Saturday, 19 January 2008

Chapter Three - Women Divers

[Photograph by Fosco Maraini of Ama diver swimming underwater, from web-site .]

Lynne Cox proved the fact that women can survive swimming in freezing waters. In 1987 this American women swam across the Bering Strait, from the U.S. to Soviet Union with water temperatures at 38-42 degrees Fahrenheit, without wearing a wet suit. She did it wearing only a normal swimsuit, cap and goggles. In 2003 she even swam over a mile in the Antarctic! In water barely above the freezing point of salt water, and had to push her way through small ice flows.

        This is because of the greater degree of subcutaneous fat that women have compared with men, but this doesn’t apply to all women. A ‘supermodel’ type would freeze to death in icy water as quickly as any man, which means any women divers have to have a chubby build, and train her body to endure the cold. There are men who are able to withstand cold water as well as any women diver if they have sufficient fat dispersed over their bodies. Yet even these men do have a real problem diving in cold water, because they can suffer from, what is politely called; 'Frostbite Shorts’. Men have their sexual genitals on the outside of their bodies, and in cold water they can be subjected to frostbite.

[Underwater Photograph by Fosco Maraini from his book, Hekura, The Diving Girl's Island.] 
A study conducted on pearl diving men of the South Pacific, showed that men constantly diving in cold water have fertility problems. This is because having the testicles too long in cold water can harm or kill the sperm within them. As for swimming in Arctic waters, a man could end up castrated if subjected to bad frostbite. Women, of course, don’t have these problems, as they have internal genitals.

In the sporting world we are used to men outperforming women, yet there is one sport where women are now outperforming men and that is the sport of marathon open water swimming. In the 21 miles across the English Channel, the first woman to do this was Gertrude Caroline Ederle of USA. In 1926 she broke the record of the fastest man by one hour and fifty-nine minutes. In spite of having to battle through heavy seas in the second half of her swim. Since then the record for the fastest channel has been held by both men and women at different times. (Lynne Cox held this record back in the 1980s.)

Another sport where women can out-perform men is the very modern sport of “free-diving”, that is to say diving without the use of oxygen tanks. This sport is greatly surprising scientists as they find that the bodies of trained free divers react exactly like that of a marine mammal in deep dives. In deep free-diving scientists discovered that the human heartbeat would go right down until it is barely beating. The lungs can be crushed until it has little more space than a drink can; yet this has no ill effects on the human body. While what little oxygen left in the body is used to just keep the heart and brain going. This is exactly what happens to the bodies of whales and dolphins when they deep dive. 

Free divers now go deeper than the rescue divers that tried to save the crew of the doomed Russian Kursk submarine. The Norwegian divers in this rescue bid had to spent five days recovering in a decompression chamber, while a free diver do not suffer from bends at all. It seems that the first moment cold water hits the face of a human diving in the water; the human body starts to behave like an aquatic animal. This makes the human body more than capable of dealing with the problems of deep diving.
As with long distance swimming, women can compete equally with men in free-diving as we see in the case of Tanya Streeter, who at one time held many of these free-diving records.

July 22nd 2003 - Provodenciales, Turks and Caicos.

ABSOLUTE WORLD RECORD ~ Constant Weight Without Fins to 115ft/35m in 1 min 44 seconds.

July 21st 2003 - Provodenciales, Turks and Caicos.

ABSOLUTE WORLD RECORD ~ Variable Weight to 400ft/122m in 3 mins 38 seconds.

(Beat both men's and women's previous World Records - Deborah Andollo/95m and Patrick Musimu/120m)

August 17th 2002 - Provodenciales, Turks and Caicos.

ABSOLUTE WORLD RECORD ~ No Limits to 525ft/160m in 3 mins 26 seconds.

(Beat both men's and women's previous World Records - Mandy Cruickshank/136m and Loic Leferme/154m)

Tanya Streeter has now retired and become a TV presenter so other people have now taken some of her records.

Tanya Streeter. You can read more about her at her web-site. -

Youtube video of Tanya Steeter.

