Saturday, 12 October 2013


[Photograph of a real Mermaid by Fosco Maraini from the book, Hekara, The Diving Girl’s Island of Japanese ama diver foraging for shellfish and editable seaweed.]
In the 20th century several studies have been done on haenyo divers by scientists who have dubbed them; “the hardiest women of the world”. In a study by the scientists Suk Ki Hong and Herman Rahn in the late 60s, they found that they could dive to a depth of 20 feet unaided apart from a wet-suit and goggles and remain underwater for as long as 3 minutes.

Modern aids like wet suits and goggles are a great help, as in the past haenyo divers would suffer blindness from their eyes being constantly exposed to seawater. Wet-suits makes it less likely they suffer from hypothermia, though in Japan, where they also have ama divers, modern aids are banned, including wet suits in some areas. The word ama comes from; Amaterasu the Japanese Sun Goddess but today it simply means, ‘sea woman’. In other words, the Japanese word ama, and the English word mermaid, (sea-woman), both mean the same thing.

Female divers are a very controversial subject in Korea, because these women have become the main ‘breadwinners’. This means that while the women are out working, the men have to look after the home and children. In a male-dominated society like Korea this is shocking and an embarrassment, to the degree that these women are referred to as Amazons and their husbands are looked down upon for being too “feeble”. The women's economic and social independence from male control sharply contrasts with the enforced dependency on men observed in mainland Korean women. The Amas in Japan have a similar reputation. To quote D.P. Martinez in her paper, "Naked Divers: A case of Identity and dress in Japan."

The women were seen to be totally different from the ideal of modern womanhood: they were often described to me as loud, big, brash and bossy women.

Koreans in the past become so embarrassed by the status of the haenyo divers that all knowledge of them was strictly censored and their activities banned.This was enforced on the mainland but not on the remote islands of Mara, Udo and Cheju. To quote Prof Ko: “The Central Government forbade the women from diving, but the women just gave them some abalone to look away”. (Abalone are a marine mollusc that is considered a great delicacy by a number of Asian cultures. Because of this; high prices are paid for abalone meat).

This has changed since the 1960s, when Western tourists discovered women divers in Korea and Japan. Since then, haenyo divers have become a popular tourist attraction, and this has allowed women divers to, “Come out of the closet”.

Now it is of interest, that although both Korean and Western scholars accept that Hamel’s journal was accurate, we still have a mystery. Why did he make the mistake of thinking haenyo divers were mermaids? The assumption made by some commentators is that he was just an ignorant seaman, but the accuracy of his journal disproves this. The explanation could be that the way mermaids were seen back in the 17th century, might be different to what we know about mermaids today. We now assume that a mermaid is a woman with the tail of a fish, but this might not always have been true. The concept of a creature that was half fish and half women was an embellishment during the middle ages. As previously pointed out, the Koreans found that haenyo divers to be such an embarrassment that all knowledge of them was heavily censored. So if the profession of female divers had died out in Korea, back in the 19th century, we today, would not know anything about them, except the report from Hamel that there were mermaids on the island.

       The fact of women divers being an embarrassment in Korea may also be true of other parts of the world.Male chauvinism is not unique to Korea. It is claimed that the ban and censorship of women divers in Korea came through the influence of Confucianism, which is a Chinese doctrine. In China mermaids were called ‘dragon wives’ which presumably is because they were as assertive as the Amazon like women divers in Korea. So it does suggest there was once a similar ban in China of women divers and through censorship we now know nothing about them.
Female divers could also be an embarrassment in Europe. Hamel might have been fully aware that mermaids were female divers because he had seen them working in European waters. And he might have assumed that the 17th century readers of his book would also be aware of this fact. It could be that women divers were as commonplace in Europe as they were in Korea and Japan in the 17th century. 

