What are Mermaids?
A Mermaid is an aquatic creature with a feminine human head and upper body and a fishtail. Mermaids exist in mythology from across the world, including Europe, Asia, and Africa. Mermaids (also known as sirens) and mermen were natural entities with magical and prophetic powers in the European tradition. They enjoyed music and frequently sang. They were mortal and had no souls, despite their extended lives.
I think we’re all somewhat familiar with mermaids by now. Whether it’s a beautiful woman with a fishtail who majestically swims through the ocean or something far more seductive that would drown you without a second thought if you dared to venture too close.
Every region has its own stories surrounding them and some of them are quite dark and twisted. So, join me today as we look at mermaids and their rather messed up history.
Depictions of Mermaids
The most common description of a mermaid is that of an aquatic creature with the head and torso of a woman and the lower half of a fish. But depending on where you are in the world, that can vary.
This sort of image has since been passed down from generation to generation we’re varying degrees of physical attractiveness where in some versions the mermaids are beautiful women and by others, they appear to be hideous and ghastly.
The History of Mermaids in Greek Mythology
One of the biggest influences in the west regarding mermaids comes from the Sirens of Greek mythology, who despite often being confused and compared with mermaids or more birds than fish.
We see the sirens in two of Greek mythology’s most well-known epic poems—the Argonautica and the Odyssey. In both, they are fairly like modern mermaids. Using their enchanting voices to lure sailors into a watery grave, which is where the term a ‘Siren’s Call’ comes from; being enticed to go somewhere or do something that we know will end poorly—something I’m sure many of us can relate to.
Jason and the Argonauts
When Jason and the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, their musician Orpheus drowned out the siren song with his song and as a result, only one man jumped overboard.
The Adventures of Odysseus
When Odysseus and his crew encountered the sirens, he instructed his men to fill their ears with beeswax to nullify the singing. However, Odysseus was extremely intrigued that no man had ever heard the siren song and lived to tell the tale, and so, he further instructed his crew to tie him to the mast of his ship, no matter how much he begged and pleaded with them to release him, they were to ignore him until they passed safely by the sirens.
Authors after Homer believed if a man heard the siren song and survived, the sirens would have to drown themselves in the sea.
Once we get closer to the Hellenistic period, images of sirens shifted from bird-women to women with a fishtail. Roman authors, such as Hyginus and Ovid heavily linked the sirens to the ocean.
Ovid himself helped popularize the origin story of sirens. According to him, they were not always half-woman half-bird. Originally, they were the Nymphs and Handmaidens to the goddess Persephone.
The Abduction of Persephone
Hyginus, on the other hand, saw this as more of a curse. Demeter blamed the handmaidens for her daughter’s disappearance and so in anger, she transformed them into the Sirens.
The siren song, although beautiful and alluring, also has a strong undertone of sorrow and even death. Continually calling out to Persephone in the hopes she may one day return.
Merman in Greek Mythology
Glaucus the Fisherman
Before we move away from Greek mythology, for those wondering if there was a male equivalent, merman did also exist. One example was a man who went by the name of Glaucus—a fisherman who discovered a magical herb that would bring fish back to life when consumed.
Curious of its effects on mortals, he tried some for himself. This resulted in his legs becoming a fishtail and the overwhelming desire to live in the sea. Although he was now considered immortal, Glaucus struggled to come to terms with his newfound gift. That is until the other deities of the sea taught him its secrets and even the art of prophecy.
From then on, Glaucus was known as someone who would appear to those lost at sea to guide them to safety.
One of his most noticeable appearances is in the Argonautica, where he appears to the argonauts and informs them of what happened to Heracles and the other missing men; helping to stop a full-blown mutiny from the crew members who blamed Jason for the disappearance of Heracles.
Triton, Son of Poseidon
The most well-known example of a merman in Greek mythology was Triton, the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite. Neither of his parents is ever really described as merfolk because they could live on both land and sea. Triton, however, is described as half-man and half-fish from the day he was born, making him the stereotypical merman.
