April 28, 2012

The Merman of Maine

Did you know that there used to be a merman who lived off the coast of Maine? Here's the story as it appears in John Josselyn's 1674 book An Account of Two Voyages to New England

One Mr. Mittin related of a triton or merman which he saw in Casco Bay. This gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small island (there being many small islands in the bay), for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopt off with a hatchet by Mr. Mittin, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dyeing the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.

It would be too bad if Mr. Mittin killed the last merman in Maine, but I don't think anyone has seen one since then. Maybe they're just lurking underwater off the coast of Portland, waiting for the oceans to rise from global warming so they can have their revenge.

John Josselyn, an Englishman of noble birth, turned his voyages to New England into a best-selling book called New England's Rarities Discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents and Plants of That Country. His followup, An Account of Two Voyages to New England, was less popular.

While New England's Rarities is mostly a straightforward guide to New England wildlife (interspersed with praise for the region's lovely Indian women), An Account includes stories about sea serpents, pigs giving birth to monstrous half-lions, and a ghost-haunted island. You'd think this would make it another bestseller, but apparently not. Modern scholars generally think Josselyn was quite gullible, but perhaps he just loved a good story or maybe (just maybe) New England was even stranger in the 1600s than it is now.

A mosaic of Triton. From the fantastic site Theoi.com.

Although very little is known about his life, it's generally assumed that Josselyn was well-educated. His education is even evident in his description of Mr. Mittin's encounter with the merman. Josselyn uses the word triton, which comes from classical Greek mythology. Triton was the son of the sea-god Poseidon, and was usually portrayed as a large merman carrying a conch shell.

Triton was in general a beneficent god. In the plural, though, tritons were a group of minor sea deities who were sometimes aggressive towards mankind.

For example, the ancient writer Pausanias claimed that the Greek city of Tanagra was plagued by a triton that stole cattle from the beach and overturned small boats. Tired of the merman's predations, the Tanagrans set a bowl of wine on the beach. The triton came ashore, got drunk, and passed out. While he was asleep the Tanagrans cut off his head. In another version of the same story, Dionysos the god of wine dispatched the triton himself. However he met his end, the triton's pickled and preserved body was put on display for tourists, including Pausanias himself. I wonder what Mr. Mittin did with that hand?


9 comments:

papijoe said...

Interesting post Peter.

Sea serpents are deserving of further treatment as a NE phenomenon. Off the top of my head I recall accounts of numerous sitings along the NE coast [Gloucester being one that stands out] and I believe Daniel Webster was a witness to one of them...

Doug Lazorick said...

Everyone was so quick to sever body parts of the merfolk. All we are saying is give peace a chance.

Peter M said...

Papijoe - Yes, lots of sea serpents off the coast! I keep meaning to post about them but the topic is so big I don't know where to start. Josselyn writes about a sea serpent. If it's a topic you're interested in J.P. O'Neill has a very informative book called The Great New England Sea Serpent.

Doug - Yes. Maybe the triton was just trying to say "Hello, welcome to Maine."

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