Goddess Of The Moon, Feminity and Water
Mermaids can be found from every culture and from all continents. There once was a goddess who is believed to be the inspiration to all the mermaids stories that have been told around the world for thousands and thousands of years. This goddess was Assyrian goddess Atargatis.
Atargatis was goddess of the moon, feminine powers and water. She was worshiped 4000-3000 years ago in ancient Assyria and later on all over Mediterranean areas.
Myth Of Atargatis
Stories how Atargatis became a mermaid are quite sad. According to the myth Atargatis fell in love to a mortal shepherd called Hadad and they had a daughter called Semiramis. Semiramis later on became queen of Assyria. She was most well -known for creating the famous hanging gardens of Babylonia.
Atargatis accidentally caused the death of Hadad. She could not live with her guilt and drowned herself into a lake near Ascalon. Waters however could not hide her beauty and she was transformed into a mermaid. A woman with a tail of a fish. Story of Atargatis is one of the first mermaid stories ever told.
Atargatis was worshiped in a temple dedicated to her in the ancient city of Ascalon in Israel. It was told that her temple was completely made of gold and there was a giant statue of Atargatis also made from pure gold and diamonds. There was pool in the temple and the worshipers of Atargatis had to swim through the pool to get into the altar. Pool was filled with living fishes that were fed daily and taken care of. Fishes and doves were sacred animals to Atargatis. Dove was an emblem of love and fish a symbol of fertility and bounty.
Cult of Atargatis traveled all the way to Greece and Rome and even British isles with Roman invaders. Greek called her Derceto and Romans called her Dea Syriae the Assyrian goddess.
In ancient Greece myth of Atargatis was connected to the constellation of Pisces. According to the Greek myth an egg fell from the skies into the Eufratis river. A fish pushed the egg to the shore and goddess Derceto hatched from it. Derceto asked god Zeus to knowledge the help of the fish and Zeus created the constellation of Pisces to the skies. Star formation which presents two fishes.
The Mermaid Goddess
Atargatis is a Semitic word. She was called Athtart by the Phoenician. This might explain why she is often confused with Astarte, Babylonian goddess of sex and war. Atargatis is very different goddess. She is an aspect of the Universal Mother and her life-giving waters.
Story of Atargatis takes us to the roots of mermaid stories and legends. Water is the element of emotions. Atargatis went through a transformation because of a broken heart. Till to this day image of a mermaid contains the same elements which goddess Atargatis possess. Healing powers of water, beauty that can not be hidden, magic of womanhood and connections to the moon, waves and emotions.
Sometimes waters can feel scary and threatening. We don´t know what mysteries lie within the deep. Atargatis is goddess of transformation who guides her followers to face their fears and their darkest selfs so that they can love and appreciate all that they are.
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Origins of the seafolk
Stories of the seafolk have been told around the world since the beginning of time. Mysterious waters have always captivated people´s imagination. Seas and oceans are still in many ways unknown and we don´t know what all lies beneath the surface. Water being the element of feelings and emotions is often connected to the mysteries of the feminine. This is one of the reasons why mermaids are some of the most fascinating creatures there are in art, literature and in pop culture. But where there are mermaids there are also mermen. Let´s dive into deep waters to search them.
Mermen of the ancient Greece
Pantheon of Greek mythology holds thousands and thousands of gods and goddesses from mighty ruler gods of elements to minor nature spirits. In Greek mythology most famous merman was the god Poseidon. He was the son of titans Rhea and Chronos. When Poseidon and his two brothers Zeus and Hades gambled on ruling the world Poseidon became the ruler of all seas. Very much like the sea Poseidon was told to have short temper and a god who did not like to be shackled. What it came to his appearance Poseidon was told to have long white beard, he was physically fit and that he had a tail of a dolphin and dolphins were his sacred animals. Poseidon´s symbol was the trident. It was believed that he could create earthquakes and that he also created horses from the waves. Poseidon lived in the bottom of Aegean sea in a mighty palace with his wife Amfitrite. He was not a faithful husband and he had several affairs with both immortal and mortal beings.
Triton's were sons of Poseidon's union with Amfitrite. They were his royal army. Tritons had green hair and fine green scales and it was believed that their hands were rough like the surface of a sea shell. Triton's had tail like dolphins. There was also female Triton´s and they were called Tritonette´s. Both Triton's and Tritonette´s had little breathing organs just below their ears.
