Scaled for Success: The Internationalisation of the Mermaid

Scaled for Success: The Internationalisation of the Mermaid

by Philip Hayward (Editor)


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Emerging from the confluence of Greco-Roman mythology and regional folklore, the mermaid has been an enduring motif in Western culture since the medieval period. It has also been disseminated more widely, initially through Western trade and colonisation and, more recently, through the increasing globalisation of media products and outlets.

Scaled for Success offers the first detailed overview of the mermaids dispersal outside Europe. Complementing previous studies of the interrelationship between the mermaid and Mami Wata spirit in West Africa, this volume addresses the mermaids presence in a range of Middle Eastern, Asian, Australian, Latin American and North American contexts. Individual chapters identify the manner in which the mermaid has been variously syncretised and/or resignified in contexts as diverse as Indian public statuary, Thai cinema and Coney Islands annual Mermaid Parade.

Rather than lingering as a relic of a bygone age, the mermaid emerges as a versatile, dynamic and, above all, polyvalent figure. Her prominence exemplifies the manner in which contemporary media-lore has extended the currency of established folkloric figures in new and often surprising ways. Analysing aspects of religious symbolism, visual art, literature and contemporary popular culture, this copiously illustrated volume profiles an intriguing and highly diverse phenomenon.

Philip Hayward is editor of the journal Shima and holds adjunct professor positions at the University of Technology Sydney and at Southern Cross University. His previous volume, Making a Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century Audiovisual Media, was published by John Libbey Publishing/Indiana University Press in 2017.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780861967322
Publisher: John Libbey Publishing
Publication date: 07/26/2018
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Philip Hayward is editor of the journal Shima and holds adjunct professor positions at the University of Technology Sydney and at Southern Cross University. His previous volume, Making a Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century Audiovisual Media, was published by John Libbey Publishing/Indiana University Press in 2017.

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The Middle Eastern Mermaid: Between Myth and Religion

Manal Shalaby


While this volume principally addresses the dissemination of Western mermaid imagery and associations across a range of international locations, the region profiled in this chapter, the Middle East, is notable for having compound human-piscine figures prior to their earliest recorded appearances in European material, literary and/or folkloric cultures. While no clear linear pattern of dissemination from the Middle East to Europe has yet been established, the presence of such figures is significant in that they originated within a context that was closely networked to ancient Greece – initially through trade connections and then by the expansion of the Greek Empire initiated by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BCE. There have been various terms used to refer to lower-half fish and upper-half human creatures in the region over the last 2500 years. In Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the term khayilaan denotes a mythical sea monster/beast that is half-human, half-fish (without specification of the gender of the human part). The more common term for mermaid-like figures, which is used both inMSA and in colloquial Arabic, is hourriyat al-bahr. The latter term has some resemblance to the English-language term 'mermaid' by virtue of combining a reference to the sea (al bahr) with hourriya, a term that refers to a woman with an almost supernatural beauty. The mermaid is also referred to in Arabic as arous al-bahr or arusat al-bahr – a phrase that literally means bride/maid/doll of the sea. In addition to these terms, there are also a number of others that apply to related entities. These include: al-naddaha of the Nile Delta region, a dangerous siren, usually fully human in form but able to shape-shift; the giant, (usually) human-form, carnivorous aeisha qandesha of Moroccan folklore; and the seductive om al-deiwees of the Persian Gulf. Equivalent male entities, sometimes referred to as insan al-maa ('man of the water'), are far less common in regional folklore and mainly manifest in a small group of literary texts. This chapter provides analyses of early representations of hourriyat al-bahr and insan al-maa, including those present in the One Thousand and One Nights (Anonymous nd) compendium of regional folklore, and of more recent representations in contemporary audiovisual media.

I. Mythology and Ancient Regional Culture

Myth has always been an integral component of the cultural heritage of the Middle East and many manifestations have persisted to the present. In Libya, for instance, the coastal city of Zuwarah holds an annual festival called Awessu. Although the contemporary festival is limited to celebrating traditional food and music, and hosting sporting events, the occasion can be traced back to a Berber ceremony in which people purified themselves in seawater and sought the blessings of a male sea deity similar to the Greek god Poseidon. In Egypt, following a Pharaonic tradition of offering sacrifices to the gods at burial places, people still visit cemeteries with offerings – mainly raisin bread or fruits – to be given to the poor and needy in order to solicit Allah's mercy and favour for the deceased. In Iraq, some people celebrate birth as the Sumerians did by attaching pieces of gold to the newborn's clothes in order to fend off evil spirits. In Turkey and other areas, people continue to believe in the nazar amulet's ability to ward off the evil eye – a pre-Islamic notion that has roots in many ancient regional civilizations and religions.

