Tales of mermaids have been spoken about since humanity learned how to write. But how and when did their stories and the possibility of their existence spring up? Where did they originate? Did they come from sailors’ tales of sightings, or were they known even before that?
Myths and legends about mermaids followed the course of human history from the birth of ancient civilizations to the modern times when they have become part of popular culture and fantasy tales. Their modern name comes from the French words mer (sea) and maid (girl or young woman), symbolizing their beauty and life at the sea. However, stories from the past do not describe them as passive and vulnerable as the modern tales do. Sometimes, they were portrayed as powerful vengeful water spirits who brought storms, misfortune and death to ones who traveled across the oceans, rivers and lakes.
Greek mythology contains stories of the god Triton, the merman messenger of the sea, and several modern religions including Hinduism and Candomble (an Afro-Brazilian belief) worship mermaid goddesses to this day. One of the earliest depictions of a mermaid came from Syrian mythology. Atargatis, also known as Derceto or the Syrian goddess, was half woman half fish deity of the ancient city Hierapolis-Bambyce in Syria.
Mermaids described in Ancient Greece are close to the type of mermaids we believe in today. A famous Greek folktale claimed that Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessaloniki, was transformed into a mermaid and lived in the Aegean sea after her death in 295 BC.
If she spotted a ship, she would ask the sailors, “Is King Alexander alive?” If the sailors answered correctly by saying, “He lives and reigns and conquers the world,” Thessalonike would let them continue ahead without harm. If they fail to answer her this way, it will anger her, and she will conjure a rough sea storm, dooming the ship and dragging the sailors to the bottom of the ocean. Greek mythology remains one of the most common ways that readers are introduced to the concept of mermaids. This includes the famed Odyssey written by Homer, in which Odysseus encounters a variety of sea creatures, including Sirens, a form of mermaids, who used their stunning beauty and melodic voices to lure sailors to their doom.
The Greeks were afraid of mermaids, and they called them sirens – dangerous creatures who lured the sailors to the sea with their songs and drowned them. A similar belief was held in the British Isles, where sailors regarded mermaids, sirens and sea nymphs as evil spirits of the sea and bad omens (sighting the mermaid represented the coming of the storm, sinking of the ship and almost always eventual death of the person who saw them). Other stories claimed that mermaids and mermen tried to climb aboard ships in the middle of the ocean, causing the ship to list to one side.
Many however accepted mermaids as the good willed creatures that are extremely shy but also very curious about life above the sea. Chinese legends speak that tears of elusive sirens form the most beautiful pearls on Earth, Chinese sailors thought that sirens can grant immortality to the worthy man. They were seen as gentle, mild, and a blessing of the sea and Irish held belief that mermaids are calling the sailors to the sea with their songs as the sign of love.
Persian viewed mermaids not as half fish, but also as complete human beings that were able to live in the sea. In the many stories that were written about them (even in the famous collection of folk tales One Thousand and One Nights) there are depicted as beautiful men and women who can have children with ordinary people, and their children can also live in the sea if they want so.
Similar creatures to mermaids can also live in lakes and rivers. In Slavic mythology there are the Rusalkas, the spirits of young women who have met their fate through drowning. Rusalkas are the Slavic counterpart of the Greek sirens and naiads, often seducing sailors to their doom. The nature of rusalkas varies among folk traditions, but according to ethnologist D.K. Zelenin they all share a common element: they are the restless spirits of the unclean dead. They are usually the ghosts of young women who died a violent or untimely death, either by murder or suicide, before their wedding, especially by drowning.
Rusalkas are said to inhabit lakes and rivers. They appear as beautiful young women with long pale green hair and pale skin, suggesting a connection with floating weeds and days spent underwater in faint sunlight. They can be seen after dark, dancing together under the moon and calling out to young men by name, luring them to the water and drowning them. The characterization of rusalkas as both desirable and treacherous is prevalent in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and was emphasized by 19th-century Russian authors.
Christopher Columbus also had an encounter with mermaids. Tuesday, Jan. 8, 1493, was a windy day. Columbus had already landed in Hispaniola—the Greater Antilles—and he was already preparing for the trip back. The crew was replenishing the ship’s water supply. While supervising the crew, Columbus saw golden specks on the barrel hoops. Curious about their source, he navigated up what he called the Golden River. The following day, he reported that he had seen mermaids. “But they weren’t as beautiful as people paint them,” his diary reads. “Their faces resembled men’s.” Columbus was surprised by mermaids’ appearance. He described them as ugly, masculine, and rough beings.
People from the Medieval Ages assumed mermaids were as organic as fishes. Even then, they were mystical creatures that reside in the sea. Mermaids were commonly featured in Medieval churches to represent Lust, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Mermaids in Different Cultures
Japanese legends have a version of merfolk called kappa. Said to reside in Japanese lakes, coasts and rivers, these child-size water spirits appear more animal than human, with simian faces and tortoise shells on their backs, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Kappa’s sometimes interact with humans and challenge them to games of skill in which the penalty for losing is death. Kappa are said to have an appetite for children and those foolish enough to swim alone in remote places.
Korean mermaid folklore is similar to China’s in that they depict the sea maidens as good omen. They see her as a goddess that warns fishermen of sea storms and impending doom.
In Indian folklore, Suvannamaccha (lit. golden mermaid) is a daughter of Ravana who appears in the Cambodian and Thai versions of the Ramayana. She is a mermaid princess who tries to spoil Hanuman’s plans to build a bridge to Lanka, but falls in love with him instead. She is a popular figure in Thai folklore.
In Brazil there is folklore about Iara, who is a mermaid, a water nymph or a siren depending on the context or story. Iara means something like Lady of the Lake or Water Queen. According to legend Iara is an immortal freshwater nymph in the appearance of a beautiful young woman with green hair and light skin who sits on a rock by the river combing her hair or dozing under the sun. When she feels a man around she sings to gently to lure him to her, to live out his life with her under the water.
Throughout West, South and Central Africa, the mythical water spirit called Mami Wata, which means “Mother of the Waters”, was once worshipped for their ability to bestow beauty, health and wisdom to their followers, according to the Royal Museums Greenwich. Mami Wata is often portrayed as a mermaid or snake charmer, however, her appearance has been influenced by presentations of other indigenous African water spriest as well as European mermaids and Hindu gods and goddesses, according to National Museum of African Art.
Until the present day
In August 2009, after dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of Haifa Bay waters and doing aerial tricks, the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam offered a $1 million award for proof of its existence. In February 2012, work on two reservoirs near Gokwe and Mutare in Zimbabwe stopped when workers refused to continue, stating that mermaids had hounded them away from the sites. It was reported by Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, the water resources minister.
Mermaids have been seens as forces for both good and evil from the start, and this tradition continues to this day, although the general tendency in current culture is to regard them as mostly benign, beautiful, attractive, independent and as interested in humans. In any case, if you meet a mermaid (caution is certainly advisable), first, be sure of her intentions – as history and legends tell us, they can be good or bad.
Sources for this article:
Royal Museums Greenwich
National Museum of African Art