March 14, 2019

From Monster to Mer-Bro: Four Centuries of New England Mermen

The more things change the more they stay the same. Yes, it's a cliche, but there's a grain of truth in it. Sometimes things seem like they are new but they are actually not. 

Take Gorton's Seafood, for example. Gorton's was founded in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1849. The company is still going strong and their longtime mascot, a fisherman wearing yellow rain gear, is widely recognized. But in recent months the company has tried appealing to a younger demographic by airing humorous ads featuring brawny mermen (a.k.a mer-bros) and a laid-back Neptune, god of the sea. Has Gorton's lost touch with its historic New England roots with this new advertising campaign? Not really. Although salty fishermen are an important part of our culture, mermen and their kin have also been reported in this area for hundreds of years.

An old-school merman. 
Mer-bros eating Gorton's fish sticks.
One of the earliest written accounts appears in Englishman John Josselyn's 1674 book An Account of Two Voyages to New England. Josselyn visited New England in 1638 and 1663, and on one of those trips he hear the following story from a colonist in coastal Maine:
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.
A triton is a type of merman from classical mythology. They are named after the god Triton, son of Poseidon, and like the sea itself are fickle and sometimes dangerous. Perhaps Mr. Mittin was well-read in Greek myth and unwilling to see if this particular triton was friendly or not. Interestingly, in one of the Gorton's commercials a mer-bro sheds purple tears. Coincidence?

The Puritans who colonized New England did not look fondly upon ancient Greek gods or aquatic humanoids, apparently thinking both were demonic in nature. This outlook can be seen in their response to the song that Thomas Morton wrote for the raucous May Day celebration in 1628 at Merrymount Colony in Quincy, Massachusetts. It invoked Neptune and Triton, along with more overtly erotic gods like Priapus, Ganymede (Jupiter's young boyfriend), and Hymen, the god of marriage. After learning of Merrymount's pagan-themed celebration the Pilgrims at Plymouth dispatched armed troops to arrest Morton and burn down his colony. Morton was trading furs and arms with the local Indians, which threatened the Plymouth colony's economy, but his pagan and libertine tendencies were a threat to morality.

You can burn down a rival settlement, but the mer-folk are not so easily eradicated. In 1714 a minister named Valentyn sailing past Nantucket's Great Point glimpsed a merman in the water. At first Valentyn and the ship's crew thought he was human:
We all agreed he must be some shipwrecked person. After some time I begged the captain to steer the ship more directly toward it. … We had got within a ship’s length of him, when the people on the forecastle made such a noise that he plunged down, head foremost, and got presently out of sight. 
The man who was on watch at the masthead declared that he had… a monstrous long tail.
That story is quoted in Edward Rowe Snow's book Legends of the New England Coast. Snow also claims that years later, in the early 1900s, a lighthouse keeper at Great Point saw something humanoid emerge from the ocean and crawl into the nearby woods. Other local residents also said they saw signs that something not quite human had been among the trees. Gorton's mer-bros are goofy and fun; the Great Point merman sounds a little bit spooky to me.

Speaking of spooky, Rhode Island horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's 1931story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" centers on a race of monstrous aquatic humanoids called the Deep Ones who live off the coast of Massachusetts. The citizens of the decaying port city Innsmouth have made a deal with the Deep Ones. The Deep Ones give them plentiful fish harvests and golden treasure from their aquatic realm. In return, the people of Innsmouth give the Deep Ones human sacrifices and have conjugal relations with the scaly monsters. Yikes! In Lovecraft's 1926 story "The Strange High House in the Mist," various sea-gods, including Neptune and a band of tritons, pay a visit to the titular house. At least in this story they aren't demanding sex or human sacrifice. 

Lovecraft wrote fiction; he never thought the Deep Ones were real. But even during his lifetime some of his acquaintances thought he was writing about real occult practices and entities. That movement only grew after his death and some occultists have even claimed the Deep Ones are actual beings. For example, the British occultist Kenneth Grant claimed that he successfully summoned the Deep Ones to appear during a ritual. (Note: they weren't particularly pleasant!) Similarly, the American ceremonial magician Michael Bertiaux claims he has contacted the Deep Ones at an isolated lake somewhere in Wisconsin. Lovecraft based the fictional Innsmouth on Depression-era Newburyport, so perhaps the Deep Ones really are lurking in the waters just off our coast.

Unlike the Deep Ones, Gorton's mer-bros are cheery and goofy. Is this just an advertising gimmick or are there other happy mermen in New England's past? Yes, there are. Elizabeth Reynard's 1934 book The Narrow Land contains several stories given to her by Mashpee Wampanoag Indians. One of these stories tells of Matilda Simons, a widowed Wampanoag woman struggling to feed her three children. When the Christian god doesn't answer her prayers she turns to the old Indian gods. In response, the sea god Paumpagusnit sends several aquatic giants from the ocean to help her. They speak in "the guttural voice of the sea" and save Matilda's family from starvation by bringing gifts of fish. 

So perhaps the mer-bros are not as newfangled as they at first appear. While they are part of the current trend to use folkloric creatures in advertising (like those beef jerky ads starring Sasquatch), these fishmen are also have deep roots here in New England. 

Speaking of deep New England roots, recently I was a guest on Jeff Belanger's fantastic New England Legends podcast. Jeff is a font of weird knowledge and we had a great time chatting about witches, monsters, and why there are so many strange legends from New England. I hope you'll listen if you can!

1 comment:

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the post, Peter! Another reason to love New England, I always enjoy just staring out into our ocean waters and wonder about all the secrets they hold!