A mermaid is a mythological aquatic creature with a female human head and torso and the tail of an aquatic animal such as a fish. Mermaids have a broad representation in folklore, literature, and popular culture.
Overview and etymology
The word is a compound of mere, the Old English word for "sea", and maid, a woman. The male equivalent is a merman, but the term mermaid is sometimes also used for males. Various cultures throughout the world have similar figures, typically depicted without clothing.
Much like sirens, mermaids would sometimes sing to people and gods and enchant them, distracting them from their work and causing them to walk off the deck or run their ships aground. Other stories have them squeezing the life out of drowning men while attempting to rescue them. They are also said to take humans down to their underwater kingdoms. In Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, it is said that they forget that humans cannot breathe underwater, while others say they drown men out of spite.
The sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as mermaid-like; in fact, some languages use the same word for both bird and fish creatures, such as the Maltese word 'sirena'. Other related types of mythical or legendary creatures are water fairies (e.g., various water nymphs) and selkies, animals that can transform themselves from seals to humans.
Ancient Near East
The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. Atargatis, the mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis, was a goddess who loved a mortal shepherd and in the process killed him. Ashamed, she jumped into a lake to take the form of a fish, but the waters would not conceal her divine beauty. Thereafter, she took the form of a mermaid — human above the waist, fish below — though the earliest representations of Atargatis showed her as being a fish with a human head and legs, similar to the Babylonian Ea. The Greeks recognized Atargatis under the name Derketo. Prior to 546 BC, the Milesian philosopher Anaximander proposed that mankind had sprung from an aquatic species of animal. He thought that humans, with their extended infancy, could not have survived early on. This idea reappeared as the aquatic ape hypothesis in the twentieth century.
A popular Greek legend has Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike, turn into a mermaid after she died. She lived, it was said, in the Aegean and when sailors would encounter her, she would ask them only one question: "Is Alexander the king alive?" (Greek: Ζει ο βασιλιάς Αλέξανδρος;), to which the correct answer would be: "He lives and still rules" (Greek: Ζει και βασιλεύει). Any other answer would spur her into a rage, whereupon she would transform into a Gorgon with certain doom for the ship and every sailor on board.
- "Among them – Now that is the traditional story among them concerning the temple. But other men swear that Semiramis of Babylonia, whose deeds are many in Asia, also founded this site, and not for Hera Atargatis but for her own Mother, whose name was Derketo"
- "I saw the likeness of Derketo in Phoenicia, a strange marvel. It is woman for half its length, but the other half, from thighs to feet, stretched out in a fish's tail. But the image in the Holy City is entirely a woman, and the grounds for their account are not very clear. They consider fishes to be sacred, and they never eat them; and though they eat all other fowls, they do not eat the dove, for she is holy so they believe. And these things are done, they believe, because of Derketo and Semiramis, the first because Derketo has the shape of a fish, and the other because ultimately Semiramis turned into a dove. Well, I may grant that the temple was a work of Semiramis perhaps; but that it belongs to Derketo I do not believe in any way. For among the Egyptians, some people do not eat fish, and that is not done to honor Derketo."
The Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights) includes several tales featuring "Sea People", such as Djullanar the Sea-girl. Unlike the depiction in other mythologies, these are anatomically identical to land-bound humans, differing only in their ability to breathe and live underwater. They can (and do) interbreed with land humans, the children of such unions sharing in the ability to live underwater.
In another Arabian Nights tale, "Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman", the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater submarine society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land, in that the underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist. Other Arabian Nights tales deal with lost ancient technologies, advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, and catastrophes which overwhelmed them.
In "The Adventures of Bulukiya", the protagonist Bulukiya's quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, where he encounters societies of mermaids. "Julnar the Sea-Born and Her Son King Badr Basim of Persia" is yet another Arabian Nights tale about mermaids. When sailors come the mermaids sing, and some men are led straight to their doom. If they follow the mermaids' lovely and beautiful voices, they do not know what they are doing or where they're going.
Mermaids were noted in British folklore as unlucky omens – both foretelling disaster and provoking it. Several variants of the ballad Sir Patrick Spens depict a mermaid speaking to the doomed ships; in some, she tells them they will never see land again, and in others, she claims they are near shore, which they are wise enough to know means the same thing. They can also be a sign of rough weather.
Some mermaids were described as monstrous in size, up to 2,000 feet (610 m).
Mermaids could also swim up rivers to freshwater lakes. One day, in a lake near his house, the Laird of Lorntie saw, as he thought, a woman drowning, and went to aid her; a servant of his pulled him back, warning that it was a mermaid, and the mermaid screamed after that she would have killed him if it were not for his servant.
On occasion, mermaids could be more beneficent, giving humans means of cure.
