Volume 3 Number 3


Summer 2005

The Mermaid of the Great Sea

Norman A. Rubin

The fishing village of Nikko lies eastwards on the windward coast on the Island of Hondo Island of the imperial archipelago of Nihon along the Great Sea. The houses of the fishermen and their families cling to the rocky hillside as if hung by the gods of the sea. Waves lick the ledges in the coves as the fisher folk set out to sea in their boats to cast their nets.

Their catch of fish was the gift of the generous Sea God O-Wata-Tsu-Mi; the god gave them the largess of the sea for their food and for fish for sale in the markets in the hinterland. The fishermen's hours of the day were reckoned not by clocks but by the ebb and flow of the tide, and the months of the year were reckoned either by the tuna runs or the flow of the squid. But, the God of the Seas, in a period of evil temper, would not be so kind to the fishermen and, at times, sudden storms would rise in fury from the Great Sea. Then the fishermen, as well as the creatures of the sea, could be lost to the tempest of the waters.

At the end of a good day, when the Great Sea was calm and each boat had returned with its catch of fish safely stowed in the hold, the good people of Nikko would make their way to their small Shinto shrine, light joss sticks and proffer humble offerings to the heavenly gods, and give thanks. Prayers were then offered to the Sea God O-Wata-Tsu-Mi for the morrow's casting of the nets and the hope for a bountiful harvest.

Such was the rhythm of the fisher folk of Nikko with its cycle that evolved around the Great Sea and the blessing of the gods of the sea and of life itself. Yet, one evening, when all the fishing boats were dragged to the shore and all the fisher families were at the shrine and all the sea creatures were at rest on the bottom of the sea, even the waves were calm as they flowed to the shore, something moved softly in the twilight. The flowing waves parted without a sound, and, from the depth below, a lithe creature rose and climbed out to a protruding rock, there in a small inlet near the town of Nikko.

At first sighting, it looked like both a sea creature and a she-creature. It seemed at first to be a young maiden with a tender oval face atop a delightful and youthful body, but where her legs should have been was the long silvery tail of a fish. The mermaid was one of three comely daughters of Hohodemi, the king of the Great Sea, and her name was Izanami, the fair one.

Izanami sat quietly on the smooth rock and looked at her image on the calm sea as she combed from her shining black hair all the little sea urchins and tiny crabs that clung to her tresses. As she combed her hair, she listened to the murmur of waves and whisper of winds. When the mermaid listened to the rhythm of the sea and winds, she heard the songs of Tatsuta-Hiko, the first-born son of the Wind Goddess, which flowed in the breeze from his sanctuary in the high hills. The mermaid listened entranced to the melodies till the curtain of evening closed and sun rose to the heavens; then Izanami slipped back at the fading of a tune into the cool waters to her home in the depths below.

My love is a young thing, she gives me sweet water,
With the bread of gaiety, and she is mine.
The next evening, the mermaid came once again, but did not place herself on the comfort of the rock, but swam along the shore as she was enraptured by the lovely songs of the Wind God wafting in the breeze from the hills. "What creature sings so sweet?" she asked, as she looked towards the shore, but her eyes only saw shadows. There was no answer save the swishing of the wavelets coursing to the shore.
She is a garden with the fountains trill,
Waters her eyes, her voice the silver rill.
The following night, Izanami came even earlier when the light of the sunset gently touched the waters. She swam in a trance as once again she heard the songs of Tatsuta-Hiko; she floated boldly near and around the shoals near the inlet. And when the mermaid heard the music wafting from the hills through the cove, she called, "What reed is there that pipes such tender sounds?" Yet, again there was no answer.

The enchantment enveloped her and she would and must know about the singing. So she slithered her tail back and forth and pulled herself on the sandy shore itself. From there, she could see the deep cove and the valley leading to the high hills; there she heard the sweet songs of Tasuta-Hiko wafting from his hidden sanctuary. But, no matter how she looked toward the hills, she did not learn for herself who sang the songs in such a delicate manner.

The water-wheels, which weep from either eye,
Yet make merry chanting as they spin....

The mermaid quivered in her enjoyment of the magical sounds throughout the dark of the night. But at the coming of dawn, she looked by chance behind her slim figure, and she saw that the tide had begun to ebb and waters flowed from the shore back to the sea. Izanami knew she must go back, too, or be left stranded on the shore like a fish out of water.

