In evening light you look out across the channel and see a woman who appears to be drowning in the middle of the strait. Quickly you rush towards the water and start to take off your shoes. You shout that you’ll be out to help her as fast as you can, but she seems to wave you away. Confused, you take a few more steps towards the water before she slips into the depths of the waters and flips her tail up above the surface. You stand in shock as you try to process what has just happened – you’ve just witnessed a mermaid.
What is a Mermaid?
A mermaid is a mythological creature that is half maiden and half fish or sea serpent. These women are often known to be both mysterious and enchanting. They are creatures of the sea and known to spend the majority of their lives in this environment, though some tales claim that there were mermaids who had the ability to live on both land and sea. This was often done by shedding their fish tail or skin and hiding it while they were on land. Some of these tails were supposedly stolen by humans who wished to marry these maidens. There are many legends of humans who forced mermaids into marriage in this manner, only for the mermaid to find her tail many years later and escape back into the sea.
Mermaids are known to be creatures who embody the duality of the sea. As the waters of the ocean can be both gentle and destructive, so can the nature of the mermaids. These maidens are known to have caused much mischief and destruction at the expense of humans. However, there are also times that mermaids have been very helpful towards humans. Some legends speak of mermaids who have saved sailors and their ships during storms or have helped humans cure illnesses that earlier civilizations had no knowledge of.
There are hundreds of stories about mermaids that have been passed down over the years, but according to historians the first mermaid likely came from ancient Assyrian mythology. This model for the story was adopted by many other cultures who wished to merge their goddess figures with the power and beauty of the mermaids.
Mermaids – Good or Evil?
Although it is undisputed that mermaids are some of the most fascinating creatures from mythology, the question of the intentions of these creatures still remains. There are many reports of cultures that have had some sort of positive interaction with these beings, but there are many more that tell of the terrifying and destructive nature of these creatures.
Mermaids are often known to drag humans down into the depths of the ocean, killing them in the process. Although there are some cases where this act is without a doubt intentional, there are others that make humans question if they actually mean to kill the mortals they drag underwater. This is likely from tales of seemingly friendly mermaids that kill humans by dragging them under. It has been speculated that mermaids may not understand that humans can’t breathe underwater, or simply forget in their excitement to take them to their realm. This theory is supported by the fact that mermaids have been known to allow men into their underwater kingdoms and shower them with lavish gifts while they remain in these realms.
Though it is tempting to put a label on the intentions of these creatures, it appears that many mermaids have free will and are not motivated by primal desires to hurt or help. Because of this, it is difficult to determine what their intentions are without interaction.
Atargatis – The First Mermaid
Though stories of mermen are perhaps more ancient than those of mermaids, it is thought that the first mermaid was recorded in 1000 BC by the ancient Assyrians. Her name was Atargatis, and she was known to be the fertility goddess and the chief goddess of Northern Assyria.
Atargatis was known to be closely connected to the sky and the sea – her sacred animals were doves and fish. However, she was also known to have been deeply connected to the people of Assyria. As the chief goddess, she was responsible for their well-being and was often consulted for help.
After many years of service, Atargatis fell in love with a mortal shepherd boy and desired to make a union with him. Unfortunately, she did not realize that as a mortal, he wouldn’t be able to survive ‘the divine lovemaking.’ She accidentally killed him and fell into a deep state of grief. In a bittersweet turn of events, she also became pregnant with his daughter.
When Atargatis gave birth, she left her daughter on the shore and cast herself deep into the sea. She attempted to transform herself into a fish because she was so ashamed and devastated that she had killed her lover. Because of her great beauty, however, the powers of the sea refused to take away all of her magnificence and only allowed her legs to be transformed into a fish tail. Thus, Atargatis became the first mermaid.
Atargatis’ Story is Adopted by Other Cultures
Unsurprisingly, Atargatis’ story was a source of inspiration for many cultures. She appeared as a figure in many other cultures under different names and her story was used to give additional powers and characteristics to existing goddesses. Goddesses that were tied to her story over time include Aphrodite, Cybele, and Rhea.
In addition to these goddesses, many of the minor sea goddesses inherited her characteristics as well. A great example of this can be found with the nereids and sea nymphs. They are often depicted as having both legs and fish tails depending on where they were located. The selkies of Icelandic mythology are also known to have similar stories, though instead of a fish tail they are thought to have complete seal skins.
Mermaids Around the World
Though there seem to be many overlapping similarities in mermaid stories worldwide, there are noticeable differences that come from varying cultures. Though in many cultures the interactions with mermaids and merpeople in general was considered to be fairly rare, there are other cultures who seem to have had many interactions with these strange sea people.
