Saturday, 4 February 2012

Origins of Mermaid Myths and Legends

 The text of this video also available as EPUB at , Lulu.

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.

 Sea Cow

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

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.  

 Lady Ch’ing

 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.


  1. I watched your video and thought it a very interesting and thought-provoking hypothesis. Quite plausible.

    A couple things occurred to me as I watched it. First, I recall that the Batavians and Frisians revolted against the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD and gave the legions a hard time because they broke the dikes and flooded the fields as the Romans advanced. Could this tactic have been even more effectively exploited by a people with the aquatic skills described in your presentation? I recall also that the revolt was instigated by a woman held in high esteem by the Batavi, so that would correlate with your theory also. In the 13th or 14th centuries there was an attempt by the Holy Roman Empire to supress the marsh republics, or dithmarschen of the German coasts which was thwarted by again flooding the battlefields and picking off the mired knights.

    A number of hordes of iron age weapons have been found in lakes and bogs in Europe, I think the normal explanation is that these were sacrifices to the gods of the lakes, but I wonder if this practice may not instead have some connection to the "Mermaids" you talk about. Hmm.

  2. Thank you Phil for your comments. Yes, history does seem to have written out, the conflict between the sea or swamp peoples people and the farmers. If we go back earlier in history there was a war in Ancient Egypt between Ramesses II and the Sea People. The Phoenicians where also sea people and I am sure they traded with America and India thousands of years before Columbus. This conflict continued right up to the time of the Witch hunts where the sea and swamp people's were finally defeated.