[This painting, by Herbert James Draper, 1864 -1920 is called “The Water Nixie”, which is a German name for mermaids that live in freshwater. Again he doesn’t show a woman with a fish tail but a normal women. He is accurate in showing the Nixie living in a swamp where people once found an abundance of food. As was explained in recent TV program by the BBC called Ray Mears’ Wild Food, which informs us that before farming, humans found the majority of their foods in wetlands. As the wetlands and coastal regions, have far more food for hunter/gathers than drier regions inland. Most wetlands have now been drained, as farming has become the main source of food for humans.]

The danger of the wetlands may have protected the mermaids way of life for a long time, until the swamps were drained. Nixes were called a form of elf, but it seems they would appear in the market and could be identified if the corner of the Nize’s apron was wet. This again suggests these ‘elves’ were just an ordinary women, and no different to any other woman at the market. On the Rhine they were called Lorelei, from which the town got its name. Suggesting that these mermaids were once part of the wider community, before there was a conflict about the use of land.

Captain Sir Richard Whitbourne in his journal Discourse and Discovery of New-Found land (1620), wrote-

Now also I will not omit to relate something of a strange Creature that I first saw there in the year 1610 in a morning early as I was standing by the waterside) in the Harbour of St. Johns, which I espied very swiftly to come swimming towards me, looking cheerfully as it had been a woman, by the Face) Eyes Nose, Mouth, Chin, Ears, Neck and Forehead: It seemed to be so beautiful and in those parts so well proportioned, having round about upon the head, all blew strakes resembling hair, down to the Neck (but certainly it was hair) for I beheld it long, and another of my companions also, yet living, that was not then far from me; and seeing the same coming so swiftly towards me I stepped back, for it was come within the length of a Pike. Which when this strange Creature saw that I went from it, it presently thereupon dived a little under water, and did swim to the place where before I landed; whereby I beheld the shoulders and hackle down to the middle, to be as square, white and smooth as the back of a man, and from the middle to the hinder part, pointing in proportion like a broad hooked Arrow; how it was proportioned in the forepart from the Neck and shoulders I know not; but the same came shortly after unto a Boat, wherein one William Hawkridge then my servant, was, that hath bin since a Captain in a ship to the East Indies and is later there implored again by Sir Thomas Smith) in the like voyage, and the same Creature did put both his hands upon the side of the Boat, and did strive to come in to him and others then in the said Boat: whereat they were afraid and one of them stroke it a full blow on the head: where at it fell off from them: and afterwards it came to two other Boat in the Harbour: the men in them for fear fled to land: this (I suppose) was a mermaid. Now because divers have written much of mermaids I have presumed to relate, what is most cenaine of such a strange Creature that was seen in New-found-land: whether it were a mermaid or no, I know not; I leave it for others to judge. (I have updated the spelling of this account, to make it more readable).

It is of interest that he reported that; “I beheld the shoulders and hackle down to the middle, to be as square, white and smooth as the back of a man, and from the middle to the hinder part, pointing in proportion like a broad hooked Arrow”. In other words, the mermaid had the wide muscled shoulders and back of a man, which is what you find in modern day competitive female swimmers. They likewise develop powerful shoulder muscles, which with a slim waist means that have a V shaped back. The Church’s negative propaganda about the sea-people, made ordinary sailors frightened of them, and that resulted in them being attacked.

A similar story is told by John Josselyn in An Account of Two Voyages M New England published in 1674, in which he wrote: 

One Mr. Mittin related of a Triton or Mereman which he saw in Cascobay'. He then goes on to say; Encountered with a Triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the Canow, had one of them chopped off with a Hatchet by Mr. Mittin, which was in all respects like the hand of a man, the Triton presently sunk, dying the water with his purple blood, and was no more.

In Japan it is claimed that eating the flesh of mermaids can give you immortality, which is a strong motivation for people believing this myth to kill and eat ama divers, and there are stories of this happening. For instance there is the story of Yaohime or Ybao-kuni who ate meat given to her by a strange man. It turned out it was the flesh of a mermaid and she lived for 800 years still looking like a fifteen-year-old girl when she died shrines were built in her honour all over Japan.

In Europe there are also stories of mermaids who live for hundreds of years. Although this is clearly an exaggeration, this might be to do with the seafood diet of women divers. People in diving communities ate far better and had more nutritious food than people living inland. Ama and henyo women have been known to keep on working into their 70s, which would be unusual for ordinary people in the past, in farming communities, most of whom had very poor and restricted diets.

