It was believed that a light and beautiful land, underneath the watery wastes of the ocean, was inhabited by mar-men or mar-folk, who lived in beautiful halls and spacious caves of coral, amidst groves of aquatic trees and plants.
These beings were like people when in their homes; but when they were travelling through the sea, they became half man and half fish; their upper parts remaining man-like, while their nether parts became fish-like, or were enveloped in a fish-like covering. Without this fish-like covering, these people could not travel the seas; but, as it was of no use to them in other elements, they immediately discarded it upon arriving home, and also when they came ashore in the upper world.
They were about the size of the smallest people among us, and very well proportioned. Of a mild disposition, they were much attached to one another. They are known to have been fond of music, singing, dancing, and story-telling, when at home; and some of them played flutes and harp-like instruments.
The men were darker in complexion than the women, and had hair and beards of various colors; for instance, brown, black, gray, and reddish. Their beards and hair were generally rather long. The women had fine features, light skins, and very long yellow hair, which floated around them when they were in the water. They sometimes came ashore in fine moonlight nights and sat on the rocks, combing their hair. They could sing very sweetly, and their singing enchanted men, and perhaps other beings. If a man heard her song and saw her, he became spell-bound. It is said that men became so insanely in love with mermaids, that they followed them into the sea, and were drowned. When a mermaid sang, seals also came crowding around, and remained listening as if spell-bound. Mermen, unlike mermaids, very rarely came ashore.
These sea-people occasionally played tricks on fishermen (especially when lines were set over their abodes) by fastening their hooks to the bottom or to seaweeds, or by taking the bait and sometimes the fish also off the hooks.
To see mermen at sea generally meant some kind of bad luck, bad weather, or danger. In fair weather, fishermen have seen what at first appeared to be a large seal rise out of the water and look intently at their boat. On further observing the creature, they would see that it had human features and long hair. Then they realized that it was one of the sea-people watching them; and this always foreboded a storm. If they were not noticed by the sea-being, no evil result need be predicted.
Stories are told of these people having been caught on hooks and hauled up to the surface or into boats. When thus caught, they begged to be released, and offered good luck or a reward for their release. Captors who had released them have afterwards been lucky, while those who retained them or harmed them have been drowned or have experienced bad luck. A story relates how a Norden man (North Shetlander), one of the crew of a boat engaged in haf-fishing (deep-sea fishing), found, when hauling in the lines, a mermaid (caught by the hand?) on one of the hooks. As she was brought alongside the boat, she begged not to be harmed, and prayed to be released; but before releasing her from the hook, the man stabbed her in the breast with a tolli ("sheath-knife") and she sank out of sight, moaning piteously. A severe storm came on shortly afterwards, and the boat barely made the land. The man was afterwards haunted, and eventually he was drowned.
It was believed that these people could foretell the future. Thus, when one was caught at sea, he (or she) was asked before being released to tell the fortunes of the men. The mar-folk according to some, could not live long ashore or in the sea, the atmosphere of their own element beneath the sea being different from either. Others say that they could live a long time ashore, but that they were always unhappy, and sooner or later died of grief, if not returned to the sea. There seems to be some confusion in Shetland folk-lore between these sea-people, or mar-folk, and the selki-folk as some people say of the former that they could assume seal-form as well as fish-form when travelling in the sea, or that they could more frequently assume the shape of a seal than that of a fish. In both cases real transformations were not involved, but mere coverings were adjusted to enable them to roam the seas. To travel under water they enveloped themselves entirely in these contrivances; but on the surface of the sea their heads, necks, shoulders, and breast were uncovered, being out of water, and only the lower parts of necessity retained their fish or seal envelope. When they came ashore, they entirely discarded them, but never went very far; and in the case of alarm or some one approaching, they at once resumed their sea-forms and jumped into the sea. The loss of these possessions meant that they could no longer travel in the sea.
Some people even say that all had seal coverings, and that their body ended in hind flippers and that these have probably been mistaken for fish-tails. Stories are told of mermaids having married Shetlanders, and these narratives do not differ materially from similar ones referring to seal-folk. Sometimes the same narrative, in fact, refers to both kinds, the woman being a mermaid in one version, and a seal-woman in another. It seems, however, that most people differentiate them quite clearly.
- Teit, James A. (1918). "Water-beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia." JAF 31:180-201, pp. 190-193.
This article incorporates text from Water-beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia (1918) by James Teit, which is in the public domain.