Word-of-mouth stories can produce incredibly odd tales when passed from culture to culture over the span of many years. One such gem of folklore fell into the hands of Abū Hāmid al-Gharnātī, a 12th-century traveler from Granada who wandered all the way to the convergence of the Volga and Oka rivers, in what is now Russia. While he was in these regions, Abū Hāmid was told a bizarre tale, which he recorded in a text called the Exposition of Some of the Wonders in the West. His chain of evidence, however, was a bit gossipy. Abū Hamīd learned the tale from a Volga Bulgar informant, who heard it from a trader from the northern Yūrā region, who, in turn, was probably told the tale by a Yūrā elder.
Abū Hāmid led up to this ‘wonder’ by describing the fishing practices of the Yūrā people, who hunted and fished in the arctic and subarctic regions of Russia. He described a ritual where the fishermen would drop a sword into the sea, and this would cause huge fish to rise to the surface—some modern historians propose this to be an embellished or misinterpreted description of harpoon-fishing. Whatever the case, the northern peoples of medieval Russia did indeed hunt large sea creatures, as goods like narwhal tusks were known to be bought and sold on the Volga River trade route.
According to Abū Hāmid, one such party of Yūrā whalers caught more than they expected during one of their fishing trips. As the story goes, the Yūrā did their ceremony of dropping a sword (or harpoon) into the sea and consequently a gigantic sea animal, supposedly the size of a mountain, came to the surface of the water. Perhaps the mountainous fish was too large to haul to shore, or maybe they could hear an odd sound coming from inside the creature—whatever the case, the whalers decided to butcher the creature immediately. Abū Hāmid described the peculiar scene: “Then they opened the ear of the fish and from within emerged a kind of girl, who looked like a human—white, with pink cheeks, black hair and plump buttocks, like the most attractive of women” (Exposition of Some of the Wonders in the West, Penguin edition pg. 73).
Evidently, the rescued woman found the creature’s ear to be quite comfortable, or she had been driven insane by the experience, for she began kicking and screaming and showing all the signs of dismay when she was pulled free of her fleshy cage. Nevertheless, the Yūra fishermen were able to convey the crazed woman back to land and adopted her into their way of life. After her supposed discovery in the ear of a giant fish, the woman apparently had a normal, uneventful life among the Yūrā. Abū Hāmid ended the story by simply stating “They kept that girl among them until she died. Truly, the power of God on High knows no limits!” (Exposition of Some of the Wonders in the West, Penguin edition pg. 73).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (modified and cropped public Domain mermaid illustration, via needpix.com and Creative Commons).
- Exposition of Some of the Wonders in the West by Abū Hāmid al-Gharnātī, translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone. New York, Penguin Classics, 2012.