Many mythologies feature mermaids, mysterious half-fish, half-human beings. Various cultures worshiped or feared them as deities or spirits. Most have been female, hence the name mermaids. Their male counterparts make rarer appearances in folklore, but there were a few. One of them, Oannes, actually predates the first recorded mermaid – Atargatis, the Assyrian goddess – by several thousand years.
Who Was Oannes?
Oannes, also known as Adapa and Uanna, was a Babylonian god from the 4th century BCE. It was said he appeared out of the ocean every day as a fish-human creature to share his wisdom with the people along the Persian Gulf. In daylight hours he taught them written language, the arts and sciences, then returned to the sea at night.
Oannes did not necessarily look like how we might picture a merman. Some artwork shows him to have a human torso and fish tail, but other materials (including carvings) show a human body with arms, legs and feet surrounded by the form of a fish. You could almost say it looked like a giant fish ‘costume’.
We know of Oannes mainly through the stories of a 3rd century BCE Babylonian priest and scribe named Berossus. Only fragments of his writings survived, so the tale of Oannes has been handed down mainly through the summaries of his writings by Greek historians. One fragment reads:
At first they led a somewhat wretched existence and lived without rule after the manner of beasts. But, in the first year after the flood appeared an animal endowed with human reason, named Oannes, who rose from out of the Erythian Sea, at the point where it borders Babylonia. He had the whole body of a fish, but above his fish’s head he had another head which was that of a man, and human feet emerged from beneath his fish’s tail. He had a human voice, and an image of him is preserved unto this day. He passed the day in the midst of men without taking food; he taught them the use of letters, sciences and arts of all kinds. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and showed them how to collect the fruits; in short he instructed them in everything which could tend to soften human manners and humanize their laws. From that time nothing material has been added by way of improvement to his instructions. And when the sun set, this being Oannes, retired again into the sea, for he was amphibious.
From Ancient Fragments, by I.P. Cory.
In fact, the names of Oannes and the other six sages of civilization – the Apkallu – are engraved in a Babylonian tablet found at Uruk, the ancient city of Sumer (today the city of Warka in Iraq).
Berossus the Scribe
Berossus wrote three books on the history and culture of Babylonia. Although only fragments of his writings remain, Berossus was well known to historians of his day, as well as those who came later, and was mentioned in their accounts. Indeed, his historical chronologies and writings have been verified for compatibility with other writings of the time by modern scholars.
What Are We to Make of the Tale of Oannes?
Is it possible then that there is some truth behind the story of Oannes the mermaid? Could it be that that mysterious figure who emerged from the sea onto the Babylonian shore thousands of years ago to enlighten mankind and bring civilization to the world actually existed? Or was Oannes, the all-knowing man-god in fish form, a way for Berossus to explain the mysterious genesis of civilization in terms people of his time would understand? Yet again, we see the concept of a merman/mermaid assisting humankind and being an object of reverence, so it is logical to assume that the connection with many other mermaid tales is not a mere coincidence.
We can only hope more writings about Oannes are discovered because his tale remains tantalising to this day!
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