The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore

Khalid Elhassan - September 30, 2023

The lore of mermaids today is greatly influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. In that fairy tale, which has undergone numerous adaptations since its publication in 1837, mermaids are benign and kindly. Throughout much of history, however, mermaids were often depicted as sinister and dangerous creatures. Below are twenty five things about that and other fascinating historic lore.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Mermaids. Pinterest

The Ancient Greek Origins of Western Mermaid Lore

Fabled marine creatures that are part human and part fish have long existed in the lore of many cultures. One of the earliest mermaid legends, circa 1000 BC, involves a Syrian goddess who dove into the bottom of a lake to become a fish. Her divine beauty could not be erased, however, and only her bottom half was transformed. In East Asian lore, mermaids were the wives of sea dragons. Sub-Saharan Africa has tales of the Mami Wata, benevolent water creatures that offer wisdom and beauty, and ward off evil. In Western mythology, mermaids have human torsos and fish tail, and often possess prophetic and supernatural powers.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Odysseus and the sirens. Greek Gods and Goddesses

Western depictions of mermaids as beautiful creatures who sometimes seduce humans with song can be traced back to ancient Greek sirens. In Greek lore, sirens were half bird, but in the Christian era, they came to be depicted as half fish. Many Western mermaid folktales revolve around their marriage to humans, often after a man steals and hides something she greatly values. She stays with him so long as the object is hidden, but immediately returns to the sea if she finds it. Other human-mermaid marriage tales revolve around the fulfillment of certain conditions, with the marriage’s termination and the mermaid’s return to the sea if the conditions are broken.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Medieval depiction of mermaids, whose song lulls people at sea to sleep and causes them to shipwreck. Oxford University Bodleian Library

Dangerous Mermaids

In the modern era, thanks in no small part to the highly influential The Little Mermaid, we are accustomed to the notion of mostly kindly mermaids. In times past, however, mermaid lore did not always depict those mythical creatures as benign. Even if they brought gifts, there was often a catch involved, and the gift’s recipient suffered some misfortune. In other lore, the mere sighting of a mermaid could be bad news, and herald things like storms, shipwrecks, and floods.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Rusalkas, as depicted in Ilya Repin’s Sadko, 1878. Google Art Project

In medieval lore, mermaids followed in the template of ancient Greek sirens that seduced sailors to their doom with songs. They were often symbols of the dangerous temptations embodied by women, such as the Lorelei of the Rhine River, who lured mortals to their death by drowning. Other lore, such as that of Slavic rusalkas, has them seductively call out to young men, to entice them into the water in order to drown them. Some even pose as drowning women, in order to kill would-be chivalrous men who enter the water to rescue them.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
The twelve major Olympian gods. Pinterest

The Morally Ambiguous Greek Divine Lore

In ancient Greek lore, gods are often a vindictive lot who do horrible things to mortals and to each other, with little sense of proportionality. The gods were seen in anthropomorphic terms, and depicted as similar to humans in many aspects. They had human appetites and desires, and human emotions such as joy, sadness, lust, anger, jealousy, and wrath that often led to vengeance visited upon those who displeased them. Since the Greek gods were, well, gods, they were terrors to behold whenever they got mad. Both because of their divine powers, and because they were often unrestrained by morality and the social norms that apply to humans.

Greek gods were not infallible and always out to do good, but flawed super beings who were quite fallible. Humans simply had to endure their divine decisions, whether just or unjust – and the gods often acted unjustly. Greek deities were often depicted as sadistic bullies eager for an excuse to inflict punishment. Olympian gods – so named because they were believed to live atop Mount Olympus – might fly into a divine wrath at the slightest provocation and wreck some unfortunate. Their vengeance often took extreme forms, to let everybody know just who is boss.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
‘The Mutilation of Uranus by Cronus’, by Giorgio Vasaris. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Dysfunctional Divine Families

The mean streak seen in Greek gods’ lore is understandable if we consider their origins. Had they been mortals, we would describe them as the products of traumatic childhoods and dysfunctional families. The dysfunction began with their father Cronus, leader of the Titans who preceded the Olympian gods as masters of the world. Cronus envied the power of his father Uranus, Father Sky, the primal Greek god who ruled the universe. So he plotted with his mother, Gaia, Mother Earth, who was angry at her hubby for some slight.

