I love the story of Liban, for it reflects God’s heart so beautifully!  God longs for all to be saved, and He’ll stop at nothing to make Himself known.  Liban is unique: she was a mermaid who became a saint.  Rather than be reviled and judged, she was accepted and hallowed.

And despite all odds, it shows how some sea priestesses felt the tug of the Gospel on their hearts…

Liban of Lough Neagh

Liban was a lovely young woman whose family died when Lough Neagh overflowed.  She, however, “lived for a whole year with her lap-dog, in her chamber beneath the lake, and God protected her from the water.”[1]  Sounds like Noah, which makes sense – many water deities echo the truths of Noah,[2] having been corrupted over time.

However, it was lonely beneath the lake, and when she saw a salmon “swimming and playing all round her” she prayed, “‘O my Lord, I wish I were a salmon, that I might swim with the others through the clear green sea!’  And at the words” she became a mermaid, and her dog became an otter.[3]

How sweet, innocent, and lovely!  I’m sure the Christianity inserted into the story annoys most historians, but not me!  It shows a love, honor, and respect for the mermaid, as well as a hope that she can be saved.

It also clearly depicts the truth that God’s “eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world….As a result, people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

Liban the Mermaid

For three hundred years, Liban swam “from sea to sea” as a mermaid.  This is probably where the original tale ended, and her Christian “sanctification” began.  Historically, the first event transpired around the 2nd century AD, with this next half occurring in the 6th century (granted, a tad longer than 300 years…).[4]

She reappears in history when St. Comgall sends a man named Beoc to Rome.  On the journey, Beoc “and his crew heard sweet singing in the waters beneath them.”  It was Liban, who sang in order to meet Beoc and beg him to take her from the sea in one year’s time…[5]

In order to receive salvation.

Like most mermaid encounters, Beoc asks for a reward – that she be buried with him in his monastery.  Liban agrees, and they part.[6]  After a year, the monks bring her in with a net.  She lives on the boat in which she was caught and tells her testimony to all who come.[7]

Like all mermaids, Liban tells prophecies, too.  Also like our mermaids, Liban is treated as a possession, for three men fight over “who should own Liban,” Beoc being one of them.  They fast and pray, and finally an angel tells them that “two wild oxen” would come and carry Liban to the territory of the man she should belong to.[8]

Liban the Saint

The oxen take her to Beoc’s territory where Liban is then given a choice: “either to die immediately after baptism, and go to heaven; or to live on earth as long as she had lived in the sea, and then to go to heaven after these long ages.  And the choice she took was to die immediately.  Whereupon Comgall baptized her; and he gave her the name of Murgen, that is, ‘Sea-born,’ or Murgelt, that is ‘Mermaid.’”[9]

Do you recognize the name?  You should!  She shares the name and attributes of Morgan le Fay.  But unlike Morgan le Fay, Murgen embraces the truth of Christ.

Liban/Murgen chooses to die immediately and go to heaven.  They do not say Liban is killed – merely that she dies.  “And she is counted among the holy virgins, and held in honor and reverence, as God ordained for her in heaven.”[10]

This longing for heaven is something we’ll see often in our “sanctified mermaid” stories.  It echoes the longing of a few priestesses of old: a longing for salvation.  Except in our stories, it gets transcribed as a soul.  Interestingly, Liban was able to attain salvation without marrying.  Perhaps she was a very old priestess originally, for our other, younger maidens are not so lucky…

From Meaningful to Sanctified

This folktale probably originated in the memory of seasonal floods, which are “particularly” dangerous in that region, since seven rivers feed into the lake with only one outlet.[11]  It’s highly likely that Liban was a real young woman, too.  Whenever young women died in a river, it was common to make them the deity of that river. That’s what happened to Sabrina, a princess who drowned in the Severn River and became its goddess.[12]  Thus, Liban began as a “meaningful mermaid” to make sense of a girl’s death.

However, the story was heavily modified by the church.  As I said, this is not a bad thing in my opinion.  I love the additions of Christianity in this story, as it gives Liban an innocent sweetness lacking in other mermaid tales.

But I think there is truth in the second half, too.  I believe the second half of the story contains the tale of a different sea maiden – a priestess who longed for Christ.  Unlike so many of our sea-maidens, this one received the salvation she longed for.  What’s more, she received hallowed respect.

From meaningful to historical, Liban’s story shows the full transition of a mermaid story.  God used her story in an explicit way: to show how even sea-women could attain salvation.  Water sprites and other “fairy” types were among the most reviled of beings, according to the stories.  But there was hope for them.

A hope that was all but denied to them later in history…



[1] The Overflowing of Lough Neagh and Liban the Mermaid, taken from P. W. Joyce’s Old Celtic Romances: Translated from the Gaelic, in Heidi Anne Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales from Around the World (Nashville, TN: SurLaLune Press, 2011) 236.

[2] The Mermaid from Sea Fables Explained by Henry Lee, in Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales, 75-76, 78, 80, 82.  If you recall, Svané’s story also echoed Noah’s tale, with her hiding in a chest.

[3] Liban the Mermaid, 236.

[4] Notes, Ibid., 237.

[5] Liban the Mermaid, 237.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Liban the Mermaid, 238.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Liban the Mermaid, 239.

[10] Ibid.

[11] https://www.discoverloughneagh.com/folklore-legend/

[12] Notes on Sabrina the Fair by John Milton, taken from The Poetical Works of John Milton, Volume II, in Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales, 301.

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