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  • A Dutch Mermaid March 24, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing recently stumbled on this semi-mermaid story: if that is what it is.

    At that time there was a great tempest at sea, with exceeding high tides, the which did drowne many villages in Friseland and Holland; by which tempest there came a seawoman swimming in the Zuyderzee betwixt the towns of Campen and Edam, the which passing by the Purmerie, entered into the straight of a broken dyke in the Purmermer, where she remained a long time, and could not find the hole by which she entered, for that the breach had been stopped after that the tempest had ceased. Some country women and their servants who did dayly pass the Pourmery to milk their kine in the next pastures, did often see this woman swimming on the water, whereof at first they were much afraid ; but in the end, being accustomed to see it very often, they viewed it neerer, and at last they resolved to take it if they could. Having discovered it, they rowed towards it, and drew it out of the water by force, carrying it into the town of Edam. When she had been well washed and cleansed from the sea-moss which was grown about her, she was like unto another woman. She was appareled, and began to accustome herself to ordinary meats like unto any other, yet she sought still means to escape and to get into the water, but she was straightly guarded. They came from farre to see her. Those of Haarlem made great sute to them of Edam to have this woman, by reason of the strangenesse thereof. In the end they obtained her, where she did learn to spin, and lived many years (some say fifteen), and for the reverance which she bore unto the signe of the crosse whereunto she had been accustomed, she was buried in the church-yarde. Many persons worthy of credit have justified in their writings that they had scene her in the said towne of Haarlem.

    The story is associated with the early fifteenth century: though naturally documentation only comes later. There was though well into the nineteenth century a statue of a mermaid in Edam with the following coy legend.  Dit beeld hier opgericht tot een gedachtenis/ Wat in het Purmer-meyr voorheen gevangen is. / Anno 1403. [This statue was erected in memory/ Of what had been caught in Lake Purmer./ In the year 1403.] Other stories describe how this mermaid lacked words: she never learnt to speak but that she did learn to bow before the cross.

    Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors had a fabulous time with this mermaid, particularly the Dutch historians who couldn’t quite let the legend go. One scholar wrote that

    ‘this supposed mermaid was an idiot, who probably was deaf and dumb, and had fallen into the sea from some ship that had been wrecked upon the coast. [this scholar] conjectures also that she might have the singular property of floating long on the water, which practice might render pleasing to her. In support of this opinion, he quotes instances from several writers, of persons endued with this natural levity; and from one Leegwater, a Dutch writer, gives an account of a man who could remain three quarters of an hour under water, and while there, not only peeled pears and eat them, but also played on the hautboy.’

    Beach remains sceptical particularly given the extraordinary mermaid tradition in the Netherlands, more interesting than anything that England has to offer. He wonders idly if this is not to be framed in a rivalry between Edam and Haarlem: though such legends do not usually end in gifts. Any ideas? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    28/Mar 2012:  Trevor writes: In 1403 there a major dyke breach from the Zuiderzee leading to extensive flooding, 50 years after William V had awarded Edam civil privileges and the right to build a harbour, which led to a rapid increase in wealth but afaik no great problems with Haarlem. The first known reference to the mermaid is 200 years later on a gable stone on the old Purmer Gate in Edam, 60 years after Charles V had ordered the connection with the Zuiderzee to be dammed to prevent flooding, putting an end to Edam’s maritime ambitions. So I figure her function is wistful, rather like pub signs of Queen Vic in post-imperial Britain. The Muiden mermaid also deals with shifting sands. Before Muiden was fortified and before the munitions factory it was presumably a small collection of filthy fishers’ hovels with a toll house, and the rhyme she speaks to the fishermen after they’ve let her go is Muden sal Muden bliven, Muden sal nyet becliven = more or less There’s always be a Muiden, Muiden will not endure. How poetic, the contradiction, say van Gouw & ter Lennep  None of this answers the question as to how a woman with the tail of a fish coped with clogs.’ Thanks Trevor!

