[I think the most likely explanation might be that they mistook animals for human types. But to be honest, I don't really understand where this thinking comes from. It is quite fascinating that mermaids became quite a prominent feature in recent centuries. Its like the sea monsters. But sea monsters do have some basis in fact, due to big sea creatures. But mermaids are harder to explain. Jan]
For thousands of years, shanty tales of half-human, half-marine beings called mermaids , selkies, and finfolk have drifted ashore with sea beaten sailors. They stitch together the mythologies of northern Europe, the Near East, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Famously, Christopher Columbus claimed to have spotted one during his exploration of the Caribbean. Since then, mermaid tales have become popular subjects of art and literature, such as in Hans Christian Andersen’s well-known fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" (1836). They have subsequently been depicted in operas, paintings, films, books, and comics.
‘A Mermaid’ ( 1900) by John Williams Waterhouse. Royal Academy of Arts. ( Public Domain )
The Earliest Mermaid Tales
The earliest mermaid tales emerged in ancient Assyria, in which the shamed goddess Arargatis transformed herself into a mermaid for accidentally killing her human lover. The male equivalent of the mermaid was the merman and both sexes had a habit for falling in love with humans – relationships which generally ended up in tears.
Many of the emotional and psychological attributes of the earliest mermaids were projected into the Sirens of Greek mythology , but these magic oceanic creatures were also associated with powerful natural events such as storms, floods, shipwrecks, and drownings at sea.
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Lesser Known English Mermaid Tales From Exeter and Exmouth
While the northern Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney could be called centers of European Mermaid folklore, in 1737 AD a bizarre event occurred in the southern English waters near Exeter. It would haunt eight fishermen for their entire lives.
On Thursday November 10th, 1737, at a fishing ground called Topsham Bar, a group of eight fishermen had been trawling all morning. When they hauled their nets onboard they were “startled to discover a creature of a human shape, having two legs.” All eight witnesses were interviewed independently and to the word they all stated that the creature “leaped out of the net and ran away” and while this seems difficult enough to believe in itself, the fishermen added that once they caught up with the “mysterious being” they found it dying and “groaning like a human.” One of the fishermen told police: “Its feet were webbed like a duck’s, and it had eyes, nose, and mouth resembling those of a man.” He added it had a “tail like a salmon and it was around four feet high.”
Derceto, from Athanasius Kircher, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, 1652. ( Public Domain )
This creature did not fit classic, or archetypal descriptions of mermaids , in which the creatures where generally humans who wore seal skins, which transformed them into half-human half-marine type creatures. This ‘Exeter incident’ was curiously different and the description of the creature was corroborated by all of the eight fishermen; “two legs placed below the waist with hints of animalistic features,” like webbing and scaling around the lower legs.
Then, in 1812 AD, in Exmouth near Exeter, a fisherman called Mr. Toupin and his crew claimed “to have heard music which appeared to be coming from a creature which was human-like, with a fish tail.” This is more in line with the classic mermaid tales, which were called ‘sirens’ after their legendary singing at fishermen, often luring them to their watery graves.
‘The Fisherman and the Syren ’ (1856-1858) by Frederic Leighton. ( Public Domain )
Mr. Toupin’s account said they were “drawn to a singular noise, impossible to describe fully but comparable to a wild, tinkling harpsichord melody.” Mr. Toupin described the creature as having; “Two arms which it had used to great agility, which terminated in four webbed fingers on each hand.” He further detailed its characteristics as: “a long, oval face, seal-like, but more agreeable, and hair seemed to crown its upper and back head.” In length, according to Toupin, “it was about five-and-a-half feet, and it appeared to be cavorting playfully near the vessel before, after three quick plunges, it swam rapidly away and was lost to sight.” Attempting to lure the beast closer to their fishing boat they threw “boiling fish into the water.”
Exmouth seafront taken from Dawlish Warren, the scene of the Mermaid incident in 1812. ( Public Domain )
Only 11 years later in 1823, again in Exeter, a spate of mermaid sightings were reported in the River Ex, including witnesses who testified to having seen a creature which, just like the 1737 report, had “two legs placed below the waist” with “animalistic features.” Another report described a creature which “bore from the waist downwards a resemblance to a salmon” and that it ”ran from the bemused onlookers till it was knocked down and killed,” according to a report in the Devon Times .
The Haunting Stories of the Mermaid’s Pool and Black Mere Pool
At the northern end of England, in the Peak District, we find two mermaid legends. The first is said to occupy the Mermaid’s Pool , situated just below Kinder Scout in the High Peaks. This salty lake is a peculiarity, being situated so far inland. This natural environmental property probably offers reason as to why it was associated with a generally ocean bound mermaid.
Mermaid’s Pool near Kinder Scout in Derbyshire. (Dave Dunford/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
The Mermaid’s Pool was associated with healing powers for “those brave enough to bathe in it,” and if one did so at midnight on Easter, the Mermaid was said “to appear offering eternal life,” if she looked upon you fondly that is. If not, you were going down to the depths, never to be seen again.
‘The Mermaid’ (1910) by Howard Pyle. ( Public Domain )
The second mermaid tale is said to take place at Black Mere Pool (Blakemere Pond, Mermaid’s Pond) on the south-western tip of the Staffordshire Peak District; a small, almost circular natural lake about 50 yards (45.72 meters) across, situated six miles (9.66 km) north-west of Leek. Said to be bottomless, one legend states the mermaid came here “hundreds of years ago by a sailor from the nearby town of Thorncliff.”
In this rendition of a classic Greek love story between water nymph and seafarer, after the sailor’s death the mermaid grew angry. But she was unable to return to the sea, so she haunted the lake – seeking revenge for her lover’s death. This legend might have been inspired by a real life event in 1679 AD, when a woman peddler was dumped in the pool by a local serial killer.
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Attempting to separate fact from fiction, in 2013, a Mr. Philip Davis of Stoke-on-Trent, a member of the committee of the North Staffordshire branch of the British Sub-aqua club, adorned a frogman’s suit and determined that this lake was not actually bottomless, and “at its deepest point the pool is no more than seven feet and it has a muddy bottom.”
Blakemere Pond is a small, natural lake in Staffordshire, England. (Graham Richter/ CC BY SA 3.0 ) The pond is the subject of an enduring legend that claims that the water is haunted by the ghost of a mermaid.
Another darker mermaid tale surrounding this lake tells of a local man named Joshua Linnet, who was rejected by a beautiful young woman. Unable to deal with his pain, he accused the woman of being a witch. He managed to convince the local people to drown her in Black Mere Pond and as she was drowning, the young woman cursed Joshua.
Three days later his body was found floating in the pool with “his face covered with claw marks” believed to have been caused by the “demon mermaid.” This malevolent spirit is believed by many to still haunt the Black Mere Pool today. Attempting to rationalize with this, it might be the case that the poor woman was a "mere-maid" – rather than a mermaid.
Top Image: ‘Mermaid’ (1873) by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann. Mermaid tales are popular inspirations for the arts around the world. Source: CC BY SA 3.0