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Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
Far below the ocean waves live the strange and mysterious people of the sea. Ever since sailors have sailed, there have been tales of these people, the way they look, the songs they sing, and the strange hold they have over us. From ancient times to the modern day we have been fascinated by stories of the sea folk, and from terrifying monsters to gentle, loving beings, our views on them are ever changing. But the merfolk are very different to humans, and when human and sea person meet, things rarely go according to plan… I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
Our stories of gentle, loving little mermaids are a pretty recent invention. For a long time, legends spoke of mer people as being dangerous and deadly creatures – soulless monsters rather than people with hearts and minds. Stories of mermaids and sirens are an early example of the femme fatale motif – women who appear beautiful and alluring on the surface, but who use these irresistible powers to tempt foolish men to their deaths. For mermaids, this surface is literal – they might look like beautiful human woman above the water, but beneath the waves they hide a body that many storytellers regarded as monstrous.
Ireland’s version of these dangerous sea women was called the murdúchann. This is a middle Irish term for mermaids or sirens – it literally translates to sea singers. The murduchanns were beautiful women, with yellow hair and pale skin, but stories describe their lower bodies as being as large as a hill – hairy and clawed, waiting hungrily for their prey to get close enough.
Lebor Gabála Éireann, which I spoke about recently, mentions an meeting with murdúchanns – some of Ireland’s ancestors encounter them in the Caspian Sea on their journey from Israel to Ireland. The druid Caicher travelling with them instructs the crew to fill their ears with molten wax, so that they won’t be bewitched by the siren call. The boat makes it to Ireland in safety, but others were not so lucky, and in some stories, the murdúchanns appeared much closer to home.
Roth Mac Cithang was the legendary prince of a race called the Fomorians – giant powerful men who were said to have invaded Ireland from the sea. Because of their size and strength, the Fomorians had few enemies to fear, usually.
But Roth had heard tales of the beautiful music of the murdúchanns who dwelled in the Ictian Sea – now known as the English Channel. He wanted to hear their songs for himself, so he rowed his boat far out into these waters until he came across a group of them singing together in the waves. When Roth rowed up, the murdúchanns sang a wonderful tune to him, until Roth’s eyelids became heavy, and he drifted into a deep sleep.
The moment he lost consciousness, the murdúchanns pounced. They feasted on Roth, and divided his body, each carrying a separate bone for themselves. Soon after, so the story goes, one of Roth’s enormous thigh bones washed up at the town of Waterford on Ireland’s southern coast, causing wonder to those who found it. It was so large that the drink of a hundred men would fit in the hollow of the bone – a terrifying testament that even the mightiest person can fall to the murdúchann’s charm and trickery. Ever after this strange day, the city of Waterford has been known in Irish as Port Láirge – The Port of the Thigh, in memory of the occasion.
Early tales like these of bewitching mermaids and seductive sirens have been popular for thousands of years, across almost every culture and civilization. The stories were warnings – against straying
too far afield, and judging by appearances only. Perhaps some of the tales were stern messages from wives to their husbands, about to embark on long sea voyages with many a chance to break their marriage vows in far-off lands! Mermaids were also used by medieval Christians as a symbol of the evil, pagan practices they were trying to stamp out. Pictures and carvings of mermaids adorned churches, as a way to depict lust and vanity – both of which were deadly sins. The fishes the mermaids held in their hands symbolized the Christian souls they had seduced and trapped into their wicked ways. The seduction of the exotic and the exciting, it was said, could lead to devastating, ruinous, or even deadly consequences.
In more recent centuries, stories of sea people moved from legend to folktale, and the dangers they posed were no longer fatal, though they could still be devastating. Rather than the alluring, hungry monsters of siren and murdúchann tales, stories of the sea folk began to depict them as real people, with their own thoughts and desires. And it was now possible to imagine stories of real relationships between humans and sea people. However, these relationships rarely ended happily – sea folk were so different to us, so strange and other, that on land they would always feel the call of the sea, and it was impossible for such a marriage to last without one side sacrificing their old life and home entirely.
There were several comedic stories in the early 19th century that focused on the physical differences between humans and sea folk, and the strange traits that could be passed on to children born of such relationships. An Irish story called The Wonderful Tune, tells of a fiddler called Maurice Connor, whose music enchanted a beautiful merrow chanced to hear it. Merrows were another Irish mermaid, again very beautiful, but much more fish-like than the earlier murdúchanns had been described. As the story goes: Her hair was long and green, her teeth like rows of pearl; her lips were the colour of red coral; and she had an elegant gown, as white as the foam of the wave.
