Debbie Davenport, MLS, Collection Development Librarian
With the approaching summer season, my mind goes to warm sand and ocean waves. Memories of the sounds, colors, and scents found on the Atlantic coast during my childhood assail my thoughts. This inevitably leads to happy memories of fishing from many piers with my father and the legends and myths he would share with me on those quiet trips that would begin before dawn and end after dark. Being a man who loved the sea, he was especially fond of tales that involved Atlantis, Poseidon, the Formosa and Bermuda Triangles, and Lemuria. But some of his favorite stories to share were about Merfolk and the mysteries surrounding them.
Did you know that belief in merfolk dates as far back as the late Paleolithic period? Archeologists have discovered cave paintings depicting magical female figures in Egypt and South Africa. Check out the Cave of Swimmers in Egypt and Mermaids of Klein Karoo for some stunning ancient mermaid art!
In folklore, merfolk are often associated with misfortune and death. In some tales, mermaids cause shipwrecks with their siren song by luring errant sailors off course and onto rocky shoals. Their male counterparts, equally fierce and deadly to seamen, summon storms capable of sinking ships and drowning the hapless men.
Scotland and Japan share certain aspects of merfolk legend (Blue Men and Kappa, respectively) who prize games of skill, rhythm, and wit. Their stories of water people typically show them challenging ship captains to contests that will either end with captains and their crews going free or succumbing to a watery grave.
Holland, too, has its own merfolk legends. In one from the 1600s, a mermaid enters the country through a dike, incurring injury in the process. She is taken to a nearby lake and nursed back to health. The story ends well when she learns to speak Dutch, finds employment, and converts to Catholicism.
And who can forget the hoaxes of the 1800’s? One of the most well-known is the Feejee (Fiji) Mermaid, displayed by P. T. Barnam in the 1840’s as one of his most popular attractions. The body of a primate and the tail of a large fish, this grotesque object was likely destroyed in one of the fires that plagued Barnam’s collections. In any case, it disappeared.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has officially released a statement declaring there to be no evidence that mermaids exist. However, there have been reports of mermaid sightings in recent times. One was off the coast of Israel in 2009. but no one claimed a million-dollar reward offered for pictures of the creature. That there is no evidence of their existence hasn’t stopped us from creating some really awesome siren stories.
Check out these graphic novels involving merfolk for more great tales. I highly recommend Thirsty Mermaids.