Gaia gave Cronus a sickle, with which he castrated his father Uranus, then threw away the testicles. An understandably upset Uranus vowed vengeance upon his son, and cursed him – probably in high soprano. He prophesied that just like he had overthrown his own father, Cronus would someday be overthrown by his own children. As seen below, Cronus went to extraordinary lengths of divine child abuse to ensure that his kids did not do to him what he had done to his own Dear Papa.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Rhea tricks Cronus by giving him a swaddled rock. Theoi

In Greek Lore, the Father of Their Gods Was One Mean Daddy

Cronus married his sister, Rhea, and the couple had multiple children, including the gods and goddesses Poseidon, Hera, Hesta, Hades, and Demeter. To thwart the prophecy of his father Uranus that he would be overthrown by his own children, Cronus ate his kids as soon as they were born. Rhea did not like that, and when their sixth child Zeus was born, she tricked her hubby and gave him a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes. Cronus assumed it was his latest newborn, and swallowed it whole.

Rhea hid Zeus, who grew up with understandably hostile feelings towards his father. When he came of age, Zeus forced his dad to vomit out the kids he had already swallowed, then led his siblings in a war against Cronus. Together, and with the help of other supernatural allies, they overthrew their father and the other Titans, and took over the world. By way of vengeance, they imprisoned Cronus and other Titans in Tartarus, a deep abyss where the wicked are tortured.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
A hero challenges a dragon. K-Pics

Dragon Lore Exists All Over the World in Different Cultures

Dragon lore is global. It exists in vastly different cultures, thousands of years and thousands of miles apart. A common theme is a dangerous beast that poses a deadly peril, until a heroic figure slays it and saves the day. Dragons and dragon-like huge serpents appear in the mythology of many cultures around the world. Norse mythology has the beast from Beowulf; Albanians have wyverns and pythons; the French have the Grand’Goule; the Hebrew Bible has the Leviathan; and the ancient Greeks had the Hydra. In non-Western lore, Hindus have the Vritra; ancient Egyptians had Apep; and Mesopotamians had mushussu.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
The god Set spears the snake Apep. Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Dragon lore generally revolves around the hero and monster theme – an archetype that symbolizes the eternal war between good and evil. The tales depict a scary reptilian creature that menaces people. It might fly and breathe fire, or slither and spew poison. Eventually, after a nice buildup that heightens the drama and narrative tension, a bigger than life hero or a god makes an entrance, challenges the beast, slays it, and sets things right. So, what are the origins of dragon lore?

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Dinosaur fossils might have given rise to dragon lore. K-Pics

Were Dinosaur Fossils the Origins of Dragon Lore?

Dragon lore might have originated with ancient discoveries of dinosaur fossils and those of huge extinct mammals. Take how the ancient Greeks depicted the Monster of Troy in vases and other artwork. It resembles a Samotherium, an extinct giraffe whose fossils are common in the Mediterranean. In parts of China where fossils of large extinct creatures are readily found, they are described as “dragon bones”. Similarly, dragons in northern Indian lore closely resemble the extinct animals that left giant fossils strewn across the foothills of the Himalayas.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
The Monster of Troy as depicted in ancient Greek art, and fossils that might have inspired the tale. Pinterest

Another theory goes farther yet in time, and argues that the origin of dragon lore is baked into us, from before we had even evolved into humans. Humans have an instinctive fear of snakes that originated with our ape ancestors millions of years ago. Snakes posed an especially high danger, and the peril was greatest for children. Evolution instilled in us so much fear of snakes, that children today, even in places that have no snakes, instinctively fear them. Such primal fears of snakes might have given rise to dragon lore. The theory is supported by the fact that the earliest known dragon tales depict them as snake-like.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Ares, god of war and father of Ixion. Ancient Origins

The Ancient Greek Demigod Who Broke the Laws of Hospitality

In ancient Greek lore, Ixion was a son of the war god Ares and a mortal woman, who became king of the Lapiths tribe in northern Greece. From early on, he became infamous as somebody who was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. His misdeeds on earth – and up in the heavens as well – led the gods to inflict a terrible punishment upon him. He first offended the Olympians when he promised his father-in-law a valuable present as a bride price – wealth paid by a groom to the bride’s parents. He reneged, however, and failed to pay after the marriage.

