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Aquatic Beings Podcast Transcript

Folklore - Virtual Special Issue

Traditions about the aquatic realm and the creatures that live in it have always been a popular topic in the pages of Folklore. Arthur Waugh, a former president of the Society, was one of many interested in this subject. His presidential address of 1960 and a companion article in 1961 survey beliefs associated with a range of creatures both real, like whales and dolphins, and fantastic such as merfolk (Waugh 1960, 1961). Waugh’s examples of mermaid folklore highlight familiar attributes, including their enticing voices and the dangers they pose, especially to the Christian world, and he also presented significant material about mermen with human wives. His surveys still stand as useful introductions, but they also reveal changing attitudes. Waugh repeats many ‘friendly’ dolphin tales from classical and modern sources, but he also cites negative accounts of the blood-thirsty orca from Pliny and Aelian. He includes traditions about benevolent whales from Polynesia and North America, but the orca’s reputation as a killer was still intact when he wrote his article, while today it and other whales are more closely linked to environmental concerns.

Beliefs about the merfolk, especially mermaids, and the human-seal hybrids known as selkies are among the most popular and most studied aquatic folklore (Puhvel 1963; Darwin 2015). The idea of a parallel world underwater forms the background to many traditions about these creatures, and one of the most popular narratives concerns romantic relationships between humans and water folk. Often it is the female who enters the world of men as a bride, usually with tragic consequences. Marriages between human and supernatural beings can function as origin tales, such as the medieval Mélusine saga and legends about Irish and Scottish families who claim descent from selkies. Mermaids and seal women are dependent on some item (often a skin) which prevents them from resuming their aquatic form, and as long as the item is in the possession of the husband, the mermaid or selkie bride continues to fulfil the role of human wife and mother. The fairy brides of Welsh tradition, who are associated with the lakes and rivers of Wales, however, always retain a human form, and unlike many mermaids or seal people, they determine the terms of their residence in the world of men (Wood 1992). Although narratives about liaisons between humans and aquatic creatures are popular, there are a wide range of other legendary accounts such as the Irish mermaid who becomes a saint, the Scottish mermaid who pretends to be a drowning woman, and a miniature mermaid who receives a decent burial.

Travellers’ tales provide another link between the natural world and the uncanny one beneath the waves.  Merfolk and real sea animals were sometimes confused, and some encounters with seemingly real mythical aquatic beings can be explained as misunderstandings of actual sightings of animals. For example A.R. Wright’s 1929 article examines several sightings of merfolk from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, specifically three first-hand accounts and a deliberate hoax (Wright 1929). Illustrations as well as narratives helped popularize belief. The sea bishop was a curious ‘fish’ described in an influential work of early biology. Although the author questioned the more fantastic elements of sea bishop narratives that echo traditional merman tales, an illustration depicts a scaly body with a mitred bishop’s head, which may have been a composite, known as a ‘Jenny Haniver’, based perhaps on a skate or ray doctored to look like a mythical sea creature (Russell and Russell 1975).

Walter Gregor’s article of 1891 deals with the relationship between children in a Scottish fishing community and the sea on which their community depends (Gregor 1891). Among the numerous folk beliefs and practices listed are games played by the village children which adapt found objects such sea pebbles, driftwood, seaweed and the like to use in local versions of common children’s games found elsewhere. Other forms of play mimic the skills of sailing, fishing, and boat-making needed in such communities. Gregor lists numerous sea-related superstitions as well. For example, frightening tales about sea-otters and water kelpies are used to warn children against the dangers of the sea’s edge.

Legends about water creatures travel and adapt readily to changing circumstances. A man who had emigrated to New Zealand in the early twentieth century recounted a complex series of incidents about a shapeshifting Manx creature, known as  the buggane-of-the-water (buggane ny hushtey) (Morrison 1923). A version of the human fisherman and the mermaid bride became naturalized among the people of the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean, although the localized version added a whale companion, a figure prominent in myths of this region (Temple 1929).

Mysterious ships also feature in this lore. Cornish cloud ships that sail across the land as well as the sea are a sign of tempestuous weather, and the motif is also localized in tales about pirates and wreckers who come to bad ends (Spooner 1961). Anchors are another prominent motif in the subclass of tradition that concerns links between sky and earth or between the sea’s surface and the submarine world (Ross 1998).

The powers of mermaids, selkies, and fairy brides vary. They can be alluring, prophetic, vindictive, or protective. These qualities extend to other aquatic creatures as well, from the deceptive whale who pretends to be an island to the helpful dolphins who save those in danger of drowning, and the mysterious shape-shifting Manx buggane. Whatever their function and character—benign or threatening—these creatures reflect our desire to maintain the balance between a well-ordered human society and the fascinating, constantly shifting otherness of the underwater world.  

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