by Julia Rios
This month’s issue involves water legends from several different cultures. I asked three of our contributors to tell me a little more about their aquatic connections.
Julia Rios: Can you give us a brief description of the legend your piece drew inspiration from? What do you remember of when you first heard about it, and how common is it for people in your culture to know about it?
David Bowles: Mine came from two sources. The first is a pretty common injunction among older Latinx Catholics: if you take a bath on certain days during Holy Week, you will become a fish. When I was very little, before my Mexican American family converted from Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity, I heard this every year. The other element is less known: the pre-Columbian sacred story—the most popular version preserved by the Mexica or Aztecs—that tells us when the world was destroyed for a fourth time (before the age we live in), it was through a massive flood. The Lord of Creation, Quetzalcoatl, managed to save some of the humans of that time by turning them into merfolk: tlacamichin, in Nahuatl.
Brigit Truex: Underwater Panther (“Gita-skog” in Abenaki, Great Snake) has many names, such as Water Snake, Great Lynx, and Underneath Panther, among others. Depictions have been found in wide areas of “Turtle Island” (as we often refer to North America), from Canada to Mississippi and Georgia, from Ohio to Michigan. Indeed, one multi-colored pictograph was sighted and described by the explorer Jacques Marquette in 1673 along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. Other times it has been featured in such items as copper plate and feathered headdress found in Georgia, and a ceramic bowl in current Moundsville, Alabama; it is part of the Canadian Museum of History’s coat of arms; it appears to be represented in Ohio’s Alligator Effigy Mound.
Most often, it features an elongated, cat-like body with upright scales down its back, a snake-like tail, and clawed limbs. Its broad head is usually horned and exhibits ferocious rows of teeth. In the Great Lakes region of the Anishinaabe, it is said to guard the copper deposits there. Among my people, the Abenaki, it resides and guards Lake Champlain, often causing storms and churning water. Thus, when traveling on the lake, one offers tobacco in appeasement for a safe journey. A more contemporary quilled version, made by Abenaki artist Jim Taylor, is in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“I heard of the Underwater Panther many years ago, when I first learned more about my Native heritage and I was intrigued by the stories. “
~ Brigit Truex in her Underwater Panther shirt
I heard of the Underwater Panther many years ago, when I first learned more about my Native heritage and I was intrigued by the stories. When I lived in California, a friend had a shirt made for me that featured the Panther’s image, taken from an ancient bag that was decorated with porcupine quills. What also fascinates me is the fact that so many tribes and Nations are familiar with this animal. It teases the imagination as to where the stories come from in the earliest times – was there indeed a survivor of prehistoric eras, that lurks in deep waters like the “Loch Ness Monster” or more recently, the amazingly ancient coelcanth? The universality of certain creatures and events (such as what David referred to with the Great Flood; another very common element in many Native American stories) tells quite a story, I think, that should not be readily dismissed.
Grainne Quinlan: I live by the Atlantic Ocean in the west coast of Ireland. This setting inspired the poem I wrote for Mermaids Monthly called ‘Lament of the Love Struck Irish Fisherman’.
There is a local legend that long ago on the beach at the Flaggy Shore in County Clare, there once was a beautiful sea Merrow named Mura. She swam in the sea every morning at dawn wearing a red cap on her head. A local fisherman who lived alone in a small cottage by the shore saw her every day at dawn when he went out on his boat. He fell madly in love with her but was warned off by the locals who said it would come to no good as mermaids will always return to the oceans and break a mortal’s heart.
Mura was falling in love with the fisherman, too. The fisherman went to look for advice. A wise old woman told the fisherman that if he stole her cap, he could marry her and she would forget all about her sea roots. So he took her cap and hid it in his fishing boat.
The pair married and had two children. They were blissfully happy for seven years. One stormy day one of the children was playing on the fishing boat and found Mura’s red cap. He gave the cap to his mother and she put it on and was instantly drawn back to the sea. She swam away and was never seen again. The fisherman and his children were heartbroken.
Julia Rios: Your stories touch on protection, transformation, fear, and wonder. Do you feel these themes reflect your personal and/or cultural relationship to water? Are there other water-based legends you feel drawn to?