      Then because of male chauvinism, the hostility of the Christian Church and changing economic conditions the work of female divers disappeared. In the 19th century, food became more plentiful because of the beginnings of industrial farming, so the demand for shellfish and editable seaweed would not be so great. Therefore female divers wouldn’t be getting the same pay as before, and found it no longer worth risking the hostility of the authorities to continue to be mermaids.

        The profession died out in European countries and if they had censored the facts about women divers in the same way the Korea authorities had done, then the only knowledge that would survive about women divers would be mermaid legends. In Korea the practice of women diving was completely banned on the mainland. This is true in many Pacific islands today where there is a custom of banning women from fishing and diving. So this also could have happened in Europe.
This is confirmed by Captain John Saris who sailed to Japan in three ships, the Cloue, the Hector and the Thomas, in 1611. He witnessed ama divers working and later wrote:

Women divers, that lived with their household and family upon the water, as in Holland they do the like.
Suggesting that women divers where once commonplace in Holland in the 17th century, the references about living on the water is what sea gypsies still do in South East Asia. They live on boats or on long stilt houses on the water. Could it be that people once did the same in Holland?

The concept that ama divers are mermaids is not a new idea. Francis Haar made the same point, in his book, Mermaids Of Japan, a book about ama divers. (Francis Haar wrote a number of books on Japanese life). If we assume that mermaids are in fact women divers, it means that the many sightings of mermaids indicate an earlier tradition of women divers throughout Europe, (as well as America and Africa before it was conquered by Europeans). Furthermore, this tradition must have continued into the 19th century judging by the sightings of mermaids. Yet this fact was censored and we can see the hostility of chauvinistic men towards women divers, or mermaids, in reports of their relationship with the Church in medieval times.

In those times, there were bizarre stories of priests who, encountering mermaids on the seashore, would curse them as devils and threaten them with eternal damnation. The mermaids’ usual response was to burst into tears! (Which sounds like the response of ordinary women to verbal abuse). They also report that a mermaid from the Isle of Iona become so upset by these condemnations that she visited one priest daily to plead for her soul. So we see very aggressive attempts by priests to convert diver women into ordinary submissive women, and in some cases this succeeded.

In the 6th century off the northwest coast of Ireland a mermaid was caught, baptised and educated and was called Saint Murgen. In 1403 a Carmelite monk, John Gerbrandus wrote, “a wyld woman” was washed through a broken dike in the Netherlands and was found by some milkmaids. Clothed and fed, she was taught to spin wool and eventually taken to Haarlem. She then learnt “to worship the cross” and remained in speechless piety for fifteen years.

In the book, De Propietatibus Rerum, by Bartholomew Angelicus, he warned that mermaids charmed seamen through sweet music. "But the truth is that they are strong whores," who will lead men "to poverty and to mischief." He also claimed that a mermaid will lull a sailor to sleep, and kidnap him, and take him to a dry place for sex, and if he refuses, "then she slayeth him and eateth his flesh." In other words, in calling mermaids, “strong whores” he is saying they are assertive women, like Amazon haenyo divers.

These stories only sound weird if we take the traditional view of a mermaid. If we assume that mermaids are women divers, then it gives an insight into the Christian Church’s hostility to these workingwomen. This is because Christianity in the past wanted to keep “women in their place”. So they must have seen the confidence and assertive diver women as a threat. The Church tried to convert these women divers into being ‘ordinary’ submissive women, and would curse and verbally attack them if they refused. It also seems that mermaids were associated with witches and we know what the Christian Church did to witches. The infamous witch hunts of the Middle Ages completely wiped out the profession of women healers and herbalists, allowing this vocation to be taken over by male doctors.

It must also be remembered that up until the 20th century women were only allowed to do the lowest menial jobs. The experience from Japan and Korea shows that divers were well paid and this may be true of divers in Europe. Then the coming of anti-female religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Confucianism brought about a change in attitude towards this ancient tradition. It is of interest that one of the foods banned by Judaism is shellfish. Was this because it was women who traditionally harvested this food? Another reason could be that shellfish was probably available through the Philistines, the enemies of the Jews in the Bible. The Philistines were part of the sea-peoples, which I will discuss, in a later chapter.

