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Mermaid Mythology


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Mermaid myths have swam through the mind of man since he set sight upon the sea.

The ocean is beautiful, complex, and filled with incredible marine life. Even without imaginative stories, the sea holds an innately natural allure.


Across the world and throughout the ages, sirens have risen from the depths to sail upon mythology’s tides. I wanted to discuss three different types of merfolk from around the globe in this Loreland entry. The Japanese “Ningyo”, the Nordic “Finfolk”, and the Caribbean’s “Mami Wata”.


The Ningyo


Delving into the waters around Japan, you will find the Ningyo. The Ningyo are fascinating characters, as the island of Japan has a unique history shaped by the sea. Japan has a history of real-life sirens known as the “Ama” (海女).


These women are pearl divers who delve deep into the ocean to gather seaweed, shellfish, and of course pearls to trade back on land. The Ama have been practicing their diving for thousands of years, and have a history steeped in nautical tradition. These women use breath-holding techniques that trained their bodies to retain more oxygen by exhaling slightly before diving to expel excess carbon dioxide, minimizing oxygen consumption, and using breath-holding techniques such as lung packing or glossopharyngeal insufflation to increase oxygen retention. The Ama's ability to hold their breath for extended periods of time underwater is a combination of physical conditioning, mental focus, and specialized diving techniques honed through generations of practice and experience. They are living examples of how the human body can be trained to do incredible (mermaid-like) tasks.


When girls were selected to be Ama divers, they were chosen in part because of the body type needed to pursue this line of work. Requiring higher levels of body fat to insulate them from the cold waters. Often-times beginning their training at the young age of 12. The Ama are highly respected as female embodiments of perseverance, strength, and independence. Japanese mermaid mythology undoubtedly took shape in part with inspiration from these real-life women. The Ningyo sirens were said to cry tears of pearls- a rather poetic idea. The beauty in life that sometimes results from sorrow is illustrated perfectly in this story of weeping mermaids. Sometimes the worst things in life are blessings in disguise, if you give them time.




In descriptions from old texts, Ningyo mermaids have fish-like anatomies, appearing more animal than human. They were frightening to see, feral in comparison to Disney’s charming Little Mermaid. Ningyo’s have pointed tails and barbarous spines protruding from their sea urchin skin. In my depiction of the Ningyo I used watercolor to capture the vibrant hues of blues and reds of these sirens which camouflages them in coral reefs.







One last fascinating aspect of these Japanese mermaids lies in their ability to sing prophetic songs about future events. Stories say the Ningyo had entrancing voices like so many other merfolk swimming in the world’s oceans, but their lyrics could supposedly tell the future. What a wondrous power...


The Arctic Mermaid




Far north, in the dark waters of the Arctic Ocean swims another species of mermaid both beautiful and wild. Scandinavia is geographically exposed to the ocean. Because of this, the people living there had many interactions with the sea that shaped their myths. The Nordic people’s sea is cold, dangerous, and vast. Harboring whales, giant squid, narwhales, and many other manners of large and alien sea creatures. I took these environmental elements into consideration as I painted the Arctic mermaid, giving her salmon-like scales and a layer of subcutaneous fat that insulated her from the freezing water as seen in creatures like seals and walruses.



These siren’s are called “Finnar” or “finfolk” or “menfolk” in folklore, dependent upon which nordic language and which time period one is referring to. In Old Norse, “finnar” means “to find” and was originally a term that referred to a northern tribe called the Sámi. These people are fishermen and reindeer herders living in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Western Russia where the midnight sun lasts for months on end. They have inhabited these northern regions for thousands of years. Thus giving the extreme environment time to shape their collective psychology into something quite unique and beautiful.


Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 55-ca. 117 C.E.) was a Roman historian who, in his most celebrated work the Germania, provided the earliest written material about the Sámi. He wrote, “Unconcerned towards men, unconcerned towards Heaven, they have achieved a consummation very difficult: they have nothing even to ask for.” Without a doubt, there is something valuable to be observed from their nomadic way of life and connection to tradition versus materialism inherent within it.



