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Beasties of the Deep: Mythological Creatures of the Sea – Part 2

Mythological Creatures of the Sea

Welcome to Part 2 of Mythological Creatures of the Sea. If you missed Part 1 you can find it here. Previous posts i the mythical creatures series can be found here (on dragons, fantastical horses, and mythical creatures of the sky). Today we’re dealing with other beasts of the deep!

Hippocampus depiction in ancient art
Hippocampus – Still no hippos….

Common to Phoenician and Greek mythology, the hippocampus is typically depicted as the front half of a horse with a fish’s tail. 

Poseidon, god of the sea, but also of horses and earthquakes (talented chap!), was described by Homer as drawn by “brazen-hoofed” horses over the sea’s surface, whereas Neptune (the Roman name for Poseidon) has a sea chariot drawn by hippocampi, gicing the god slightly different depictions in each culture. 

Neptune’s horses do appear as hippocampi in the Trevi Fountain in Rome. I’ve seen this fountain in the flesh…er, stone… and didn’t realise the horses were more than just horses! In my defence, it was a little crowded at the time. And I had sore feet. 


You don’t see this one much in fantasy, I’m afraid. So if you’re looking for something a little unusual… consider the poor, forgotten hippocampus!
The Trevi Fountain in Rome

Kraken – Oh, giant octopus!

OK, that’s some octopus. The kraken, of truly giant proportions, probably had more than 8 arms and was reputed to live off the coasts of Norwayand Iceland.

One tale goes that the Kraken was sometimes mistaken for an island, and the real danger to sailors is the whirlpool left in its wake. Other tales more commonly have the kraken wrapping its tentacles around hapless ships and dragging them to a watery grave. It was said if the kraken were to seize hold of the largest man-of-war, it could be pulled to the very bottom of the sea. 

The myth may have grown from sightings of the giant squid, estimated to grow to 13–15 m (40–50 ft) in length (including tentacles). Although giant squid usually lives at great depths, they are sometimes sighted at the surface and may even have attacked ships.

The kraken makes an appearance in The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The monster that drives the Fellowship of the Ring into the mines of Moria may also have been a kraken or kraken type creature. 


Man o’ War

Kraken
















Each Uisge – Beautiful Horse!

 Pronounced Ach (rhymes with Bach, the composer; the “ch” is a gutteral sound, caught in the throat, almost as if you are choking – if you’ve ever heard a Scot say ‘Och!’ you know what I mean) ishkeh (like “shish kabob”, without the first “sh” and “bob” at the end). Yes, as far as I can see, there is no logical connection between the spelling of these words and their pronunciation!

Considered a relative of the Scottish kelpie, or waterhorse (which is not a Loch Ness Monster type-creature – we’ll cover waterhorses ina  future post), the Each Uisge of the Scottish Highlands is reputedly the most dangerous water-dwelling creature in the British Isles. 

Unlike the kelpie, the Each Uisge lives in the sea, sea lochs and fresh water lochs and is far more vicious. It often appears as a beautiful horse or an incredibly handsome man. In human form, the Each Uisge can be recognised only by the water weeds in his hair. Highlanders tended to be wary of lone animals or people near the edges of lochs for fear it was the Each Uisge. 

If a man or woman mounts the Each Uisge while in horse-form, they are safe so long as they remain out of sight or scent of water – although this may be difficult in Scotland! For if the Each Uisge scents water, his back becomes sticky, preventing the rider from dismounting. The Each Uisge then drags his rider to a watery doom, diving to the very deepest part of the loch. After the rider has drowned, the Each Uisge devours his victim, except for the liver which floats to the surface. Presumably the poor soul has unstuck from the Each Uisge’s back at this point….

One tale of the Each Uisge recounts a blacksmith from Raasay who lost his daughter to the Each Uisge. In revenge, the blacksmith and his son made a set of large hooks, then roasted a sheep and heated the hooks until they were red hot. A mist appeared from the water and the Each Uisge rose from the depths of the loch, seizing the sheep, and the blacksmith and his son rammed the hooks into its flesh, killing it. Nothing remained in the morning except a jelly like substance.

The Each Uisge makes an appearance in the Bitterbynde trilogy by Australian author Cecilia Dart-Thornton.

Selkies – Seal People

Selkies, also called silkies or selchies, are also Scottish in origin (also Faroese, Icelandic and Irish folklore). A selkie is a magical seal which can take the form of a human. When in human form, the selkie sheds its seal skin. Without the skin, it cannot return to seal form. 

Unlike many other mythological creatures, the selkies lend themselves to romantic tragedies. A human might take a selkie for a lover, not knowing their lover is not human, and wakes one day to find them gone. In other’s, knowing their lover is a selkie, the mortal takes and hides the selkie’s seal skin, denying them the ability to return to the sea. This is the only way a human can keep a selkie lover, for if the human does not hide the selkie’s skin, the selkie must wait seven years before they may make contact with their human lover again. 

