretell the future.
In addition to these accounts, which were presented as non-fiction, we have merfolk legends and folktales in Iceland dating back to the fourteenth century. In those narratives, the merman (also called a
marbendill) is a seer who makes use of his superior knowledge to poke fun at human ignorance and regain his freedom. In the version included here, "The Merman," the unenlightened man gets a happy ending, but in other versions, things don't turn out so well for him.'
THE MARVELS OF THE WATERS ABOUT GREENLAND
It is reported that the waters about Greenland are infested with monsters, though I do not believe that they have been seen very frequently. Still, people have stories to tell about them, so men must have seen or caught sight of them. It is reported that the monster called merman is found in the seas of Greenland. This monster is tall and of great size and rises straight out of the water. It appears to have shoulders, neck and head, eyes and mouth, and nose and chin like those of a human being; but above the eyes and the eyebrows it looks more like a man with a peaked helmet on his head. It has shoulders like a man's but no hands. Its body apparently grows narrower from the shoulders down, so that the lower down it has been observed, the more slender it has seemed to be. But no one has ever seen how the lower end is shaped, whether it terminates in a fin like a fish or is pointed like a pole. The form of this prodigy has, therefore, looked much like an icicle. No one has ever observed it closely enough to determine whether its body has scales like a fish or skin like a man. Whenever the monster has shown itself, men have always been sure that a storm would follow. They have also noted how it has turned when about to plunge into the waves and in what direction it has fallen; if it has turned toward the ship and has plunged in that direction, the sailors have felt sure that lives would be lost on that ship; but whenever it has turned away from the vessel and has plunged in that direction, they have felt confident that their lives would be spared, even though they should encounter rough waters and severe storms.
Another prodigy called mermaid has also been seen there. This appears to have the form of a woman from the waist upward, for it has large nipples on its breast like a woman, long hands and heavy hair, and its neck and head are formed in every respect like those of a human being. The monster is said to have large hands and its fingers are not parted but bound together by a web like that which joins the toes of water fowls. Below the waist line it has the shape of a fish with scales and tail and fins. It is said to have this in common with the one mentioned before, that it rarely appears except before violent storms. Its behavior is often somewhat like this: it will plunge into the waves and will always reappear with fish in its hands; if it then turns toward the ship, playing with the fishes or throwing them at the ship, the men have fears that they will suffer great loss of life. The monster is described as having a large and terrifying face, a sloping forehead and wide brows, a large mouth and wrinkled cheeks. But if it eats the fishes or throws them into the sea away from the ship, the crews have good hopes that their lives will be spared, even though they should meet severe storms.
Long ago a farmer lived at Vogar, who was a mighty fisherman, and, of all the farms round about, not one was so well situated with regard to the fisheries as his.
One day, according to custom, he had gone out fishing, and having cast down his line from the boat, and waited awhile, found it very hard to pull up again, as if there were something very heavy at the end of it. Imagine his astonishment when he found that what he had caught was a great fish, with a man's head and body! When he saw that this creature was alive, he addressed it and said, "Who and whence are you?"
"A merman from the bottom of the sea," was the reply.
The farmer then asked him what he had been doing when the hook caught his flesh.
The other replied, "I was turning the cowl of my mother's chimneypot, to suit it to the wind. So let me go again, will you?"
"Not for the present," said the fisherman. "You shall serve me awhile first."
So without more words he dragged him into the boat and rowed to shore with him.
When they got to the boat-house, the fisherman's dog came to him and greeted him joyfully, barking and fawning on him, and wagging his tail. But his master's temper being none of the best, he struck the poor animal; whereupon the merman laughed for the first time.
Having fastened the boat, he went towards his house, dragging his prize with him, over the fields, and stumbling over a hillock, which lay in his way, cursed it heartily; whereupon the merman laughed for the second time.
When the fisherman arrived at the farm, his wife came out to receive him, and embraced him affectionately, and he received her salutations with pleasure; whereupon the merman laughed for the third time.
Then said the farmer to the merman, "You have laughed three times, and I am curious to know 'why' you have laughed. Tell me, therefore."
"Never will I tell you," replied the merman, "unless you promise to take me to the same place in the sea wherefrom you caught me, and there to let me go free again." So the farmer made him the promise.
"Well," said the merman, "I laughed the first time because you struck your dog, whose joy at meeting you was real and sincere. The second time, because you cursed the mound over which you stumbled, which is full of golden ducats. And the third time, because you received with pleasure your wife's empty and flattering embrace, who is faithless to you, and a hypocrite. And now be an honest man and take me out to the sea whence you have brought me."
The farmer replied: "Two things that you have told me I have no means of proving, namely, the faithfulness of my dog and the faithlessness of my wife. But the third I will try the truth of, and if the hillock contain gold, then I will believe the rest."
Accordingly he went to the hillock, and having dug it up, found therein a great treasure of golden ducats, as the merman had told him. After this the farmer took the merman down to the boat, and to that place in the sea whence he had caught him. Before he put him in, the latter said to him:
"Farmer, you have been an honest man, and I will reward you for restoring me to my mother, if only you have skill enough to take possession of property that I shall throw in your way. Be happy and prosper."
Then the farmer put the merman into the sea, and he sank out of sight.
It happened that not long after, seven sea-grey cows were seen on the beach, close to the farmer's land. These cows appeared to be very unruly, and ran away directly the farmer approached them. So he took a stick and ran after them, possessed with the fancy that if he could burst the bladder which he saw on the nose of each of them, they would belong to him. He contrived to hit out the bladder on the nose of one cow, which then became so tame that he could easily catch it, while the others leaped into the sea and disappeared. The farmer was convinced that this was the gift of the merman. And a very useful gift it was, for better cow was never seen nor milked in all the land, and she was the mother of the race of grey cows so much esteemed now.
And the farmer prospered exceedingly, but never caught any more mermen. As for his wife, nothing further is told about her, so we can repeat nothing.
This excerpt ends on page 26 of the Penguin Paperback edition.