|Illustration of The Little Mermaid by E. S. Hardy (circa 1890)|
The vastness of the ocean, the changeable nature of water, the fury of a sea-storm, the abundance of life found in the ocean and the variety of species that thrive in deep waters has made mankind not only marvel at everything that the sea offers, symbolises and is capable of but it has also provided a fertile ground for the creation of myths and legends. Mermen, shapeshifters, water demons, gods, amphibious humans, hybrid creatures, and zoomorphic beings, the sea has been the source of these legends of folklore. Even today, these tales about mystical sea dwellers continue to catch our imagination, inspire us, and enrich our culture.
Here is our list of the top 10 mythical characters that lived in the sea:
1. Bishop fish
Also referred to as the Monk-fish (not be confused with the real monkfish), this water being is supposed to have had the body of a fish and the face, hands and legs of a human. As the name hints, its appearance was that of a clergyman- this is probably because it was wearing a cloak. According to folklore, it was caught in the Baltic Sea and presented to the King of Poland sometime during the 16th century C.E. A group of Catholic monks were allowed by the king to meet this fishlike man. When they met the bishop-fish it indicated to them that it wanted to be set free so they requested the king to grant it its wish. After being set free, the sea-monk is said to have made the sign of the cross before jumping back into the ocean. A little after this tale was first told, different versions of it appeared around the world, one such story being about a bishop-fish who was said to have been captured near Germany. However, this time the sea creature sadly refused to eat and died.
|The sea monk.|
Greek mythology features a marine being that is part horse and part fish. Hippos means horse in Greek. The creature had the upper body and head of a horse and the lower half of a fish. The Greek God of Sea Poseidon’s chariot was drawn by these creatures. Some consider this Greek myth to have given rise to similar myths of sea monsters in other cultures like sea serpents and horse whale.
|The marine seahorse gets its name from this Greek myth.|
He was a mortal fisherman who was transformed into a sea-god after eating a magical herb. All cultures offer some sort of prayers to certain gods when it comes making sea voyages, the ancient Greeks believed that one of the gods that protected fishermen and seafarers was Glaucus. The story goes, that the herb that he ate not only caused him to grow fins and a fishtail but also to become immortal. A little after he took to the sea, he gained prophetic powers and became a sea-god who protected humans that ventured into the sea.
|Glaukos was considered to be the patron god of fishermen.|
According to Mesopotamian mythology, Oannes was considered to be a representative of the water god Ea. Oannes was a being that was part human and part fish. Inside the body of a fish was a man- the fish’s body covered the human body like a cloak from head to toe. He lived in the Persian Gulf but would come ashore during the day to educate humans. He taught the sciences, the arts, maths and even writing. Every night, having instructed and shared knowledge with humans, he would return to the sea.
|Oannes, the fish-man|
A giant catfish that can only be restrained by God Kashima is responsible for earthquakes according to Japanese mythology. Initially, Namazu was considered to be a river god that warned people about natural calamities and protected them from catastrophes. However, sometime during the 18th century C.E., he was attributed to being the cause of disasters such as earthquakes. After the Edo earthquake in 1855, it was believed that through disasters Namazu was actually punishing people for their greedy acts. Hence, he began to be known as the god of world rectification.
|The legend of Namazu evolved over time.|
6. Aphros and Bythos
According to Greek mythology, Bythos (Sea-Depths) and Aphros (Sea-Foam) were two sea gods. They were ichthyocentaurs who, according to legend, were part centaurs (mythical creatures with the torso and head of a man and body of a horse) and part fish. So, these creatures had the upper body of a human, forelimbs of a horse and a fishtail. These ichthyocentaur twins were supposed to have imparted knowledge to humans and other beings.
|Some of the Ichthyocentaurs had horns on their head like lobster-claws.|
The Māori arrived in New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia around the 13th century C.E. They are considered to be the first settlers of that country. Like all other cultures, Māoris had myths and legends with which they tried to make sense of the world that they inhabited. One such myth was that of a long fish named Ikaroa who was considered to have given birth to the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. There are different versions of this story and in some of them the Milky Way itself is known as Ikaroa meaning the long fish.
|Ikaroa, as per the myth is the Mother Goddess of the stars in our galaxy.|
In Irish mythology, there’s a tale about a salmon named Fintan that received all the knowledge that the world has to offer by eating nine scared hazelnuts that fell into the well where it lived. The well was considered to be The Well of Wisdom and the nine hazelnut trees surrounding it were supposed to have been divine. The legend goes, anyone that ate the salmon would find inspiration and attain all the world’s knowledge. When a poet called Finn Eces caught this salmon he asked his servant Fionn to cook it but not to eat it. While cooking the salmon, Fionn accidentally had a drop of fish fat. This led him to acquire all the knowledge and become the leader of a mythical Irish warrior band of men known as Fianna.
|Fintan, The Salmon of Knowledge.|
Considering that Greek mythology was rich with legends from the sea, it seems apt to end this post with another Greek sea myth. Proteus was a sea deity. He had prophetic powers but did not like to share what he saw with others. The only way to get him to share what he saw was by catching and binding him when he was asleep in the afternoon. But even then this herdsman of sea creatures would try to flee by changing his form. Finally, if he could not manage to escape, he would divulge what he knew and then jump back into the sea.
|In Odyssey, Homer called Proteus ‘the oracular Old Man of the Sea.’|
The bountiful nature of the sea and the secrets it holds has inspired man since thousands of years. These myths, legends and stories reflect the close bond that we’ve always shared with the sea. Here’s hoping that the sea and its inhabitants continue to feed our imagination for a long time to come.
– The Fishvish Team