So, with a bit of effort, she swished her tail back and forth, which propelled her back to the cool waters of the sea. There she dived down beneath the waves, down to the dark sea where she lived with her esteemed father, Hohodemi, the King of the Seas. And there she told the wise elder what she heard echoing from the high hills to the cove below; that her curiosity was piqued in trying to find the singer at the source of the sweet songs. At Izanami's words, the king shook the tresses of seaweed on his head back and forth.

"To hear is enough, my child. To understand the ways of the gods is too much!"

"I must know the answer, my dear father," she pleaded, "for the voice and its music are magic."

"Nay," the king thundered, "the music is from the pantheon of the gods, and it comes from the lips of a godly son. We creatures of the sea do not walk on the realm of the earth or mountain gods. Nor do we of the deep waters course into the stream of the gods of winds and thunder. The depth of the sea is our realm and we have to abide by the watery ways ordered by our Kami, which was dictated by the Chiya-bura, the most powerful."

A tear, larger than an ocean pearl, fell from Izanami's eyes as she spoke in reply, "Then surely I may die for the wanting to know of the source of the sweet tunes and of the singer."

Hohodemi let out a troubled breath, and his sigh was the roar of giant waves upon the rocks; for a mermaid to cry was unheard off and it troubled the elder King of the Seas greatly to his aching heart. But he was stern in his words and he remained adamant.

The Sea King's word was the rule and Izanami had to followed its command. So each night afterwards, Izanami would only swim gracefully to the smooth rock, where she sat entranced as she listened to the sweet sounds, staying till the sign of the coming of dawn; always leaving before the last note faded and in time to catch the swell of high tide.

Then one bright moonlit night when the mermaid heard Tasuta-Hiko sing one verse, and then another, flowing into a third, it caught her breath in a pleasing sigh. Each refrain was sweet and tender in the words of love; each note was lovelier than the one before. It was just a little sigh, softer than the whisper of the wavelets coursing to the shore. But it was enough for the first-born son of the Wind Goddess to hear the mermaid's blissful tones of content.

Tasuta-Hiko stopped his singing and he looked toward the sea from his stance on the wafting of the winds. As he neared the cove, he set his winged feet to the ground. There, on the light of the full moon, he saw the mermaid sitting dreamily on the smooth rock. Izanami's eyes were shining, and her dark flowing hair was wet and gleaming with the pearly drops of the waters. He was struck silent by the look of her -- and by the love of her. For these things will happen.

Izanami was startled when she looked towards the inlet and saw an ethereal figure in the sight of her eyes; a sight that delighted her and caused her body to quiver in ecstatic rapture. There, on the sands, was a godly creature, handsome and blessed in manly form; the youth's eyes were rays of subdued light as they stared upon her. But when Tasuto-Hiko let the flow of his sweet music issue from his lips, the mermaid knew not only the source of the sweet sounds but also of tender love.

Shinatso-Hiko is my father, Tatsuta-Hime is my mother,
Tasuto-Hiko is my name born of the winds,
I am the carrier of sighs, the messenger of love,
I, Tasuto-Hikko am the color of love,
I tingle in the hand of creature who takes me....
The first-born son of the winds rose on his silver wings and within a breath was besides the mermaid; a kiss from his lips wiped away her tears as salty as the seas, when she exclaimed that she was a sea creature and must be where she belongs.
Hohodemi, the King of the Seas,
The elder and wise father of mine,
Izanami the name I was blessed,
The depth of the waters is my abode.

But, Tasuta-Hiko called out to the beautiful mermaid to put aside her cares and to be his only beloved. Then the wind and the water intertwined in rapture, and love was in their eyes and they both sang out their adoration for one another, "Such was my joy, my joy. Such was my joy."

From then and evermore in the glow of the evening, the good people of the village of Nikko heard in the murmur of the wind the voice of Tasuta-Hiko. For he sang to Izanami, through the cool of the night, both songs of love and gentle lullabies; his songs of legends and lore told of the sea and of the winds as well.

The fishermen of Nikko found the meanings in the voices of the waves and understood the murmuring in the winds; they knew that Tasuta-Hiko sang to his beloved Izanami during their nightly embrace upon the smooth rock. When his voice rose up soft and high, the fisher folk knew that the following day would be of fair weather; but when it was deep and low, they knew the Hohodemi, the King of the Seas was going to make the water boil and churn in storm. From his songs, the fishermen of Nikko knew when it was safe to put to sea, and when it wise to pull the boats to shore.