         Fortunately not all people would go along with the Church’s propaganda against women divers. So in some places the locals would encourage the stories of mermaids being mythical creatures, to protect them. The Church might have gone along with this, preferring stories of mythical mermaids rather than the fact of diving women, who could do a job better than men. So everyone involved, had a reason to keep it secret. This then is why mermaid stories are really a secret chapter of women’s history. The mermaid people who lived on the coast or inland in wetlands lived a very different lifestyle to ‘ordinary people’. The biggest differences seem to be that the landlubbers lived in patriarchal societies while the mermaid communities lived in matriarchal communities.

[Painting by Luis Riccardo Falero (1851-1896) of a nymph. This picture shows clearly that nymphs were really like, just ordinary women swimming in the sea.]

A few of which have survived to this day, like the Mosuo in China who live around Lugu Lake, whom have been dubbed by one commentator as “The sirens of Lugu Lake”. (Lugu means "dive in the water" in Chinese). Somehow their matriarchy has survived to recent times because up the area was cut off from the outside world. It is claimed that this area was the original Shangri-La that James Hilton wrote about in his book, The Lost Horizon. Unfortunately in the 1970s a road was built to this isolated area and with the ease of modem transport the Mosuo people are now threatened by industrial pollution in lake Lugu and tourism.

Ownership is passed down the female line in Mosuo and the women are free to change husbands whenever they feel like it, or have sex with any man she chooses. Unfortunately rumours of the Mosuo’s people’s free and easy sexual customs have attracted brothels and sexual tourists to the area. With prostitutes being imported from outside and claiming to be Mosuo women, to satisfy the fantasies of their clients. The same is also true in Japan where strip-club owners have made claims that their strippers are ama divers. (Probably another reason why ama divers now wear unglamorous and impracticable cotton clothing.)

Video of Mosuo called "Ladies of the Lake".-

[The above picture by Herbert James Draper is called “The Kelpie”. Which is a curious name, as it is also the name of the Loch Ness Monster.]

The Kelpie in ancient Scotland was known as a water horse like the Loch Ness Monster or a water Devil. Yet Draper portrays the Kelpie as a beautiful woman!? This could mean two things; either this painting was suggesting that women and certainly naked women are devils. This would be the attitude of many Christians at the time he painted this picture, or it could have another explanation. In calling this beautiful naked woman a Kelpie or Water Devil he is hinting at the origins of the words like Satan, Lucifer and the Devil, as they all once referred to Goddesses.

There is a mystery about the name of the Egyptian Goddess Isis. All other ancient Egyptian deities like Ra, Horus or Nut are known by their Egyptian names but Isis is always referred to, only by a Greek translation. A clue to this mystery is that the Egyptian name of the Goddess Isis is As Set. Now the problem with this is that it was from the God Set or Seth comes the word Satan.

The Goddess Isis in her original form was the Egyptian Great Mother or "Queen of heaven". She ruled alone and was seen as the Creatrix. Then as Egyptian society changed the stories about Isis also changed. The first change was that she had a son called Osiris, whose name means in ancient Egyptian "son of Isis", or in Egyptian “son of As Set”, in time Osiris became Isis brother and then her husband. (This happened to many Goddesses where they have a son but in time the son becomes either her brother or lover and then her husband). When he became her husband Isis had another son called Horus, though in his original form he was lame and deformed because he was only born of the mother and was without a father. Horus also had a twin bother called Set or Sut, from which the word Satan comes. He was the evil brother that opposed Horus and was responsible for murdering Osiris. In later versions of the story he cut up Osiris into fourteen pieces but then Osiris was brought back to life by Isis and became Horus. In others versions of this story Set was Osiris brother, and Osiris fathered Horus. Yet Set as it turned out was an older God than either Osiris or Horus, and he was once a benevolent God. Set in Egyptian also means "Queen" or "Princess" and Au Set means "exceeding Queen". So it seems Set was once the Goddess Isis.