The Nereids were known to be some of the most beautiful creatures to exist in the time of ancient Greece. Nereids (sometimes called sea nymphs) were beautiful creatures who were often depicted as either having tails or legs depending on if they were in the water. They were often thought to be found accompanying Poseidon and were sometimes known to carry his trident.
The Nereids were friendly for the most part and were known to help sailors in times of need. One of the most famous examples of Nereids helping humans was when they decided to help the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece.
Nereids were also known to give birth to influential children. One Nereid named Thetis had a child by Zeus who grew up to be Achilles. In fact, the Trojan War was started in part out of Zeus’ fear that one of his son’s would rise up and overthrow him – namely Achilles.
Another type of mermaid that is often referenced is the Siren. Although sirens are one of the most common types of mermaid that is recognized in modern day, it is thought that the mermaid stories influenced this creature in ways that were not meant to happen.
Sirens were often portrayed as beautiful women from the waist up with wings and a bird’s body for their bottom half. They would sing beautiful songs and lure ships towards dangerous rocks with their beauty and mysticism. When the ships inevitably crashed, they would feast on the bodies of the sailors – though some stories suggest that these beings were simply content to kill the sailors and leave.
There was also another form of siren that was maiden from the waist up and fish tailed from the waist down. This form of siren became increasingly popular as mermaid mythology spread throughout ancient Greece, this type of siren became more recognizable than their half avian counterparts. Unlike the Nereids, the Sirens were known to be omens of bad luck and they brought death and destruction with them wherever they went.
Although Selkies are still categorized as mermaids, they are often portrayed as having a different transformation process. The Selkies were known to have the gift of therianthropy – the ability to change from human to animal form at will. They accomplished this by shedding a seal skin when they desired to be on land and hiding it. When they wished to return to the water, they would slip back into the skin and blend into the sea.
There were many stories in the Icelandic area of human men who were able to marry Selkie women by stealing their seal skin when they came ashore and hiding it. The Selkies were able to form families and care for humans, much like mortal women, but eventually they would find their skins and be pulled back to their homes in the ocean.
Melusine is the story of the daughter of a fey and a King of Scotland. She is often thought of as a mermaid because of the strange curse that was put on her for seeking revenge against her father.
Melusine’s mother was named Pressyne – she was a beautiful fey who agreed to marry King Elynas when he happened upon her in the woods one day. He asked her to marry him and she agreed. For many years he upheld this promise, but eventually he broke the oath and Pressyne left with their three children. When Melusine turned 15, she asked why they had not been raised with their father and was told about his transgression. She sought revenge against him, but was punished by her mother for disrespecting King Elynas. She was cursed to change into a fish with two tails (or in other versions a serpent) from the waist down on Saturdays.
Eventually Melusine found a love of her own and agreed to marry him if he promised not to look upon her on Saturdays. He agreed and kept the promise for many years. One day however, he too became curious and went to see what she was doing. She forgave him for a time, but when he called her a serpent during a fight she disappeared, never to be seen again.
Merpeople in One Thousand and One Nights
The classic tales, ‘The One Thousand and One Nights’ also has legends of ‘sea people.’ Unlike traditional mermaid stories, however, these sea people looked almost identical to humans. In fact, the only difference between sea people and human beings was the ability of sea people to live and breathe underwater.
Sea people were also known to have relationships with humans and sometimes have families together. Their children are also able to live and breathe underwater.
Tales of the sea people from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ include ‘Djulllanar the Sea Girl’, ‘Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman’, and ‘The Adventures of Bulukiya.’
Another type of mermaid is known to be native to Ireland and is often thought to be given powers to dive deep beneath the waves of the ocean because of a special cap that they were known to possess. This cap was called a cohuleen druith and was thought to be red in color. Other sources say that the cap was made of glittering salmon skin.
It was known that the merrow maidens were extremely beautiful in nature and were thought to be near perfect in appearance. They are often written of as having traditional mermaid features, with green hair and thin membranes between their hands and feet. The merrow were thought to be friendly towards the human beings and were known to sometimes form attachments with a human man. If a human was to engage in these relationships however, it was necessary to hide the merrow’s cohuleen druith. Failing to do so properly would result in the maiden finding the cap years later and being driven by her desire to return to her home in the sea. Once a merrow found her cap, she would not return back to her human family.
Mermaids of British Folklore
While other cultures seem to have had fairly mixed experiences with mermaids and their male counterparts, British mythology concerning these beings tells that the arrival of these merpeople is always disastrous for humans. The arrival of a mermaid was thought to be a sign that there was about to be a monstrous storm or a terrible disaster on the sea. Additionally, mermaids were often thought to be violent and mischievous creatures that would provoke trouble if given the opportunity. Mermaids were thought to appear to ships just before they wrecked or were lost at sea to taunt them with their fate.
