According to Legends and Superstitions of the Sea, and of Sailors in All Lands and at All Times by Fletcher S Bassett (1885) p. 178, there were many Danish legends about “sea-people” who were often seen “on the strand” with their children. Which would mean on the shore.
One tale recounts a “merwife” was captured while “grazing her cattle”. The retaliation for which was the town being “covered” in sand.
Another tale speaks of a “merman” who “enticed a maiden to the bottom of the sea” where she raised many children. She later abandoned him, failing to keep a promise after returning to the land. The ballad “Agnete of Harmandear” was written about the “Foresaken Merman.”
Bassett then goes on to say that “H. C. Anderson tells a story of six mermaids who were allowed to rise to the surface at a sixteen years of age…” Basset summarizes the famous story, but includes right on in with all of the other legends of sea-people, with no other indication it is fiction other than the way he presented it as “H. C. Anderson tells a story…”
Is this kind of intermingling of facts with folktales and fiction how we end up with legends of fantastic creatures that don’t really exist? Does someone make up a story and then someone else recounts it until others start to believe it as fact?
But consider this: Jerome Clark, in his book Unexplained! (1999), p.454, reports on a “Royal Danish Commission”, in 1723, to put to rest the fantasy of mer-folk once and for all. It was intended that, proven fictitious, the mer-folk would no longer be a topic people were allowed to speak of, punishable by law. Unfortunately, the investigating members of the commission encountered a merman “near the Faroe Islands” who “stare(d) at them intently with its deep-set eyes” until they were “unsettled” enough that their “ship effected a retreat”. The merman continued to warn them off. He “Puffed out his cheeks and emitted a ‘deep roar’ “. The enactment of the law was abandoned.
If the “Royal Danish Commission” put the issue to rest that there were mer-people, we should be done considering them fantasy, shouldn’t we?
An event reported in Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual, by Edmund Routledge (1882), p.534, reports a very similar encounter, in the very same year, but with a few details slightly altered. Instead of the “Royal Danish Commission” investigating mer-folk and then seeing one, it was “four Danes underwent a legal examination, respecting a merman which they affirmed they had seen.” Instead of the commission’s boat encountering a merman, these men spotted a floating body and they took a boat out to investigate. When approached “the monster blew up with his cheeks, and made a kind of roaring noise” before diving and disappearing.
Is it possible this was the same incident, but told in a different way? Instead of a legal authority witnessing something, was this really instead a legal investigation of men claiming to have seen something? Are sightings like these all just tall tales later recounted as facts by someone who believed in someone else’s fictitious story? Stories get changed and details get added to in the retelling, leaving a trail of trivialities that can almost, but not quite, be followed back to the truth, stacking up until things begin to at least seem credible.
Many famous ship captains, including Columbus and John Smith, reported seeing mer-folk here in the Americas, far from the waters that gave birth to the legends. But were they pre-disposed to seeing something others had told them to existed? Or maybe they wanted to add to the legends themselves. Or maybe they were all pranksters at heart.
Maybe. But then, the Native American Indians already had their own legends.
As do people from all around the world.
Do we all have the same predisposition to the same types of fantasies?