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Most people today believe that mermaids are pure mythology, because as scientists tell us, a woman with a fish tail is a biological impossibility. A human being is a totally different species of animal from a fish and so it is out of the question that a fish could mate with a woman. Yet we have so many stories of mermaids throughout the world.
So to explain this, academics have formed a theory that we have mermaid myths and sightings because sailors have mistaken Sea Cows, (which are dugongs and manatees) for a woman with a fish tail! And so confident are academics of this explanation that the scientific name for sea cow is sirenia, which comes from siren, an ancient Greek name for mermaid. The problem with this theory, is that a sea cow doesn’t look anything like a mermaid. A sailor would have to be extremely drunk or very stupid, to mistake a mermaid for a sea cow.
Another big problem with this theory, is that sea cows only live in tropical waters, and most stories of mermaids come from Europe, where the waters are too cold for sea cows. So to account for this, academics have claimed that European sailors and fishermen have mistaken seals for mermaids! This is incredible, because surely experience, sailors and fishermen would be familiar with the wildlife of the sea and know a seal when they see one. They would be unlikely to jump to the conclusion that they were mermaids. Yet academics have come to this conclusion because they have no other explanation for mermaid myths and sightings.
Also, there seems to be some intellectual and class snobbery attached to this theory. They seem to assume that uneducated working class sailors and fishermen must be ignorant and stupid, to mistake a sea cow or seal for a mermaid. This is in spite of the fact that educated men like; Christopher Columbus, Henry Hudson, and John Smith, all claim to have seen mermaids. So are we to suppose they were also drunk or stupid as well?
Christopher Columbus sighting mermaids
So if mermaids are not sea cows or seals, then what are they? We can perhaps get an understanding of this by looking at mermaid sighting and see what they actually say. In popular culture a mermaid is a woman with a fish tail, but in some of the stories and drawing of mermaids in the past, many have two fish tails. So if a woman with a fish tail is strange, then one with two fish tails is really weird. Also, in many sightings of mermaids we find they don’t have fish tails at all, and example of this comes from a letter sent by, William Munro, a schoolmaster from Caithness in Northern Scotland, to the London Times newspaper in 1809. In the letter he wrote that he was walking on the shore of Sandside Bay, when his attention was arrested by the appearance of a figure resembling an unclothed human female, sitting upon a rock extending into the sea, and apparently in the action of combing its hair.
As he walked towards the mermaid she didn’t notice him because she was so absorbed in combing her hair but when he got too close, she saw him, dropped into the sea, and dived underwater. He presumed at first that what he had seen was an ordinary woman, and only changed his mind when he realised that the water she dived into, was too dangerous for ordinary bathers. So he claimed she was some strange sea creature, in spite of the fact that combing her hair is the act of an ordinary woman. Mermaids combing their hair is a popular theme in many mermaid sightings.
In another mermaid sighting. “In 1560, some fishermen near the island of Mandar off the west coast of Ceylon caught seven mermen and mermaids, an incident claimed to have been witnessed by several Jesuit fathers and M. Bosquez, physician to the viceroy of Goa. The physician made a careful examination of the "mer-people," dissected them, and pronounced that their internal and external structure resembled that of human beings.” Probably because they were ordinary human beings.
So is this the explanation for mermaids that they are, simply ordinary women swimming in the sea? This is certainly true of mermaid myths from ancient Greece where mermaids are called sea nymphs or sirens and there are very few reports of them having fish tails. This might also explain why we have so many reports of mermaids with two tails. The tails may simply be the legs of an ordinary woman who is swimming. Here’s the next question? Why were these women swimming in the sea? To understand this we need to look at the story of Dutch sailor, Hendrik Hamel.
In 1653 he was a crew member of the Dutch ship, the Sperwer sailing to Asia. The Sperwer wrecked in a storm off the coast of Korea and half of the crew perished. The other half managed to cling to wreckage and was driven ashore on the Korean island of Cheju. The Sperwer survivors were all interned for ten months on the island before they were transported to Seoul on the Korean mainland. They were not allowed to leave Korea and most of the crew spent the rest of their lives living there. But 8 members of the crew, including Hamel, managed to escape to China. From there they made their way back to Holland, where Hamel wrote about his adventures. Scholars regard this as important, as it was the first account of Korean society by a European. And everything he says about Korean society at the time, has been supported by Korean scholars. However one thing he said that caused some controversy. He claimed he saw mermaids on the island of Cheju. It has now has been accepted by scholars, that the mermaids he saw, were simply Haenyo.
