Who Were The Sirens?
There are many mermaid stories about the siren call. Sailors have heard mermaids singing and been so hypnotized by it, that they have sailed to where the sirens where singing and crashed their ships onto rocks
This particular story is very old. The Ancient Greeks recount how Ulysses, to get past an island of sirens had to block his crew’s ears with wax, so they could resist the siren call. He tied himself to the mast; in order to safely row past the island. (Why Ulysses didn't block his own ears with wax, as well, is never made clear.)
Accounts of Sirens don’t all come from the ancient Greeks. Sailors in Europe until the 19th century have warned about the dangers of the siren call, some going as far as claiming that if you see a mermaid, then it’s certain your ship will be destroyed. In spite of these exaggerated stories, there are logical reasons why sailors needed to be warned about the siren call
All breath-holding divers like the Ama and Haenyo divers of Japan and Korea and modern freedivers have to practice regularly to be able to hold their breath for more than three minutes underwater. Opera singers also have similar breathing exercises both to develop powerful lungs and to hold a very long note.
By developing strong lungs and excellent breath control, breath-holding divers will unwittingly also develop powerful voices though their breathing exercises. If a group of mermaids lying on rocks are having a sing-song, their powerful voices will carry far out to sea, to be heard by passing sailors in ships.
Is that the secret of the siren call? Mermaids had such wonderful operatic voices that sailors were drawn to sail close to shore through the beauty of their voices? Well no, because it would depend if the sirens were able to sing in tune and not in all mermaid stories do mermaids have irresistible voices. In one account, knights setting out on a ship for the Second Crusade of 1147, passed a group of sirens in the Bay of Biscay. The Crusaders claimed the sirens made dreadful noises like wailing, laughing and jeering like insolent men. This upset the knights, but did nothing, as they feared the magical powers of these women.
Sailors And Mermaids
It’s doubtful if these sailors came close to shore because of the mermaid’s wonderful singing, but they might have done so for another reason
In most stories mermaid are naked, whereas for land women, there was a strict dress code that women’s bodies should be covered at all times. Young men would have few chances to see nude women.
As a result, young men in boats and ships sailing along the coast, and hearing mermaid’s powerful singing, would know that near the shore there would be naked women lying on rocks or beach. Naturally would want to sail close to the shore to have a look, a dangerous thing to do in those days
In the past, sailors didn't have detailed charts as they have today, so sailing close inshore meant there was always the danger of hitting a rock, just below the water, or a sandbar. There is also the danger of tidal currents that in light winds can take hold of a sailing ship. If these currents whip around a rocky headland, they will probably smash the ship into the rocks
Also, ships of the past were not very good in sailing upwind, especially if it was a square rigger. So if a sailing ship comes too close to the shore and wind was to change and blow towards the coast, they would find it very difficult to sail upwind away from the shore. There was a big danger of being blown onto rocks or onto a beach
Because of this, older sailors would try to warn younger sailors against wanting to go inshore to stare at naked mermaids. An example of this can be found in the Channel Islands folklore about the sirens who once lived on the island of Sark, a very rocky island. Guernsey fishermen claimed they were old women, yet if their singing still drew sailors in to sail too near to its dangerous coast. Then a fierce storm would suddenly arise, driving the vessel onto the rocks. To drive home the point, of how dangerous these sirens are, the fishermen also claimed they would carry the sailors to the bottom of the sea and devour them.
The older fishermen where saying everything they could to discourage young fishermen wanting, to stare at the mermaids, but in the process were giving them a very bad reputation, to the point of accusing them of cannibalism
The Siren Call
The Last European Mermaids
Perhaps mermaids could have helped the situation by not singing and covering their bodies. It seems that this did happen in the Orkney and Shetland islands where it was reported that mermaids wore petticoat.
Also as mentioned in our last video they probably did make some sort of wet-suit out of sealskin, though we have no reports of mermaids doing this, in any other part of Europe.
