History with Haggis: Mermaids

September 14th, 2009 by | 9 comments


As you may know, mermaids were deemed too fantastical to even appear in the credits of The Curse of Monkey Island. And yet, here we are with Tales of Monkey Island, where the second chapter is simply teeming with mermaid-like creatures. Bah, they don’t belong in pirate mythology at all!

…or do they? Here’s a – by no means complete – overview of mermaid sightings, which illustrate that, yes, mermaids have been part of sailor lore for a long time, and gender confusion has troubled others before Guybrush. And that’s not even going back to Odysseus and his sirens. But let’s go see some mermaids!

Von_dem_Meerfröuwlin– 1187: A merman was fished up on the coast of Sussex, who was found to be dumb and probably deaf as well.

– 1430: After a levee breach in Holland, sea water had entered a meadow, and along with it a mermaid, who was found by some girls from Edam. They took it there in a boat, clothed it in women’s clothes and taught it to spin, but it never spoke.

– 1531: A mermaid was caught in the Baltic Sea, and presented to Sigismund, the king of Poland.

– 1560: Off the coast of Ceylon, fishermen caught seven mermen and seven mermaids. Several Jesuits are reported to have witnessed this event, and what’s more, Dinas Bosquey – the physician to the Viceroy of Goa – has supposedly dissected at least one of the merpeople’s bodies, and found that they are quite like humans.

– 1608: Henry Hudson sees a mermaid.

– 1610: Richard Whitbourne (governor of Newfoundland!) saw what he described as either a merman or a mermaid (he wasn’t sure, like Guybrush), with blue streaks that looked like hair. Make of that what you will.

– 1714: On a voyage from Batavia to Europe, a guy called Valentyn spotted a stereotypical mermaid: upper body like a woman, lower half like a fish.

– 1725: French sailors saw a mermaid off the coast of Newfoundland, and sent a report of this to the French minister of Marine, a certain Maurepas.

– 1749: A mermaid was caught in a net in Jutland; it died in its struggle to escape.

– 1758: A mermaid was reportedly exhibited at the Fair of St. Germain in France. ‘It was a female, with ugly negro-features; ears very large, and the back parts and tail covered with scales,’ as The Asiatic journal and monthly miscellany of 1823 describes it.

– 1761: A ‘sea monster’ that was part human, part fish, was discovered by two particularly vicious girls. When they encountered the creature, they stuck a knife in it, and then cut off its hands. And people wonder why mermaids send people to their death…

– 1775: A mermaid was supposedly on exhibit in London. One would think that there would be more accounts of these mysterious exhibits…

– 1794: A certain Captain Fortier captured a three-foot long mermaid (top half woman, bottom half fish) in the North Sea, and put it on show at Covent Garden.

– 1797: There is talk in Berbice (South America) that a mermaid does indeed exist in the River Berbice, and is worshipped by the natives.

– 1797: A schoolmaster from Thurso (Scotland) saw a woman-like figure sitting on the sea, running her fingers through her hair. Of course this was a mermaid (what else?). The sighting described hereafter supposedly took place around there as well.

– 1809: A mermaid was seen on the coasts of Scotland. At this particular discovery, three people were present who had before always denied the existence of mermaids on that particular beach, which should lend this account some more weight. Then again, maybe they’d all been drinking Grog XD.

Buen_Retiro_Alfonso_XII_07– 1812: Here’s an account of a mermaid sighting, as related by a mister Toupin. It’s long, but interesting: ‘The day (August 11, 1812) being very fine, I joined a party of ladies and gentlemen in a sailing excursion. When we had got about a mile to the south-east of Exmouth-bar, our attention was suddenly arrested by a very singular noise, by no means unpleasant to the ears, but of which it is impossible to give a correct idea by mere description. It was not, however, unaptly compared by one of our ladies to the wild melodies of the Aeolian harp, combined with a noise similar to that made by a stream of water falling gently on the leaves of a tree. In the mean time, we observed something about one hundred yards from us to windward. We all imagined it to be some human being, though at the same time we were at a loss to account for this at such a distance from the shore, and no boat near. […] The head, from the crown to the chin, forms a long oval, and the face seems to resemble that of the seal, though, at the same time, it is far more agreeable.’ Etcetera, etcetera.

Of course, I’m not saying that mermaids exist. In an issue of The Gentleman’s magazine from 1823 (which, by the way, is rather like an Internet forum), from which some of these examples come, a reader writes to say that all this evidence is pretty circumstantial, and it’s all heresay, and he’s right. But that’s not the point – the point is that mermaid legends are from all over the world, and inherently bound up with life on or near the sea. Meaning they’re not out of place in a Monkey Island game.

Note also that many of these merpeople were mermaids, especially those sighted by mariners. Life on a ship can get pretty lonely, and I guess some of these sailors had a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality. They really hoped there were some women out there at sea, and they didn’t care if they had tails like a fish. They just needed women. But like a lake of water in the Sahara, these were fata morgana.

Waterhouse_a_mermaidWhich brings us back to Morgan le Fay (Fata Morgana in Italian!), and the circle is round again. But there’s one more connection to be made: Morgan LeFlay and mermaids. You see, there are certain mythological water spirits called ‘morgens‘, who lure men into the sea and drown them. Much like mermaids, actually. And there’s a very real possibility that these are somehow connected to Morgan le Fay, the fairy from Arthurian legend. If Morgan LeFlay is anything like her almost-namesake, Guybrush had better watch out.

Well class, that concludes our lecture on mermaids, the exam is next week, in which you’ll have to demonstrate your knowledge on the subject by writing a 10,000-word essay. Just kidding. But suggestions for future subjects are always welcome. I can’t promise that I’ll use your idea to base an article on, but you’ll never know! Meanwhile, I hope you had fun reading this, and that you maybe even learned something.

Posted in History with Haggis

9 Responses to “History with Haggis: Mermaids”

  1. Marzhin says:

    Great article, Haggis. Very interesting 🙂

  2. clone2727 says:

    The merman from 1187 was probably blind too… and good at pinball!

  3. haydenwce27 says:

    Must’ve taken a fair while to piece this together! Very good! I don’t think I’ll believe in mermaids myself until I’ve actually seen one with my own eyes and I’m still in my right mind. If they did exist and these stories were true, I don’t think we’ll see anymore mermaids because their probably all staying underwater and away from boats after past experiences (or extinct). I think merpeople are a great addition to the MI universe!

  4. MrFerder says:

    “face seems to resemble that of the seal, though, at the same time, it is far more agreeable”
    Wasn’t there speculation that people were seeing manatees? (which would kind of explain all the manatee references in the game)

  5. LA says:

    According to the font of knowledge that is Wikipedia, Morgan le Fay had an older sister called Elaine. Any chance that Morgan and Elaine are related in TMI?

    • Haggis says:

      Hey, good find! I’m not really an expert on Arthurian legend by any means, so I didn’t even know that. I don’t know if they’re sisters in TMI, but there must be some sort of connection between the two… the whole thing is quite clearly a reference to Arthurian legend.

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