Haenyo divers are female breath-holding divers who have been foraging on the sea floor for thousands of years for marine food like shellfish, seaweed, sea urchins, sea cucumber, crabs, squid and octopus. Nowadays they wear wet-suits, but before that, they hardly wore anything.
They are not the only female breath-holding divers in the area, because in Japan the Ama divers who like the Haenyo divers have also been foraging the sea floor for thousands of years. Nowadays some Ama divers do use wet-suits, but most of them don’t, and instead wear a cotton costume. The reason for this is that the Japanese have banned all modern equipment like scuba gear because they fear they will overfish the waters with modern equipment. For this reason they stick to traditional methods.
So it this the explanation for mermaids? That they are simply breath-holding divers like the Ama and Haenyo of Japan and Korea, once existed in Europe and other parts of the world. If that is true, then why don’t we read about this in our history books? This can be explained by what happened to female breath-holding divers in China and Korea.
Haenyo Divers (early 20th century)
In China and Korea female divers were called ‘dragon wives’. This is because while they were foraging the sea-floor for food, their husbands stayed at home looking after the house and children. When Confucianism was adopted by the Chinese and Korean governments, the lifestyle of women divers clashed with the Confucian doctrine of the Five Bonds of Filial piety, where wives should be at all times, be submissive to their husbands. It seems that being the breadwinners of the family, made these women too feisty for Confucian sensibilities, resulting in female breath-holding divers being banned throughout China and Korea. They only managed to survive on the remote island of Cheju. It seems they didn’t go down without a fight.
There is the story of Lady Ch’ing whom Chinese scholars called a female pirate. She led a force of 50,000 sea- people which successfully destroyed the Chinese Imperial Navy fleets sent to destroy them. The Chinese the Imperial government solicited assistance from British and Portuguese warships. This forced Lady Ch’ing, in 1810, to negotiate a settlement with the Chinese government.
Most references to these female breadwinners were written out of history, for instance Chinese scholars preferred to call Lady Ch’ing, Cheng I Sao, which means wife of Cheng I, to conceal the fact that female leadership among the sea people, was commonplace.
Chinese Mermaid Statue. (note the pearl she is holding)
As in Europe the Chinese have mermaid myths, in which the mermaids are called pearl queens, because in the past you could only get pearls from breath-holding divers. We would have known very little about their lifestyle if they hadn’t managed to survive on Cheju, until the present day.
It seems that not only did Confucianism dislike female breath-holding divers but Christianity did as well, probably for the same reasons. Christian wives had to swear to obey their husbands when they married, which caused trouble when mermaids were also the breadwinners of their families. There are stories of priests who, encountering mermaids on the seashore would curse them as devils and threaten them with eternal damnation. It also seems that mermaids were caught up in the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, but we will talk about this more, in a later video.
An interesting point about mermaid stories, is that they are mostly about mermaids and not mermen. We do hear occasional stories of mermen, but they are far outnumbered by mermaid stories. So why is this? The answer may lie in the fact that most Haenyo and Ama divers are female. We will explain more of this, in the next video. (The Text of this video is available at. - Mermaids are Real: Part Two also a the video of of it. http://wabond.hubpages.com/video/Mermaids-are-Divers-Part-Two
There were many mermaid stories and sightings in the past but not so many
about mermen, why is this? It might because as with the Haenyo and Ama divers
in Korea and Japan, female
divers far outnumber male ones. What’s the reason for this? The waters around Korea and Japan are cold and women’s bodies
are better suited to swim in cold water than male bodies. The common
explanation for this, is that women have a higher percentage of subcutaneous
fat than men, which insulates them from the cold water. In much the same way,
blubber also insulates dolphins, seals and whales. Some people dispute this and
point out that an overweight man would have as much body fat as an average
woman and this would insulate them to the same degree. Also men are able to
train their bodies to swim in cold water in the same way women can. Dr Jolie
Bookspan, an authority on the subject, has pointed out another reason why men
have problems in cold water and that is because of a medical condition she
calls, ‘Frostbite shorts’.