The father-in-law seized some of Ixion’s valuable horses as security for the promised bride price. Ixion pretended to shrug it off, invited his father-in-law to a feast, and there, shoved him into a bed of burning coals. That murder was particularly odious in Greek eyes because it violated Xenia – the laws of hospitality between guests and hosts. The breach of Xenia left Ixion defiled, unfit to live amidst men, and shunned by fellow Greeks. Nobody wanted to perform the necessary religious rituals that would cleanse him of his guilt. So Ixion had to live in the wilderness as an outlaw. That was bad, but as seen below, it got way worse for him.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Ixion seducing what he thought was Hera, while Zeus watches, by Rubens. Louvre Museum

How Would a God Punish a Guest Who Tried to Seduce His Wife?

Although promotion of Xenia was part of the chief Olympian god’s portfolio, Zeus took pity on Ixion. He cleansed him of defilement, and invited him to Mount Olympus to dine at the table of the gods. However, when Ixion was introduced to Zeus’ wife, Hera, he was overcome with lust, and behind Zeus’ back, hit on and pursued her. That was another big breach of Xenia. To pursue your host’s wife was a major violation of a guest’s obligations to his host. In Homeric lore, the Trojan War began because Paris seduced Helen while a guest of her husband.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
‘The Fall of Ixion’, by Cornelis van Haarlem. Google Art Project

Zeus could not believe that Ixion, whom he had rescued and cleansed of his guilt, then honored by hosting him in heaven, could be so ungrateful and brazen. So he made a cloud in the shape of Hera, and sent her Ixion’s way to see what his guest would do. Sure enough, Ixion ravished the fake Hera – a union that ultimately produced the centaurs. The livid Zeus expelled the ingrate from Olympus, and blasted his former guest with a thunderbolt. He then ordered the messenger god, Hermes, to seize Ixion and bind him to a wheel of fire, that was then set to spin forever across the heavens.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Ninjas. K-Pics

Ninja Lore vs Reality

In popular lore today, ninjas are black-clad masked warriors who often scaled walls and killed people in feudal Japan. Many think of ninjas as covert killers, using exotic blades, throwing stars, and smoke bombs to carry out assassinations, all while locked in a feud with the more honorable samurai. In reality, such super cool ninjas never existed. The ones who did exist did not look or act like the popular perceptions of how ninjas looked and acted. For starters, ninjas did not wear black as a group uniform.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Ninjas never had a rivalry with samurai. Amino Apps

They had no greater predilection for black clothes than the average Japanese people of the period, among whom black clothes were extremely common. Ninjas were simply scouts, spies, and mercenaries, hired by various feudal Japanese armies. To carry out their tasks, they blended into the local population. They never used throwing stars. However, they did throw poisoned darts known as bo shurikens. They did not have a blood feud with samurai. Indeed, there was nothing to prevent a samurai from being a ninja, and quite a few ninjas were actually samurai.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Muhammad Ali Pasha. Alchetron

The Slave Soldiers Whose Demise Gave Rise to Spooky Lore

The Mamluks, a slave soldier warrior class, ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1517, until defeated by the Ottoman Turks. They continued as privileged class who paid lip service to the Ottoman Sultan, and ran Egypt as a semi-independent realm. That ended in 1811, in a massacre that gave rise to spooky ghost lore ever since. It came at the hands of Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769 – 1849), an Albanian who first arrived in Egypt in 1801 as a mercenary officer, part of a force sent by the Ottomans to reoccupy the country after French forces withdrew from there. The French had defeated the Mamluks and conquered Egypt in 1798, but although weakened, the Mamluks had not been destroyed. They jockeyed and clashed with the Ottomans for power. Muhammad Ali was a wily political operator, who used his Albanian mercenaries to work with both factions.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Mamluks, shortly before they were defeated by the Ottoman Turks. Pinterest