Finfolk and Children of the Muir
In Scotland there are legends told about the children of the Muir. These water creatures can have blue and gray skin. Muir is Scottish Gaelic and means the sea. Children of the muir are group of mermen and mermaids. They are believed to live in the Minch channel in northern Scotland.
Finfolk is another group of merfolk that according to legends resides in the cold waters of Scotland. Especially in Orkney Island. It was believed that Finfolk lived in underwater world called Finfolkaheem. Finfolk were shape sifters with magical abilities. These sea-creatures were dark and gloomy and they kidnapped human children and took them to their underwater world forcing them to be their slaves. Finfolk were free to venture between human world and their underwater home.
Beneath these legends of abductions, we can now days see the nature of these characters used by the people of the past as an explanations the death and disappearances that happened at sea.
Näck the Handsome Fiddler
Stories about the Näck mainly come from Scandinavia especially from Sweden. In Swedish folklore Näck was a handsome fellow. A water spirit who lived in a pond, lake or a waterfall playing his violin. Näck was an erotic character and he was told to lure young women who were captivated by his good looks and musical talents. Sometimes it happened that Näck would fell in love with a human woman and they would get married but as many times happens in the stories about the sea folk Näck started to long it´s watery home and couple departed. Another common story about Näck in Sweden tells that Näck could transform itself into a white horse. It would rise to the shore where children were playing and being mesmerized by the miraculous white horse they climbed into it´s back and the horse would eventually drown them. This story has similarities to the legends about the Kelpies in Scotland. Both stories were told as warnings for children not to go to swim too deep.
In Finland and in Norway Näck is slightly different character. In these stories Näkki (Finnish) or Nokken (Norwegian) is more of a troll, water imp or a male spirit completely covered with seaweed. It lives in whirlpools and in the deepest end of the pond and it drowns those who swim too far away from the shore.
Vodjanov the mer-grandfather
Stories about the Vodyanov are told across the Slavic lands. They are described to be naked old men with greenish hair, skin and beard and sometimes frog-like face, body covered with muck or dark fish scales. Vodyanov has webbed-palms and if you look into it´s eyes you might mistake them as burning coals. According to some sources Vodyanov were spirits of men that had drowned themselves or killed in an accident near water. Whatever the truth is they are dual creatures. They posses great danger for the people who misbehave in their territory and yet they can assist fishermen who they like and believe are worth the effort. Czech, Slovak and Slovenians have folklore character called vodníci who is similar to Vodyanov. Vodnícis are more laid-back characters who were known for playing cards, smoking pipes and just sitting and hanging around the water surface (rocks, river benches and beaches). Vodníci did not drown people but they did collect souls of those who had drowned into lid-covered porcelain cups. Amount of these cups represented the wealth of vodníci. If lid would get open the soul might escape in the form of a bubble. They did not have human servants but they had control over fishes and water. Fishermen asked the vodníc to help them by sacrificing tobacco into the water saying "here is your tobacco now help me to get fish" Vodníci are creatures of clear-water. It is believed that sea-waters are dangerous even deadly for them.
World of the islanders
Let´s dive into the mermaid myths of Polynesian islands. It is easy to imagine southern seas being filled with exotic mermaids and sea creatures. Polynesian islands cover many languages and cultures and myths from different islands are intertwined in various ways to each others because many of the islanders were sailors. These Polynesian legends that I am sharing mainly come from Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand.
Mo'o the Hawaiian mermaid spirit
In Hawaii Mo'o is an umbrella term to describe all sorts of water spirits. Mermaids in Hawaiian mythology are sea goddesses and sea gods. They were humanoid hybrids between humans and fishes, serpents, eels, octopuses or even crocodiles. Mo'o's could be extremely tiny creatures or they could be gigantic. It was believed that Mo'o's originally developed from gecko lizards to human women and then to sea goddesses. Mo'o lived in both salt and fresh waters. In lagoons, ponds, rivers, lakes and in the ocean. There is a Hawaiian expression that in each woman there lives a little Mo'o inside them.
