The Cecaelia: Folklore or Fakelore?

When I wrote my last blog on mermaids around the world (which you can check out here if you like) I was in a predicament as to whether I should feature the cecaelia in it or not. They’re majestic sea creatures and incredibly popular in the media, but the lines blur when it comes down to the origins of this mermaid. Were they figures from stories deeply rooted in history? Or simply made-up creatures for the likes of pop culture?

A couple years back, when I first learned about the cecaelia, I was absolutely enthralled. The concept of this mermaid was truly fascinating to me, and discovering this actually kick-started my love for mythology and folklore. I found out about the cecaelia via an Instagram facts page, discussing the nature of this cephalopod sea creature. Curiosity struck over, and I decided to delve deeper into the origins of this being and was surprised to find undetermined responses to its backstory.

Art by Xander Smith

What are cecaelia?

With a number of other names such as octomaid, octo-people and octopus people, they’re mermaid-like beings that possess octopus tentacles on their lower half as opposed to the traditional fish tail. When you research them, there’s a lot online about their appearances and behaviour; sources stating they can have webbed fingers, fins, fangs, gills and claws. They’re known to be introverted, aggressive and defensive creatures that resent strangers entering their territory as well as having some mystical abilities such as water manipulation. They fire ink sacs at enemies, are incredibly agile and even known to be bioluminescent. There’s even depictions of squid variants of this mermaid, who are taller with thinner facial structures.

So where did the information of these creatures come from?

Supposedly, the cecaelia come from legends and folklore within Asian and Native American stories – particularly Tligit, Nootka, Tsimshian and Haida tribes. But upon researching further sources from these tribes – nothing could be found. In fact octopi in general are rarely spoken about in Native American mythology and most coastal tribes consider the octopus another type of shellfish. In some Northwest Coast tribes of Alaska and British Columbia, tales paint the octopus as a medicinal animal, considered to have power over sickness and health, as well as the weather.

A similar – and one of the few stories featuring an octopus in Native American legends – tale depicts an event happening between the Octopus-people and Raven-people from a variety of tribes including Tligit and Nootka, though other tribes may also share a similar story. The story tells the tale of an Octopus-tribe woman with eight, long braids and a man from the Raven tribe. The Raven approached the Octopus and pestered her with questions, until her braids came to life and held him in their grasp, drowning him out of annoyance.

Another myth that may or not be related to the previous one talks of a girl from the Raven tribe that went missing and the Octopus people were found to be the culprits. Peace is instilled between the two tribes under the alliance none of their children shall be mistreated, and a banquet is held once the Raven girl is rescued.

There is also an octopus deity from Kwakiutl tribes known as Xa’niyus but other than that, there are no other reported octopus stories from Native American tribes. Regardless of such, there’s no tales explicitly depicting octopus-human hybrids in indigenous folklore, nor is there any mention of the word “cecaelia”.

But what about the Asian origins I mentioned earlier?

Japanese origins are the only source-able pieces of information found about octopus women in history and folklore. The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai created sexually explicit paintings of women with octopi, as well as featuring a woman-octopus hybrid. But no mention of the name cecaelia and no proof they came from legends.

Out of all my weeks of researching the mysterious cecaelia, I have found one cited creature that matches her physical description from mythology – Asian mythology at that, which may be a link.

This being is called Akkorokamui and originates from Ainu folklore, an ethnic group indigenous to Japan and Russia. In Ainu stories, she’s also known as Atkorkamuy. It’s known to lurk in the Funka Bay in Hokkaidō, Japan, and has been sighted in several other locations including Taiwan and Korea for centuries.

Historical Shinto renderings of Akkorokamui

However, her depiction varies depending on the story. Some tell her as a giagantic cephalopod – similar to the kraken – while others cast her as human-like, with similar depictions to the cecaelia. According to these legends, she contains a bright, striking red, seemingly “likened to the colour of the reflection of the setting sun upon water”, and is almost 400 feet in length. 

Akkorokamui is characteristically described with the ability to self-amputate, like several octopus species, and regenerate limbs. This characteristic manifests in the Shinto belief that Akkorokamui has healing powers. Consequently, it is believed among followers that giving offerings to Akkorokamui will heal ailments of the body, in particular, disfigurements and broken limbs. 

The story of Akkorokamui goes as such: Spirits cursed a villager of Abuta Toyoura to witness the destruction of his town. They summoned Akkorokamui, who was then known as Yaoshikepu – a half spider, half human creature – to fulfill the curse. Yaoshikepu cast terror throughout the town, destroying homes and slaughtering citizens, flooding the streets with blood. After seeing the townsfolk in fear, Repunkamui, the sea kami (god), transformed Yaoshikepu into an octopus / octopus hybrid (depending on the story) and cast her to the sea.