He also allied with native Egyptian leaders, and worked hard to gain public support. As a result, Egyptian notables demanded in 1805 that the Ottoman Sultan replace his governor in Egypt with Muhammad Ali, and he was forced to yield. The new viceroy next turned his attention to the Mamluks, who had dominated Egypt for more than six centuries. As a class, they were Egypt’s feudal lords, and their vast landed estates were the country’s greatest source of wealth and power. Although Muhammad Ali received the title of Governor of Egypt in 1805, his undisputed authority was limited to Cairo. Beyond its walls, he was everywhere challenged by the Mamluks. So he decided upon a two-stage strategy, to first eliminate the Mamluks’ leaders, and then eliminate the entire Mamluk class.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
British vs Egyptian forces at the Battle of Rosetta, 1807. Rosetta Museum

The Troublesome Mamluks

On August 17th, 1805, Muhammad Ali tricked the Mamluks to think that he would leave the city with most of his forces to attend a ceremony. Believing the city undefended, the Mamluks rushed in to seize it. Instead, they fell into an ambush. Many Mamluks, including dozens of their leaders, perished. Survivors retreated to Upper Egypt, where they were defeated there in 1807. They were saved at the last minute by a British invasion of Alexandria and the Nile Delta. Alarmed, Muhammad Ali offered the Mamluks concessions if they helped expel the foreigners, and they accepted. Together, the two forces marched north. The British, who had invaded on the assumption that the Mamluks would join them, finally grew disgusted with their dissensions, despaired of their assistance, and evacuated Alexandria in September, 1807.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1841. Tate Museum

An uneasy peace between Muhammad Ali and the Mamluks followed. Some were appointed administrators of certain Egyptian districts on condition that they pay taxes, and many returned to Cairo and resumed their residence there. However, Mamluk forces continued to clash with Muhammad Ali’s, until he decided to deal with them once and for all. In 1811, an Egyptian army was assembled for a campaign in the Arabian Peninsula. Amidst a lull in tensions between Muhammad Ali and the Mamluks, the latter were invited to a ceremony in the Cairo Citadel. They accepted, and on the morning of March 1st, 470 Mamluks, dressed in ceremonial finery and armed with gilded swords, rode their best horses, richly caparisoned, to the Citadel. As seen below, they should have turned down the invite.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
The Cairo Citadel in the nineteenth century, with a view of Bab al Azab between the two towers. Rawi

A Massacre That Gave Rise to Spooky Lore

Muhammad Ali warmly greeted the Mamluks in Cairo’s Citadel. As they were presented with coffee and hookah pipes per hospitality customs, he carried on friendly conversations with them. At ceremony’s end, the guests mounted their horses, and formed in a procession preceded and followed by their host’s troops. They slowly made their way down a steep and narrow road that led to the Citadel’s great gate, Bab al Azab. The Pasha’s troops in front exited the Citadel, but soon as the Mamluks reached the gate, it was slammed shut before them. Simultaneously, the troops behind them raced back to close the exit to the rear. As the procession of Mamluks confined along a narrow path milled about in confusion, a signal was given to begin their final eradication.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
The massacre and final destruction of the Mamluks at Cairo’s Citadel. Wikimedia

Albanian troops placed on the rooftops of nearby buildings that overlooked the trapped Mamluks opened fire. An eyewitness described what happened next: “[T]he infantry spread across the walls opened fire, killing them in droves and the mayhem and horror increased. The Mamelukes soon realized that their horses were useless and so they descended to walk on foot and took off their clothes and finery which only hindered their movements at that terrible time. They started to run, swords and firearms in hand, wanting to meet an enemy to take their revenge for the catastrophe which had befallen them. But they found no-one and the bullets continued to rain down upon them hitting their mark. That did in the slave soldier dynasty for good. Cairo’s lore has been full of tales of spooky sightings of anguished and terrified Mamluk ghosts at the Citadel ever since.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
The Fall of the Titans, by Jacob Jordaens, 1638. Wikimedia

The Titan Who Championed Mankind

In ancient Greek lore, Prometheus was one of the Titan – the divine beings who dominated the world before the Olympian gods. His name means “foresight”, and emphasizes his intellect. Lore credits him with creating humans from clay, and he advocated for and championed mankind in the halls of heavens. That fondness for humans got Prometheus in serious trouble with the gods. The Titans, twelve children of the primordial parents Uranus (“Sky”) and his mother Gaia (“Earth”) had preceded the Olympians as gods. When the Olympians led by Zeus rose up to challenge for mastery of the world, Prometheus was one of the Titans’ leaders.