Women have internal sex organs, men have external sex organs. Men produce
their sperm in the testicles. Sperm is sensitive to temperature and will die if
it gets too warm or too cold. So a man swimming in cold water will kill the
sperm in his testicles. Normally, this is not a problem because men are
producing new sperm all the time, but, if the man is a professional
breath-holding diver and is immersed in cold water every day, then he will be
continuously killing his sperm and will be unlikely to father children. Another
problem for men, is that if they spend too long in very cold water they can
suffer frostbite on their penis, which is something no man would want to
Dr Bookspan working as a Ama diver
Dr Bookspan spent time working as an Ama diver to study the effects of
swimming in cold water on her own body and the bodies of Ama divers. The divers
she studied were all wearing cotton costumes. She made the point that these
costumes were very uncomfortable when wet and would make the Ama divers feel
much colder when out of the water than if they wore nothing. A naked body will
soon dry through its own body heat, but wet clothing will keep the body wet,
take far longer to dry and will feel very cold in the slightest wind.
In the past the Ama divers wore nothing, however after the Second World War,
with the increase in tourism, too many outsiders began to comment on their
nakedness, Ama divers were forced to do a cover-up and adopted cotton costumes.
Dr Boodspan says, -
“Diving clothes varied by geographic area, with some divers wearing only a
rope belt or loincloth. No fins were used to help swimming. Later when wet
suits were developed, only male divers wore them. Women were prohibited
protective suits by their cooperatives, since they were considered more cold
tolerant to begin with, and the advantage of the suit would "accelerate
over-harvesting" Later, the work became pretty much exclusive to women.”
She also explains that wet-suits are not as large a benefit for women as
they are for men, in cold water. This is because men have a higher skin
temperature than women and therefore more heat is radiated away from a man’s
body in cold water, than from a woman’s. So the insulating qualities of a
wetsuit are less use to women.
So if this is the reason why few men are breath holding divers in Japan and Korea,
then was it also true for Mermaids in Europe?
After all the water is not only cold in places like France and England where we
have Mermaid sightings, but also in Ireland, Scotland, the Orkney, Shetland and
Faroe islands, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries and Russia. All these places
have mermaid stories and sightings. So how could breath-holding divers work in
the very cold waters of places like Iceland,
Scandinavia and Russia?
To understand this, we have to look at the experiences of modern open water
In 1987 open water swimmer Lynne Cox swam the Bering Straits from the
Alaskan island of Little Diomede to the Soviet Union island of Big Diomede
without a wet-suit. She swam for two hours in Arctic waters. Then In 2002 she
became the first person to swim over a mile in the waters of Antarctica
spending 25 minutes in the water, also without a wet-suit.
So how was she able to accomplish these feats when a normal person would
quickly freeze to death? It seems that open water swimmer not only train
themselves to swim for long distances but also train their bodies to withstand
very cold water. This is commonplace with swimmers who have swam the English Channel. Even in these relatively temperate
waters a normal person can freeze to death, if they haven’t conditioned their
bodies to withstand the cold. Lynne Cox was a successful Channel swimmer early
on in her career. In 1972 at the age of 15 she swam the English
Channel and shattered the men's and women's world records with a
time of 9 hours and 57 minutes. The next year she swam the Channel a second
time and again broke the record.
In 1976 Lynne Cox became, officially, the first person to swim across the Strait of Magellan. It’s very likely that she wasn’t the
first person to do this, because in the area there were once female
breath-holding divers. The Strait of Magellan goes through the Tierra del Fuego
islands in the most southerly part of South America.
The original inhabitants were the Ona and Yamana tribes. The Ona lived inland
but the Yamana lived on the coast and as with the Ama and Haenyo the women were
breath-holding divers. Diving in waters even colder than that of Korea and Japan they foraged for shellfish
and seaweed. It could be some unknown Yamana woman was who the first person to
swim across the Strait of Magellan.
Bounty hunters killing the Yamana and Ona people.
Because the land was useless for anything, these tribes were mostly left
alone until 1883 when gold was discovered there. The gold soon ran out but the
ex-miners took up sheep farming and claimed all the land as their own.
Unfortunately some of the Ona men began to kill the sheep for food and
clothing, so the sheep farmers paid bounty hunters to exterminate the tribes,
making no distinction between the Ona and Yamana. (The official version is that
they were wiped out by diseases like measles and smallpox). Later on the few
survivors of this genocide were saved by missionaries, but in spite of their
efforts, no full blooded Yamana now exist.
