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The Littlest Horror of the Deep

Hello everyone, and welcome to LukeLore. A quick deep dive into a folklore topic, where I share some of the stories from around the world that have piqued my interest. I’m hopefully finally, and for real, mostly recovered now. The ongoing pain is insistent that I’m not 100% quite yet, but it’s become manageable. I should be back up and running now, and I have something a little silly to celebrate this. It’s fish. Folklore about fish. Not the usual terrors of the deep I rave about. Fish! Well, a little bit terrors from the deep, but not quite the Thalassophobic tour de force I usually indulge in. It’s sort of a joke maybe two or three people I grew up with will get, but it also weirdly coincides with the live action The Little Mermaid. So let’s just roll with it, and enjoy some fishlore! Section Break – The Striving Dragons As I mentioned at the start, this episode is something of an over indulgent deep cut joke, and part of growing up for me was definitely Pokemon. There’s surely enough cultural cache for the juggernaut of a franchise that most people should be vaguely aware of Magikarp, a notoriously useless fish that’s everywhere, can ultimately evolve into a devastating serpentine dragon that rules both skies and seas. Now, here’s the cool thing. This is based on a neat bit of Chinese folklore. It is, in fact, based on one of the most enduring and cherished bits of symbology across the region. So the story goes that there are several legendary mountains. At the very top of these mountains is a waterfall, and at the top of that? The Dragon’s Gate. If a Yulong carp swims all the way upstream, reaching and then surmounting the Dragon’s Gate, the humble carp will emerge as a dragon soaring up into the skies! They’re some magnitudes more majestic than the Gyarados Pokemon, which within the franchise is notoriously bad tempered about struggling along as one of the weakest fish in the setting, and are now about to make their transformation everyone else’s problem. Thousands of carp will attempt this each year at one of these sacred places. The Yellow River at Hunan, the River Tsin in the Shanxi Province, or where the Wei River passes through the Lung Sheu Mountains. But despite any given carp having the potential to do this almost each and every single one shall be overwhelmed and give up. To even make the climb at all would only be something 1 in 70 could attempt, but to have made it this far brought its own magic to the land. The first Yulong carp to try the final ascent causes rain to fall across the region, the first sign of the power within the humble fish. Those very few who do succeed burst forth into the skies as a deity of rain and harmony! Symbols of good luck, prosperity, and nobility. Their obvious fishlike scales remain as a reminder of their humble origin. This story has led to the enduring phrase “The carp has leaped through the Dragon’s Gate.” This seems to have originally been used when someone, especially of a humble background, passed difficult examinations to join the imperial administration service. A notoriously difficult achievement that began some two thousand years ago to find only the best and brightest for government service. This is a phrase you’ll still encounter today if someone from a remote village in rural China studies hard enough to pass the national university examination for a place in higher education. There are many varieties of dragon worldwide, across many different regions and a long span of time. But the dragons of China, and spilling out into wider Asia, are magnificent divine beings. Pretty different to a lot of Western dragons, those tending to be cruel and capricious greedy monsters. The overwhelming goodness and glory of the Eastern dragon may have gone a long way towards rehabilitating the ideas of dragons globally as stories across cultures mixed, dragons are globally regarded with wonder now when for a long time in Europe they were synonymous with the devil. I’m okay with this. Dragons are awesome, and the monstrous tales are still there to enjoy, or if a fantasy story needs an incredible villain to strive against. But I’m all awe when I first see a dragon in any setting or scenario - followed then by panic if it’s an evil one, because what the hell can you do to fight back against a dragon? Maybe be nice to any carp you see, just in case… SECTION BREAK – Big fish! So, here's the entire reason there's a Fishlore episode. I think one person will hear and appreciate this, but for years I played a collectable card game that had a giant fish called Dandan. It wasn't always especially good, but it had a striking artwork of a giant fish bigger than a boat lurking just below some fishermen, and for whatever reason it tickled our play group to yell its name when we played it or otherwise did anything with it in the game.