Some tales raised the question of whether mermaids had immortal souls to answer it in the negative. The figure of Lí Ban appears as a sanctified mermaid, but she was originally a human being transformed into a mermaid; after three centuries, when Christianity had come to Ireland, she came to be baptized.
Mermen were also noted as wilder and uglier than mermaids, but they were described as having little interest in humans.
The mermaid, or syrenka, is the symbol of Warsaw. Images of a mermaid have been used on the crest of Warsaw as its symbol since the middle of the 14th century. Several legends associate Triton of mythology with the city, which may have been where the association with mermaids originated.
Among the Neo-Taíno nations of the Caribbean the mermaid is called Aycayia. Her attributes relate to the goddess Jagua, and the hibiscus flower of the majagua tree Hibiscus tiliaceus. Examples from other cultures are the Mami Wata of West and Central Africa, the Jengu of Cameroon, the Merrow of Ireland and Scotland, the Rusalkas of Russia and Ukraine, the Iara from Brazil and the Greek Oceanids, Nereids, and Naiads. One freshwater mermaid-like creature from European folklore is Melusine, who is sometimes depicted with two fish tails, and other times with the lower body of a serpent. It is said in Japan that eating the flesh of a ningyo can grant unaging immortality. In some European legends mermaids are said to be unlucky.
Mermaids and mermen are also characters of Philippine folklore, where they are locally known as sirena and siyokoy, respectively. The Javanese people believe that the southern beach in Java is a home of Javanese mermaid queen Nyi Roro Kidul.
Mermaids are said to be known for their vanity, but also for their innocence. They often fall in love with human men, and are willing to go to great extents to prove their love with humans (see mermaid problem). Unfortunately, especially with younger mermaids, they tend to forget humans cannot breathe underwater. Their male counterparts, mermen, are rarely interested in human issues, but in the Finnish mythology merpeople are able to grant wishes, heal sickness, lift curses, brew magic potions, and sometimes carry a trident. Mermaids share some of the same characteristics.
Claimed sightings of dead or living mermaids have come from places such as Java and British Columbia. There are two Canadian reports from the area of Vancouver and Victoria, one from sometime between 1870 and 1890, the other from 1967.
In August 2009, the town of Qiryat Yam in Israel offered a prize of US$1 million for anyone who could prove the existence of a mermaid off its coast, after dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of the water like a dolphin and doing aerial tricks before returning to the depths.
According to Dorothy Dinnerstein’s book, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, human-animal hybrids such as the minotaur and the mermaid convey the emergent understanding of the ancients that human beings were both one with and different from animals:
"[Human] nature is internally inconsistent, that our continuities with, and our differences from, the earth's other animals are mysterious and profound; and in these continuities, and these differences, lie both a sense of strangeness on earth and the possible key to a way of feeling at home here."
Mermen are mythical male legendary creatures who are human male from the waist up and fish-like from the waist down. They are less commonly known than their female counterparts, mermaids.
In Greek mythology, mermen were often illustrated to have green seaweed-like hair, a beard, and a trident. In Irish mythology, mermen are described as extremely ugly creatures with pointed green teeth, pig-like eyes, green hair, and a red nose. In Finnish mythology, a merman (vetehinen) is often portrayed as a magical, powerful, handsome, bearded man with the tail of a fish. He can cure illnesses, lift curses and brew potions, but he can also cause unintended harm by becoming too curious about human life.
The actions and behavior of mermen can vary wildly depending on the source and time period of the stories. They have been said to sink ships by summoning great storms, but also said to be wise teachers, according to earlier mythology. A merman, like a mermaid, attracts humans with singing and tones.
- The most well-known merman was probably Triton, son of Poseidon and Amphitrite. Although Amphitrite gave birth to a merman, neither Poseidon nor Amphitrite were merfolk, although both were able to live under water as easily as on land. Triton was also known as the Trumpeter of the Sea for his usage of a conch shell.
- Other noteworthy mermen were the Babylonian Oannes and Ea, and the Sumerian Enki.
- Another notable merman from Greek mythology was Glaucus. He was born a human and lived his early life as a fisherman. One day, while fishing, he saw that the fish he caught would jump from the grass and into the sea. He ate some of the grass, believing it to have magical properties, and felt an overwhelming desire to be in the sea. He jumped in the ocean and refused to go back on land. The sea gods nearby heard his prayers and transformed him into a sea god. Ovid describes the transformation of Glaucus in the Metamorphoses, describing him as a blue-green man with a fishy member where his legs had been.
- Norse mythology, in particular Icelandic folklore, has mermen known as Marbendlar.
- In Dogon mythology (not to be confused with the semitic fish god Dagon), ancestral spirits called Nommo had humanoid upper torsos, legs and feet, and a fish-like lower torso and tail.