Sami nomads in front of two Lavvo tents

Germanic peoples (including the Vikings) called the Sámi the Finnar in sagas written during the Middle Ages. According to these texts, historian’s have summarized that people during this period saw the “Finnar” as a bit strange. In an old world before cameras and planes, the mysterious nature of the Sámi people shifted from reality to myth. The Sámi likely helped spark the legends of merfolk hunting seals and following schools of fish, much like the nomadic people did with reindeer herds. Over the years Northern Germanic people blended the actuality of the Sámi’s culture with a tapestry of superstition. Weaving together a portrait of imaginary  beings with fins and gills who evolved with the aid of human imagination’s embellishments.



I’ve included a shell-mask in this field-note illustration as a reference to how some mythologists believe the finfolk stories spread to inspire the Selkie tales.

For example, in Celtic lore, selkies are “seal-people” who wear seal skins when they walk upon land, only to transform into seals themselves upon their return home to the sea. Sámi people made boats from animal skin, which would become waterlogged over time. When this happened they would carry the skin upon their backs. A feat which possibly inspired the Celtic tales of selkies or “seal people” who used a natural product for camouflage.




Perhaps these finfolk mermaids wore the shell masks to appear less threatening to the human’s they encountered. We all put on masks for those around us whether we know it or not. Or perhaps it was a mear act of vanity, done for their own species to appear in certain way. Here you will find some artistic depictions of mermaid artifacts I’ve found on my dives into the sea. Sirens are often depicted gazing at themselves in a mirror, combing out their long hair. They are often times fairly in love with themselves, and who can blame them? Mermaids possess all the beauty of the land and the sea, being creatures both wild and free.






The Caribbean Mermaids




The Caribbean mermaid is a challenging creature to categorize, as this body of water has had various influxes of people from around the world over the centuries. All of them with their own myths, blending the tales from their past with the environment they found themselves in the present. Modern myths are composite creatures that embody the mixing of historical events, spiritual beliefs, and the physical biome in which people exist.


I decided to name this Caribbean mermaid “Aqua”, as she’s a blend of many different currents. I’ve been collecting folklore in Jamaica, which has a large population of African people who originally came from Ghana, Nigeria and Central Africa. Many of them were part of the Yoruba Tribe, whose gods and goddess sailed over the sea in the minds of those who left hundreds of years ago. The other culture that influenced the present idea of the Caribbean mermaid were the Taino people who came to Jamaica around 600 AD, long before the earliest European explorers and the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade of the 16th century.


The local Taino people had a mermaid named Aycayia who was known for her beauty and ability to manipulate men. The African people who came to the Caribbean brought the water deity known as Mami Wata with them. Mami Wata or “Mother Water” evolved into many variations as people developed separate cultures on different islands throughout the Caribbean. An example of a regional take on Mami Wata in Jamaica takes form in the River Mumma. The River Mumma is a mermaid who guards a golden table dropped by the Spanish Conquistadors. If anyone should try to take this table, she drowns them with little remorse. It’s not a challenge for the faint of heart.


In my depiction of a mermaid who swims in the waters surrounding Jamaica, I wanted to include this idea of gold in her glittering scales and an effervescent translucency that gives her an ephemeral nature. Much like a myth, she’s half imagined and half real.


I will undoubtedly be diving into the underwater realms of merfolk for years to come, but these three have been the subject of this month’s myths in Loreland.








Thanks for being curious, and if you want to learn more or get a friend of fantasy mermaid books or prints, I have them all in my Etsy.

All the art shown here was painted and designed by me, and if you have any questions please feel free to reach out.



Have a lovely rest of the day up on land where the humans play!


Best wishes form Loreland,

Hope


MERMAID ARTS


SOCIALS


Sources:


Ama Pearl Divers:


Ama Traditions:


Ningyo Myth:


Finfolk myth


Sami Migration:



Jamaican Migration:


Taino Myth


African Mami Wata


Evolution of Mami Wata


River Mumma Myth



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