However, his fellow Titans refused to heed his advice and resort to trickery, so Prometheus switched sides and joined the Olympians. That ensured the gods’ victory, and doomed the Titans to defeat. Although he had helped the Olympian gods secure victory, Prometheus eroded his store of goodwill with them when he sided with humans against the new deities. He angered Zeus when he tricked him to accept the bones and fat of sacrificial animals instead of their meat. That set a precedent that allowed humans to sacrifice animals to the gods by burning their bones and fat, but keep keep the meat for themselves.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Prometheus Carrying Fire, by Jan Cossiers, 1637. Museu del Prado

The Lore of Prometheus

Zeus was peeved at how he had been in the matter of animal sacrifices. In response, he took fire away from mankind and wiped its secret from human minds, to make people eat meat raw and shiver from the cold in the dark of night. To make his pettiness stick, the chief god prohibited anybody from letting humanity in on the secret of fire. Prometheus however defied Zeus and stole fire from Mount Olympus, then smuggled it down to earth to share with mankind and help them survive life’s struggles. That was the final straw for Zeus, who grew livid when he looked down from the heavens and saw the dark of night dispelled by the flicker of fires. To vent his anger at mankind, the chief Olympian sent Pandora down to earth with a box full of calamities.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
The divine punishment of Prometheus. Hellenism

When the lid of Pandora’s box was eventually removed, all the evils that plague humanity were unleashed. Per ancient Greek lore, from then on, mankind was afflicted with diseases, plagues, war, death, and the constant need for backbreaking labor to eke sustenance out of the earth. Only hope stayed inside the box, to keep life bearable despite all its miseries. As to Prometheus, Zeus chained him to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains. Every day from then on, a giant eagle flew in to rip open Prometheus’ guts and feast upon his liver. The liver re-grew each night, and the eagle returned each day to repeat the process. That way, Prometheus was subjected to an eternity of torment by day, and nights full of dread of what the morrow would bring.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Catherine Howard. K-Pics

A Beheaded Queen’s Ghost

Queen Catherine Howard (circa 1524 – 1542) was the fifth wife of King Henry VIII. Henry wed her when she was a teenage girl and he was a fat middle aged (or by the era’s standards, plain old) man. Long and short of it, although Catherine was happy at first to become queen, fat old Henry wasn’t exactly a physical specimen that sets young girls’ hearts aflutter. So Catherine sought love and romance elsewhere. It was a bad move. One would think that she would have been especially aware of the risks. After all, her hubby had chopped off the head of his second wife (and Catherine’s cousin) Anne Boleyn just a few years earlier on trumped up charges of infidelity.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Catherine Howard’s ghost reportedly still runs screaming through Hampton Court Palace. Pinterest

Catherine’s infidelity was anything but trumped up. When Henry found out, her fate and that of her lovers was sealed. When she was arrested at the royal residence, Hampton Court Palace, Catherine did not go quietly. She broke free of the guards, and ran through a gallery, screaming and shrieking for the king’s mercy. Henry was nowhere near and didn’t hear her. He would not have been merciful if he had. Catherine was tried for treason and adultery, convicted, and beheaded in 1542, aged nineteen. Ever since, Hampton Court lore has been full of spooky encounters with the ghost of Catherine Howard, as it runs screaming through what came to be known as the Haunted Gallery.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Zeus. K-Pics

The Lore of Sisyphus

Sisyphus in ancient Greek lore was a king of Corinth, and the founder of the Isthmian Games – one of the four major games, which included the Olympics. Sisyphus was extremely smart, and a trickster who fathered the hero Odysseus, of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey. Unfortunately, Sisyphus’ smarts were combined with questionable ethics: among other things, he was greedy, deceitful, and liked to rob people. That got him in trouble with the gods, especially Zeus. The greatest of Sisyphus’ sins was his violation of Xenia, the sacred laws of hospitality that protected travelers and guests, when he murdered some of his guests to demonstrate his ruthlessness. That angered Zeus, whose portfolio included the promotion of Xenia.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Ancient Greek depiction of Zeus chasing Aegina. The History Junkie