The merrow persuaded Maurice to marry her, and be the king of the fishes under the waves. But Maurice’s mother had some pretty grave doubts. She called out to Maurice as he danced with the green haired lady at the sea shore.
“There’s my son, going away from me to marry a scaly woman. And who knows but ’tis grandmother I may be to a hake or a cod—Lord help and pity me!—I could boil and eat my own grandchild without knowing it, with a bit of salt butter!”
The poor woman, through the fear of accidentally eating her own fishy grandchildren, died just three weeks after the wedding. And it’s said that while Maurice has a happy marriage with his mermaid wife, seafarers can still sometimes hear him singing mournfully off the coast of Kerry:
Beautiful shore, with thy spreading strand,
Thy crystal water, and diamond sand;
Never would I have parted from thee
But for the sake of my fair ladie.
Tales of seal folk, known as selkies were particularly popular in Scotland, and certain parts of the west of Ireland. It was believed that selkies lived under water as seals, but they could take off their skins and walk on land as men and women. There are several stories and songs about male selkies having relationships with human women. Quite often, these were funnier tales. Women who were unsatisfied with their human husbands would go to the sea shore and seek a quick affair with an attractive selkie – but they would later get a terrible shock when their children were born with webbed, seal-like flippers for hands. Several families have claimed to be descended from Seal folk, including the Connollys, Duffys and the MacFies.
However, the more well-known selkie tales have much more tragic outcomes. They deal in a symbolic way with many difficult questions, of exploitation, abuse and rape. A Scottish ballad called The Great Selkie of Sule Skerrie, opens on a strange scene. A young woman is nursing her baby child, but he woman doesn’t know anything about the child’s mysterious father. When the woman goes to bed that night, a grey silkie comes through her window and lies at her feet. He promises her a fee for nursing their child, and asks her to marry him. She declines. Then, he makes a terrible prophecy:
You will marry a gunner good
And a gay good gunner he will be
And he’ll go out on a may morning
He’ll shoot your son, and he’ll shoot me.
It’s a really strange and haunting song, about a woman used against her knowledge and will by a selkie man, and set on a tragic destiny that she has no choice but to follow.
The most famous selkie tale is similarly disturbing – but in this story, the victim is not a human, but rather a selkie woman. In the tale, a fisherman spies a group of beautiful women on the sea shore. Lying nearby the women is a pile of seal skins, and the fisherman realizes that these are not women, but selkie maidens. Quietly, he creeps up and takes one of the skins, hiding it. When the selkies return to the sea, one woman is left on the shore, trapped in human form without her skin. She is alone and afraid, and the fisherman seizes his opportunity, persuading her to marry him. The selkie and the fisherman live together for many years and she bears him several children. But it is a relationship based on secrecy, lies and mistrust. The fisherman keeps the skin well hidden, and at night the selkie maiden looks wistfully out at the sea that was once her home.
One day when the fisherman is out at sea, one of their children hurts her foot, and the selkie woman searches the house for a strip of cloth to use as a bandage.
‘Why don’t you use this, Mother?’ asks the little girl, and from under her bed, she pulls the long black seal skin that belongs to the selkie maid.
The moment she sees her skin again, the selkie cannot help herself. There is no questioning, no choice to be made. She simply has to go. She takes her skin, leaves her children and husband, and returns forever to the waters and the home she had lost. In some versions, the fisherman spots her leaving, and follows her to the water’s edge, where he sees his wife clasped in the embrace of a bull seal. Sometimes he hears her sing a strange song before she disappears forever:
Goodman o’ Wastness, farewell to thee!
I liked thee well, thou were good to me
But I love better my man of the sea!
There’s an Irish merrow story called The Lady of Gollerus which is very similar – in this story, the merrow has a little hat called the cohuleen druith, which when stolen similarly prevents her from returning to the water.
It’s really interesting to see how our modern perception of stories like these has changed. In the past, such tales would have been used to discourage men from seeking relationships with beautiful but dangerous women from outside of your community, who might not devour you as the old mermaids and sirens did, but will never truly love you. Such women will leave you the first chance they get, and their fickleness will destroy your life and family in possibly even more painful ways.