On the Orkneys there are the stories of the Finwives as reported on the web-site.-

The lore surrounding the Orkney Finwife has a distinctly disjointed feel. So much so that I believe the surviving tales are a mish-mash of various traditions and myth.

On first glance, the Finwife stories appear to be a combination of tales involving Orkney's "spae" wives - wise women or witches, huldrefolk and mermaid lore.

All these are conveniently merged with the tales of the Finmen.

But while the Finman actively shunned contact with mortals - unless absolutely necessary to his purpose - the Finwife was more involved with her human neighbours.

As a child of the Finfolk, the Finwife was said to begin her life as a mermaid - stereotypically beautiful with long, glistening fish tail.

If, however, the young mermaid married a Finman - a fate that awaited her if she did not acquire a mortal huband - she was doomed to become progressively uglier, eventually becoming a haggard Finwife.

Tradition dictates that these Finwives were often sent to shore to use her magic to earn precious silver for her husband. Once settled on land, she would often tell her neighbours she was of Caithness origin - in other words not Orcadian - and then "pretend to earn a living" by spinning and knitting.

The Finwife was renowned for her skill in curing diseases in men and cattle. Because of this is usually did not take long to become an invaluable member of the community. Once accepted she would begin to practice her "infernal arts", all the while sending the silver coins she earned back to her avaricious husband beneath the waves.

If the supply of "white metal" came sparingly or was delayed at any time, the unfortunate Finwife could expect a visit from her Finman husband, who, upon his arrival, would administer a sound beating that usually resulted in the witch being confined to bed for days.
A curious parallel to witch tales from other cultures is that the Finwife was said to keep a black cat.
The similarity ends here, however, as the Finwife's cat had the ability to transform into a fish so it could carry messages between its mistress and her relatives in Finfolkaheem.
(Finfolkaheem is mythical island which was the finfolk’s ancestral home.)

If we were to look at this story from the point of view of a mermaid, with a fish’s tail and who lives in the sea, it seems a wildly fanciful story. But if we see mermaids as women divers, it makes perfect sense.

The fishwife starts off being a mermaid; in other words a women diver. Then she gets married. The report says that after this she becomes ugly and haggard; but this would be true of all women, as they get older. Tradition dictates that Finwives use their magic to earn money. So she is still a career woman, and if she can no longer earn a living diving, she does so as an herbalist, spinner or knitting. In this way she is very similar to gypsy women and witches. The report then says that when she begins to earn money the finman husband would demand it from her and beat her up if she refused. This again is not that unusual; pimps do the same to prostitutes all the time. It seems that finmen are basically ‘kept men’, with the finwife as the breadwinner. This would make it unlikely that he would beat up his wife as she had the power to stop keeping him. So this could be something added to disguise the fact of finmen being kept men. It could be that the finmen were at home looking after the children while the finwifes went to work.

It is of interest, that in Elizabethan times, prostitutes were referred to as mermaids. This would make sense, as during the winter months when the water was too cold for diving, women divers being the main breadwinner of the family would need an alternative form of income. So any women divers, not skilled enough to be a spinner, or know enough to be a competent herbalist, might have to resort to prostitution to feed her family. It also could be the reflection on the sexual behaviour of mermaid communities that had a more free and easy attitude to sexuality than ordinary people at that time. Nymphs, the Greek word for mermaids had reputation of sexual license and freedom, as I will later discuss in other chapters these mermaid communities may have had a good reason to be like this.

The Finfolk also shunned contact with ordinary people. The same is true for the ama divers in Japan. The ama divers and their families live a life distinct from ordinary Japanese, who refer to them as sea-gypsies.