Drawing of Tasmanian Breath divers
The same thing happened to the Tasmanian when the first white settlers
arrived there at the beginning of the 19th century. They also found
that the women were breath-holding divers. Again, they were regarded as
nuisance and again bounty hunters were used to wipe them out. One of the
justifications for this genocide, was that the Yamana and Tasmanian Aborigine
were very primitive. They didn’t wear clothing despite living in a cold
climate. But this is similar to what modern open water swimmers also do. They
wear as few clothes as decently possible in cold weather, to condition their
bodies to withstand low temperatures. So the Yamana and Tasmanian Aborigine were
probably doing the same acclimatising their bodies to the cold weather so they
could swim in cold water. The Haenyo and Ama divers have likewise been accused
of being primitive because they once dived naked, another reason why they now
wear cotton costumes and wet-suits.
There have been reports of breath-holding divers all over the world. In
South East Asia reports come from places like Burma,
Indonesia and the Philippines of
the Sea Gypsies or Sea People who live in boats or huts on stilts in shallow
water. The Polynesians and Melanesians of the South Pacific were also
breath-holding divers and were used as pearl divers in the 19th
Giant Statue of Mermaid on Kollam Beach, India
Up until recently these were breath-holding divers in India. In
Kerala on Kollam beach, there is a giant statue of a mermaid that is far larger
than the famous little mermaid statue in CopenhagenHarbour.
There were breath-holding divers in both North and South
America. We only know about them from large shell mounds the size
of hills, which were created by millions of shellfish being collected by breath
Large Shell mound before it was bulldozed in the 1920s
Shell mounds like this have been discovered in South Africa, Northern
Europe and on the Mediterranean coast. It seems that the shell
mounds on the Mediterranean sea coast were
created by the famous Phoenicians who were part of the Sea People.
So this is the reason why we mostly have stories of mermaid and not mermen,
because women can endure cold water much better than men. In our next video we
will explain why in so many stories of mermaids in Europe,
they have fish tails.
In many stories mermaids seem to have magical powers: When they swim in the sea they have a fish tail, but when they come ashore they magically grow legs and walk around just like a normal woman. Back into the water they grow a fish tail again. It all sounds like a fairy story. Surprisingly, there is a logical explanation for this, in the modern monofin.
Monofins began to be developed in 1972, by a Ukrainian swimming club, and have been used for finswimming competitions ever since. It probably started off as a fun event where competitors attached artificial fish tails to their feet, but the power and speed produced by these monofins was so impressive, it became a regular event, and was adopted by other swimming clubs. They quickly encountered a problem, because the sheer power of the monofin created such a large bow-wave in the swimmer’s face that they couldn’t breathe. To get around this, they had to use a snorkel to breathe in air, which means the monofin is better suited to swimming underwater.
Swimmer showing the power of the monofin
Freedivers adopted it because they found the monofin gave them speed and power swimming underwater without their using too much effort. This is very important to freedivers because the more effort they use, the quicker they use up the air in their lungs, forcing them to come to the surface sooner than they would like.
So is this the explanation of why mermaids in the past were able to magically grow fish tails in the water and grow legs while on land? Did that they put on monofins when they went into the water and take them off again when they came back to land? Unfortunately this is not supported by observations of the Haenyo and Ama divers of Korea and Japan. Until very recently they have never used swimming aids like monofins or flippers. But a monofin could solve a big problem all working breath-holding divers have.
Ama diving for shellfish in shallow water
Breath-holding divers in deep water cannot carry anything but the lightest load from the sea floor to the surface. This is not a problem in shallow water because breath-holding divers can quickly dive down, pick up a handful of shellfish and come to the surface in less than a minute. With repetitive dives they can quickly acquire a lot of food. However because marine food is easy available in the shallows, they can become quickly overfished, so divers are forced to move further and further out to sea and greater depths. At a depth of about 10 meters a breath-holding working diver will have to stay underwater for at least 3 minutes. She can’t keep on diving continually as is the case in shallow water, as it will create medical problems, so she would need to take breaks between dives. This limits the amount of food a breath-holding diver can foraged underwater at these greater depths.
The Japanese solution to this problem is for the Ama diver to tie a rope around her waist, and tuck into in a heavy iron bar. This bar serves two purposes.
Iron bar of Ama Diver
It is used to dig away shellfish that are glued to rocks, and acts as a weight so the diver can sink to the sea floor more quickly. On the sea floor she quickly collects as much marine food as she can find, and puts it in a string bag, then tugs on the rope. Men in the boat above pull her to the surface. This strategy means she is not limited by the weight of her catch in each dive.
