Stories of Mermaids have been told for centuries, be it in the form of folklores, legends or fairy tales. Images of this creature have plagued artists and writers in their efforts to bring to life the mystery, beauty, and yes, eroticism of the mermaid to their audiences. Some still claim, even today, that they exist: see FIRST-EVER PHOTOS OF A MERMAID! Image Of Half-Woman Half-Fish Dazzles Tourists In Hawaii!
The mermaid and merman legends begin with the worship of gods as have many mythologies. This information has been divided into three different categories to help save time in your browsing and to establish simple guidelines to see different periods in the mythology of mermaids. The earliest representations and descriptions of these now well-known creatures can be traced back as far as the eighth century BC.
The Three Stages of the Mermaids Mythology
- Merfolk as Gods – a look at the birth of the mermaid mythology and how it began as pagan water deities and supernatural female water beings.
- Merfolk and Christianity – the role of the mermaid mythology changed significantly with the growth of the Christian Church, this is a look at how and why the myth survived when so many other pagan deities didn’t and what the new role of the mermaid was.
- Merfolk and the Rise of Science – for a long time the mermaid was believed to have existed even by educated men, with the rise of science and the Enlightenment the tides turned back to try and disprove the existence of such a creature as the mermaid. This being done the role of mermaids changed yet again.
Merfolk as Gods
The Babylonians were known to worship a sea-god called Oannes, or Ea. Oannes was reputed to have risen from the Erythrean Sea and taught to man the arts and sciences. In the Louvre today can be seen an eighth century wall-scene depicting Oannes as a merman, with the fish-like tail and the upper body of a man.
The Syrians and the Philistines were also known to have worshiped a Semitic mermaid moon-goddess. The Syrians called her Atargatis while the Philistines knew her as Derceto. It is not unusual or surprising that this moon-goddess was depicted as a mermaid as the tides ebbed and flowed with the moon then as it does now and this was incorporated into the god-like personifications that we find in their art and the ancient literature. Atargatis is one of the first recorded mermaids and the legend says that her child Semiramis was a normal human and because of this Atargatis was ashamed and killed her lover. Abandoning the infant she became wholly a fish.
However, not all ancient water gods or spiritual personifications took on the form of a mermaid or a merman all of the time. Water-nymphs for example can be mistaken for mermaids, they are beautiful in their appearance and are also musically talented, which mermaids are well known for, be it their singing or playing of a musical instrument. Sirens too are forever being mistaken for mermaids. Even the ancient writers and medieval Bestiary writers would get the two confused or mention only one when in fact both have to be mentioned to make sense of the literatures and archaeological evidence. This is discussed again below, where one can also see the result of a siren/mermaid illustration. The Siren and the Mermaid are two separate entities, one having the upper body of a young woman and the lower body of a bird, the other the upper body of a young woman and the lower body of a fish.
The Indians, amongst their many gods, worshiped one group of water-gods known as the Asparas, who were celestial flute-playing water-nymphs.
In Japanese and Chinese legends there were not only mermaids but also sea-dragons and the dragon-wives. The Japanese mermaid known as Ningyo was depicted as a fish with only a human head; where as the Polynesian mythology includes a creator named Vatea who was depicted as half-human form and half-porpoise.
Greek and Roman mythology is often placed together as the two are very similar and it is in the literature from these cultures that one finds the first literary description of the mermaid, and indeed the mermen. Homer mentions the Sirens during the voyage of Odysseus but he fails to give a physical description. The image seen here shows an old black and white film of Homer’s tale depicting the sirens in mermaid form. Ovid on the other hand writes that the mermaids were born from the burning galleys of the Trojans where the timbers turned into flesh and blood and the ‘green daughters of the sea’.
Poseidon and Neptune were often depicted as half-man and half-fish but the most popular motif of the ancient world that depicts mermen was the representations of the tritons, TRITON being the son of the powerful sea-god. A detail of the vase shown and other typical triton motifs can be seen from these periods in the Art Gallery. Besides the vase is the trident, known to have been carried by the sea-god and thought to be magical, the figure of Poseidon in the film Jason and the Argonauts, 1973 is shown with the trident. Specimens of tritons in classical times were said to be found at Tanagara and Rome, according to Pausanias, it is presumed by scholars today that they were fakes, just like those mermaid remains that one could find in the later nineteenth century freak shows, but more information on these later. The Nereids, who were the daughters of Nereus and the Oceanides, who were associated with Ocean and the Naiads who lived in the fresh waters of the ancient world, while being water creatures were depicted as humans and not merpeople.
The Little Mermaid, bronze sculpture by Edvard Eriksen, 1913, modeled after a story by Hans Christian Andersen; in Copenhagen harbour.
The British Isles too had their fair share of merfolk mythology. The Cornish knew mermaids as Merrymaids; the Irish knew them as Merrows or Muirruhgach and some sources write that they lived on dry land below the sea and had enchanted caps that allowed them to pass through the water without drowning, while the women were very beautiful the men had red noses, were piggy eyed, with green hair and teeth and a penchant for brandy.
The neck are to be found in Scandanavia, along with the Havfrue (merman) and the Havmand (mermaid), the neck however were able to live in both salt- and fresh-water. The Norwegian mermaid known as Havfine were believed to have very unpredictable tempers. Some were known to be kind, others to be incredibly cruel; it was considered unlucky to view one of these havfine.
