When we had got within earshot of the land, and the ship was going at a good rate, the Sirens saw that we were getting in shore and began with their singing.
The seed of inspiration for this post was planted several years ago, but it remained dormant until now. The development hell that is my brain just wasn’t ready to write a post about mermaids. Just what brought it into fruition? I can’t say.
Practically every sea-going culture has some version of merfolk (after all, some male versions exist) although the female – inspired by the ancient Assyrians and Greeks, refined through Renaissance art and modernised by Hans Christian Andersen and Disney – are the first ones that spring to most people’s minds.
Japan has its own versions of mermaids – and we should not be surprised at this. The Japanese have long enjoyed stories about the Dragon King’s palace under the sea and all the sea creatures that dwell there, often in human form. Japan’s particular oceanography also brings brings deep sea life – although usually dead or dying – into contact with humans at a higher frequency than one would normally expect.
Mermaids are mentioned in Japan’s oldest writings – the Nihon Shoki from 619 mentions a child-sized creature caught in a river that was neither fish nor human.
Prince Shotoku was said to have erected the Kannonshoji Temple at the behest of a mermaid (reincarnated as a mermaid on account of evil committed in a former life) and where her mummified remains were housed until they were lost in a fire.
Even today, several temples and shrines house what they claim to be the mummified remains of mermaids. (And P. T. Barnum must be rolling in his grave…)
If there is a single difference between mermaids from the traditions of Greece, the British Isles, Western Europe etc. and the traditions of Japan, it is this:
Western mermaids are primarily known for their beauty.
Japanese mermaids are primarily known for their edibility.
Yes, you read that correctly. There are stories of people eating the flesh of a mermaid and living to 800 years old.
The Japanese word for mermaid is ningyo (人魚), although another name, hatsugyo (髪魚) exists. Originally, the appearance of a mermaid was supposed to be a good omen. This attribute was retained by a similar mythological creature, the amabie or amabiko. Curiously, the amabie was said to have a beautiful singing voice, just as Western mermaids took on the vocal attributes of the sirens.
Later mermaids were said to bring warnings of approaching disaster of misfortune. It was around this time that the belief of eating the flesh would bring long life and everlasting youth came into being. Incidentally, the flesh of a mermaid was said to be unappetizing.
Descriptions of mermaids have varied through the ages. Some were little more than fish with human heads, while others had an ape-like upper body. Contact with European sailors from the 16th century and later in the 19th century probably also influenced Japanese perceptions of mermaids.
I will mention two particular variations on the Japanese mermaid: the Ainusokki (spelling?) and the zan from Amami Oshima and the Ryukyu Islands.
The Ainusokki is an Ainu version of a mermaid. Like its Japanese counterpart, its flesh will grant long life to whoever eats it. This is probably a case of cross-pollenisation of cultures.
The mermaid traditions of Amami Oshima and the Ryukyus are somewhat different. The zan was not eaten – tradition spoke of disaster for those who killed them. Interestingly, the word zan was and is still used for dugongs in the region. I find it interesting that the marine mammals that probably inspired the development of the mermaid actually share the same name.
As I was looking for information to include in this post I came across an ukiyoe book – essentially a comic book for adults – from 1791, Hakoiremusumemenya Ningyo. This is a comical story that parodied life in the Edo era. What is relevant to this post is that the mermaid in question is actually the love child of Urashima Taro and a carp woman!
To cut a long story short:
While living in the Dragon King’s palace, Urashima Taro falls for the charms of a beautiful carp. Fearing the wrath of the Dragon King, pair decide to abandon the child she bears to the ocean.
The daughter is later caught by a poor fisherman, Heiji. The mermaid (who has no arms but a beautiful face) demands to become Heiji’s wife.
Trying to help her poor husband, the mermaid is recruited into the pleasure quarters. However, no-one will sleep with her because of her fishy smell.
Heiji hears that licking a mermaid will increase one’s life and begins to charge people to lick his mermaid wife (a nod to the eating of mermaid flesh).
Heiji becomes wealthy. He then licks his wife but licks too much and becomes a boy of about seven.
Suddenly Urashima Taro and the carp visit. Heiji opens Taro’s laquered box and returns to his adult self. The mermaid’s skin falls off and she becomes a normal woman. Heiji and his wife sell the mermaid skin for a large amount of money and live happily ever after.
Lastly, I want to return to those mermaid mummies I mentioned earlier. One very good reason to doubt any authenticity is that in the mid- to late- nineteenth century there was a small trade in manufactured mermaids – typically the torso of a monkey stitched onto the body of a fish. The afore-mentioned P. T. Barnum’s famous “Feejee mermaid” (Fiji mermaid) was originally bought from Japanese sailors, and it fairly safe to assume that the oddity had been manufactured in Japan – Japan also had a tradition of sideshow/freakshow entertainment and displays of curiosities, and fakes were part of the show.
Interestingly, several Japanese sites that I came across while researching this made quite a fuss about how these fakes attested to the quality of Japanese manufacturing…