Set or Sata was the original Egyptian Mother Goddess and Egypt was once known as the Land of Sata. Then Set became both male and female with the feminine version being As Set or Isis as in the Greek translation. The male Set was then known as a benevolent serpent god who would die and then be reborn in the womb of the Mother Goddess, As Set. (Making him the original resurrection god, that Jesus Christ later became). Later on the male Set became an evil god and the god Osiris took his place. So a new story was created. In this version As Set or Isis would swallow Osiris whole and then he would be reborn from her as the God Horus. Then in later versions of the same story, it was male Set who murdered Osiris and cut him up into many pieces and it was the female Set or As Set who put him back together again.

The religion of Isis later became very popular in Greece and the Roman Empire, which created a problem when Rome became Christian, because the Judeo-Christian devil was called Satan, which was the same name of a very popular Goddess Isis. So not wanting to cause trouble with the followers of Isis the Egyptian name of Isis had to be censored in Europe.

Another popular name for the Devil is Lucifer who was known as “The Light bringer”. In Latin Lucifer means Morning Star and the Morning Star is Venus named after a Roman Goddess, who was originally a tribal pre-Roman Great Mother in ancient times. In many cultures planet Venus is named after Goddesses like Ishtar the Babylonian Goddess who was known in Revelation in the Bible as the “Great Whore” or the “Mother Of Harlots”. Though Interestingly Jesus in Revelations calls himself “The Bright Morning Star” (chapter 22 verse 16), suggesting that he is also Lucifer.

The Word Devil comes from the ancient Indo-European word Devi which means Goddess and is still used in India today to mean both Goddess and women. It is also from the word Devi we get the words divine and divinity. (It is not unusual to have feminine words degraded in this way.  The word cunt is a swear word in our society. Yet it comes from the Goddess Cunti or Kunda and from this word also comes the words kin, (family), kind and country.

So it could be that Herbert James Draper being a well-educated man may have known all this and expressed it by calling the beautiful naked women in his picture a Kelpie, or water Devil.This would also be a subtle attack on the Christian Church for the way they have blackened the name of mermaids or the sea-people by referring to them as devils. Though it could also be that he was mindlessly expressing Christian propaganda, that naked beautiful women are devils, which justified the genocide of the witches and the mermaid people.
Not only has the Christian Church and other patriarchal religions have for centuries attacked, mermaids, witches and matriarchy and done their best to censor all knowledge of empowered women. The same is also true of historians, archaeologists and palaeontologists as well. The evidence for mermaids doesn’t only come from mermaids myths and ama and haenyo divers, in also comes from knowledge of pre-history that has never been told to the general public.

[Photograph from Japanese web-site.

Showing the reality of ama divers in the modern world, walking along a tarmac highway to the beach with their bodies completely covered up and with head coverings that look like an Islamic Hijab.]

-->Photograph by Iwase Yoshiyuki from website,
called “Havesting Seaweed 1956”

The same web-site also writes about the daily life of a ama diver in the following paragraph. -

Water temperatures on the Onjuku coast are bearable only between June and September. Large harvests were impossible to haul up in strong currents, so tides had to be favourable, limiting diving days to about 20 per year. Ama dive in three sessions a day, requiring extensive eating and warming at the fireside between runs. A good daily harvest required 60 to 80 dives of up to two minutes each, so ama had to develop and maintain substantial body fat to guard against hypothermia. With such rigors and risks, ama were paid enormous salaries, often making more in the short season than the village men made the whole year. In the late 1920s there were around 200 ama atctive in Onjuku and the seven harbours of the region (Kohaduki, Ohaduki, Futamata, Konado, Tajiri, Koura and Nagahama). By the late 1960s, they had disappeared. This body of work stands as the final, most comprehensive visual document of the life and work of these divers.

Another photograph by Iwase Yoshiyuki from website,

called “Hauling up a fishing boat 1950”

There are 45 ama photographs on the site showing amas in their daily life at work, between 1935-1956, while others are posed glamour photographs. Unfortunately there are no underwater photographs.

Picture from film "Violated Paradise" stills are available from website.-

Another picture from film "Violated Paradise", this film is available at.