Which somehow has led to this entire episode, because if nothing else I at least amuse myself doing this. But there's some interesting folklore to be had here! More correctly named Dandun, this is a creature mentioned in the 1,001 Arabian Nights. The Dandun is one of the most fearsome fish of the sea from its size alone, big enough to swallow a man whole easily. More than big enough in some cases to swallow a boat! The law of nature being what it is, the big fish eats the small, and the Dandun is the biggest fish you can find. Its liver is an incredible rare delight, grown rich and fat from being a terror with no natural predators, but this monster has an interesting drawback. Allah had declared that it may not eat any Child of Adam, so any human would not only taste bad but is also deadly poison to a Dandun. Sadly, this may not leave you uneaten, but it would mean you at least get to call it a draw. It could also lead to an incredibly bad day on the water where a colossal terror of the deep swallows your boat whole then spits you back out, which strikes me as a recipe for career ending Thalassophobia for any fisherman that should happen to. The people who live beneath the sea, the merfolk of the Arabian Nights, would disguise the corpses of drowned men to hunt the Dandun, a risky endeavor for them as while seeming like any other person they themselves are not Children of Adam and are so fair game.

This is how Dandun is mentioned in the Arabian Nights, as a part of the tale of Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman.

Now, I don't think I've ever directly read any of the 1,001 nights. Just picked up the odd tale retold for European children. What surprised me, and probably shouldn't have, was how devoutly Muslim the tales could be. This does make sense, the tales being compiled during the Islamic Golden Age, but the best known elements of it I came across as a child had the Middle Eastern religion toned right down for a Western audience. Tracking down the whole tale looking for the Dandun reference, which was from the 940th night to the 946th, wasn't what I expected. I mean, screaming DANDAN while attacking with a giant fish in a card game was never going to be much use in parsing the original tale, but what I found was a parable emphasising charity and humility. It was pretty fascinating.

It's a little long winded, which makes a lot of sense given that the 1,001 Nights was the storyteller Scheherazade putting off her execution by telling her tales to the Sultan who condemned her to death. This particular winding narrative has quite a lot to say. I'll give as quick a rundown as I can of the highlights.

Abdullah the fisherman had fallen upon hard times. Every morning he would set out with his nets, and each day he would come back with nothing. He began to become increasingly desperate, and his neighbour the local baker took notice. Stopping to talk, the fisherman explained his predicament and offered to pawn his nets to the baker for enough bread to feed his family. The baker refused, as how could he work to repay the debt without his nets? He instead asked how much bread the fisherman needed.

Working the amount out, the baker gave him that much bread and enough money to the amount that bread was worth to help the fisherman. He told him not to worry, and to only pay back when his fortunes changed. The next day, once again Abdullah the fisherman found nothing, and the baker gave him the same again. Both the bread, and the money needed so his family may eat. Abdullah's wife was overjoyed that their family, a large family at that with nine sons, had what they needed - but Abdullah was overcome with shame. He couldn't bear to come back with empty nets, only to receive more charity. He began to fish in different places more to avoid the baker, than to find new fishing grounds. He was grateful, but couldn't face being unable to repay his debts, nor could he take the shame of any more charity. His first day fishing further than ever before, he cut his hands pulling up a heavy catch only to find he had caught the rotting corpse of a donkey. He wept in frustration, vowing to destroy his nets and give up on fishing forever if he couldn't catch anything on this next catch.

Once again, when he pulled his nets back, it was heavy enough to hurt him bringing them up. Only this time, he had somehow entangled a strange man, much to both of their surprise. At first Abdullah was terrified he had caught an Afrit, for King Solomon had thrown them all to sea after sealing them away. His first thought was one had broken free, and now he was in trouble with an angry evil Djinn. Only he had, in fact, caught a merman, of a community that lived below the waves and couldn't travel the land above without shrivelling up and dying. The merman begged to be set free, and the fisherman hesitated. He could at least take the merman back to market as a curiosity, charging admission to see them. But he ultimately couldn't do such a thing, this was a thinking feeling person, so he freed him from the nets and released him. The merman told him to wait, and he would be right back with some pearls and jewels as a reward. Abdullah sat for a while, becoming convinced he had been made a fool, and becoming resigned to going home empty handed again, only the merman returned as promised with a double handful of riches the likes of which the fisherman had never before seen. The two introduced themselves formally, Abdullah the fisherman being surprised to find himself talking to Abdullah the merman! The two Abdullah's made an agreement. Abdullah of the land would bring fruits and nuts in a basket each morning before daybreak, rare exotic delicacies for the merfolk below, and Abdullah of the sea would return with pearls and jewels found abundantly on the ocean floor that were mere trinkets to the merfolk but would mean a fortune above.

