Beth and I went to the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island on Saturday, and watched The Shape of Water last night, so it’s been a good weekend for fish-people. The rest of this paragraph will have some SPOILERS for the movie, although I’m sure most people have already seen it, or aren’t interested. Elisa Esposito is a janitor at a military research facility in the early sixties, and she finds out that they’re keeping an amphibian humanoid from South America there. There’s an explanation about how he could be useful for determining the effects of space travel, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as they’d already sent monkeys up there by then, but whatever. The people working there had been treating the creature badly, so he responded in kind. Elisa, who is mute, manages to communicate with him using a combination of Sign Language and other gestures, and they develop a relationship. She manages to break him out of there with help from her neighbor, a co-worker, and a scientist who’s actually a Russian spy, but turns against both sides when he finds out the Americans and Soviets both want the creature dead. Elisa keeps him in a bathtub for a while, and there’s a disturbing bit where he eats a cat. It’s presented so that he doesn’t know it’s wrong, and he later learns from it and doesn’t hurt any of the other cats, but it’s still jarring. I’d heard something about Elisa having sex with the fish-man, and she says as much during the film. It is hinted at the end that the scars she’s had on her neck since childhood are actually gills, so she might be part fish-person herself, which I guess is supposed to lessen the implications of bestiality. She eventually goes to live with him in the sea, and he demonstrates healing powers, which made me think of E.T. Guillermo del Toro has said that the idea for the film came partially from his wanting the relationship in Creature from the Black Lagoon (which I haven’t seen) to work out. I was thinking while watching that Elisa’s name might have been a reference to Eliza Doolittle, who also had speech problems (or what the well-to-do might consider problems, anyway). I also noticed a clip of Mister Ed, a show with an animal speaking human language. I saw it pointed out that there’s a lot of green and other sea-related colors, including Colonel Strickland’s teal Cadillac. Another major theme is that of treating people as the Other and not trying to understand them. Strickland was the main representation of this, and in doing so they made him thoroughly unlikeable. He’s racist and sexist, he sexually harasses Elisa, and he tortures people for information. And there’s really no nuance or explanation for it, other than that he’s presumably going through a midlife crisis, since they include a scene where he buys a new car on a whim.
The Mermaid Parade was about the same as it was in previous years, but since they didn’t have it at all in the last two years, it was cool to see it again. I’m always impressed by some of the costumes people come up with, not to mention the aquatic puns.
It does make me miss dressing up for Halloween and Oz conventions, however. I haven’t done that in years.
Since I’m talking about fish-people, I thought I might also work in something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while now, the Babylonian Apkallu. They’re these mystical sages who are said to have educated the people in the arts of civilization, including mathematics and agriculture, and proper worship of the gods. They’re relevant here because they’re sometimes said to be part fish.
In the work of the third century BC historian Berossus, it’s said that the first of the sages, Uannu or Oannes, had both a human and a fish head, and human legs connected to a fish tail.
Depictions of the Apkallu show what look to be people in cloaks resembling fish, which would explain the two heads. They’re also sometimes shown to have features of birds instead of fish.
Regardless, they’re said to have emerged from the sea at the behest of Enki, and Uannu is specifically credited with having finished the plans for Heaven and Earth.
There are seven sages mentioned as advising kings before the Flood, and a few afterwards as well. The post-diluvian Apkallu are sometimes said to be more human, perhaps the product of sex between full Apkallu and humans. I guess humans finding fish-people sexy is a pretty old idea. In terms of mermaids specifically, I don’t think it’s necessarily as much to do with fish tails as it is to do with freedom and fluidity, beings who are largely uninhibited in their movements, frequently naked, and with long hair flowing freely. The colors also help, I guess.
Picture by Becca Whitaker
Anyway, Marduk is said to have forced the wise fish-men to return to the sea, after which the kings had fully human advisors and priests. The term “Apkallu” can be used for anyone known for wisdom, but these mythical Apkallu are something different. The sages are credited in the Epic of Gilgamesh with having built the walls of Uruk. Figures of them appear to have been pretty common, and thought to have the power to ward off evil. The specific reference to seven Apkallu has been linked to other cultures in the area. Plato wrote of seven legendary sages who taught philosophy in the distant past, and India has the Saptarishi. The latter are said to have been rescued from a great flood by Vishnu in the form of the giant fish Matsya, so there’s an ichthyan connection there as well.
I also thought of the Seven Sages of Hyrule, and in both Ocarina of Time and A Link Between Worlds, one of them (Princess Ruto and Queen Oren, respectively) is a fish-person, more specifically a Zora.
I also understand that some of the later Final Fantasy games have aquatic enemies called Apkallu and Oannes.
It’s all connected, and it all eventually returns to the sea.