As far as we know, mermaids in Europe didn’t do this. There are no stories of mermaids jumping off boats with a rope around their waist and then being hauled up by men. But there are a many stories of mermaids with one or two fish tails which might have been monofins or flippers. There are also off course stories of mermaids without any fish tails but as in shallow waters monofins and flippers wouldn’t be an advantage, mermaids would only use them in deeper water.
The big advantage of a monfin in deep water, is that the mermaid can use it’s power to drive herself quickly to the bottom of the sea, without using weights to make her sink faster. When she has collected what marine food she can find, she can then use the monofin to drive herself to the surface. The same would be true for flippers and it is of interesting that modern Ama divers have started to use flippers in recent times.
The official history of swimming aids is that the first person to propose flippers or swimming fins was Leonardo Da Vinci, followed by Giovanni Alphonso Borelli in the 17th century. But the man credited with making and using them was the inventor and politician Benjamin Franklin. As a young man he made flippers out of two thin pieces of wood, in the shape of artist palettes. They never caught on, and it wasn’t until the 1930s when inventors started to make flippers out of rubber, that they were widely used. Later on the monofin was invented by the Ukrainians.
So could mermaids have used swimming aids like monofins and flippers in the past? It’s possible since we know that the Polynesians once had flippers which they made out of palm leaves. In the 20th century various inventors began
making flippers or swim fins out of vulcanized rubber. One of these inventors
was the American Owen Churchill.The
idea came to him while on a trip to Tahiti in the mid-1930’s, where he observed
a group of natives on the beach weaving small mats from palm fronds and dipping
them into a tub of hot tar. When the tar had cooled and hardened, they would
tie these mats to their feet, then enter the ocean to swim and dive
underwater.How long the Polynesians
have been doing this, is unknown.It
could have been for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Polynesian surfers, (19th century drawing)
People in the past must have realised that one of the reasons why fish and dolphins are so fast in the water, is because of their tails. So someone could have tried to make an artificial fish tail. Perhaps at first, like Benjamin Franklin’s flippers, they were not very effective, but over time they would evolve and the design would improve. The first monofins built were very crude, some made of two titanium rods connected by a sail cloth, but they quickly evolved to the monofins we have today. Perhaps some of the monofins in the past might have been made of thin branches, cloth or leather. Wood would be even better.
Modern monofins are made of fibreglass and carbon fibre. These are very stiff materials but the monofins are made to bend by making the fibreglass or carbon fibre very thin. The same is true of wood. It is also a stiff material but can be made very bendy if it’s thin enough. Some people might object that wood would be too weak to make a monofin, but in the past people would have used split wood which is stronger than the sawn wood we use today.
To prevent splitting, the wooden mono fin can be made in a Vee shape as shown in the drawing.
Some modern monofins resemble an aeroplane wing. This is a very simple design, and means a monofin could be made from a plank of wood. Unfortunately there are no stories, of mermaids with planks of wood attached to their feet!
It’s conceivable that sailors and fishermen seeing mermaids with monofins and flippers on their feet would report them as women with a fish tail or two fish tails. They might be perfectly aware that these tails are artificial, but they wouldn't have words like monofin, flippers or swimfins, to describe them and people, who never saw them, would take them at their word and think they are women with actual fish tails.
When artists are told to draw them, they would draw, paint or sculpt them as women with a fish tail, or two fish tails, as well.
There are other stories from the past where mermaids are decribed as having a serpent’s tail or a very long fish tail. This can also be explained by flippers and monofins. The original rubber flippers of the 1930s were short and stubby but now they have evolved to be very long and flexible. It seems that freedivers prefer these very long flippers.
The same could have been true in the past. Over time, people may have realized that long flexible flippers were more efficient that short ones. As previously mentioned wood can be made very flexible if it’s thin enough and the degree of flexibility can be controlled by the thinness of the wood. Long, wooden flippers could have been constructed.
Any sailor seeing these very long flippers would describe them as looking like a serpent’s tail or tails, and land people would again interpreted this as being an actual serpent’s tail. Monofins could have also been made to be long and thin, because if this design is efficient for flippers it might also be true for them.
Another possibility is that people in the past may have realise that a monofin could have more power and leverage if put on the end of a flexible pole, making the tail look a lot longer and giving it the whip action you see when dolphins flick their tails. This is shown in the next drawing.