Male selkies are very beautiful and seductive to human women, but prefer dissatisfied women, such as those at home waiting for their fishermen husbands. If a woman wishes to call a selkie, she must go to a beach and shed seven tears into the sea. Then the selkie will come to her. 

If a man steals a selkie’s skin, she is in his power and forced to become his wife. Female selkies supposedly made prized wives, but they often gaze at the sea, missing their home. If she can find her skin, she will return to the sea, even if she has mortal children. Often it is one of her children who unwittingly finds her skin and allows her the opportunity to escape. How sad! Such escaped selkie women usually avoid their mortal husband but may return to visit their children from time to time. 

In the Faroe Islands there is the story of the Seal Wife. A young farmer goes to watch the selkies dance on the beach. Hiding the skin of a selkie maid, he forces her to marry him, and hides her skin in a locked chest to which only he has the key. On the day he forgets the key, she takes back her skin and escapes back to the sea, leaving behind her husband and children. 

Although selkie lore tends to romantic tragedies, not all tales are about faithless lovers. The fisherman, Cagan, married a selkie and sailed against his wife’s wishes into dangerous weather. His selkie wife shifted to seal form and saved him, although this meant she could not return to him or her happy home for seven years. 

I find the selkie folklore very sad. Nothing ever seems to go right for selkies who love mortals or mortals who love selkies. Doomed from the start!

Selkies also appear in the Bitterbynde trilogy by Australian author Cecilia Dart-Thornton.

That’s it for our mythical creatures of the sea. I’ve been asked to cover undines and rusalkas (other types of water creatures, although more typically associated with fresh water) so if you have any special requests, do let me know!

You can find other posts in mythical creatures series here – Dragons, Fantastical Horses, Creatures of the Sky, Mythical Creatures of the Sea – Part 1, and Spirits of Inland Waterways

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven’t already. If you’re finding yourself here often, you might like to join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or subscribe to my newsletter.


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Mythical Creatures of the Sea – Siren Song of the Deep – Part 1

Mythical Creatures of the Sea

So she poured out the liquid music of her voice to quench the thirst of his spirit.  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Welcome to the March mythical creatures installment. You can find the previous posts here (on dragons, fantastical horses, and mythical creatures of the sky).

I have too many mythical creatures of the sea to cover, so I’ve split it into two posts. Don’t worry, I won’t make you wait until April! The second half will be up next week. 

Mermaid

We’re probably all familiar with the contemporary depictions of this mythological sea creature, a female human from the waist up with the tail of a fish. A male version of a mermaid is known as a ‘merman’ and collectively they are known as ‘merfolk’ or ‘merpeople’. But what is the origin of the myth?

As it happens, mermaids are depicted in many cultures, far too many legends to cover here.
In British folklore, mermaids are considered unlucky omens, either foretelling disaster or causing it. Mermaids may also be a sign of approaching bad weather. 

A popular Greek legend has it that Alexander the Great’s sister turned into a mermaid after she died (can I have this afterlife?). When she encountered a ship, she would ask the sailors ‘Is King Alexander alive?’ If the sailors replied ‘He lives and reigns and conquers the world’ she would be pleased enough to calm the sea and bid the sailors farewell. Any other answer enraged her and caused her to raise a terrible storm, dooming the ship and every sailor on board. 

Mermaids typically live in the ocean, using their beauty and charm to lure sailors to their deaths. They have also been described as being capable of swimming up rivers or streams to freshwater lakes. One legend recounts the Laird of Lorntie going to the aid of a drowning woman, only to be dragged back by his servant. Uncharitable man! But no, the servant warned, the woman is a mermaid, whereupon the mermaid screamed she would have killed the laird if not for the lucky intervention of the servant. Whew! Close escape. 

Traditionally the mermaid was depicted unclothed, but censorship in modern culture has resulted in mermaids shown partially clothed or with hair covering their breasts. Interestingly, some mermaids are described as 2000 feet long! That is not a fish I want to have an argument with…

Most lore deals with the female, with mermen described as uglier and wilder than mermaids and having little interest in humans. Looks like us gals are safe from this creature!

The mermaid appears frequently in popular culture. There is, of course, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and quite recently, mermaids made an appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Or were they sirens…

Sirens

The sirens come from Greek mythology and were depicted in later folklore as mermaid like, and thus often confused, but they are not the same thing at all!