    10 March 2013: This email comes from Henk. We’ll gladly link up Henk with anyone if there is any interest though for obvious reasons we won’t put his email here. I am Henk, an older person, 59, living exact where the Mermaid of Edam was once found, according to the legends: The Purmer Lake. Which is now dry land, the city of Purmerend having  extended into these parts that are protected from the nearby Lake IJsselmeer by dykes. My interest for old legends and myths goes way back before we started to live there. Fueled by our many travels through all parts of the UK, and a deep dive into everything relating to Queen Guineverre and King Arthur in the 80’s and 90’s. That interest opened many doors into other aspects that touch the bottom of Western Culture, in religious and political ways. But that is to far from the Mermaid for now. It is all on amateur-level, I have no university-background, and I am not always busy with this. Specially King Arthur I have put aside for some years.  4 Years ago I came into contact with what I assumed to be a temporary hype, but turned out to be a longstanding one:  Korean TV-drama’s. I love their  unique way of mixing drama with humor, suspense with comedy, with romance and good stories underneath. Specially the way they deal with old Korean/Asian myths and legends is fantastic, and often goes deeper and further than any Disney could ever do. Hardly any special effects most of the times, it is all in the story. ( The British are better with it too :)) ( Examples: Arang And The Magistrate, Secret Garden,  ) One classic Canadian writer, Lucy Maud Montgomery, thought wannabee-writers: Look in your own area for stories, forget all the mumbo-jumbo. That is what I did. I wrote a story about the Mermaid of Edam. The old legend says she died in Haarlem, and is buried there. But other mermaid-legends in the world claim that mermaids can live for hundreds of years, and can get more if they meet “a good child” when at land.  My story was about that, the Mermaid being called back one more time in modern Holland, having adventures here, and leave again for the water in the ( happy ) end. The main character was a  girl, who started to dream about a mermaid in the beginning, and woke up from a dream in the end. No clear end saying if the mermaid really appeared or not, it remains a question. ( Dutch stories and movies are very linear: From A to B, characters never change.) I spoke with a lot of local people, in several villages around us, above Amsterdam. There is hardly any interest, from young and old. I had the story online on a small website for half a year, and the main local news-website. (about 30000 readers ) wanted to put it on the site in parts, every sunday. They did, but kept forgetting after the 6th time, so that ended. Whatever my quality of writing in Dutch, I think the idea was and is still great, with lot’s of scope for imagination. I am active on Asian orientated movie-forums, (animecrazy.net: 500000 members worldwide). I am considering to see if there is any kindred spirit in the group who is good in drawing manga, and turn The Mermaid of Edam into a manga story, in English. Again it surprises me, that so few people in our area are interested in their own heritage, and will only chew what comes out of the million-dollar promo-buckets from the movie-industry. We’ll see.’ Thanks, Henk!

    11 July 2013: Amy Freeborn kindly writes in: Hello there, I’ve just come across your Dutch mermaid story post while conducting my own mermaid-related internet research. I have a copy of a UK newspaper Letter to the editor from 1721 which mentions a Dutch mermaid, which I assume is perhaps  the same one in your article. The text from the newspaper is as follows: In the History of the Neatherlands, viz, the Dikes were broken down near Campen by an inundation in 1403, and when the inundation returned, a merwoman was left in Dermert Mere, and the milkmaids who used to cross the Mere with boats when they went to milk, saw a human head above water, but believed their eyes deceived them, till the repeated sight confirmed their assurance, whereupon they resolved one night to watch her, and saw that she repaired to a soggy place, where it was ebb and near the tide; whereupon, early in the morning they got a great many boats together, and environed the place in the form of a half moon, and disturbed her, but she attempting to get under the boats, and finding her way stopped up by slaves, and other things on purpose, faltered, began to flounce and make an hideous deafening noise, and with her hands and tail sunk a boat or two, but at last tired out and taken; the maids used her kindly, and cleansed the sea moss and shells from off her, and offered her water, fish, milk, break &c. which she refused, but with good usage in a day or two, they got her to eat and drink, though she endeavoured to make her escape again to sea; her hair was long and black, her face humane, her teeth very strong, her breasts and belly to her navel were perfect; the lower parts of her body ended in a strong fish tail. The Magistrates of Harlem commanded her to be sent to them, for that the Mere was in their jurisdiction: when she was brought thither, she was put into the town-house, and has a dame assigned to her to teach her. She learnt to spin and show devotion at prayer, she would laugh, and when women came into the town house to spin with her for diversion, she would signify by signs she knew their meaning in some sort, though she could never be taught to speak. She would wear no clothes in summer; part of her hair was fillited up in a Dutch dress, and part hanged long and naturally. She would have her tail in the water, and accordingly had a tub of water under her chair made on purpose for her. She eat milk, water, bread, butter and fish; she lived thus out of her element (except her tail) fifteen or sixteen years: her picture was painted on a board with oil, and hangs now in the town-house of Harlem, with a subscription in letters of gold, giving an account when she was taken, how long she lived, and when she died, and in what church-yard she was buried. Their Annals mention her, and their books have her picture; and travelling painters draw her picture by the table. I wonder if such an oil painting indeed exists? I would love to see it, as well as a picture of the Edam statue you mention, which again, I assume is the same mermaid as the one detailed above. Thanks Amy!