The connection between herbalists and women divers is also shown in another mermaid story. In this story an herbalist from Galloway tried to cure a beautiful girl named May of illness. He was also very much in love with her and hoped to marry her. But whatever he tried did not work and the girl remained ill. Then one evening as he sat in despondency on the sea-shore, a mermaid raised her head from the sea nearby and sang:

 Would you let bonnie May die in your hand. And let mugwort flowering in the land?

The herbalist took the hint and gathered the flowers of mugwort and made up a medicine and gave it to May, which restored her to health. In Wales there is the story of the lady of Llyn y Fan Fach, who imparted her herbal lore to her three sons, the Physicians of Mydfai. The Mermaid Dragon-wives of China were also famed for their knowledge of herbs and their skill in curing diseases.
These are positive mermaid stories and if we take away the magical mermaid myth and see the mermaid as an ordinary woman, we can see in the story from Galloway that the mermaid is part of the community, because she knows about May, her illness and the unsuccessful efforts of the herbalist to heal her. So she advises the herbalist when he is alone, on the seashore. We also cannot assume that the mermaid is young and inexperienced. In Japan and Korea women divers continue their trade into their 70s. So this mermaid could also have been an experienced middle-aged herbalist as well.
In the 12th century there was a story from Wales that was also about a mermaid herbalist: A farmer’s son in Blaensawdc, near Llandcusant was with his cattle near the lake of Llyn y Fan Fach when he met a beautiful women combing her hair and using the clear water as a mirror. The youth fell instantly in love with her and after talking to her, proposed marriage. She accepted, but on the precondition that if he struck her three blows without cause, she would leave him. He willingly agreed to her terms.

After their marriage, the lady brought many cattle out of the lake, suggesting she was wealthy. They then lived on a farm, had three sons and were happy and prosperous. Yet three times, the husband did tap his wife: the first when she was reluctant to go to a christening; the second when she cried at a wedding; and the third when she laughed during a funeral. When she received the last blow or tap she cried to the husband: “The last blow has been struck, our marriage contract is broken, and at an end. Farewell!” She then left, taking her cattle with her. (It might seem strange having cattle in a lake, but the cattle might be a breed used to living in wetlands where there were lakes.)

The husband it seems was completely bewildered by this and claimed that they were hardly blows but just taps and did not think they were without cause. This story gives us an insight into the different status of women compared with the sea-people and land-people. It seems in those days; husbands hitting wives was ‘normal’ but certainly not tolerated in the sea people communities. This is probably why she made the proviso about being hit.

The story continued that one-day, when one of the sons, Rhiwallon, grew up, he was disconsolately wandering by the lake, mournful of the loss of his mother when she appeared out of the waters. She told him that she wanted him to be a benefactor, by healing people of their diseases. She gave him a bag containing herbs and instructions on how to use them.

Their meeting place is still known as Lmiady Madygon which means “The Physician’s Gate”. Her two other sons also met their mother at the lakeside and she gave them the same instructions, teaching them how to use many plants and herbs. Under her training, her three sons became celebrated physicians. She also instructed them so that their skill and knowledge was to be available to the very poor as well as the rich, and so they gave free treatment to people who would not normally be able to afford a physician. This also gives us another insight into the differences between the sea-people and ordinary people. In the past and even in places like the USA today, it was normal for doctors to refuse to treat people who could not afford their services. But the sea-people had different values, and never refused treatment for those unable to pay.

The caring nature of mermaids is also shown in the following report: In July 1881 The Richmond Dispatch reported a story of a woman in Cuba who, running for her life from attackers, jumped into the sea. She was rescued by mermaids, and then later on, they put on a ship headed for New Orleans. This story sounds really crazy if it was about sea-creatures, but if the mermaids were women divers, then being working women, they would be able to generously pay for the women’s passage to America.

Before the Caribbean was invaded by the Spanish, the original people, the Neo-Taino, called mermaids Aycayia who were renowned for their beautiful singing voices. They worshipped a Goddess called Jagua who was also a mermaid. In West Africa, mermaids were called Mami Wata, and in Cameroon they were called Jengu.