On another occasion, Zeus kidnapped Aegina, daughter of the river god Asopus. When her distraught father tried to find her, Sisyphus told him where she was. In exchange, Asopus created a spring and sent it to flow into the city of Corinth. Zeus was already upset with Sisyphus for his violation of the sacred laws of hospitality. He grew livid when the Corinthian ruler snitched to Asopus about where the chief Olympian god had hid the river god’s kidnapped daughter. So he sent Thanatos, the god of death, to seize Sisyphus and chain him in the underworld. Sisyphus however tricked Thanatos and got him to explain how the chains worked. He then used that knowledge to chain the death god. With Thanatos chained, the mortally ill could no longer find release from earthly suffering, and no sacrifices could be made.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Sisyphus. iWitness

A Divine Punishment of Endless Toil

The gods threatened Sisyphus with dire punishments if he did not free the god of death, so he reluctantly did. However, Sisyphus had one more trick up his sleeve to cheat Thanatos. He instructed his wife not to bury him or perform any of the sacred death rituals when he passed away, and to just throw his corpse out. She obeyed, and when Sisyphus arrived at the underworld, he begged Thanatos to allow him to return to earth to punish his wife for her “impiety”. Death agreed, but once Sisyphus was back on earth, he went on the lam. After he tricked death to let him return to the world of the living, Sisyphus went on to live to a ripe old age, before he died for a second time. That was when he discovered that he had been too clever by half, and too smart for his own good.

The gods were ticked off because Sisyphus had made them look like fools. They also took offense at his self-aggrandizement, deceitfulness, and the hubris that led him to believe that he was smarter than Zeus. So the Olympians decided to make an example out of Sisyphus. The gods thought, with some reason, that few punishments are more terrible than an eternity of futile and hopeless labor. So they condemned Sisyphus to an eternity of pushing a huge boulder up a steep hill. Soon as he got his boulder to the top of the hill, it would roll down the other side, and he would have to go back down and collect his boulder to push it up the hill again.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
The death of George Washington. K-Pics

George Washington Returns From the Grave

The lore of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, contains numerous ghost stories. The best ones revolve around encounters with the ghost of the great man himself. One such is attributed to members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, America’s first national historic preservation organization, and the country’s first women’s patriotic society. The MVLAA raised money to purchase a dilapidated Mount Vernon in the nineteenth century, in order to restore and preserve it for posterity. In the early years, when members were in the area, they slept in the mansion, sometimes in the four poster bed in which Washington died.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
George Washington’s ghost. Mount Vernon

Many who did were adamant that they felt the presence of George Washington’s ghost, which some described as “a strange and brooding spectre“. On one occasion, as two MVLAA members shared Washington’s bed one night, they saw a spook just as their bedside candle went out with a noise. Alarmed, one of them told her friend: “You are on the side of the bed where Washington died!” Her friend replied: “No, I’m not. He died on your side!” That did it for their sleep that night. Both got up, dressed, and stayed wide awake until the sun came up, terrified by every squeak. As an 1890 newspaper article put it: “They all agree that Washington visits his chamber in the still watches of the night“.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Josiah Quincy III. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Lore of George Washington’s Ghost

Another bit of Mount Vernon ghost lore involves Josiah Quincy III (1772 – 1864), one of Massachusetts’ more prominent figures in the first half of the nineteenth century. He served in the US House of Representatives from 1805 to 1813, as mayor of Boston from 1823 to 1828, and as President of Harvard University from 1829 to 1845. In 1806, he visited Mount Vernon, inherited by George Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington. Quincy stayed overnight, and Bushrod hosted him in George Washington’s bedroom – the one which the great man had died. By then, Mount Vernon lore already abounded with tales of spooky encounters with Washington’s ghost in that bedroom.

Quincy, who like most Americans of his generations revered George Washington, was not afraid. Indeed, he actually hoped “that he might be found worthy to behold the glorified spirit of him who was so revered by his countrymen“. As his son Josiah Quincy Jr. recounted decades later, his father was not disappointed. At some point that night, he reported that he did, indeed, meet the ghost of George Washington. Frustratingly, however, Quincy Jr. gave no details, other than inform readers that his father’s “assurance in this matter was perfect“. We are thus left to wonder what might have passed between the Massachusetts bigwig and the ghost of America’s first president.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Saint Nicholas of Bari. Vatican Museum