The sirens were originally described as ‘winged maidens’, but later portrayed as ‘fish-like’, thus creating the confusion with mermaids. Early Greek art shows the sirens as birds with large women’s heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. This transformed to female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, and playing musical instruments, most often harps. Later, Sirens were sometimes depicted as beautiful women, whose bodies, not only their voices, are seductive. Lastly, the mermaid-like depiction appeared. 

As mentioned, mermaids used their beauty and charm to lure sailors to their deaths (often compelling the men to jump overboard to drown in the mermaid’s arms) but sirens instead used their singing to lure sailors toward rocks, thus sinking the ship on the rocky coast of their island. The siren’s song is beautiful and irresistible, described as:

‘Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.’

From this legend comes the expression ‘siren song’ referring to an appeal that is hard to resist but, if heeded, will have terrible consequences. 

One version of the legend goes that sirens ate their victims. Another, based on the depiction of victims with rotting flesh, suggests the sirens do not kill sailors for food. Instead, the sirens lure sailors to be their companions but, with their feathers lost, cannot feed their new companions, who starve to death when they refuse to leave. I like that version better myself. 

Dangerous seductresses, the sirens were considered the daughters of the river god Acheolus and their number ranged from two to five. The Greeks did not regard them as sea deities, although the Romans more closely linked them to the sea as daughters of Phorcys (primordial sea god of hidden dangers of the deep – now isn’t that a mouthful?). The sirens did not live in the sea, but in a flowery meadow on their island. 

One tale has the sirens as companions of a young Persephone (daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess, Demeter) and given wings by Demeter to allow them to search for Persephone when she was abducted by Hades to become queen of the underworld. An alternative version of the myth has Demeter cursing the sirens for failing to intervene in Persephone’s abduction. The sirens searched for Persephone but eventually gave up and settled on their island home. Later, they were provoked by Hera (wife of Zeus) to enter a contest with the Muses and, defeated, were deprived of their wings.

Sirens are fated to live only until the mortals who heard their songs could pass on by. In Homer’s classic The Odyssey, Odysseus plugged his ears with wax so he could not hear the siren’s song and so the sirens cast themselves into the sea and drowned (or turned into rocks, or so says the alternative version… go figure!). 

According to the mermaids in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, they were not sirens, but did the  bidding of sirens. 

The sirens are not truly creatures of the sea, but I have covered them here because they are sea-related and so often confused with mermaids. 

Tritons

Triton is a Greek god, son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and Amphitrite, goddess of the sea, whose herald he is. He is most often represented as a sea-coloured merman

Over time, Triton’s name and image came to be associated with mermaid-like creatures, the Tritons.  Tritons were both male and female and formed the escort of marine divinities. Tritons were a race of sea gods and goddesses born from Triton.

Tritons are often considered the aquatic versions of satyrs. We haven’t covered satyrs yet – we’ll get to them in a  future post, but think Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Another description of Tritons is that of the Centaur-Tritons, also known as Ichthycentaurs, depicted with two horse’s feet in place of arms. 

Tritons are the trumpeters of the sea, using great trumpets of conch.  Blowing the conch would calm the waves, or stir them up. 

Triton (the god) appears in The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan. He helps his father fight against the Titans of the sea, and is very rude to Percy Jackson, who is his half brother. In the book he is described as a young-looking merman with two fish tails instead of one, green skin, black hair tied into a ponytail, and wearing armour studded with pearls.

Nereids

Another one from Greek mythology! Those Greeks sure did get around. The Nereids were the nymphs of the sea, daughters of Nereus, god of the sea (how many sea gods are there, I ask you?). He had fifty daughters, so he sure knew how to party. 

These lovely ladies were friendly folk. Finally, a mythical creature that wants to be my friend instead of eat me, drown me or kill me! Nereids were known for helping sailors through rough storms and lived mostly in the Mediterranean. Too bad if you’re sailing across the Atlantic when a storm blows up…

The Nereids also often accompanied Poseidon (another sea-god if you recall…) and lived with their father in a silvery cave. The most well-known is Thetis, mother of Achilles. Who knew? First time I heard Achilles was half-sea-nymph!

Other notable Nereids included Amphitrite, Poseidon’s wife (who else would a sea-god wed than the daughter of another sea-god?) and Galatea, who had the dubious honour of being the love of Cyclops.  

I’m off to consult my mythical creatures bestiary for next week’s Part 2 – Beasties of the Deep: Mythical Creatures Beneath the Waves. 



 
You can find other posts in mythical creatures series here – Dragons, Fantastical Horses, Creatures of the Sky, Mythical Creatures of the Sea – Part 2, and Spirits of Inland Waterways

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven’t already. If you’re finding yourself here often, you might like to join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or subscribe to my newsletter.
Don’t forget to share the love and spread the word on Twitter, Facebook or StumbleUpon (or other social networking site of your choice) if you know other people who might also enjoy this.

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