The Fisherman and the Merman




Of mermen and merwomen many strange stories are told in the Shetland
Isles. Beneath the depths of the ocean, according to these stories, an
atmosphere exists adapted to the respiratory organs of certain beings,
resembling, in form, the human race, possessed of surpassing beauty, of
limited supernatural powers, and liable to the incident of death. They
dwell in a wide territory of the globe, far below the region of fishes,
over which the sea, like the cloudy canopy of our sky, loftily rolls, and
they possess habitations constructed of the pearl and coral productions
of the ocean. Having lungs not adapted to a watery medium, but to the
nature of atmospheric air, it would be impossible for them to pass
through the volume of waters that intervenes between the submarine and
supramarine world, if it were not for the extraordinary power they
inherit of entering the skin of some animal capable of existing in the
sea, which they are enabled to occupy by a sort of demoniacal possession.
One shape they put on, is that of an animal human above the waist, yet
terminating below in the tail and fins of a fish, but the most favourite
form is that of the larger seal or Haaf-fish; for, in possessing an
amphibious nature, they are enabled not only to exist in the ocean, but
to land on some rock, where they frequently lighten themselves of their
sea-dress, resume their proper shape, and with much curiosity examine the
nature of the upper world belonging to the human race. Unfortunately,
however, each merman or merwoman possesses but one skin, enabling the
individual to ascend the seas, and if, on visiting the abode of man, the
garb be lost, the hapless being must unavoidably become an inhabitant of
the earth.

A story is told of a boat's crew who landed for the purpose of attacking
the seals lying in the hollows of the crags at one of the stacks. The
men stunned a number of the animals, and while they were in this state
stripped them of their skins, with the fat attached to them. Leaving the
carcasses on the rock, the crew were about to set off for the shore of
Papa Stour, when such a tremendous swell arose that every one flew
quickly to the boat. All succeeded in entering it except one man, who
had imprudently lingered behind. The crew were unwilling to leave a
companion to perish on the skerries, but the surge increased so fast,
that after many unsuccessful attempts to bring the boat close in to the
stack the unfortunate wight was left to his fate. A stormy night came
on, and the deserted Shetlander saw no prospect before him but that of
perishing from cold and hunger, or of being washed into the sea by the
breakers which threatened to dash over the rocks. At length, he
perceived many of the seals, who, in their flight had escaped the attack
of the boatmen, approach the skerry, disrobe themselves of their
amphibious hides, and resume the shape of the sons and daughters of the
ocean. Their first object was to assist in the recovery of their
friends, who having been stunned by clubs, had, while in that state, been
deprived of their skins. When the flayed animals had regained their
sensibility, they assumed their proper form of mermen or merwomen, and
began to lament in a mournful lay, wildly accompanied by the storm that
was raging around, the loss of their sea-dress, which would prevent them
from again enjoying their native azure atmosphere, and coral mansions
that lay below the deep waters of the Atlantic. But their chief
lamentation was for Ollavitinus, the son of Gioga, who, having been
stripped of his seal's skin, would be for ever parted from his mates, and
condemned to become an outcast inhabitant of the upper world. Their song
was at length broken off, by observing one of their enemies viewing, with
shivering limbs and looks of comfortless despair, the wild waves that
dashed over the stack. Gioga immediately conceived the idea of rendering
subservient to the advantage of the son the perilous situation of the
man. She addressed him with mildness, proposing to carry him safe on her
back across the sea to Papa Stour, on condition of receiving the seal-
skin of Ollavitinus. A bargain was struck, and Gioga clad herself in her
amphibious garb; but the Shetlander, alarmed at the sight of the stormy
main that he was to ride through, prudently begged leave of the matron,
for his better preservation, that he might be allowed to cut a few holes
in her shoulders and flanks, in order to procure, between the skin and
the flesh, a better fastening for his hands and feet. The request being
complied with, the man grasped the neck of the seal, and committing
himself to her care, she landed him safely at Acres Gio in Papa Stour;
from which place he immediately repaired to a skeo at Hamna Voe, where
the skin was deposited, and honourably fulfilled his part of the
contract, by affording Gioga the means whereby her son could again
revisit the ethereal space over which the sea spread its green mantle.



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