The German Mythologies of mermaids are plenty. There are the Meerfrau; the Nix and the Nixe who were the male and female fresh-water inhabitants and it was believed that they were treacherous to men. The nixe lured men to drown while the nix could be in the form of an old dwarfish character or as a golden-haired boy and in Iceland and Sweden could take the form of a centaur. The nix also loved music and could lure people to him with his harp, if he was in the form of a horse he would tempt people to mount him and then dash into the sea to drown them. While he sometimes desired a human soul he would often demand annual human sacrifices. There was also a more elvin kind of Nixies that would sometimes appear in the market, she could be identified by the corner of her apron being wet. If they paid a good price it would be an expensive year but if they paid a low price the prices for that year would remain cheap. In the Rhine were to be found the Lorelei from which the town took its name. The Germans also knew the Melusine as a double-tailed mermaid as did the British heraldry as well. There is a double-tailed mermaid to be found in the Art Gallery.
Russian mythology includes the daughters of the Water-King who live beneath the sea; the water-nymph that drowns swimmers known as the Rusalka and the male water-spirit known as the Vodyany who followed sailors and fishermen.
The Africans believed the tales of a fish-wife and river-witches. What we have seen here is the beginnings of the mermaid mythology that starts with the merman depictions of water-deities and other such pagan deities. The stories of mermaids as one may think of today, were formed after the rise of Christianity.
Merfolk and Christianity
There is a theory that during the suppression of pagan deities the mermaid and other minor supernatural beings were not seen as a threat to the growth and popularity of Christian beliefs. Some writers even go so far as to believe that the Church actually believed in the mermaid mythology, and for two particular reasons; the first is that the mermaid served as a moral emblem of sin, the femme fatale label we know so well was nurtured with this form of thinking; and the second was the quality of evidence from contemporary and ancient authors on the existence of mermaids added to this ‘belief’ the Church found in mermaids.
The symbol of the mermaid with her comb and mirror in hand seems to first be depicted during the Middle Ages. This came to represent to the Church vanity and female beauty which could cause the destruction of men. And so the mermaid mythology turned from that of near godlike status, including the fear that the sirens brought, to one of aesthetic values. The mermaid became a focus for misogynists and as thus rather than causing fear in the laity the mermaid became even more fascinating.
The Bestiaries of the early middle ages included the siren and not the mermaid. As the two creatures became confused in popular beliefs and cultures so too did the bestiary writers confuse the two, as can be seen in the above illustration of the siren, complete with a mermaids tail. Mermaids were well known in the bestiaries of Physiologus and his predecessors, where they compiled the zoological information of ‘real’ animals. Mermaid were believed to exist even by the most educated men.
In 1403 a mermaid was apparently found stranded in the mud after a storm in West Friesland. She was then taken, clothed and fed ordinary food. Some say that she lived for fifteen years in capture, trying to escape constantly; she was also taught to kneel before the crucifix and spin but she was never able to speak.
Raphael Holinshed, in his chronicles of 1587 wrote that in the reign of either John or Henry II, some fishers of Oreford in Suffolk, caught a man-shaped fish, who would not or could not speak, ate fish be it raw or cooked and finally escaped after two months, back to the sea. There are detailed accounts of recorded sightings that are mostly from the 1800’s that can be read in the Sightings page.
In literature the mermaid began to be used as a description of women, rather than an identification of the creature herself. The mermaid had become a metaphor! Chaucer takes the mermaid and uses her as a scholarly metaphor for beautiful but dangerous song. Shakespeare is known to have used such a device in his Comedy of Errors.
Merfolk and the Rise of Science
With the growth of science, the fantastic became childish amongst the writers of the growing educated, especially during the eighteenth century, but began to flourish again with the Romantic movement at the turn of this century. It was also the time however for the scientifically-minded to do their utmost to dispel the myth of the mermaid, claiming that all the recorded sightings were simply men who’d been at sea too long and wanting to believe, and so when a seal, porpoise, dugong or manatee was spotted from the ship they’d swear they’d seen a mermaid.
It it from the nineteenth century that the reported sightings are so numerous. The sightings page shows where the sightings were and also the accompanying reports. Prominent, well-respected people writing in prominent papers conflict with the scientists apathy to the existence of such a fantastical creature.
Children’s stories are filled with mermaids again, and this time they are written down and published. The mermaid figures in art once again allowing the artist to portray the division within human nature of the “animal” sexual nature and the intellectual thinking; represented by the tail of the mermaid and that human part of her that wishes to gain a soul. This is the first period the mention of the mermaid longing for a human soul is found in the history of the mermaid. The prime example being The Little Mermaid by Hans Andersen, where the young mermaid gains a souls through her faithfulness. The mermaid is also seen as an elemental being and other water-beings are written about, such as The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. The theme of mermaids longing for a mortal man is continued and broadened which can be seen especially in the plays of Peter Blackmore, Miranda and the sequel Mad About Men which were adapted to film and starred Glynis Johns.
It is also the time of frauds and there were many in America during the 1920’s and 1930’s, with the most famous one being the Feegee mermaid. Japanese freak shows too were notorious for their “mermaids”, that merely consisted of the torso of a monkey and the tail of a fish stitched together and advertised as “mermaid corpses.”
It is not until the twentieth century that the mermaid is tossed back and forth between those that believe, or want to believe, and those that stand behind their logic and scientific proof that a creature such as the mermaid simply cannot exist. A wonderful film of these two meeting is the film Splash, with Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks. The mermaid becomes a symbol of fun and fantasy rather than an accepted part of cultural tradition and awe. She is seen as a figure of eroticism mixed with fear of the unknown, or the animal side of her nature. It is a great marketing tool for toys, cartoons, soft-porn, and women’s swim wear. No matter how the mermaid is used or what role she plays she will always retain her mysterious air. Perhaps the next move is a more feminine one, bringing back the myth of the mermaid protecting women, or the soul of the woman drowned before her natural time of death….