So Akkorokamui continued to reign terror in the seas; the more she consumed, the larger she grew, until she needed to feed on much bigger prey. Whales and ships became her new victims, mercilessly slaughtering them. When Repunkamui heard the cries of the seamen from her stomach, he poisoned her. The poison caused Akkorokamui intense pain but she survived regardless, learning how to use the venom for her own benefit. Now when she attacks ships, she emits a dark fluid with a noxious and powerful odour which are left on the remains of her shipwrecks – similar to how cephalopods ink on their enemies.

Art by Olena Gongalo

So is Akkorokamui the same as a cecaelia? If so, why do the stories and name differ?

The etymology of the Ainu name for Akkorokamui (Atkorkamuy) is translated to “string-holding kamuy”, where it’s believed the string refers to the octopus’ tentacles. Kamuy is similar to the Japanese term kami, a term referring to a divine being.

The word “cecaelia” was reported to first be used in around 2007-2008. A Wikipedia page from March 2007 cited “is a corruption of coleoidian, a genus of squid, and derives originally from a comic in Eerie magazine from the early 1970s featuring an octopoidal character named Cecaelia”. This comic book character was actually called “Cilia”, and the page was taken down for failing to meet with Wikipedia’s sourcing standards.

This Cilia character is from a seven-page short comic titled Cilia which was published in issue 16 of the Vampirella comic magazine in March, 1972. The story consists of Cilia herself, a half octopus, half woman being, who refers to herself as a “cilophyte”. In the story, she rescues a sailor who had drowned in Davy Jone’s Locker, and is depicted as a kind-hearted and gentle creature as opposed to the vicious mermaid commonly referred to her in modern depictions. Her relationship with the sailor grows romantic but the story ends tragically when she is discovered by prejudice humans.

The word “cilophyte” (which isn’t an actual word by the way) seems to have simply been made up by the comic writers. Apparently “cilo” is of Latin origin and means “tall” according to names.org but this is the only citation and doesn’t appear to be reputable. “Cilo” could be related to “cilium” however which means “fine hairs”. In addition, “phyte” comes from the Greek word “phuton” which means plant. So unless you want to argue “fine hairs” refers to tentacles in the same way “string-holding” does (which is a bit of a reach in my books) it’s evident to see this name has no meaning in the mythology world.

Cecaelia also sounds very similar to the feminine Latin name “Cecilia”, as well as “caecilian” which is an order of limbless amphibians, so it’s very likely the name derived from this meaning. Both of these words, however, come from the Latin word meaning “blind” which aren’t associated with mermaids, octopi or divine string-holding beings. In addition, “coleoidea” is the subclass of cephalopods which includes octopus, squid and cuttlefish – another word similar to cecaelia.

In Native American stories, octopi were widely referred to as “devil fish”. However, this is based on older English translations and weren’t direct translations of Native American names. No indigenous words could be found that closely relate to cecaelia.

However, the etymology of her names don’t link up to the supposed Asian and Native American origins she’s meant to come from. So why does it say that’s where the cecaelia originated?

Honestly, there’s a lot of gaps when it comes to coining at all together. Evidently, cephalopods are told in Japanese and Native American stories but (with the exception of Akkorokamui) there’s nothing alike this octopus mermaid. Most likely, the name came from our comic book cilophyte and depictions stemmed from Japanese legends. As for Native American stories? Probably not. There’s no evidence to back up where the cecaelia originated from so it’s safe to say they didn’t directly derive from there.

There are other tales of mythology and folklore featuring several more cephalopod-human creatures and deities including:

  • Ai-Apaec – from Moche beliefs in Peru,
  • Na Kika – the Kiribati octopus-god of the Gilbert Islands,
  • Tae-o-Tagaloa – the Samoan demigod who is part human, part octopus.
  • Kanaloa – Hawaiian Creator that appears in the shape of an octopus, equivalent to the Tangaroa from Maori myths.

So there’s a chance the cecaelia was derived from these stories too, with people forgetting, missing or mis-translating sources. However none of these seem to relate to the etymology of our octo-mermaid.

Art by Kent Hamilton

So, all in all, where did the stories cecaelia originate from?

The beauty of mythology is no two stories are the same. Maybe you have a favourite mythological story and I can guarantee there’s at least ten different versions of it, maybe even hundreds. Stories evolve over time, get mistranslated, get passed down through families and travel the world via the mouths of migrants.

We can’t say for sure where the cecaelia come from but logic would argue it came from a number of different legends and stories in pop-culture, eventually accumulating it to be the beast we know of today. The octopus mermaids known in history are nothing like the evolved cecaelia we have now.

So, for the most part, cecaelia is fakelore: not originating from any tale in mythology or folklore. For me, however, real or not, the cecaelia will always have a special place in my heart. It was the creature that sparked the mythology-obsessed fire within me, causing me to dive into the world of folklore and history. After all, without the cecaelia, I would have never made this mythology blog.

Art by itsrubyhuntress

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