There are also stories that suggest the early British culture thought mermaids had the ability to survive in both freshwater and saltwater. One story of a man named Laird of Lorntie tells that the man thought he saw a woman drowning in the middle of a lake on his property. He was about to dive in to save her, but was pulled back by his servant who recognized the woman as a mermaid. The mermaid shouted out to Laird that she would have drowned him if he had been foolish enough to come in after her.
Mermaids Near the Isle of Man
Though many mermaids in the UK region were seen as vengeful and malevolent, the merpeople who lived near the Isle of Man were thought to be much more friendly towards human beings. These mermaids were known as Ben-Varrey and were known to have been very generous towards humans. Mermaids were known to reward humans who helped them in times of need or were generous towards them. They were often said to give humans tremendous wealth – whether it was through the location of a grand treasure or another form of prosperity.
Irish mythology brings us the story of Li Ban – a human who was turned into a mermaid after a terrible disaster. In early Ireland, Li Ban and her family lived in a small house with her family some time around the year 858 BC. They lived a simple but happy life until one fateful day when an underwater spring erupted underneath their house. The powerful water that gushed upwards caused all of her family members to drown – only Li Ban and her lap dog managed to survive the flooding. There was so much water that erupted from the underwater spring that the land where Li Ban and her family had lived was transformed into what is now Lough Neagh.
Li Ban and her lap dog lived in an underwater chamber for one year after the great flood. After this time had passed, she was transformed into a mermaid – half maiden and half salmon. Her lap dog was transformed into an otter.
Being free of her underwater chamber, Li Ban roamed the seas near Ireland for about 300 years. She spent this time exploring and was often known to sing in an angelic voice. After 300 years, an Irish boat happened to sail by while she was singing and was immediately drawn in by the magical tone. When they heard her, they called her over to their ship and learned her story. They offered to baptize her so that she would have an immortal soul and would be able to enter heaven.
One year from the day she encountered the sailors, she allowed herself to be captured by the men off the coast of Ireland. They brought her ashore and was baptized under the name ‘Muirgen’, which means ‘sea born.’ She died immediately afterwards and ascended into Heaven. Her story was preserved and spread throughout Ireland – especially by those who marveled at that fact that she was willing to give up 300 more years of life for a chance to reach heaven.
Interestingly enough, Alexander the Great’s sister – Thessalonike – was thought to have lived on as a mermaid after her death. She was thought to have lived in the Aegean sea. She was known to have been perceived as somewhat of a threat to ships who were sailing in this area. When a ship passed by an area she was in, she was said to have swum up to the side of the vessel and ask, “Is King Alexander Alive?”
The correct answer to this question was, “Yes. He lives and both rules and conquers the world.” This answer would please Thessalonike and she would calm the waters of the ocean so that the ship could continue peacefully. If she received an answer that she didn’t like, however, she would cause the waters around her to be stirred into a terrible turmoil and doom the ship. When this happened, it was thought that no sailor would leave the vessel alive.
Origins of the Myth
There is much speculation into the origin of the mermaid myths, though most of these theories are based on symbolism or the misinterpretation of a medical disorder. There is also the possibility that the mermaid myths are simply a way for the human mind to make the sea feel more approachable and less threatening.
Embodiment of the Sea
Although there were many different interpretations of the mermaid myths, one of the most constant factors is simply the duality of the nature of the mermaid and the situations that these creatures tend to appear in.
A mermaid’s personality is most closely compared to the sea itself – she has the ability to be both gentle and harsh. She can either save lives or take them. Additionally, the very essence of her being is deeply connected to the sea – many mermaid legends tell of maidens with long green hair, or at the very least flowing hair that was reflective of the plant life in the oceans. Additionally, many mermaids had a connection to the creatures of the sea as evidenced by their fish or serpent-like tails.
Sirenomelia (also known as mermaid syndrome) is a rare birth defect that occurs during the third gestational week. The sufferers of this syndrome are characterized by the unusual fusing of the two legs – leaving them with what appears to be a mermaid tail. Unfortunately, because of the nature of this disease and the damage that is often found in the digestive and urinary tracts upon birth, many of these patients die within days or weeks of their birth. To date, there are only 4 known patients who survived past this time frame.
A Comforting Thought
It is also entirely possible that the mermaid myths came from the need for humans to have a relatable and understandable connection to the ocean. At a time when exploration of the world’s oceans was just beginning, it would have been comforting to think that there were human-like creatures that lived in the murky depths of the waters – even if these human look-alikes were enemies instead of friends.