The story of the mermaid is as ancient and changeable as the sea itself. Mentioned in numerous coastal and landlocked cultures over thousands of years, the mysterious sea creature has represented everything from life and fertility to death and disaster.
Mermaids are characterised as living between two worlds: sea and earth, because of their half-human half-fish form, as well as life and death, because of their simultaneous youth and potential for destruction.
The English word for mermaid derives from ‘mere’ (Old English for sea) and ‘maid’ (a girl or young woman), and though mermen are the male contemporaries of mermaids, the creature has been most commonly represented as a young and often troubled woman in endless myths, books, poems and films.
From Homer’s Odyssey to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, mermaids have long been a source of beguiling fascination.
Mentions of half-human, half-fish creatures date back 2,000 years
The Old Babylonian period (c. 1894-1595 BC) onwards depicts creatures with fishtails and human upper bodies. More commonly mermen rather than maids, the images may have represented ‘Ea’, the Babylonian god of the sea, who was depicted as having a human head and arm.
The deity, more precisely known as the god of ritual purification, governed the arts of incantation and sorcery and was also the form-giving god, or patron of craftsmen and artists. The same figure was later co-opted by the Greeks and Romans as Poseidon and Neptune, respectively.
The earliest recorded mention of mermaids is from Assyria
The first known mermaid stories are from Assyria in around 1000 BC. The story goes that the ancient Syrian goddess Atargatis fell in love with a shepherd, a mortal. She unintentionally killed him, and because of her shame, jumped into a lake and adopted the form of a fish. However, the waters would not conceal her beauty, so she took the form of a mermaid instead and became the goddess of fertility and welfare.
An enormous temple which came complete with a pond full of fish was devoted to the goddess, while artwork and statues depicting mermen and maids were used during the Neo-Assyrian period as protective figurines. The ancient Greeks later recognised Atargatis by the name Derketo.
Alexander the Great’s sister was supposedly turned into a mermaid
Today, we recognise the siren and mermaid more distinctly than the ancient Greeks, who equated the two creatures with one another. A famous Greek folktale claimed that Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike, was transformed into a mermaid when she died in 295 AD.
The tale goes that she lived in the Aegean Sea, and that whenever a ship passed she would ask the sailors “is King Alexander alive?” If the sailors answered “he lives and reigns and conquers the world”, then she would allow them to continue sailing unharmed. Any other answer would cause her to conjure a storm and doom the sailors to a watery grave.
The Greek name ‘seirén’ reflects the ancient Greek attitude towards mermaids, with the name translating to ‘entangler’ or ‘binder’, serving as a reminder that they could enchant unwitting sailors with their ‘siren songs’, which were irresistible yet deadly.
At this time, mermaids were more commonly depicted as half-bird, half-human; it was only during the Christian era that they more formally evolved into being depicted as half-fish, half-human. It was also only later that a clearer distinction between mermaids and sirens was made.
Homer’s Odyssey depicts sirens as scheming and murderous
The most famous depiction of sirens is in Homer’s Odyssey (725 – 675 BC). In the epic poem, Odysseus has his men strap him to the mast of his ship and plug their own ears with wax. This is so that none would be able to hear or reach the sirens’ attempts to lure them to their deaths with their sweet song as they sailed past.
Hundreds of years later, Roman historian and biographer Pliny the Elder (23/24 – 79 AD) attempted to give some credence to such stories about mermaids. In Natural History, he describes numerous sightings of mermaids off the coast of Gaul, stating that their bodies were covered in scales and their corpses frequently washed up onto the shore. He also claims that the governor of Gaul wrote to Emperor Augustus to inform him about the creatures.
Christopher Columbus reported that he had seen one
With the arrival of the Age of Discovery were numerous mermaid ‘sightings’. Christopher Columbus reported that he saw a mermaid in the area we now know as the Dominican Republic. He wrote in his diary: “the day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men.” It has been speculated that these mermaids were in fact manatees.
Similarly, John Smith, renowned for his relationship with Pocahontas, reported that he caught sight of one near Newfoundland in 1614, stating that “her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive”.
Another 17th-century story states that a mermaid in Holland was found beached and floundering with little water. She was taken to a nearby lake and nursed back to health. She then became a productive citizen, learning Dutch, performing chores and eventually converting to Catholicism.
They were later depicted as ‘femme fatales’
Later depictions of mermaids reflect the imagery of the Romantic period. Far from simply being bloodthirsty sirens whose main seductive quality was their singing, they became much more visually beautiful, with the image of the creatures as long-haired, sensual maidens still dominating today.
German romantic poets wrote extensively about Naiads and Undines – other beautiful water women – along with mermaids, and described the danger of being seduced by their beauty. These warnings were also influenced by Christian doctrine of the day, which warned against lust in general.
At the same time, Romanticism concocted the story of mermaids wanting to transform into women by changing their tails for legs. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1837) is arguably the most famous depiction of a mermaid in literature.
Though contemporary versions of the tale depict the story ending happily, in the original the mermaid has her tongue cut out and feet cut off, murders the prince, bathes in his blood and then dissolves into sea foam, likely as a punishment for disobeying her fellow merpeople and pursuing her lust for the prince.
Post-romantic painters of the 19th century depicted mermaids as yet more aggressive ‘femme fatales’ who leapt onto sailors, seducing and then drowning them.
Different cultures entertain different versions of the creature
Today, mermaids still exist in various forms in numerous different cultures. Chinese legend describes mermaids as intelligent and beautiful and able to turn their tears into pearls, while Korea perceives them as goddesses who can forewarn storms or impending doom.
However, Japanese stories depict mermaids more darkly, stating that they summon war if one of their bodies is discovered washed up ashore. Brazil similarly fears their creature, the ‘Iara’, an immortal ‘lady of the waters’, who is blamed when people disappear in the Amazon rainforest.
The Outer Hebrides in Scotland fear mermen rather than maids, with the ‘Blue Men of the Minch’ appearing like ordinary men with the exception of their blue-tinted skin and grey beards. The story goes that they lay siege to a ship and only let it pass unharmed if the captain can win a rhyming match against them.
Similarly, several modern religions such as Hinduism and Candomble (an Afro-Brazilian belief) worship mermaid goddesses today. Clearly, the enduring legacy of the mermaid is here to stay.