Stories about the dangers of the mo'o's were not too different compared to any other mermaid myths from different parts of the world. It was believed that mo'o's were especially dangerous to men who were too weak to resist their feminine powers. Mo'o´s would seduce them and then drown them. According to Hawaiian folklore after a person passed away they could return back to this world and transform them self into a mo'o
Story of Hina and Mokuna
There is a famous Hawaiian folk tale from the Wailuku river and the Rainbow falls which tells about a mo´o called Hina. She was a beautiful sea goddess who had a competitor, an evil mo´o called Mokuna, who wanted to kill Hina and destroy her home. Jealous Mokuna pulled a giant rock into the river plucking it. Water level was rising and Hina´s home was about to be destroyed. She called her son Maui to help her. Fisherman demi-god Maui started to chase Mokuna with his canoe but Mokuna was faster and hid herself into a waterhole. Maui called goddess Pele to help him to destroy Mokuna. Pele came down from the volcano bringing hot lava with her. Water turned burning hot and in the end killed evil Mokuna. Still today it is said that when you visit the Rainbow falls you can see the remains of Maui's canoe in the bottom of the river. On stormy days water boils because there is lots of volcanic activity. Maybe there is a seed of truth in these stories.
Hina and the Merman
Every island has their own story versions of Maui, Hina and other Polynesian heroic characters and mythical deities. In New Zealand there is a legend told where Hina is not Maui´s mother but his love interest. According to the story Hina was an extremely beautiful woman. One night she was walking on the beach and saw a gorgeous man swimming in the ocean. Man introduced himself as Tuna. Soon two fell in love and decided to get married but Tuna had few conditions. First one was that they could only meet at night and the second that they could only meet at the beach. Because Tuna was a mo'o who had ability to transform himself into a human at nights but he was a merman at days. Hina agreed but after some time she got frustrated with these conditions. One night Tuna came to Hina and told her that he believed that his life was in danger and that if something bad would happen to him she should cut his head off and plant a tree from it and there would be fruits growing from that tree which would have his face. Demi-god Maui who was also in love with Hina was jealous to Tuna and he killed him. Hina planted the tree which was a coconut tree and there she saw Tuna´s face once again. There are many different versions told from this story. According to another version Hina killed Tuna for cheating her and married Maui. In Tahiti Hina is a moon goddess and Tuna is her pet eel.
Maui the God of Fishermen
Maui is common heroic demi-god character in Polynesian mythology. One legend tells that Maui was originally a god but his mother Hina did not like his appearance and throw him away from the homes of the gods to the ocean where Maui was raised by the fishes and the sea creatures and later on he became the god of the fishermen. Story of Maui has similarities to Greek story of the blacksmith god Hephaestus who was thrown away from mount Olympus by his mother Hera who did not like his appearance. Intertwining of myths and legends is multicultural and universal. Similar themes in myths appear in different cultures which necessarily haven´t had any contact which each others because human minds are wired to think the same no matter where we come from. For the wider public Moana and Maui are most well-known from the famous (and amazing!) Disney animation but did you know that Moana means "ocean" in Hawaiian.
Moana Nui Ka Lehua
Moana´s character is familiar for millions thanks to the Disney animation. Feisty islander girl however is purely a Disney character but there is a Polynesian legend about mermaid goddess called Moana Nui Ka Lehua. She was a goddess who ruled the oceans, waves and storms. She had two sharks who were her royal guards and Moana also had ability to transform herself into a shark. It was believed that Moana Nui Ka Lehua ruled the sea between Hawaiian islands of Kauai and Oahu.
Moana Nui Ka Lehua´s encounter with the demi-god Maui was not as pleasant in the myth as it was in the animation. Story tells that Maui was fishing in the sea that belonged to the ocean goddess. Moana Nui Ka Lehua was outraged by Maui´s impoliteness so she took his fishing hook and attached it into a submerged rock. Soon Maui realized what was going on and now it was turn for the trickster god to become outraged. He captured Moana Nui Ka Lehua and dragged her into the beach where she slowly died. Maui who was angry for the gods still did respect them so he took Moana Nui Ka Lehua´s body into a shrine where she turned into a sacred tree.
Polynesian Mermaids Video
Country of thousands lakes
In the old times ancient Finns believed that there was guardian spirit living in every singe water area existing; lakes, ponds, rivers sea and streams.
Ahti is primary water god in Finnish mythology. Ahti's appearance is very close to Greek sea god Poseidon. Ahti is tall muscular man, with long seaweed beard. Sometimes Ahti was described to have a tail. Sometimes he had feet and he wore trousers made of sea foam. His symbol was the trident. Fishermen prayed Ahti for good fishing luck. During reformation in Finland in middle-ages Ahti was turned into St. Andreas Protector saint of the fishermen.