This arrangement didn't take long before it almost led to a horrible misunderstanding. The daughter of the Sultan had her jewels stolen, and everyone pointed to the fisherman who inexplicably had been bringing a small fortune to sell each morning. Captured and brought before the Sultan, Abdullah begged to explain, even if it sounded unbelievable. As expected, no one believed he was receiving a basket full of jewels from trade with a merman each day, but the Sultan gave him a chance to prove it. Abdullah brought the day's basket to show him, and it was immediately obvious these weren't the stolen jewellery of his daughter. But this had now become its own predicament. To have a trade deal was well and good, but the fisherman was low born and of no stature, this risked the noble who came after the aging Sultan just taking it all for himself. So the Sultan proposed to Abdullah that he should marry his daughter and become his Vizier, giving the fisherman the status he needed to safely keep his newfound riches. This turned out to be great for everyone involved, as the fisherman moved his large family with nine sons into the palace, adding them to the family of the Sultan who only had the one daughter, and Abdullah became the right hand Vizier.

This didn't quite solve every problem however, as in all the excitement the fisherman had completely forgotten about the baker who helped him back when he had nothing! In a panic, the new Vizier ran down to find his old neighbour. Yet he wasn't selling his bread... Asking around, Abdullah managed to find that the baker had taken ill, and called upon his home. The baker didn't recognise him at first, but after the former fisherman explained what had happened the two embraced like brothers. As part of the tale, Abdullah explained the coincidence of the merman having the same name, causing the baker to laugh as HIS name was also Abdullah. The new Vizier promised to repay his debt in full and more as thanks, racing back to the palace to explain all this to the Sultan.

The full story touched the Sultan's heart, and delighted him to no end as it turned out the Sultan's name was yet again Abdullah. Learning of the baker's charity, and now hard times, the Sultan told his new Vizier of the right hand to go bring the baker before him so he could be made the left hand Vizier. The land was now ruled over by three men named Abdullah, with a treaty to yet another Abdullah who was a merman.

As the former fisherman continued to trade with the Abdullah of the sea, the two would trade tales of each other's worlds. This is how the tales of the Dandun got shared, as well as the rich liver of the beasts. The merman also surprised the new Vizier by being a devout Muslim, follower of not only Allah but the prophet Muhammad. As they discussed their faith the merman learned that the prophet was entombed on land, and it was possible to take a pilgrimage there.

Abdullah of the sea could not go himself, any merfolk would die from drying out long before reaching Mecca, so he plead for Abdullah of the land to make the pilgrimage taking an offering on his behalf. The former fisherman happily agreed, having intended to make the pilgrimage to celebrate his new fortunes anyway, and Abdullah of the sea had become a friend.

After returning from the pilgrimage and meeting the Abdullah of the sea again, the merman was so overjoyed he offered to show the Vizier the underwater kingdom. The former fisherman was at first afraid, even with an ointment allowing him to breathe underwater he didn't much fancy running into a Dandun. Abdullah of the sea chided his lack of faith, and trusting in Allah Abdullah of the land was taken in a journey beneath the waves. Everything was strange and exciting to him in the city of the merfolk, but he saw something when he was down there that did not sit well with him. After returning him to land, the merman asked what was troubling his friend.

Abdullah of the land was upset when he saw a merfolk funeral, as everyone was celebrating. This slight upon his culture enraged the merman, as he couldn't understand how anyone would refuse to celebrate returning a gift back to Allah, and the two fell out ending the trade between land and sea. His fortune now made however, and lessons learned, Abdullah of the land returned to being the right hand Vizier of the Sultan. Although he never sees his friend the merman again.