For the most part, he acted as his father’s messenger within the sea. This makes sense considering covering the underworld, the earth, the heavens, and the sea, may have been a bit too much for Hermes to handle alone.
Similar to Glaucus, he also appeared to the Argonauts to aid them in the return leg of their journey.
However, there are numerous images of Triton wrestling and drowning heroes and other mortals. Heracles wrestling Triton is an image you see often in Greek pottery.
The image of merman became so heavily associated with Triton himself, that they were eventually just known as Tritons or Tritone—the musical fishermen of the ocean.
The History of Mermaids in the Middle East — Goddess Atargatis
Moving to the eastern parts of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, there are numerous stories to examine. Images of humans with fishtails can be traced as far back as the first Babylonian empire.
The Mesopotamian goddess Atargatis is one of the first recorded stories of mermaids in this region. She fell in love with a human shepherd who sadly drowned in a lake. Not being able to deal with the pain of being apart from each other, she threw herself in the lake in the hopes that she would also drown and reunite with her lover in the afterlife.
The gods, however, would not allow her to die and so they made the ocean her new home. They transformed her into a fish, at least her lower half. Her torso would remain that of a woman because her beauty could not be hidden.
One Thousand and One Nights is also a great texture read if Middle Eastern ideas surrounding mermaids pique your interest. Numerous stories feature humans who can breathe and live under water. These are described as Sea people or Seabourn.
The History of Mermaids in Japan — Ningyo
If there’s one place, we can rely on for these stories to get super weird in terms of appearance, you can always count on Japan.
Here you have creatures known as Ningyo, which means human fish, and I can promise you they are in no way, seductive mermaids.
The Ningyo are not part-fish. They are mostly fish, with their head being the only part that resembles a human. They also had golden horns, a red belly, and additional eyes around their torso.
Hunting and capturing these creatures required a rather large group as they were said to be around 35 feet long—so, more of a mermonster than a mermaid.
While it does not appear to be as violent as a traditional mermaid, the Ningyo are said to bring very specific omens. If they are caught in the waters, fishermen are advised to throw them back to avoid the bad luck that is attributed to them.
However, it’s also said that by consuming a Ningyo, the person will add longevity to their life. Of course, having caught it in the first place, the person would no doubt be subject to misfortune. So, it’s a catch-22.
When the Ningyo was said to wash up on the beach, it was another omen for calamity.
The History of Mermaids in Slavic Folklore — Rusalka
In Slavic folklore, there are creatures known as the Rusalka, female spirits that dwell in lakes and rivers, luring young men to their death with the sound of their voices.
These are said to be the spirits of young women who dined from drowning because of an unhappy marriage. This can be a suicide due to being abused and harassed or even jilted by a lover. It can also be because they may have been murdered by said lover.
An example often used would be an unwanted child resulting in them being drowned to hide the pregnancy. The spirit is then cursed to spend their remaining time as a Rusalka seeking vengeance.
Before the 19th century, the Rusalka was not always considered evil. They were associated with fertility. During the spring, they would emerge from the water and walk among fields. In doing so, they transferred a portion of their essence which would seep into crops and allow them to be nurtured.
During the 19th century, they were perceived as chaotic and unclean spirits. It was common to hear stories of young women dying by lakes and rivers becoming Rusalka.
When young men approached the riverbed, they would be mesmerized by the singing and when they were close enough, the Rusalka would entangle them in their long vibrant hair; wrap their feet around them and drag them below the water.
As odd as it may sound, in countries such as Poland, they prefer to tickle their victims to death as opposed to drowning them—which sounds equally as horrifying.
They can also alter their appearance to suit the desires of their victim. From afar, they appear as beautiful women, but when up-close, their hair colour changes to a mouldy green and their face distorts showing their true nature.
They were not, however, always considered malevolent or evil spirits for the sake of being evil. Much like a poltergeist, if their death was in some way avenged then their spirit would be allowed to rest.
They may not be half-woman half-fish, but they do share several similarities with mermaids. You have the colourful vibrant hair, the idea of beauty and most Rusalka had to remain partially submerged in the water, making trips to land not very common.
The Rusalka was a symbol of immense beauty, but also one that was extremely feared and respected.
