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The merrow legends in Irish mythology are unique yet surprisingly familiar. These gorgeous sea-dwellers resemble the mermaids of Greek mythology and yet they are distinctly different in origin, physical appearance, character, and their entire mythos.
Who Were the Merrow?
The term merrow is believed to come from the Irish words muir (sea) and oigh (maid), which makes their name identical to the Greek mermaids. The Scottish word for the same creature is morrough. Some scholars also translate the name as sea singer or sea monster, but fewer people ascribe to these hypotheses.
Whatever we choose to call them, the merrows are usually described as incredibly beautiful maidens with long green hair, and flat feet with webbed fingers and toes for better swimming. The merrows sing seductively, just like Greek sirens. However, unlike the sirens, the merrow don’t do this to tempt sailors to their doom. They’re not as malevolent as the sirens. Instead, they usually take sailors and fishermen to live with them underwater, entranced to love, follow, and obey the merrow’s every wish.
That being said, sailors would often try to seduce merrows too, for getting a merrow wife was viewed as a stroke of very good luck. There were ways for men to lure merrows to land and strand them there. We’ll cover this below.
Did Merrow Have Fishtails?
Depending on which merrow legend we read, these creatures can sometimes be described with fishtails like their Greek counterparts. For example, the Catholic priest and poet John O’Hanlon described the lower half of merrows as covered with greenish-tinted scales.
Other authors, however, stick to the more accepted description of merrows with no fishtail and webbed feet instead. Then again, there are some even more bizarre claims, such as that of the poet W. B. Yeats, who wrote that when merrows came to land, they were transformed into little hornless cows.
Some myths even describe these sea maidens as completely covered in scales, while still being beautiful and desirable somehow.
Are Merrows Benevolent or Evil?
As one of the sidhe races, i.e., members of the Irish fairy folk, the merrow could be both benevolent and malevolent, depending on the legend. These dwellers of Tir fo Thoinn, or The Land beneath the Waves, were commonly shown as gorgeous and kind-hearted sea maidens who either just minded their own business or seduced fishermen to give them an enchanted life with the merrows in the sea.
Granted, that can be seen as a form of magical slavery but it’s nowhere near the horror that the Greek sirens sought to bring onto unsuspecting sailors.
There are other myths too, however, some of which portrayed the merrows in a darker light. In many stories, these sea-dwellers could be vengeful, spiteful, and outright evil, luring sailors and fishermen to a darker and more short-lived time under the waves.
Are There Male Merrows?
There wasn’t a term for mermen in Irish, but there were male merrows or merrow-men in some stories.
This does make their name somewhat weird, but what’s even more strange is that these mermen are always described as incredibly hideous. Covered with scales, deformed, and outright grotesque, mermen were very much viewed as sea monsters that ought to be killed on sight or avoided.
Why people imagined mermen that way isn’t clear, but the likely hypothesis is that they found it satisfying to imagine the men of the gorgeous merrows as hideous freaks. That way, when a sailor or a fisherman daydreamed about catching a merrow he could feel good about wanting to “liberate” her from her hideous merman.
What Did the Merrow Wear?
Do merrows wear any clothes or wield any magical artifacts? Depending on the region, you’d get different answers.
Folks in Kerry, Cork, and Wexford in Ireland, claim that merrows swam wearing a red cap made out of feathers called cohuleen druith. However, people from Northern Ireland swear that merrows wear sealskin cloaks instead. The difference, of course, is simply based on certain local stories that have come from the respective regions.
As for any practical differences between the red cap and the sealskin cloak – there don’t appear to be any. The purpose of both magical items is to give the merrows their ability to live and swim underwater. It’s not clear how and from where they acquired these items – they just have them.
More importantly, if a man was to take away a merrow’s red cap or sealskin cloak, he could force her to stay on land with him, incapable of returning to the water. That’s the main way sailors and fishermen dreamt of “seducing” a merrow – either to catch her in a net or to trick her to come to shore and then just steal her magical item.
Not exactly romantic.
A Merrow For A Bride?
Getting a merrow wife was the dream of many men in Ireland. Not only were merrows incredibly beautiful, but they were also said to be fantastically rich.
All the treasures people imagined at the bottom of the sea from shipwrecks were believed to be collected by the merrows in their underwater dwellings and palaces. So, when a man was to marry a merrow, he’d also get all her many prized belongings.
More curiously, many people in Ireland actually believe that some families are indeed descendent of merrows. The O’Flaherty and O’Sullivan families of Kerry and the MacNamaras of Clare are two famous examples. Yeats also speculated in his Fairy and Folk Tales that … “Near Bantry in the last century, there is said to have been a woman, covered in scales like a fish, who was descended from such a marriage…”.
Yes, in those tales that described merrows as partly or even fully covered in scales, their half-human offspring was also often covered in scales. However, that trait was said to disappear after a couple of generations.
Always Drawn to The Sea
Even if a man was to successfully capture and wed a merrow, and even if she gave him her treasures and children, a merrow would always get homesick after a while and start looking for ways to get back into the water. In most stories, that way was simple – she would seek out her hidden red cap or sealskin cloak and escape beneath the waves as soon as she reclaimed them.
Symbols and Symbolism of the Merrow
The merrows are a great symbol for the untamable nature of the sea. They are also a clear demonstration of how far a fisherman’s imagination can soar when he gets bored.
These sea maidens are also a rather clear metaphor of the type of woman many men apparently dreamt of at the time – wild, beautiful, rich, but also needing to be physically forced to stay with them and sometimes covered in scales.
Importance of the Merrow in Modern Culture
Together with the Greek mermaids, the Hindu naga, and other sea dwellers from across the world, the merrows have inspired many pirate legends as well as countless pieces of art and literature.
Especially in modern times, many fantasy creatures draw their inspirations from both merrows and mermaids and are either direct representations of either of them or weird mixes of some of their features.
For example, in his book Things in Jars, Jess Kidd describes the merrows as pale women with eyes that often changed color between all-white and all-black. More chilling is the fact that Kidd’s merrows had sharp fish-like teeth and were constantly trying to bite people. The merrows’ bites were also venomous to men but not to women.
In Jennifer Donnelly’s fantasy series, The Waterfire Saga, there is a mermaid king named Merrow and in Kentaro Miura’s manga Berserk there is a distinct mer-folk called merrow too.
Male merrows also make some appearances such as their role in the popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons where these marine monstrosities make for terrifying opponents.
Like many creatures in Celtic mythology, the merrow aren’t as well-known as their counterparts from other European mythologies. However, there is no denying that despite their similarities with water nymphs, sirens, and mermaids from other cultures, the merrows are still truly unique and emblematic of Irish mythology.