This feels like it went on for a while, but I swear this is an abridged version! The whole thing is well worth tracking down to experience in full. SECTION BREAK – The Nightmare Fuel Original Little Mermaid Since I’ve happily blundered into a coincidental crossover with a major movie release, I may as well run with it. Or should that be “swim”? There’s a lot to unpack from Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairytale. Not just the by now expected horrific pre-Disneyfication details, although they are present and accounted for, but there’s some interesting biographical detail here. Andersen differs from the likes of the Brothers Grimm in that he was more an author than a folklorist. There are strong folklore influences in his tales, but he’s much more of a creator using the influences than he was someone collecting older stories. He’s well worth revisiting even if this does mean his tales are “only” 200 years old, as he’s well and truly entrenched within the subconscious of Europe and any culturally European countries. This is the man who wrote “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Princess and the Pea”, “The Tinker Box”, and “The Ugly Duckling”, not to mention “The Little Mermaid” which we’re discussing now. “The Little Mermaid” seems especially laden with additional meaning once you understand the man himself. Looking over his life, Andersen seems to be a paragon of what would now be called a “disaster bisexual” back before there were even the right words to break this down. On top of that, reading up on the man hints incredibly strongly that he may have had Borderline Personality Disorder when the only mental health care available was either prescription heroin, a lobotomy, or both. Søren Kierkegaard has quite the hefty quote shared on Wikipedia, describing Andersen as: "...a possibility of a personality, wrapped up in such a web of arbitrary moods and moving through an elegiac duo-decimal scale [i.e., a chromatic scale including sharps and flats, associated more with lament or elegy than an ordinary scale] of almost echoless, dying tones just as easily roused as subdued, who, in order to become a personality, needs a strong life-development." Yeah… For those of you unfamiliar with BPD it isn’t quite as intimidating as it may sound, the simple version is that someone with it feels incredibly high highs and cripplingly low lows with not many sensations in the middle ground. It can kick your ass if you’re depressed or have you manic with joy at the little things. Actually, I've oversimplified that a little TOO much, that's closer to Bipolar Disorder. Which arguably Andersen could have had, and there's analysis speculating ADHD, any of which would have been extra challenging in the 1800s. BPD includes a lot of difficulty with social cues, that would explain a lot as you learn more details about the writer's life. This, combined with what happens to Hans Christian Andersen… Well, stick with me a little longer, and this will all start to make sense. Andersen was raised incredibly strictly, in an orthodox Christian sense. Which did not bode too well for the unconditional love he felt for the people around him he formed bonds with, up to and including same sex physical attraction. This caused a lot of anguish and confusion for him, if he met and liked anyone he was all-in on big feelings without question. This could estrange him from potential friends, for example Hans had a lot of correspondence with Charles Dickens as well as a noted professional respect between the two. That was until they actually met. Dickens would never see Anderson again, much to their crushed confusion. While Andersen missed every possible social queue he was overstaying his welcome, the Dickens family was apparently miserable the whole time they entertained him. It culminated with Dickens celebrating finally turfing Andersen out by writing on the mirror of the guest room he had occupied: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!” Biographical evidence suggests Andersen ultimately died a virgin. For some time he had an ongoing infatuation with Sweden’s Jenny Lind, an opera singer of some note he would bombard with flattering messages. But from boyhood, and bear in mind that was a strict Christian boyhood, ongoing across his life was a forbidden love he felt for one Edvard Collin. This love that could not be is shown across a lifetime of personal memoirs, with Anderson never managing to find any way to have his feelings reciprocated before his death at the age of 70. On top of these shaky foundations for life literary critics of the time, as a rule, hated Hans Christian Andersen. They felt he was too whimsical, and their body of criticism seems to boil down to him liking children too much when he should instead be morally berating them for what is supposedly their own good. We, with hindsight rooted in sane media analysis and such minor concerns as “things empirically proven to actually work”, can better reflect upon the gentle guiding hand present in Anderson’s fantastical tales. Unfortunately, I refer you to how extreme the storyteller’s emotional responses were, the criticism could cripple Andersen. On his infamous visit to Charles Dickens, he was recorded as spending time one day lying face down in the grass weeping at a bad review he read! This led to Andersen frequently giving up on telling new fairytales to instead write “real” books he’s not especially remembered for, compared to the incredible cultural impact of the stories the critics of the time dismissed. One of his earliest stories, written while still at school, felt prescient: “The Tallow Candle”. A simple story about a candle that never felt appreciated. So, “The Little Mermaid”! I swear this is all great context! Bear all of this in mind that we are talking about one of history’s most magnificent undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder disaster bisexuals. “The Little Mermaid” is something of a tragedy that steadily bombs from “bad” to “worse”. The widowed Sea-King has six daughters, each born a