Many mermaid stories are about a mermaid who marries a fisherman and has children, but still has a yearning to return to the sea. In some tales she does this and leaves both her husband and children behind. This resembles the plight of modern day women who try to juggle a job while looking after a husband and children. A woman working as a diver full time would not have the time or energy to look after a husband and children as well. In Korea the man looking after the home and children solves this problem, but because of pressure by the Church, this after awhile, may not have been allowed in European countries. These mermaid stories may be about the dilemma faced by women divers concerning society’s rules that women should look after the home and children as her primary responsibility. So perhaps many women divers in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries had to choose between working as a diver or becoming a wife and mother.

Female wool spinners before the industrial revolution had the same problem. Spinning wool by hand was a highly skilled job and women on average were far better at it than men. This gave these women a well-paying job and the more highly skilled even became very wealthy. So it is of interest that the word spinster comes from the word spinner. This indicates that even hundreds of years ago many women preferred the independence of a well paying job like wool spinning, rather than becoming a wife. Another point is that in some fairy stories, the wicked witch has a spinning wheel and uses it to perform magic. So we find a connection in witchcraft to both spinners and divers.

What comes across in all these stories is a form of discrimination against women similar to that suffered by black people in the southern states of the USA after slavery was made illegal. Successful or educated blacks were attacked and murdered by the Ku-Klu-Klan. Likewise, witch hunters probably threatened successful women healers, herbalists, spinners and divers. The only reason wool spinners escaped persecution was that they were unable to replace these skilled women with men, until the industrial revolution. There is evidence that woman divers were persecuted in the same way female herbalists were. As there are many mermaid stories where these women divers find themselves in conflict with Christian priests.

In the infamous witch-hunts witch-finders discovered a method to determine if a women was a witch. They did this by binding her hands and feet and throwing her into a pond or river. If she floated she was a witch, but if she drowned, she was not! This cruel logic can only make sense if witches and mermaids were the same people. An experience women diver, even if she was tied up, could probably save herself from drowning in the water. This would be very unlikely for a woman who had never swam before. This suggests that witch-finders saw all women divers as witches.

Mermaids have been discredited from the days of early Christianity in Britain. In the Arthurian legends, a legacy from the ancient Celts, it is Arthur’s sister, Morgan le Fay is made the main villain. In the Christianised versions of the King Arthur stories, she steals Excalibur, the sword that makes Arthur invincible. She then tricks him into having an incestuous relationship with her. This results in their son Mordred, who in the end leads an army to overthrow Arthur’s kingdom and mortally wounds Arthur. She also tricks and overcomes Merlin and places him in bondage, so he can no longer help Arthur. (Though in some versions it is Nimue who defeats Merlin). In some stories she sows the seeds of discontentment between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. She also tricks and tries to seduce Sir Gawaine in his battle with the Green Knight.

It is remarkable that in the ancient Breton language, Morgens are called sea-women, water spirits or mermaids, and along with Vivienne and Nimue, she is also one of the Ladies of the Lake. These three women are also associated with the ancient Triple Goddesses, of Mother, Maid and Crone. It was the ladies of the lake who gave Arthur the Excalibur sword in the first place and took Arthur away when he was mortally wounded. Fay also means fairy, so she is also called a sea-fairy. She was also called, “The Great Queen”. In Scotland, the treacherous whirlpool in the Inner Hebrides, commonly known as the Corryveckan, was once known as “Morrigan’s Cauldron”. Some healing wells are also sacred to her in Britain - known as Morgan’s wells.

In the ancient Celtic stories, Morgens were clearly held in high regard, and were probably the leaders and shamwomen of the community. Then when the patriarchal Christians took over, they set about discrediting Morgens because they saw them as rivals in their quest to gain power over the people. This is why Morgan le Fay becomes a villain in the Christian Arthurian stories.

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