As it turns out Ama is a Chinese word meaning, sea-woman, sea-man or sea-person. In the paper, “Naked Divers: A case of Identity and dress in Japan” by D.P. Martinez she discusses the origins of the ama. To quote.-
The ama dive for seaweed and shellfish, particularly abalone (awabi) but not for pearls. They have a long history in Japan: the presence of large shell mounds from the Neolithic indicates that they have been on the islands for a least 2,000 years (Nukada 1965: 27). There is also clear evidence that divers in northern Kyushu migrated from Cheju Island in Korea “a long time ago” while the “Ama of Shima in Mie Prefecture and those of Kada, Wakayama Prefecture, both on the Pacific side are presumed to be of different origin” (Birukawa 1965: 63).

However, as will be discussed, divers have also long been an object of Japanese academic research, and in this context they seem to exist in a mythical realm of their own: they have been variously described by physiologists as physically and therefore potentially racially different; by folklorists and anthropologists as the remnants of an ancient Japanese matriarchy; or, linked to the notion of a different race, as descendants of Koreans.

[The controversy over whether ama in Japan are descendants of Koreans can be explained by the fact that up until recently there were close links between the haenyo on Korean islands and the ama on the west coast of Japan. So while the ordinary Japanese lost their connections with the Koreas, the amas never lost them.]

The divers of Mie Prefecture (where I happened to do my fieldwork) feel free to offer their own theory on the origins of divers through the folk etymology they give for the word ama. The term, they say, is derived from Amaterasu, the sun goddess who is also the official ancestress of the Imperial family; this implies, then, that they also descend from the main Japanese deity. This mythic connection to Amaterasu link Mie ama closely to the Imperial line…

Whatever their origins, at one time it seems that all the people on the islands we now call Japan did dive; the Chinese dynastic histories during the Wei Dynasty (A.D. 220-265) noted of the place they called Queen country: The people are fond of fishing; regardless of the depth of the water, they dive to capture fish” (Tsunoda 1951: 10). As time went on, and rice cultivation was introduced from China, diving (and fishing) became specialized skills, with the people who practised them becoming more marginalized from the mainstream culture. While fishing remained an important source of food, the fact that the social structure, in imitation of China, was based on settled agricultural communities meant that divers and fishermen were rarely mentioned in historic documents (Samsom 1931: 45)

Divers do appear in other sorts of documents from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries (Christian era), that is, as the subjects of evocative poems written by courtiers. In these poems, the female divers appear to hold many associations, for the ancient noblemen and women: they represent melancholy, solitude, nature and freedom. Their nakedness is not shocking (farming women worked bare-breast in the summer), but romantic and picturesque.

Uniting their efforts 1953

There is some controversy whether both the ama and haenyo dived completely nude in the past. It is claimed that the thongs or bathers that amas used up until the 1960s was only introduced at the start of the 20th century. There is evidence that public nudity was perfectly acceptable to both men and women in ama villages. The above photograph, by Iwase Yoshiyuki shows men in a ama village working completely nude. Which suggests that perhaps the thongs or bathers that the amas are photographed in, are worn at the request of the photographer, as he would know it would be hard to sell any photographs of totally nude amas. In modern times amas wear clothes or a wet-suit because they are now part of the tourist industry.

Japanese woodblock print Kunisada (1786-1864).

This print like other prints of the period shows ama divers wearing a wrap around skirt. Again it could be that amas perhaps wore impracticable skirts when outsiders came to their villages, like the artist who painted the above picture. The artist shows us clearly just how impracticable there skirts were as they fail to protect their modesty when diving or wringing the water out of them, and one ama in the picture cannot be bothered to wear one.

The rubber wet-suits that modern haenyo and ama divers use has also changed the nature of these women divers at explained in the paper; "Naked Divers: A case of Identity and dress in Japan" by D.P. Martinez

The hard physical labour required by diving had other interesting repercussions. In the 1930s physiologists discovered that the women in ama communities tended to be taller and heavier than the norm for Japanese women. They also could tolerate long hours in very cold water, something non-divers could not do. Thus, for some researchers this raised a question about their origins and whether they might not be Japanese at all. Physiological studies of the ama tended then to group Koreans and Japanese divers together, using the same term for both, since physically they were alike. However in the 1960s, the loss of diver’s ability to withstand low water temperatures because they had taken to wearing wetsuits meant that for some physiologist the ama were no longer interesting (Hong 1983, private communication). The differences between divers and the main population are now seen to be ones of diet and of adaptation which anyone could develop if they begin diving young enough, rather than actual racial differences due to different gene pool.

Update on women divers