Now though, our sympathies lie pretty firmly with the selkie maiden. We have come to read the human as the villain of the tale. Now, when the story is told, the terrible ordeal of captivity that the selkie maiden endured is the focus of the story – not the plight of her husband when she eventually escapes. We see it as a warning against the cruelty and foolishness of trying to trick someone into loving you.
In 1836, Hans Christian Anderson wrote The Little Mermaid, a tale of longing and of an eternal, unrequited love that has become the quintessential depiction of mermaids ever since. His little mermaid is the furthest thing from dangerous – she is a gentle but passionate being, whose love for humanity and the prince she meets is so strong that she is willing to give up everything to be with him – her tale, her voice, and in the end, her life.
It’s hard to overstate just how huge an impact Anderson’s well-loved fairy tale had on how we have come to view the people of the sea. Now, when we think of mermaids, we don’t think of lust, or vanity or dangerous music. We think of love – of its strengths and its sorrows, and of the ways that we give ourselves up to it, even when others tell us of the dangers, and even we know it may not go our way. From a dark warning against love at first sight, the mermaid has become a symbol of love against the odds, against the warnings, for those brave enough to take the leap of faith and risk everything they have for the love they want most in the world.
Anderson’s story has inspired countless writers and artists in the nearly 200 years since it was published. And one Irish writer who seems to have been particularly struck by its tale of forbidden, impossible love, was Oscar Wilde. Wilde wrote several bittersweet fairy stories, like The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant. But he wrote another, less well known story, that’s clearly inspired by Anderson’s little mermaid. The story is called The Fisherman’s Soul, and it’s easy to see in its hopeful message why Oscar Wilde was so captivated. In Wilde’s tale, it is the fisherman who gives up his soul to live with the mermaid, and although things don’t go according to plan, their love is so pure and true that it comes to change the minds of the people who spoke out against it, and their sad ending transforms the world around them into a better, more loving place.
There was once a young fisherman, who caught a little mermaid in his net while out at sea.
The fisherman agreed to release her if she promised to come and sing for him whenever he called, and lead fish into his nets. And so, every evening she came and sang. Her voice was so sweet that the fisherman soon forgot his nets and cunning, and sat idle in his boat, listening until the sea mists crept around him.
One evening, he could bear it no longer, and called to her – ‘Little mermaid, I love you. Marry me.’
But the mermaid shook her head. ‘You have a human soul,’ she answered. ‘If you would only send away your soul, then I could love you.’
What use is my soul to me, the fisherman thought. I cannot see it. I cannot touch it. I do not know it. So he decided to get rid of it. He asked his priest, who became angry when he heard. ‘You are mad, said the priest. ‘There is no thing more precious than a human soul, It is worth all the gold that is in the world, more precious than the rubies of the kings. And as for the Sea-folk, they are lost, and they who would love them will be lost also.’ But the fisherman was determined. Next, he spoke to merchants in the nearby market, but still he couldn’t convince anyone to take his soul away.
Then, the fisherman remembered a witch who lived in a cave by the sea. He went there immediately, and asked her to send his soul away.
The Witch grew pale, and shuddered. ‘Pretty boy, pretty boy,’ she muttered, ‘that is a terrible thing to do.’
It took a while, but the fisherman convinced her. The witch explained what he had to do.
‘Stand on the sea shore with your back to the moon, and cut away your shadow from around your feet.’ She said. ‘This is your soul’s body, and when you tell it to leave you, it will do so.’
The fisherman’s soul cried out, begging and pleading with his master not to send him away.
‘At least let me take your heart with me,’ it cried.
But the fisherman refused, for his heart belonged to the mermaid. He cut his shadow away from his feet, and plunged into the water, where the little mermaid rose up to meet him, and threw her arms around his neck. The fisherman’s soul stood on the lonely beach and watched them sink down into the sea.
A year later, the Fisherman’s Soul came down to the seashore and called up the fisherman. ‘Come near and listen, for I have seen marvelous things. I have found the Mirror of Wisdom, and he who looks into it will be the wisest man in the world. If you will let me be part of you again, it will be yours.’
The fisherman laughed. ‘Love is better than wisdom,’ he said, ‘and the little Mermaid loves me.’