Brigit Truex: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky immediately comes to my mind in relation to other “water” stories. This again is a tale that is familiar to the Northeastern and Great Lakes Woodlands peoples. While there are some variations in the details, basically there was a young pregnant woman in the Above World who fell through a hole in the sky. Her decent was softened by geese who lowered her onto Turtle’s back, as he floated on the endless waters below. After she landed safely, the nearby animals thought she needed more room. Different ones volunteered to dive deep, in order to widen the space on Turtle’s back. Eventually, the most daring was Muskrat, who held his breath long enough to reach the muddy bottom. He brought up enough soil in his claws to spread on the shell – thus forming the Earth. After some time, the Woman gave birth to twins, but not before the impatient twin decided he couldn’t wait for the natural process to take place and he cut himself out of his mother. He is known as the Evil Twin, as opposed to his kinder, more thoughtful Good Twin. They are responsible for the evils and the benefits on Earth and in the Two-leggeds, the Humans. After the Woman died and was buried, life-sustaining corn grew from her body.
Once again, as mentioned in the first section of these questions, we see an image that is frequently found in far-distant cultures, the Twins.
I have reimagined them in another poem which appeared in another journal (Eye to the Telescope), detailing the misadventures of the Evil Twin and his interactions with a familiar aquatic animal, the Beaver. Specifically, the element of water means much to me as a poet – in fact, I have a manuscript seeking a publisher (The History of Water) which is focused on the many aspects of water. Additionally, many paintings I have recently done include water in them.
I realize I have been almost obsessed with water and stone for nearly my whole life. It seems to take the center of so much of my art and writing, without my realizing it! Culturally speaking, I think we regard water as an element that is to be respected as both life-giver and life-taker. We cannot survive without it, yet it also may hide and disguise creatures who would harm or kill us as well. It is not our “natural element” for LIVING in, yet it provides FOR our life.
Grainne Quinlan: These are wonderful stories guys, thanks.
I live near a place called Coole Park in Gort in the west of Ireland. There is a famous poet called WB Yeats who used to visit here, and he wrote a poem called ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. It is a story I was told as a child and used to scare the living bayajus out of me.
Long ago, a man named Lir had four children named Aodh, Fionnuala, Fiachra and Conn (twins). His wife died tragically giving birth to the twins, and Lir remarried a wicked woman called Aoife.
Aoife was jealous of the love her husband had for his children, so legend says she cast a spell on them and turned them into swans.
It is believed the children were trapped in the swans’ bodies and climbed the air over Coole, their white feathers so bright. For three hundred years the children flew over the lake, trapped in their swan bodies.
The version of the story I was told was that the children still had human voices and if you sat by the water in Coole you could hear them sing and cry and chat. Some say you can still hear them…
I often go to Coole, and often a pair of swans will be gliding on the lake. I always think of this story and of WB Yeats’ poem.
Water, magic, spells, legends, love, jealousy, fear, hope, poetry. It’s all there.
David Bowles: Definitely the stories from my community about the dangers of water (like the injunction against bathing or the deluge myth) have influenced me. Bodies of water are seen as passageways for spirits (and as ways to enter the spiritual realm / underworld). As a kid, I was haunted by the story of La Llorona, which itself is an ancient tale about a being the Aztecs called the Zohuaehecatl (Wind Woman)—betrayed by her husband, she drowns her children and then herself. Now she wanders the waterways of the world, looking for her little ones and mistaking local children for her own. She then pulls them into the water with her, killing them.
My Grandmother Garza used to tell me this tale to keep me from our local canals and oxbow lakes. I frankly didn’t even want to bathe after hearing it: I learned to prefer showers at an early age. The problem got so acute that I didn’t learn to swim until my father finally threw me into the middle of a circular pool, the kind that are shallower at the edge. That experience deepened my trauma about water, though I would go on to make my peace with it when I lived on South Padre Island, between the Bahia Madre Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Wild Swans at Coole
By W. B. Yeats
Originally published in 1917 by The Cuala Press
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.
The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
Julia Rios is a queer, Latinx writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator whose fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Latin American Literature Today, Lightspeed, and Goblin Fruit, among other places. Their editing work has won multiple awards including the Hugo Award. Julia is a co-host of This is Why We’re Like This, a podcast about the movies we watch in childhood that shape our lives, for better or for worse. They’re also one of several cohosts for The Skiffy and Fanty Show, a general SF discussion podcast, and they’ve narrated stories for Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders. They’re @omgjulia on Twitter.
Read the Rest of the February Issue
- Mermaid by Nivedita Sekar
- Til Human Voices Wake Us by Jennifer Hudak
- Lament of the Love Struck Irish Fisherman by Grainne Quinlan
- Interview with Brigit Treux, David Bowles, and Grainne Quinlan by Julia Rios
- Cold Water by Karen Porter Sorensen
- Wake by Sara Eileen Hames
- Underwater Panther by Brigit Truex
- Siren Call by David Bowles
- How to Eat a Mermaid by K. Garcia Ley
- Flow by Baz Kanold
- Getting Our Sea Legs by Julia Rios
- Tracking Treasures by Meg Frank