Tuesday, August 28, 2007

T Peter Park's Latest Essay

{By Permission, here is an essay by one of the most notable Fortean Lovecraft scholars}

by T. Peter Park

Did unknown real-life sea creatures resembling the mermen and mermaids of traditional folklore inspire the amphibious monsters of a twentieth century American master of macabre fiction?

Many cryptozoologists believe that the merbeings–mermaids and mermen–of legend may be partly based on actual encounters with unknown marine animals with seemingly human-like heads ad upper torsos and somewhat fish-, seal-, or porpoise-like hindparts. Such creatures have occasionally been sighted by credible European and American witnesses in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Some Pacific Islanders claim that such merbeings are a common, familiar part of their local marine fauna. Those allegedly common Pacific merbeings include the “ri” of New Ireland and the “fishwoman” supposedly seen by American sailor Rein Mellaart during World War II on Morotai in Indonesia.

Pacific Island traditions of merbeings resembling the New Ireland “ri” and Morotai “fishwoman” may have inspired a 20th century literary echo. The American weird fantasy and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) depicted monstrous aquatic humanoids in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “Dagon,” and “The Doom That Came to Sarnath.” The Morotai and New Ireland traditions seem especially relevant to Lovecraft’s 1932 novelette the “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” where the “Deep Ones” had an explicitly South Pacific origin.

In Lovecraft’s tale, economically hard pressed mid-nineteenth century sailors from the declining Massachusetts fishing port of “Innsmouth” encountered Polynesian islanders who worshipped and intermarried with evil, immortal merbeings. The sailors made a “devil’s bargain” with the Deep Ones, who gave the Innsmouthers gold and good fishing in return for worship and interbreeding. The sailors and their merbeing allies set up a cultist dictatorship in Innsmouth devoted to worship of the Deep Ones’ master the sea-god Dagon, driving their opponents into flight or frightened submission. By the early 20th century, the town is almost wholly populated by human-merbeing hybrids, with few remaining normal humans except an elderly drunkard and a teen-age boy from a nearby town working as a clerk in a local grocery store. Lovecraft’s narrator, a young Midwesterner of New England extraction doing genealogical and antiquarian research in his ancestral New England in 1927, narrowly escapes being captured and murdered by Innsmouthers who resent his poking around their town and discovering the dark secret of their part-merbeing ancestry. He reports his bizarrely horrifying discoveries to U.S. government officials. As a result, Federal agents raid Innsmouth in the winter of 1927-1928, arresting many hybrids who are shipped off to military and naval prisons. Civil libertarians protesting the seemingly arbitrary arrests acquiesce after being confidentially shown the inhuman-looking hybrids.

Lovecraft’s ocean-dwelling fish-like humanoid Deep Ones, originally worshipped by Pacific islanders, sound like a more sinister version of the Morotai and New Ireland merbeings. I wonder if the erudite, widely-read Lovecraft got his the idea from reading some missionary’s, trader’s, or anthropologist’s report on some Polynesian or Melanesian islanders’ merbeing beliefs. In his prodigious reading, Lovecraft might have seen early reports of Morotai or New Ireland merbeing beliefs long antedating the 20th century American visitors to those islands who claimed to have themselves seen the merbeings—or of similar beliefs among another Pacific Island population. He need not have seriously believed those “native” accounts of merfolk—but could have welcomed them as literary raw material. Lovecraft used his literary license as a horror writer, however, to depict the harmless, edible marine animals of Pacific belief as demonic servants of a sinister sea-god.

In the 20th century, “merbeings” or “merfolk” have been reported from waters near certain South Pacific islands, notably Morotai in Indonesia and New Ireland southeast of Papua New Guinea. The Pacific “merbeings” are described as air-breathing marine animals with human-like heads, arms, and upper torsos and fish-like lower torsos and tails. The Morotaians and New Irelanders regard them as a familiar part of their local fauna, consider them animals and not rational beings, and sometimes eat them. Some American visitors--sailor Rein Mellaart on Morotai during World War II, anthropologist Roy Wagner on New Ireland in the 1970's--claimed to have seen the creatures themselves. [1] Are these real animals, still surviving in the Pacific after becoming extinct in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in the last century? Or, are they rather what Fortean researcher Jerome Clark has called“experience anomalies”?