After a second year had passed, the soul returned. ‘Come near and listen,’ he said, ‘for I have seen marvelous things. I have found the ring of riches, and he who wears it is richer than all the kings of the world. If you let me be part of you again, it will be yours.’
The fisherman laughed. ‘Love is better than riches,’ he said, ‘and the little Mermaid loves me.’
After the third year had passed, the soul came once again. ‘Come near’ he said, ‘and listen. For I have seen marvelous things.’
This time the soul he talked about a city, just a day’s journey away, where he had seen a beautiful girl dancing. ‘Her feet were naked,’ the soul said, ‘and they moved over the carpet like little white pigeons.’
The fisherman thought of his little mermaid, who had no feet and could not dance. He greatly desired to see a woman dance again. It is only a day’s journey, he said to himself. So he stretched out his arms to the soul, who gave a cry of joy and entered into him again.
But the fisherman’s soul had played a cunning trick on him. Only once in his life may a man send his soul away, and he who takes his soul back must keep it with him forever. And after spending years wandering around the world without a heart, the fisherman’s soul had turned cruel, tempting him to do evil things.
The fisherman wept when he realized what had happened. He could not return to his mermaid. He bound his hands so that he couldn’t do the Soul’s bidding, and built a hut by the sea shore, where he could call out to the mermaid each morning and evening. But she never rose from the sea to meet him.
Finally, the Soul spoke to the young Fisherman as he sat in the hut alone, ‘I will tempt you no longer, for your love is stronger than I am. But I pray you to allow me into your heart, for you are so full of love for the mermaid that there is no room for me to enter it.’
Feeling sympathy for the soul, the fisherman agreed. Suddenly, he heard a piercing cry come from the sea. He ran down to the shore, and there in the surf lay the body of his little mermaid. As the fisherman looked at the mermaid, his heart broke open, his soul entered into his heart as he collapsed by the mermaid’s side, and all three were covered by the rising waves.
In the morning, when an old priest came to the shore to bless the sea, he found the bodies of the fisherman and his bride. He was shocked and angry to see that the fisherman had disobeyed him and fallen in love with the mermaid. ‘Accursed be the Sea-folk, and accursed be all they who love them,’ he said. He ordered his followers, to bury the bodies in an unmarked grave in a field where no flowers grew.
Not too long after this, the old priest went to preach in his chapel and found it filled with fragrant flowers. Their sweet smell filled his head, and when he opened his mouth he suddenly found could not preach of a God of Wrath. Instead, the old priest began to preach to his congregation about a God whose name was Love. And when he had finished his word the people wept, and when Priest went back to the sacristy, his eyes were full of tears also.
The Priest asked his servants where the flowers had come from. ‘From that corner of the field nearby, they answered.’ And when he heard this, the priest trembled, and began to pray.
And in the morning, while it was still dawn, he went forth with the monks and the musicians, and the candle-bearers and the swingers of censers, and a great company, and came to the shore of the sea, and blessed the sea, and all the wild things that are in it. The Fauns also he blessed, and the little things that dance in the woodland, and the bright-eyed things that peer through the leaves. All the things in God’s world he blessed, and the people were filled with joy and wonder. Yet never again in did flowers grow the corner of the Fullers’ Field, and never again came the Sea-folk into the bay, for they went to another part of the sea.
So from a warning against lust, to a celebration of love, the mermaid has captivated us through the centuries. Whether we fear them or adore them, we cannot help but be fascinated by these people of the sea. And yet, in spite of our fascination, these stories are also united in their sense of mystery – there is so much left unsaid about mermaids and the lives they lead. Of all the folk tales and fairy stories I have shared, the only one told from a mermaid’s perspective is Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. We love to hear about them, and they remain beautiful above the surface at first glance but still to this date the people of the sea have untold depths we cannot see below the waves. Perhaps some day in the future. a new mermaid folktale will come, and give us the key to understanding them once and for all. Until then, mermaids remain a mystery that we can never truly know.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to the sources I used in this episode on my website, UnrealPodcast.com. The Great Selkie of Sule Skerrie was sung by June Tabor, and the song you are listening to right now is O Come Ye by Ayla Nereo – links to all the music from this episode are in the shownotes also. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider sharing it with a friend, or leaving a rating or review where you listen – it really helps to spread the world.
I hope you are keeping well under quarantine, and I’ll be back soon with a new story to tell – until then, go néirí an bóthar leat.