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The Mermaids


Source: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

In dime museums and county fairs one may still find among the
"attractions" a mermaid, dried and stuffed, consisting of the upper
half of a monkey artlessly joined to the lower half or two-thirds of
a codfish, the monkey's head usually adorned with a handful of oakum
or horse-hair. When this kind of thing was first exhibited by the
lamented P. T. Barnum, it is just possible that some bumpkin really
believed it to be a mermaid, but the invention has become so common
of late that it is found in the curio-shops of every town, and as
an eye-catching device is often put into show-cases by some merchant
who deals in anything rather than mermaids. Trite and ridiculous as
this patchwork appears, it symbolizes a belief of full three thousand
years. Men have always been prone to fill with imaginations what they
have never sounded with their senses, and it is to this tendency we
owe poetry and the arts. The sea was a mystery, and is so still. It
was easy to people its twilight depths with forms of grace and beauty
and power, for surely the denizens taken from it were strange enough
to warrant strange beliefs.

And so the old faith in men and women who lived beneath the water
was passed down from generation to generation, and from race to race,
changing but little from age to age. Ulysses stopped the ears of his
crew with wax that they should not hear the sirens luring them toward
the rocks as his ship sailed by, and knowing the magic of their song
had himself bound to the mast, so, hearing the ravishing music, he
might not escape if he would. In a later day we hear of the Lorelei
singing on her rock, striking chords on her golden harp, and, as the
raptured fisherman steered close, with eyes filled by her beauty and
ears by her music, he had a moment's consciousness of a skull leering
at him and harsh laughter clattering in echoes along the shore; then
his boat struck and filled, and the dark flood curtained off the
sky. Wagner has made familiar the legend of the Rhine daughters,
singing impossibly under the river as they swim about the reef
of gold,--the treasure stolen by the gnome, Alberich, who in that
act brought envy, strife, greed, and injustice into the world, and
accomplished the destruction of the gods themselves. The wild tales
of Britain and Brittany, of thefts and revenges by the sea-creatures,
are among the oldest of their myths, and when we cross to our side
of the sea, the ocean people are close in our wake and they follow
us through the fresh waters and far out in the Pacific.

Among the Antilles, as in the South Seas, the tritons blow their
conchs and shake their shaggy heads, while the daughters of the deep
gather, at certain seasons, on the water, or about some favorite
rock, and sing. Always, in Eastern versions of the myth, there is
music, save in the case of Melusina, who became a half fish only
on Saturdays, when her husband was supposed not to be watching,
and this music follows the myth around the world. Among the vague
traditions of certain Alaskan Indians is one of an immigration from
Asia, under lead of "a creature resembling a man, with long, green
hair and beard, whose lower part was a fish; or, rather, each leg a
fish." He charmed them so with his singing that they followed him,
unconsciously, and reached America. We find in Canada the tale of a
dusky Undine, a soulless water sprite, who, through love of a mortal,
became human. Some of the beings of the sea were of more than human
power and authority,--gods, in fact; barbarian Neptunes. Such was
the Pacific god, Rau Raku, who, being entangled in a fishing-net, was
lugged to the surface, sputtering tremendously. Yet he had no grudge
against the fisherman. That trembling unfortunate was too small for
his revenge. He would devastate the whole earth to which he had been
thus unceremoniously dragged, and, bidding his captor take himself
away while he made trouble, he deluged the globe until all upon it
had perished, except the fish, the fisherman, and a few land animals
that the sole human survivor had taken to a lofty island with him.

The mermaid of story was a damsel fair to view, until she had risen
from the waves so as to show her fish-like ending. It was her habit
to sit on sunny beaches, comb her golden hair with a golden comb, and
sing delightfully, though her wilder sisters would perch on juts of
rock on lonely islands and scream in frightening ways when a gale was
coming. When the sea-maidens went ashore they sometimes met sailors
and fishermen, and if they liked these strangers a frank avowal of
love was made; for it is always leap year in the ocean. It was a most
uncomfortable position for a mortal to be placed in, especially one
who had a wife waiting for him at home, because if their addresses
were rejected the mermaids were liable to throw stones, and always
with fatal results; or they would brew mists, and set loose awful
storms; yet, if the man who inspired this affection was not coy, and
yielded to one of these slippery denizens, she dragged him under the
sea forthwith, unless he could persuade her to compromise on a cave or
a lonely rock as a home, for it is reputed that mortals have formally
wedded them and raised amphibious families. On the Isle of Man they
tell of one caught in a net, who was woman to the waist and fish as
to the rest of her. As she sulked in captivity, refusing to eat or
speak,--perhaps they forgot to offer raw fish for her supper,--it
was decided to let her escape; and as she wriggled over the beach she
was heard to tell her people (in Manx?), as they arose to greet her,
that the earth-men did nothing wonderful except to throw away water
in which they had boiled eggs!

The home of the mermaids was at the bottom of the deep. A diver, who
said he had reached it, reported a region of clear water, lighted
from below by great, white stones and pyramids of crystal. These
haunts contained bowers of coral, gardens of bright sea weeds and
mosses, tables and chairs of amber, floors of iridescent shell and
pearls, gems strewn about the jasper grottoes,--diamonds, rubies,
topazes,--and the sea people had combs and ornaments of gold. Columbus
was disappointed in the mermaids that he saw in the Caribbean. They
were not, to his eyes, so handsome as the romancers had alleged,
nor were their voices sweet. The doubters claim that he was asleep
when the mermaids appeared, and that he saw nothing but the sea cow,
or manatee, which is neither tuneful nor pretty.

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