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Mermaids in Medieval Muslim Fiction and Folklore

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

Mermaid - Illustration

It is in ancient Assyria, in around 1000 BC, that we find the first-known mermaid tale. At the heart of the story is Atargatis, the goddess and mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis. Atargatis found love with a mortal shepherd, a union that tragically led to his demise. Overwhelmed by shame, she sought refuge in the waters, attempting to conceal her divine allure. However, the lakes refused to mask her beauty, prompting a transformation into a mesmerizing mermaid – a being with a human upper half and a fish's tail below. This mythical tale, rooted in the echoes of ancient cultures, unveils the fascinating metamorphosis of Atargatis, reminiscent of the Babylonian deity Ea.

An incident involving a Jalpari is mentioned in Al Qazwini’s Ajaib al Makhlooqat, where a mermaid was caught and brought to the court of the Caliph in Baghdad. As no one could understand her, she was married to a mortal man, and their child could speak Arabic, as well as the Jalpari language alike.

Mermaid - Cartoon Illustration

Was it this incident which inspired the tale of Djullnar? Perhaps we shall never know. What we do know is that Djullanar the Sea-girl is a distinct portrayal of a mermaid: whilst she looks perfectly human, she can breathe and thrive beneath the water's surface. She and her kind can also intermarry with humans, creating half-land, half-sea people.

Another tale in the epic, is about a young man, plausibly a child from such an intermarriage, "Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman," for he can live on land, and breathe under water.

These are not the only tale in the Hazaar Raatein story cycle, which includes tales from the Arab and Persianate worlds and South Asia alike, which mentions mermaid encounters. In "The Adventures of Bulukiya," the protagonist's quest for the herb of immortality takes him to the seas, where he encounters societies of mermaids.

In "Julnar the Sea-Born and Her Son King Badr Basim of Persia" mermaids enchant sailors with beautiful songs. However, those who follow these mesmerizing melodies often find themselves unwittingly led to peril.

Mermaid - Medieval Illustration

In Persian folklore, the mermaid is known as the Maneli, or the Peri Derya'ee. The latter transliterates to the "Fairy of the River" - in medieval manuscripts, the mermaid was often depicted with wings. However, unlike British folklore, where sirens are evil, the Peri Derya'ee was believed to be a good omen, like all other peri's in Persian legends.

Mermaids were also believed to be found in rivers flowing from China to South Asia. The "Mahi Manqoot", is an amphibious mermaid, with the torso of a woman and a fishtail. Like birds, it too has wings and can fly. It lives underwater by day, and on land at night. It grazes on grass by the river banks all evening and disappears into the water just before sunrise.

Mermaid - Illustration

In Punjabi folklore, Jalpari is a water nymph with the physical characteristics of half woman and half fish. It is said that Jalpari has immense charm and beauty which is used to attract and compel seamen to cohabit with her.

Whilst the Jalpari, sometimes known as the Jalpan can be kind, there is also a significant possibility that the Jalpari may just intend to kill them after ensnaring them in its trap.

Whilst similar in terms of personality, the Jalpari, also known as the Jalpan, live in Sweetwater alone, and flower offerings are believed to appease them, allowing safe passage through rivers in Punjab.

In contrast, in Greek or British lore, mermaids, are found in freshwater and oceans alike, and bring misfortune and death. In a Greek folktale, Alexander the Great's sister, Thessaloniki, is said to have transformed into a mermaid and taken residence in the Aegean Sea after her death in 295 BC. Sirens, originally winged women and daughters of the river demigod Achelous. Cursed for not preventing the abduction of Persephone, they became deadly creatures symbolising the danger of beautiful and seductive women.

An interesting exception to these is Celtic lore, for neither the Scots, nor the Irish believe mermaids to be ominous. Stories from Gaelic lore tend to touch upon themes of love and loss. A Selkie can shed her skin and live on land for a while, but if her skin is stolen, she shall become trapped; similarly, Merrows, male merfolk, must not lose their caps on land.

This belief is shared across Europe and the Persianate World, by the Chinese and the Koreans, who believe that capturing a mermaid brings good luck. They also believe that pearls are formed from the tears of the merfolk.

Moving South, into Sindh, Bhullan, the Blind Dolphin of the Indus, is believed to be a mermaid by the Mohannas, sometimes referred to as Mallah, a tribe of boat people.

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