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman and Anomalist editor Patrick Huyghe have seen “merbeings” as true cryptids, unknown animals. They discussed “merbeings” as possible aquatic primates in The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates (2006) Their Field Guide includes a chapter on aquatic and semi‑aquatic humanoids, in both oceanic and fresh‑water settings, and describes numerous encounters. They believe that there are two main types of aquatic primates, a peaceful fishy‑tailed marine variety and an aggressive, carnivorous bipedal fresh‑water variety. The former, they believe, are the source of traditional legends of "mermen" and "mermaids." The latter include creatures like the Latin American and southwestern U.S. "chupacabras" and the Japanese "kappa," and may also underlie reports of “lizard-men” and “frog-men.” [2]

Coleman and Huyghe described one particularly interesting "merbeing" sighting in their The Field Guide. As a young man stationed on the small South Pacific island of Morotai in Indonesia during World War II, Rein Mellaart watched native fishermen drag a 7‑foot‑long fishy‑tailed "mermaid" to shore and leave it on the beach to die. The "bottom part" of the fish‑woman was "exactly like a dolphin, with a double fin on the end," Mellaart recalled, but "from the navel up" it looked perfectly human. She was not a beautiful siren as in sailors' folklore, but rather had "coarse" features and a long pointed nose. However, she had a "beautiful" complexion of "lovely pinky red," and thick long hair reaching down to the beginning of her "fishy" part. The islanders told Mellaart that the "merbeings" traveled in schools and were very frightened of contact with humans. Whenever native boats approached, the creatures signaled each other and dived to great depths. The "merbeings" used their hands‑‑each with 4 fingers and 2 thumbs‑‑to drag themselves up on the beaches at night. The Morotaians saw the "merbeings" as part of their natural environment, and killed and ate them as food. [3]

The closest parallel to Mellaart’s Morotai “fishwoman” is the “ri” of New Ireland northeast of Papua New Guinea. Male, female, and juvenile “ri” were often sighted by fishermen, occasionally netted or found dead on beaches, and sometimes eaten by New Irelanders. The “ri” were air-breathing mammals with human-like heads, arms, upper trunks, and genitals, subsisting on fish in the seas around the Bismarck and Solomon archipelagoes. Their legless lower trunks ended in a pair of lateral fins. The New Irelanders claimed that the “ri” reminded them of the mermaids on tunafish cans, though they did not consider them intelligent beings.[4] American anthropologist Roy Wagner, who visited New Ireland in the late 1970's, felt it unlikely that the “ri” were dugongs or porpoises, both familiar to the natives. Wagner himself once saw a “long dark body swimming at the surface horizontally,” which his companions identified as a “ri.” He wrote a sympathetic paper on “The Ri: Unidentified Aquatic Animals of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea” in _Cryptozoology_, (1982). [5] Wagner was convinced that the “ri” were not dugongs, but New Irelanders living further north considered “ri” just another name for dugong. A February 1985 expedition to New Ireland by American cryptozoologists produced underwater photographs of a “ri”--showing an unambiguous dugong--in Jerome Clark’s view solving at least part of the puzzle. Expedition member Thomas R. Williams, however, pondered the remaining mystery, for which he had no answer, of “how myths of merfolk can arise and persist in the face of the obvious reality of the dugong” [6]


1. Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe, The Field Guide to Bigfoot to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates (New York: Paraview, 2006), pp. 152-153, on Mellaart’s Morotai “Fishwoman”; Jerome Clark, Unexplained! Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences & Puzzling Physical Phenomena, New Edition (Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press, 1999), pp. 467-468, on New Ireland “ri,”
2. Coleman and Huyghe, The Field Guide to Bigfoot to Bigfoot…, pp. 37-39.
3. Coleman and Huyghe, The Field Guide to Bigfoot..., pp, 152-153, citing Rein Mellaart, "Mermaids" in William Marks, ed., I Saw Ogopogo! (British Columbia. Special Collection of Peachland–Okanagan Review, 1971), pp. 18‑20.
4. Jerome Clark, Unexplained!, pp. 467-468.
5.“The Ri: Unidentified Aquatic Animals of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea” in Cryptozoology, 1 (1982). 33-39 (cited in Clark, Unexplained!, pp. 467-468, 471, and in William R. Corliss, ed., Science Frontiers Online, No. 27, May-June 1983, “Does Ri=Mermaid?”).
6. Thomas R. Williams. “Identification of the Ri: Through Further Fieldwork in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea,” Cryptozoology 4 (1985), 61-68, cited in Clark, Unexplained!. pp. 468. 471.

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