These examples serve as proof that the Middle East's adoption of the three largest Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) did not entirely divorce regional populations from their rich cultural histories. The myths and religions of ancient regional civilizations have seeped into the practices of these three religions and have been assimilated into the wider cultural identity of the Middle East. However, as much as the surviving traces of ancient beliefs tell us about the strong impact of certain civilizations, they also highlight the Abrahamic religions' politics of integration. While some beliefs were ultimately deemed pagan and rejected, others were implicitly acknowledged and incorporated within the new systems, not only for the purpose of appealing to the region's masses but as part of the power play between the monotheistic religions. All this emphasises the important role of Sumerian, Ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian and other ancient societies in shaping the cultural and religious identity of Middle Easterners. Since mythology constitutes a significant aspect of those past civilizations, it comes as no surprise that these societies' stories and teachings abound with mythical creatures and legendary feats which, albeit reshaped and appropriated over the years, are still observed (sometimes unbeknownst to modern populations) in cultural traditions, folklore and popular art. Hourriyat al-bahr and insan al-maa exist in this context as figures that have been represented innumerous times in different cultural contexts.

Insan al-maa's most obvious antecedence is with the Babylonian god Oannes, who is mainly known from fragments of writing from the 3rd Century BCE priest Berossus that were summarised by subsequent Greek historians (see Burstein 1978) and a small group of visual representations. Oannes was believed to have resided in the Persian Gulf and to have emerged periodically to educate men in the arts and sciences. His form was variously represented as that of a fish with human head and feet, or else as a fish-tailed human. Despite the emphasis placed on his role in enhancing Babylonian civilization in Berossus's writings (ibid), his prominence appears to have been relatively brief and the few references to insan al-maa in subsequent cultural works do not represent them as educators. The origins of hourriyat al-bahr can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia, where early Sumerians believed in Ninkharsag, the great mother-goddess, also known as Ninlil, the consort of Enlil. Ninkharsag was worshipped as the goddess of fertility and the source of all life, inspiring other mother-goddesses in later civilizations, such as Isis in Ancient Egypt and Atargatis in Assyria. Both Isis and Atargatis had strong associations with water. According to Egyptian mythology, Isis is the mother of Horus and the most powerful goddess whose domain covers nature, wisdom, magic, health, children and, most importantly, fertility. Egyptians believed that the annual bountiful Nile flood was brought about by the tears she shed over her husband and brother Osiris (who was killed by their brother Set to usurp his holy throne), thus associating her with the basic life-giving function of the water (Bunson 2002: 278). Durdin-Robertson identifies that Isis's ability to provide the yearly flood required for irrigation led to her representation in many wall paintings where she is sometimes "seen as the bed of the River Nile, the river itself representing the parturient waters of the goddess" (1975: 290). Moreover, Isis was often depicted in a lactans pose, nursing Horus, which directly links her to her Sumerian predecessor Ninkharsag, who provided milk for all mankind, thereby establishing her as the ultimate nourisher.

The image of Ninkharsag as the great mother and nature goddess manifested itself in Assyria in the form of Atargatis, the goddess of terrestrial and marine fertility (a combination that might explain her hybrid physical form in various ancient representations). Atargatis's connection to the water is stronger than her Egyptian counterpart; not only does she reign over the sea but, according to Syrian mythology, she was born from an egg that the sacred fish of the Euphrates River found and pushed ashore. In addition to her anthropomorphic genealogy, later accounts following the passing of Atargatis worship into Greek and Roman cultures relate how the goddess fell in love with a human shepherd whom – depending on which version is cited – she inadvertently killed during lovemaking or else murdered after bearing his child. Out of guilt and shame, she jumped into the sea near Ashkelon (in Palestine) and (in some versions) acquired the lower body of a fish while maintaining the upper body of a woman (Johnson 1994: 140). Known by the Greeks as Aphrodite Dercelo, she prefigured subsequent stories concerning upper-half human, lower-half fish entities in Greek and Roman mythology and was later the subject of a cult located in the Roman city of Hierapolis, in southern Anatolia, where her shrine was tended by eunuch priests. A significant representation of her in compound form, which dates from the Seleucid (greater Syria) Kingdom during the reign of Demetrius III (c88 BCE) shows the goddess on the rear side of a coin with a fish's body and female human head (Figure 1).