In Northern Scotland, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland islands there are myths about the Seal people or Selkie, who are, seals when they are in the water and human being when they come on land. In other myths they say that mermaids put on animal skins when they go in the water. Maybe it’s not a magical story after all. It could just mermaids who are wearing seal skins, perhaps like the modern wet-suits, we see on modern Haenyo divers.
Another possibility reflects a modern-day practice, where women encase their legs in a bag, tie it at the waist and have a monofin at the bottom of the bag. This make them look like a classical mermaid. Mermaids in the past, may have done the same with seal skins.
Two dead seals
They could cut off the head of a seal, remove all the fresh and bone without damaging the skin and use the seal skin as a primitive wet-suit. It is doubtful if the seal’s feet could be used as a monofin, but perhaps a wooden one could be attached to them. People seeing this costume would easily believe they are seeing a woman who is half woman and half seal.
An added benefit from the seal costume, is that it would protect the feet from frostbite, It would also allow mermen to dive in cold waters. We previously mention the problem men have swimming in cold water, but a sort of wet-suit seal skin over the sex-organs, would afford some protection from the elements.
The next video will be about the siren call and why we have so many stories of sailors that find the singing of mermaids so irresistible, that they will sail towards them and crash their ship onto rocks.
There are many mermaid stories about the siren call. Sailors have heard mermaids singing and been so hypnotised by it, that they have sailed to where the sirens where singing and crashed their ships onto rocks. This particular story is very old. The Ancient Greeks recount how Ulysses, to get past an island of sirens had to block his crew’s ears with wax, so they could resist the siren call. He tied himself to the mast; in order to safely row past the island. Why Ulysses didn’t block his own ears with wax, as well, is never made clear.
Accounts of Sirens don’t all come from the ancient Greeks. Sailors in Europe until the 19th century have warned about the dangers of the siren call, some going as far as claiming that if you see a mermaid, then it’s certain your ship will be destroyed. In spite of these exaggerated stories, there are logical reasons why sailors needed to be warned about the siren call.
All breath-holding divers like the Ama and Haenyo divers of Japan and Korea and modern freedivers have to practice regularly to be able to hold their breath for more than three minutes underwater. Opera singers also have similar breathing exercises both to develop powerful lungs and to hold a very long note. By developing strong lungs and excellent breath control, breath-holding divers will unwittingly also develop powerful voices though their breathing exercises. If a group of mermaids lying on rocks are having a sing-song, their powerful voices will carry far out to sea, to be heard by passing sailors in ships.
Is that the secret of the siren call? Mermaids had such wonderful operatic voices that sailors were drawn to sail close to shore through the beauty of their voices? Well no, because it would depend if the sirens were able to sing in tune and not in all mermaid stories do mermaids have irresistible voices. In one account, knights setting out on a ship for the Second Crusade of 1147, passed a group of sirens in the Bay of Biscay. The Crusaders claimed the sirens made dreadful noises like wailing, laughing and jeering like insolent men. This upset the knights, but did nothing, as they feared the magical powers of these women.
It’s doubtful if these sailors came close to shore because of the mermaid’s wonderful singing, but they might have done so for another reason. In most stories mermaid are naked, whereas for land women, there was a strict dress code that women’s bodies should be covered at all times. Young men would have few chances to see nude women. As a result, young men in boats and ships sailing along the coast, and hearing mermaid’s powerful singing, would know that near the shore there would be naked women lying on rocks or beach. Naturally would want to sail close to the shore to have a look, a dangerous thing to do in those days.
In the past, sailors didn’t have detailed charts as they have today, so sailing close inshore meant there was always the danger of hitting a rock, just below the water, or a sandbar. There is also the danger of tidal currents that in light winds can take hold of a sailing ship. If these currents whip around a rocky headland, they will probably smash the ship into the rocks. Also, ships of the past were not very good in sailing upwind, especially if it was a square rigger. So if a sailing ship comes too close to the shore and wind was to change and blow towards the coast, they would find it very difficult to sail upwind away from the shore. There was a big danger of being blown onto rocks or onto a beach.
Island of Sark
Because of this, older sailors would try to warn younger sailors against wanting to go inshore to stare at naked mermaids. An example of this can be found in the Channel Islands folklore about the sirens who once lived on the island of Sark, a very rocky island. Guernsey fishermen claimed they were old women, yet if their singing still drew sailors in to sail too near to its dangerous coast. Then a fierce storm would suddenly arise, driving the vessel onto the rocks. To drive home the point, of how dangerous these sirens are, the fishermen also claimed they would carry the sailors to the bottom of the sea and devour them.
