A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse

A Mermaid. John William Waterhouse. 1901.

Teach me to hear mermaids singing. John Donne

I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin's back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music.
William Shakespeare

A mermaid is a mythological creature which has the head and upper torso of a female and the tail of a fish. The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria in 1000 BCE. They are referenced throughout world mythology, variously known as sirens, water fairies, water nymphs and selkies. It is believed their mythic origins might be linked to manatee or dugong sightings by sailors.



In Hindu tradition, Vishnu manifested in a series of incarnations known as avatars. These occur either in response to a great evil or to enact a specific good upon the earth.  I particularly like the mythology surrounding the half-man/half-fish avatar known as Matsya.



. . . Long ago, when life first appeared on the earth, a terrible demon terrorized the earth. He prevented sages from performing their rituals and stole the Holy Vedas, taking refuge in a conch shell in the depths of the ocean. Brahma, the creator of the world approached Vishnu for help and the latter immediately assumed the form of a fish and plunged into the ocean. He killed the demon by ripping open his stomach and retrieved the Vedas. Four forms emerged from the demon's stomach representing the four Vedas: Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda, and Yajur Veda.



One of the king's ministers was a man named Manu. While Manu was washing in a river, a little fish swam into his hands and asked him to save his life. Manu rescued the fish by placing it in a jar but the fish grew too large for the jar. Manu moved the fish to a tank but the tank was soon too small as well. Manu then moved the fish to a river and when that was not large enough, he moved the fish to the ocean.

This fish, which Manu "saved" so many times was actually an incarnation of the Lord Vishnu. Vishnu warned Manu of a great deluge which would soon cover the earth. So Manu build a large boat and took his family and the seeds of life on board. When the flood waters came, the divine fish towed the boat to a mountaintop and there it rested until the flood waters receded.

Jonah and the whale

Jonah and the Whale. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 1:17, KJV