Isis's and Atargatis's abilities to command water – as one of many aspects of nature – comprised a major element of their power. Isis cried floods after her husband and brother died. Atargatis banished herself to the sea because she accidentally ended a human life. Their responses to calamities become an expression of life and continuity that both myths celebrate. This element is significant in considering one of the most prevalent explanations of origins of the modern-day Wafaa el-Neel (literally 'Fidelity of the Nile') festival, which celebrates the river's fertilising power. In ancient Egypt one element of the event (which is commonly referred to in English as the 'Maid' or 'Bride' of the Nile festival), involves a wooden effigy of a bride being thrown into the river as an offering for a bountiful harvest. As Egyptologist Mustafa Gadallah has noted, each year, in mid-August, ancient Egyptians commemorated the last teardrop shed by Isis by throwing an effigy of her into the Nile to herald the beginning of the flood season and thereby allow her to unite with her soulmate Osiris, symbolised by the River Nile itself (2016: 118–19). Despite this antecedence, the most common explanation of the origins of the current practice that circulated in the West in the late 18th and 19th centuries and that filtered through to Egypt and, to some extent, (mis-)informed national perceptions, was that the current custom was based on a practice of ritual sacrifice of a maiden practiced by ancient Egyptians and then revived by Coptic Christians until being banned after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the late 7th Century. As discussed by Morgan (2014), this account was derived from a 9th Century Egyptian author and is not corroborated by any other sources. It was, nevertheless, a colourful enough story to inspire German Egyptologist George Ebers to write a florid novel entitled 'Die Nilbraut' ('Bride of the Nile') in 1886 that popularised the myth, with subsequent versions of the tale including a short Italian film adaptation, La sposa del Nilo (Enrico Guazzoni, 1911). The effect of this serial reinterpretation was to neglect the likely roots of the practice in an ancient Egyptian ritual that celebrated life in favour of one in which ritual sacrifice was undertaken. The revisionist myth transformed a descendent of the once-powerful female water-deity into a distillation of sexual subjugation and death in the form of a sacrificial virgin. This is emblematic of the shifting cultural politics of the Middle East more generally and parallels interpretations of Isis/Atargatis in representations of hourriyat al-bahr in Middle Eastern folklore and art.

In her compound form, Atargatis symbolises the conjunction of two worlds by combining the land and the marine. Both Isis and Atargatis, along with their ancestor Ninkharsag, were idolised for the ability of women's bodies to transform and give life, and their worship celebrated women's interconnectedness with all aspects of nature and Mother Earth in general. Notably, later retellings and adaptations of the myth in Middle Eastern cultures were influenced by the Greco-Roman variations in their introduction of mermen and in their undermining of the goddess's divinity. One notable example of the latter was provided by Arab historian and explorer Abu al-Hasan al-Mas'udi (896–956 CE), who related tales in which sailors encounter extremely beautiful banat al-maa (daughters of the sea) who have fish-like bodies with breasts, long hair and faces like human women. He adds that sightings of banat al-maa are not limited to the Mediterranean but also occur in lakes close to the Nile Delta (al-Ahmadi 2005: online). Al-Mas'udi was not the only early Middle Eastern scholar to mention the aquatic humanoids in his writings. In his book Aja'ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara'ib al-Mawjudat ('Wonders of Creatures and Strange Things Existing'), Zakariya al-Qazwini, a Persian Muslim astronomer of Arab descent, describes insan al-maa as resembling "a human being with a fishtail":

A contemporary once found a mummified merman and put him in display; he looked as previously described and the man who found him said he came from the Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes a merman emerges and stands mid-waist in the water for days. He is referred to as the Old Man of the Sea. Sightings of this creature are greeted with jubilation because they signal fertility. I also heard that one time a living merman was carried as a gift to a king who wanted to understand the strange language of the creature. The king married the merman off to a woman, and she gave birth to a son who spoke the languages of both his parents. He was asked about what his father was saying and the son replied: "He says all animals have their tails on their rears. Why do those people have their tails on their faces!" (2005: 130-31 – author's translation)

Whereas Al-Mas'udi's tales appear to reflect aspects of Greek mythology in sexualising the female, al-Qazwini's account focuses on the male equivalent and, hence, sidelines women's sacred relation to nature and assigns it to the male who becomes a symbol of wisdom and fertility. The story of the captured insan al-maa that al-Qazwini refers to has a substantial affinity to the accounts of merfolk offered in One Thousand and One Nights (discussed below) and suggests that after the Middle East's adoption of Abrahamic religions, the celebrated female goddess was systematically 'downgraded' to help consolidate monotheistic and patriarchal cultural paradigms – thereby setting a template for subsequent cultural representations of hourriyat al-bahr.