Wearing clothing while swimming, is not a good idea. Amas do this in modern times because of tourism, despite the fact that wet clothing is uncomfortable and keeps the body cold while out of the water. The Amas think it a price worth paying, to avoid unwanted attention from outsiders, so why didn't mermaids in Europe think the same way? The problem might have been the monofin, mentioned in the last video. Before the invention of rubber and plastic clothing, wearing clothes in water created drag and slowed down the speed a woman could swim.
Ama Divers And Mermaids
This is not a big problem for Ama divers as they tie a rope around their waist and dive to the sea floor, with the help of the weight of an iron bar tucked in their waist. When they have gathered what food they can, men in boats above haul them to the surface with the rope.
So swimming speed is not going to be a big issue for Ama divers, but it will be if a diver uses a monofin. This is because the mermaid uses the power of the monofin to drive herself to the sea floor and then drive up to the surface again. Any drag will slow down her speed. She will need to use more effort and deplete the precious oxygen in her lungs, leaving less time to forage on the sea floor with each dive
The same is also true of singing. The sensible thing would be to avoid this. But doing breathing exercises can be boring and mermaids may have found that doing these while singing is more enjoyable. It may even have become a tradition, and the mermaids became reluctant to give it up.
Maybe mermaids didn’t have to change their ways. Perhaps the scare stories to scare young sailors and fishermen away from the coast were effective. The sailors stopped coming close inshore and left the mermaids alone. Maybe the mermaids didn’t mind. Because of these scare stories they were left alone. So all we now know are these dramatic scare stories of evil sirens.
The problem with this, was that mermaid stories were used by wreckers to divert attention away from themselves.
For many coastal villages having a ship wrecked nearby was a boon. A lot of the cargo would be washed ashore which the villagers could claim for themselves. So some men deliberately wreaked ships, by setting up false lights.
A ship sailing in stormy night when it knows it is close to land, will look for the lights of a harbour to find a safe anchorage. The wreckers rigged lights in such a way, that anyone seeing them out at sea, would be fooled into thinking there was a harbour and sail in, only to be wrecked on rocks or on a beach. The wreckers then blamed the mermaids, which many people would believe, because of the siren stories
The scare stories were also used by the Church to discredit mermaids. Many of them were wiped out in Witch hunts, perhaps only surviving in remote places like Northern Scotland, the Orkneys and Shetland islands, places which were called, “the land of the mermaids”. Many mermaids might have seen the sense of not drawing attention to themselves by singing too loudly and lying on rocks in the nude. They put on petticoats in the water or even wear wet-suits made of seal skin
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The Last Of The Mermaids
Not all mermaids did this, we mentioned in part one, a sighing by a schoolmaster in northern Scotland in 1809, of a mermaid in the nude
There were also many mermaid sighting as late as the 1890s in Newark Bay in Deerness, Orkney. These mermaids were seen by hundreds of tourists, so it seems that the beginning of modern tourism, probably ended mermaid sightings in Britain.
The Haenyo divers of Cheju also suffered their own witch hunt. In World War Two the island was occupied by the Japanese, who treated the Cheju people so badly that they rose up in protested. But the Japanese brutally suppressed the islanders, and the Haenyo divers suffered, as they played a major role in the protest. Worse was to follow. After the Second World War, the Cheju people objected to the way they were being ruled by the Korean government.
The Korean government condemned them as communist sympathisers, and their brutal suppression of the Cheju people was far worse than what was done by the Japanese. Many of the Haenyo divers had to flee the island and moved to Japan. It was after this that the Haenyo divers began to wear wet-suits to avoid drawing attention to themselves. In the next hub Mermaids-Are-Real-Part-Five we will discuss why we think that mermaids and witches were probably the same people.
I have now updated my mermaid video into a playlist of seven parts.
- What Mermaids Really Are
I have a theory about the true nature of mermaids and have made seven video to explain it all. I have made up this Hub so people can easy access all the videos on one page.
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© 2011 William Bond
William Bond (author) from England on May 22, 2013:
My theory is that mermaids were simply female breath-holding divers whom once existed all over the world, including the Caribbean.
ackeegrl on May 21, 2013:
How does this explain mermaid sightings in other places in the world especially the caribbean? We don't have manatees there but mermaids have been sighted inland by rivers.....and our rivers are very small compared to rivers in the states.....