The older fishermen where saying everything they could to discourage young fishermen wanting, to stare at the mermaids, but in the process were giving them a very bad reputation, to the point of accusing them of cannibalism.
Perhaps mermaids could have helped the situation by not singing and covering their bodies. It seems that this did happen in the Orkney and Shetland islands where it was reported that mermaids wore petticoats. Also as mentioned in our last video they probably did make some sort of wet-suit out of sealskin, though we have no reports of mermaids doing this, in any other part of Europe.
Ama diver with cotton clothing
Wearing clothing while swimming, is not a good idea. Amas do this in modern times because of tourism, despite the fact that wet clothing is uncomfortable and keeps the body cold while out of the water. The Amas think it a price worth paying, to avoid unwanted attention from outsiders, so why didn’t mermaids in Europe think the same way? The problem might have been the monofin, mentioned in the last video. Before the invention of rubber and plastic clothing, wearing clothes in water created drag and slowed down the speed a woman could swim. This is not a big problem for Ama divers as they tie a rope around their waist and dive to the sea floor, with the help of the weight of an iron bar tucked in their waist. When they have gathered what food they can, men in boats above haul them to the surface with the rope. So swimming speed is not going to be a big issue for Ama divers, but it will be if a diver uses a monofin. This is because the mermaid uses the power of the monofin to drive herself to the sea floor and then drive up to the surface again. Any drag will slow down her speed. She will need to use more effort and deplete the precious oxygen in her lungs, leaving less time to forage on the sea floor with each dive.
Nude singer: Madona
The same is also true of singing. The sensible thing would be to avoid this. But doing breathing exercises can be boring and mermaids may have found that doing these while singing is more enjoyable. It may even have become a tradition, and the mermaids became reluctant to give it up.
Maybe mermaids didn’t have to change their ways. Perhaps the scare stories to scare young sailors and fishermen away from the coast were effective. The sailors stopped coming close inshore and left the mermaids alone. Maybe the mermaids didn’t mind. Because of these scare stories they were left alone. So all we now know are these dramatic scare stories of evil sirens.
The problem with this, was that mermaid stories were used by wreckers to divert attention away from themselves. For many coastal villages having a ship wrecked nearby was a boon. A lot of the cargo would be washed ashore which the villagers could claim for themselves. So some men deliberately wreaked ships, by setting up false lights. A ship sailing in stormy night when it knows it is close to land, will look for the lights of a harbour to find a safe anchorage. The wreckers rigged lights in such a way, that anyone seeing them out at sea, would be fooled into thinking there was a harbour and sail in, only to be wrecked on rocks or on a beach. The wreckers then blamed the mermaids, which many people would believe, because of the siren stories.
The scare stories were also used by the Church to discredit mermaids. Many of them were wiped out in Witch hunts, perhaps only surviving in remote places like Northern Scotland, the Orkneys and Shetland islands, places which were called, “the land of the mermaids”. Many mermaids might have seen the sense of not drawing attention to themselves by singing too loudly and lying on rocks in the nude. They put on petticoats in the water or even wear wet-suits made of seal skin.
Not all mermaids did this, we mentioned in part one, a sighing by a schoolmaster in northern Scotland in 1809, of a mermaid in the nude. There were also many mermaid sighting as late as the 1890s in Newark Bay in Deerness, Orkney. These mermaids were seen by hundreds of tourists, so it seems that the beginning of modern tourism, probably ended mermaid sightings in Britain.
The Haenyo divers of Cheju also suffered their own witch hunt. In World War Two the island was occupied by the Japanese, who treated the Cheju people so badly that they rose up in protested. But the Japanese brutally suppressed the islanders, and the Haenyo divers suffered, as they played a major role in the protest. Worse was to follow.
Mass graves after the Cheju massacre
After the Second World War, the Cheju people objected to the way they were being ruled by the Korean government. The Korean government condemned them as communist sympathisers, and their brutal suppression of the Cheju people was far worse than what was done by the Japanese. Many of the Haenyo divers had to flee the island and moved to Japan. It was after this that the Haenyo divers began to wear wet-suits to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
In the next video we will discuss why we think that mermaids and witches were probably the same people.