II. One Thousand and One Nights10

Alf Leilah wa Leilah (known in English as One Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights') is a collection of folktales of various types derived from a range of Middle Eastern communities, divorced from their original referential contexts and appropriated into the Islamic culture that flourished throughout the Middle East in the 8th–13th centuries. Sea-dwelling people of various kinds appear in One Thousand and One Nights in three different stories, known in English as 'Julnar the Sea-Born', The Adventures of Buluqiya' and 'Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman'. 'The first story refers to a silent (fully human-form) concubine whom the king falls in love with and marries only to discover that she belongs to the sea. The tale then quickly shifts to recounting the adventures of their son Badr Basim. In 'The Adventures of Buluqiya', merfolk make a fleeting appearance as the protagonist encounters a community of half-human, half-fish creatures on his journeys. The third story provides a more sustained exploration of merfolk and their relationship to and differences from terrestrial humans. The story concerns a fisherman named Abdullah and an oceanic counterpart also named Abdullah and explores the mutually beneficial friendship that grows between them. The first Abdullah, an extremely poor fisherman, struggles to provide for his large family – a wife and ten children, including a newborn – after he fails to catch fish for several days. On his way home one afternoon, a kind baker gives the fisherman a considerable amount of bread to feed his family and refuses the fisherman's offer to pawn his net to pay for it. The baker's generosity continues for 40 days during which the fisherman fails to catch any fish to pay off his increasing debt. On the 41st day, he catches a merman (literally amanwho is baharyy; that is, associated with the sea) whom he initially misrecognises as one of King Solomon's ifrits (powerful, elemental creatures mentioned in the Qur'an). The creature introduces himself as a mortal believer in Allah and asks the fisherman to free him from the net if he wants Allah to reward him. Abdullah the fisherman does, and a friendship blossoms between the two, with them talking about their shared faith and exchanging the land's most delicious fruits for the sea's most precious gems and pearls. The fisherman's life begins to prosper. He pays off his debts to the baker and provides his family with all they need. The King hears of Abdullah the fisherman and his exotic friend, appoints the former as a wazir (a high-ranking official) and allows him to marry his daughter. One day, while the two are talking about the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, Abdullah the merman asks Abdullah the human to accompany him to his undersea home so that he can give him a pledge to deliver to the prophet Muhammed's tomb. The merman gives the fisherman a special ointment to help him breathe underwater, and on his trip the fisherman encounters a community of merfolk who look different, wear no clothes and eat raw fish.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, vii,
Introduction Philip Hayward, 1,
Chapter 1 The Middle Eastern Mermaid: Between Myth and Religion Manal Shalaby, 7,
Chapter 2 Matsya Fabulism: Hindu mythologies, Mermaids and syncretism in India and Thailand Philip Hayward, 21,
Chapter 3 Japan: The Mermaidisation of the Ningyo Philip Hayward, 51,
Chapter 4 Legend of the Blue Sea: Mermaids in South Korean folklore and popular culture Sarah Keith and Sung-Ae Lee, 69,
Chapter 5 From Dugongs to Sinetrons: Syncretic Mermaids in Indonesian Culture Philip Hayward, 89,
Chapter 6 Changelings, Conformity and Difference: Dysebel and the Sirena in Filipino Popular Culture Philip Hayward, 107,
Chapter 7 Millennial Meirényú: Mermaids in 21st Century Chinese Culture Philip Hayward and Pan Wang, 129,
Chapter 8 Song of the Sirenas: Mermaids in Latin America and the Caribbean Persephone Braham, 149,
Chapter 9 Swimming Ashore: Mermaids in Australian public culture Philip Hayward, 171,
Chapter 10 Mama Wata Remixed: The Mermaid in Contemporary African-American Culture Nettrice R. Gaskins, 95,
Chapter 11 Shoreline Revels: Perversity, Polyvalence and Exhibitionism at Coney Island's Mermaid Parade Philip Hayward and Lisa Milner, 209,
Bibliography, 227,
Chronological catalogue of audiovisual productions featuring mermaids and mermen referenced in the volume, 241,
Index, 245,

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