The Real Life Saint Behind Santa Lore

The lore of Santa Claus is the product of inputs from the folklore of various cultures. However, the single biggest figure behind Santa is probably Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari (270 – 342 AD). One of the most popular minor saints of both the Western and Eastern churches, he was a generous man known for his gifts. He became associated with Christmas, and the tradition of gifts given that day. Nicholas was born into wealth, and used his riches to help those less fortunate. He traveled around, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, and became associated with various good deeds, such as saving three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
Saint Nicholas resurrecting three butchered children. Wikimedia

Numerous miracles were also attributed to Saint Nicholas. He reportedly calmed the sea, chopped down a demonic tree, and resurrected three kids who lost their lives to a butcher who pickled their remains in brine for sale as pork during a famine. No wonder he became the patron saint of children. So Saint Nick was a good guy, and a worthy foundational figure upon whom to base the lore of the lovable and kindly Santa. However, Nicholas was not nice all the time. As seen below, he was prone to settle debates by beating up those with whom he disagreed.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
The real Saint Nick. Dominican Friars

Saint Nick Was A Baddie

Early Christianity was chaotic, with little consensus about the new faith’s doctrine. In 325 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great convened bishops in Nicaea to sort things out in what came to be known as the First Council of Nicaea. It settled some core issues, such as the divine nature of Jesus and his relationship to God, the first part of the Nicene Creed, and when to celebrate Easter. The debates en route to consensus were heated, though. They were not like Ivy League discussion panels, whose professors in bowties and thick glasses fear and abhor violence. Participants at the Council of Nicaea could and did settle debates with their fists. Forget passive aggressive cutting remarks: early church fathers could pull out knives in the middle of discussions to literally cut each other.

The Dark Origins of Mermaids and Other Mysterious Folk Lore
It took some doing to go from Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus. Wikimedia

Saint Nicholas was one of the bishops at Nicaea, and settled a discussion there with his fists. His victim was a priest named Arius, whose teachings had roiled Christianity and caused the convocation of the council in the first place. Arius, who was accused of heresy, was invited by Emperor Constantine to defend his position. He got up and began to do so, but his speech angered opponents. Said opponents included Nicholas – by then middle-aged, and apparently with a short fuse when it came to heresy. He reportedly did a Will-Smith-at-the-Oscars, rose from his seat, rushed Arius, and interrupted his speech with a punch to the face. For that, Nicholas was stripped of his bishopric, and imprisoned for a time.



Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading
Ancient History Encyclopedia – Prometheus

Aquamermaid – 21 Facts About Mermaids

Beer Connoisseur – The Myth of St Bernards and Barrels

Bulfinch, Thomas – Bulfinch’s Mythology (2010)

Daily Beast – The Myth of the St Bernard & the Brandy Barrel

Daily Beast – Was Santa Actually a Badass Who Beat Up a Priest?

Dodwell, Henry – The Founder of Modern Egypt: A Study of Muhammad Ali (1931)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Cronus

Encyclopedia Britannica – Saint Bernard Breed of Dogs

English Heritage – Dragons and Their Origins

Fry, Stephen – Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece (2017)

Greek Mythology – Ixion

Heritage Daily – The Origins of Dragon Mythology

Historic Royal Palaces – Historic Hauntings at Hampton Court Palace

History Collection – 5 Fantastic Medieval Beasts Based on Folklore

Japan Talk – 8 Common Ninja Myths

Jones, David E. – An Instinct for Dragons (2000)

Keefer, Professor Julia, New York University – The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

Kerenyi, Karl – The Gods of the Greeks (1951)

Live Science – Dragons: A Brief History of the Mythical, Fire-Breathing Beasts

Live Science – Santa Claus: The Real Man Behind the Myth

Military History Now – Enter the Ninja: Facts and Myths About Japan’s Most Mysterious Warriors

Mount Vernon – Ghost Stories: Washington’s Ghost Haunts Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon – Great George’s Ghost: Josiah Quincy III and His Fright Night at Mount Vernon

Muslu, Cihan Yuksel – The Ottomans and the Mamluks: Imperial Diplomacy and Warfare in the Islamic World (2014)

National Ocean Service – Are Mermaids Real?

Rawi, Egypt’s Heritage Review – Coffee With the Pasha: The Story of Egypt’s Most Famous Massacre

Royal Museums, Greenwich – What is a Mermaid and What Do They Symbolize?