year apart. When they turn 15, a mermaid is allowed to travel to the surface to experience the upper world. Each year the youngest sister would listen to tales brought back of humans with growing excitement until she should turn 15 herself, and she could see all these wonders with her own eyes. Soon after surfacing she spots a ship, and upon that ship is the most handsome Prince the mermaid could ever hope to see enjoying a birthday celebration of his own. She followed the ship in rapt wonder, watching the humans party and dance, falling in love with the Prince from afar. Only eventually, disaster struck. A violent storm sank the ship, and doing her best as one young mermaid alone she managed to save the Prince. She carried him to a coastal temple where ladies in waiting found him. Much to the mermaid’s dismay, the Prince never actually saw her, or knew it was the Little Mermaid who saved him. Upon returning home, the Little Mermaid was more enamoured with the surface world than ever, especially fixating on the Prince she had saved. She turned to her grandmother to ask how long a human lives for, only to be devastated to learn it was much shorter than the 300 years a mermaid would have. But her grandmother went on to tell her humans were different to mermaids, they had a soul that would live on in heaven forever whereas a mermaid simply turned into sea foam and ceased to exist when they died. Desperate now for the love of the Prince and wanting an eternal soul of her own, the Little Mermaid visited the Sea Witch. Conveniently, the Sea Witch had a potion to sell which would do the trick! In exchange for the Little Mermaid’s tongue, which the Sea Witch demanded in payment, she could have legs that could dance like no human had ever seen before - and could even gain a soul. The problems were in the small print: drinking the potion would feel like being run through with a sword, every single step taken on her new feet would feel like standing on sharp knives, and the potion itself would not give her a soul. The true love of the Prince would share a part of his soul with her, but if he should ever fall in love with someone else then on the dawn of the next day the Little Mermaid would die of a broken heart to lose all 280 or so remaining years of her existence, dissolving into sea foam and nothingness there and then. The Little Mermaid agrees, because teenagers are not best known for their long term planning. She swims to the surface near the Prince’s castle, drinks the potion, and promptly passes out from the pain of having felt like she just drank a whole sword pointy end first. She was found naked by the Prince the next day, who the text says was mesmerised by her beauty and grace, but he’s probably initially just chuffed to find a naked woman his own age lying about the place. Despite her being mute, she quickly became the Prince’s favourite companion, never far from him on his travels and always happy to dance for him despite the pain it caused her because of the delight he took in watching her. But he never fell in love with her. He was obsessed with the idea of the unknown woman from the temple he thought rescued him, never realising his true rescuer was the mute girl who could dance like no one else. Eventually his parents convince him that the princess from a neighbouring kingdom they want to marry him off to for political convenience was that very woman who rescued him, so he declared his love for that princess and the royal wedding was announced immediately. The celebration moves to a party aboard a wedding ship, and the Little Mermaid feels her heart break. This is her last night of existence. In a desperate bid to save her, the Little Mermaid’s five sisters come to her before daybreak. They had each surrendered their hair to the Sea Witch in exchange for a dagger to break the spell. All the Little Mermaid has to do is kill the Prince, and let his blood drip on her feet to turn back into a mermaid, free from the pain she has been enduring, free to spend the rest of her long life with her family beneath the waves. And so, she sneaks into his bedchamber and stands over him with his new wife, holding the magic dagger. Everything to gain, and everything to lose if she doesn't do it. All the pain she went through for him he will never know, and never care about. But she finds she cannot bring herself to kill him. It doesn't matter that she doesn't have a soul, it doesn't matter that he doesn't know who she is, she loves him unconditionally.

She refuses to use the dagger. Just as her last dawn breaks she throws herself and the dagger off the ship into the waves below, her body dissolving into foam as it hits the water. Only instead of ceasing to exist, she feels the warmth of the sun. Her selfless act transformed her into a daughter of the air, a spirit rising up to meet the other ethereal daughters in the skies above. She now has the chance to earn a soul of her very own by doing good deeds for all mankind for the next 300 years, finally ascending to heaven herself. Obviously, this was not well critically received at the time, but as history has borne out what the hell do snobbish high society critics know about whimsy, anyway? But the love that cannot be from a lifetime of longing in a cultural environment he couldn’t be himself in is pretty loud and clear here, with a bittersweet ending for choosing to do the right thing. Wait, when’s Pride month again? I think I got out ahead of that, too. The power of fishlore! SECTION BREAK That’s all for this episode. I didn’t intend to make it an extra long one, but fairytales have an uncanny ability to last for as long as they themselves choose, and I shared two today. Quick ending now, as I need to get to bed! What I will say is that I am feeling a lot better, and I’m ready to turn that into more explorations of folklore from around the world I will be back to share with you all soon. LukeLore is a Ghost Story Guys production.

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Goodbye for now.


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