The History of Mermaids in Britain and Ireland.
Mermaids were also mentioned in Britain and Ireland during the medieval period. Coming across a mermaid at sea was considered a bad omen. In some cases, mermaids would foretell troublesome weather or some kind of disaster. Other times, the mermaids themselves would cause an ill fortune.
The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens talks about a rather cryptic mermaid. She would tell sailors and ships at sea that they would never see land again, and other times, she would lie to them and tell them that they were near the shore.
Those who were not lost at sea could tell that they were nowhere near land. This just meant their vessel was fated to crash into rocks.
There were also cautionary tales involving mermaids drowning people in rivers and lakes if they came too close. On rare occasions, some of these stories were more positive, such as mermaids helping those who were drowning and even teaching them medicines and cures that were found in nature.
Given the folklore that has circulated so many countries over the years, it’s no wonder that we are captivated by the idea of mermaids. Their personification for how much we do not know about the ocean, a representation of both adventure, excitement, and a fear of the unknown, particularly at a time some hundreds of years ago where mermaids were legitimate omens and symbols of bad luck.
Take the folklore around the British Isles for example, where the sighting of mermaids by sailors once signified the coming of a disaster, whether in the form of a storm or some inconceivable occurrence.
Mermaids in these tales are not benevolent and appear the best soul motivations are to sink ships and causes much harm to those who sail the seas as possible without any real justification other than being evil.
Mermaids have also been said to be brazen enough to swim up to rivers and arrive on banks of lakes to hunt down their victims. In one story, a lord in Scotland went to aid what he thought was a drowning woman that washed up near his house by the lake.
His servant though intervened. The woman was said to look up with her venomous look in her eyes—not a woman, no, but a mermaid were fish-like scales. She proceeded to scream and a servant, damning him for his intervention before retreating into the waters.
Mermaid of Zennor
Other mermaids though assert to have a more caring, goodly attitude, in that they seek to treat humans for certain diseases and are willing to teach magical healing for wounds that would otherwise end a human’s life.
In the British Isles, there exists another story about a mermaid that was so caring that she fell in love in the Cornish village of Zennor.
A boy named Mathey Trewella was overheard singing by the mermaid, who was enchanted by the sound of his voice. She took him to her home at Pendour Cove, a nearby beach, and the two was said to remain there as lovers.
Supposedly, on summer nights, they can still be heard singing together but never have they been seen again.
The History of Mermaids in Other Regions of the World
Some other mermaids from around the world worthy of a mention include the European Melusina—the mother of water spirits native to central Africa and the Chinese shark people.
Africa — Mami Water
In African folklore, mermaids are often referred to as Mami Water, or Mother of Water, which is, in essence, foreboding water spirits that lurk in the Caribbean. They are diabolical entities, some of which are dangerous, in that they lure men away from boats and drag them underwater to their deaths.
While all these tales aren’t legitimate forms of proof for whether mermaids exist in the wild, there was a time where sailors were convinced that the open waters were home to these mystical enchanting creatures.
Some of them would even give detailed accounts of what they had seen, helping to shape the image of what mermaids looked like and what sort of behaviours they were said to possess.
Stories of mermaids have existed for thousands of years all over the world, and there is no shortage of them in modern fiction either. When you have stories and legends that are universally told and stand the test of time, it’s normally because there is something there, we can relate to or reflect upon. Something that intrigues but also still leaves an element of mystery.
When it comes to mermaids, it’s not hard to see why people enjoy them in stories. Their tragic past and the duality between beautiful and deadly. Above the water, there is a calm, beautiful, and elegant exterior, which plays on your humanity and draws you in. Below, it is mysterious, cold, dark, and unforgiving—a pretty accurate description of how we used to and even sometimes today still view the ocean.
Sailing the seas thousands and even hundreds of years ago was much more perilous than it is today. Mermaids are just one of a long list of creatures created to try and explain these stories. They also serve as a reminder that appearances can be somewhat deceiving.
Art Credits: Ruben de Vela, Dennis Jarvis, Vincent-Covielloart, DaniNaimare.