Tape me into a mermaid
My name is Echo,
I don’t have a voice,
I can only repeat other’s words,
You can give me a voice.
Please tape my legs,
I exchange my legs
for a voice.
Fish Woman in History
Text and images from
Mermaids, Witches & Amazons By William Bond
Hendrick Hamel, In 1653 he was a crew member of the Dutch ship, the Sperwer sailing to Asia. Scholars regard this as important as it was the first account of Korean society by a European. Everything he says about Korean society at the time, has been supported by Korean scholars.However one thing he said that caused some controversy. He claimed he saw mermaids on the island of Cheju. It has now has been accepted by scholars, that the mermaids he saw, were simply Haenyo.Haenyo divers are female breath-holding divers who have been foraging on the sea floor for thousands of years for marine food like shellfish, seaweed, sea urchins, sea cucumber, crabs, squid and octopus.Nowadays they wear wet-suits, but before that, they hardly wore anything.They are not the only female breath-holding divers in the area, because in Japan the Ama divers who like the Haenyo divers have also been foraging the sea floor for thousands of years.Nowadays some Ama divers do use wet-suits, but most of them don’t, and instead wear a cotton costume.The reason for this is that the Japanese have banned all modern equipment like scuba gear because they fear they will overfish the waters with modern equipment.For this reason they stick to traditional methods.
So it this the explanation for mermaids?That they are simply breath-holding divers like the Ama and Haenyo of Japan and Korea, once existed in Europe and other parts of the world.If that is true, then why don’t we read about this in our history books?This can be explained by what happened to female breath-holding divers in China and Korea.In China and Korea female divers were called ‘dragon wives’.This is because while they were foraging the sea-floor for food, their husbands stayed at home looking after the house and children.When Confucianism was adopted by the Chinese and Korean governments, the lifestyle of women divers clashed with the Confucian doctrine of the Five Bonds of Filial piety, where wives should be at all times, be submissive to their husbands.It seems that being the breadwinners of the family, made these women too feisty for Confucian sensibilities, resulting in female breath-holding divers being banned throughout China and Korea.They only managed to survive on the remote island of Cheju. Ama Diver with rope around her waist and iron bar The Japanese solution to this problem is for the Ama diver to tie a rope around her waist, and tuck into in a heavy iron bar. This bar serves two purposes. It is used to dig away shellfish that are glued to rocks, and acts as a weight so the diver can sink to the sea floor more quickly. On the sea floor she quickly collects as much marine food as she can find, and puts it in a string bag, then tugs on the rope. Men in the boat above pull her to the surface. This strategy means she is not limited by the weight of her catch in each dive. As far as we know, mermaids in Europe didn’t do this. There are no stories of mermaids jumping off boats with a rope around their waist and then being hauled up by men.In World War Two the island was occupied by the Japanese, who treated the Cheju people so badly that they rose up in protested. But the Japanese brutally suppressed the islanders, and the Haenyo divers suffered, as they played a major role in the protest. Worse was to follow. After the Second World War, the Cheju people objected to the way they were being ruled by the Korean government. The Korean government condemned them as communist sympathisers, and their brutal suppression of the Cheju people was far worse than what was done by the Japanese. Many of the Haenyo divers had to flee the island and moved to Japan. It was after this that the Haenyo divers began to wear wet-suits to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
Chinese Sea Lady
Lady Ch’ingThere is the story of Lady Ch’ing whom Chinese scholars called a female pirate.She led a force of 50,000 sea- people which successfully destroyed the Chinese Imperial Navy fleets sent to destroy them.The Chinese the Imperial government solicited assistance from British and Portuguese warships.This forced Lady Ch’ing, in 1810, to negotiate a settlement with the Chinese government. Most references to these female breadwinners were written out of history, for instance Chinese scholars preferred to call Lady Ch’ing, Cheng I Sao, which means wife of Cheng I, to conceal the fact that female leadership among the sea people, was commonplace.
Witches hunt in middle age
It seems that not only did Confucianism dislike female breath-holding divers but Christianity did as well, probably for the same reasons.Christian wives had to swear to obey their husbands when they married, which caused trouble when mermaids were also the breadwinners of their families. There are stories of priests who, encountering mermaids on the seashore would curse them as devils and threaten them with eternal damnation.It also seems that mermaids were caught up in the witch hunts of the Middle Ages.
During the witch hunts of the middle ages there was the cruel practise of the ducking stool, which was seen as a foolproof way to establish whether a suspect was a witch. The woman was tied to the stool and immersed in water. If the suspect drowned she wasn’t a witch but if she survived the ordeal she must be one. The only way this cruel logic can make any sense is if the accused Witch is also a breath-holding diver. An ordinary woman tied to the end of a ducking stool and forced underwater for about two or three minutes, is very likely to panic and drown. But if she is a breath-holding diver, she is more than capable of calmly holding her breath. It would be a foolproof method of finding out if the woman was a mermaid.
So why was the Christian Church so vehemently opposed to witches and mermaids? As we’ve previously mentioned, mermaids were breadwinners and assertive women. Christian priests didn’t like this. We can see this in the way the ducking stool was used not only to find witches but to punish women who were ‘scolds’, women who spoke their minds and disagreed with their husbands. These women were not obeying the oath they took when they married, of honouring and obeying their husbands. Another reason why mermaids were disliked, came from the conflict between farmers and mermaids. Today we tend to think of mermaids living in the sea, but if we go back to the old stories of mermaids, we find them also living in lakes, rivers and swamps.Gathering food in water and wetlands is a very ancient way of life, far older than farming, and goes back millions of years to our earliest ancestors. Unfortunately the picture drawn by scientists about our ancestors, is very heavily biased towards men. They talk about hunter/gatherer societies, where men are the hunters and women the gatherers, but as science is dominated by men they are generally only interested in the hunters, and women are hardly mentioned. But field studies on hunter/gatherer societies that survived until the 20th century, show us that the vast majority of food was gathered by women.
Accounts of Sirens don’t all come from the ancient Greeks. Sailors in Europe until the 19th century have warned about the dangers of the siren call, some going as far as claiming that if you see a mermaid, then it’s certain your ship will be destroyed. In spite of these exaggerated stories, there are logical reasons why sailors needed to be warned about the siren call. All breath-holding divers like the Ama and Haenyo divers of Japan and Korea and modern freedivers have to practice regularly to be able to hold their breath for more than three minutes underwater. Opera singers also have similar breathing exercises both to develop powerful lungs and to hold a very long note.Human learned breath control so they could dive to greater depths. Conscious breath control was also an important factor in humans learning how to speak.