Finnish water goddess is Vellamo. Her name comes from the Finnish word Velloa meaning the movement of the water. Vellamo was described to be a beautiful and tall lady. She and Ahti they had an underwater court. Everything in the watery world was part of their kingdom. It was believed they lived in an underwater manor. Water spirits were their servants and they had underwater cattle. Cow is Vellamo's sacred animal. It was believed that sometimes in misty mornings Vellamo would bring her kettle to the surface and cows could eat water plants. If some of the cows went missing and joined the earthy kettle. Owner of Vellamo's cow was believed to become a very wealthy person because her cows were magical and good milkers.
Water was extremely important for early humans. Water is the giver of life. That is why people have across the world believed protector spirits of different water areas. There is multiple layers in every mythology. Oldest mythological layers are from the time of the collective culture. Gods in the collective culture were seen both in human and animal forms. One of the earliest stories is the idea of the Fish ancestor or the first fish. Common belief was that first fish that ever lived on a lake also became the guardian spirit of the lake. When fishermen saw a huge and old fishes in the lake it is not difficult to imagine how this idea of first primal ancestor fish was born. Fishermen had tremendous respect for the guardian spirits. If they managed to get lot's of fish they gave sacrifices. If they got tons of fish some of the fishes were released. Or head of the first fish captured was cooked and then they ate rest of the fishes.
Moomins and water myths
I love moomins and when I last time watched the Gold Fish episode it
really made me think about this legend of the ancestral fish. Moomins travel to the lake to see if they could capture the legendary Gold Fish. They see the Gold Fish and something inside them changes forever. I believe that great Gold Fish is the guardian spirit of the lake Perhaps water god of all Moomin Valley since he has been there for a long long time and is way much bigger than any other fish in the lake.
Vedenemä and Vetehinen
Vedenemä was a character in western Finland's folklore. She goes by many names:
Merenneito - Mermaid
Vedenneito - Watermaiden
Vedenemä literally means mother of all water. Vedenemä was very erotic character. Often described sitting on a rock brushing her hair in a typical mermaid style. Mermaids in Finland didn't always had a tail often they wore dress made from sea foam or fisher's net. There aren't much mermaid stories in Finland. There are some mermaid legends in the harbor cities and those stories were more likely arrived from Europe with sailors. Vetehinen was character in folklore of Eastern Finland. Not a very handsome creature. Vetehinen was described to be an older man with beard filled with water grass wearing clothes made from sea foam or water plants. His skin was believed to be black, green or blue and that made him part of the watery world. Vetehinen has similarities with Russian folklore character Vodjanov. Vodjanov is an evil character. Vetehinen was mischievous creature as well but sometimes he was in good mood and even might help fishermen to get lot's of fishes to their nets.
Fear of water
There was common belief in the old days that people who drowned themselves would turn into water spirits. In Russia there is stories about Rusalkas. Rusalka is a young maiden who have been drowned and turned into luring water spirits. Drowned children could turn into rusalkas as well. This belief was also very strong in Eastern Finland. In the old days when science wasn't very advanced and people didn't know the effects of drowning. When they found the person who had been drowned and saw the black marks in the body (from suffocation) they believed that those marks were fingerprints of evil water spirits.
Näkki is character know throughout Finland and it also appears in mythologies of Scandinavian countries. Näcken in Sweden. Nokken in Norway and I think it is Nicker in English. In Scandinavian countries Nicker is described to be a handsome young man who seduces women and the drowns them. Nicker was a very good musician and often played violin. In away women might drown just because they got hypnotized by the beautiful music. Horses are associated with Nicker. Especially in Sweden it was believed that Nicker appeared in a form of a white horse especially when he wanted to lure children to him. Idea of horse-Nicker is very similar to the Kelpie legends of Scotland.
I dea of Näkki being a handsome seducer character is know in some parts of Finland. Another common belief is that Näkki is more closer to Vetehinen on it's appearance. Creature covered in water hey and drowning people.
I remember from my childhood my grandmother always warning not to go to swim too deep so that Näkki won't drown me. These stories from waterspirits have survived all this time because of peoples subconscious need to understand water. Näkki still lives in our modern culture through old words:
For example water lily is Näckros (Nicker's rose) in Swedish.
Näkinkenkä (Näkki's shoe) is Seashell in Finnish.
Artist and Illustrator. Mythology and Folklore enthusiastic. Keen traveler. Comes from Finland. Likes cats, tea, and such.