Mermaids (Sea Maidens) appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, including the Near East, Europe, and Asia. Mermaids are sometimes depicted as perilous creatures associated with floods, storms, shipwrecks, and drowning. In other folk traditions (or sometimes within the same tradition) they can be benevolent, bestowing boons or falling in love with humans. The male version of a mermaid is called a merman; the gender-neutral collective noun is merfolk. Various cultures throughout the world have similar figures.
In some ancient cultures Mermaids were regarded as semi-divine aspects of the Goddess, connected to the sea from which life arises and honored in seaside temples.
The earliest known mermaid legends come from Syria around 1000 B.C. where the Syrian priestess Atargatis dove into the sea to wash away the shame of an unwanted pregnancy but the powers there would not allow her give up her great beauty, so only her bottom half became a fish and she kept her top half in human form. She emerged as the fishtailed goddess.
As myths tend to do, the story changed over time and Atargatis became mixed with Syrian goddess Ashtarte, who is generally considered the counterpart to Greek mythology‘s Aphrodite. Though Aphrodite is rarely portrayed in mermaid form, this evolution of mermaid mythology is what led to Aphrodite’s role in the mythology of Pisces, which clearly has roots in Syrian mythology.
In the 2nd century BCE, the Greek historian Lucian reported that the statue of the Great Goddess at the temple of Hieropolis (which is now modern Turkey) had a fishtail instead of legs. In Greece, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as born from the sea foam and rode to land on a half-scallop shell.
The Sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as mermaids; in fact in some languages the name sirena is used interchangeably for both creatures. Other related types of mythical or legendary creature are water fairies (e.g. various water nymphs) and selkies.
Many popular tales including legends from the British Isles and the famous Arabian Nights tales identify mermaids in exactly this fashion. In these myths, mermaids would sing to men on ships or shores nearby, practically hypnotizing them with their beauty and song. Those affected would rush out to sea only to be either drowned, eaten, or otherwise sent to their doom.
The evil-intentioned mermaid is not the only way these creatures were seen as dangerous. Some believed that even well-intentioned mermaids would cause great danger to men who believed they saw a woman drowning and would dive into the waters to save them. Other tales suggest that mermaids either forgot or didn’t understand that humans could not breathe underwater, and they would pull them down into the depths of the sea, accidentally drowning them in the process.
In the 1st century CE, Pliny wrote convincingly of the existence of Mermaids, but said that their bodies were ‘rough and scaled all over’. But by the 5th century CE, the bestiary Physiologus described Mermaids in terms that accord fully with their contemporary image. Mermaids are ‘wonderfully shaped as a maid from the navel up and fish from the navel down’.
In Japanese and Chinese legends there were not only mermaids but also sea-dragons and the dragon-wives.
Mermaids appear 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 versions, she tells them they will never see land again; in others, she claims they are near shore, which they are wise enough to know means the same thing. Mermaids can also be a sign of approaching rough weather, and some have been described as monstrous in size, up to 2,000 feet (610 m).
Mermaids have also been described as being able to swim up rivers to freshwater lakes. In one story, the Laird of Lorntie went to aid a woman he thought was drowning in a lake near his house; 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, teaching humans cures for disease. Mermen have been described as wilder and uglier than mermaids, with little interest in humans.
According to legend, a mermaid came to the Cornish village of Zennor where she used to listen to the singing of a chorister, Matthew Trewhella. The two fell in love, and Matthew went with the mermaid to her home atPendour Cove. On summer nights, the lovers can be heard singing together. At the Church of Saint Senara in Zennor, there is a famous chair bearing a carving of a mermaid, which is probably six hundred years old.
Mermaids figured prominently in sailors’ lore, because of imaginative travelers’ tales. The most common story was that Mermaids were incredibly skilled at seducing lonely sailors and dragging them down to their underwater kingdom. It was also believed that they could cause storms and shipwrecks. These beliefs were reinforced by the medieval Church, to which Mermaids were an emblem of vanity, lust and the spiritual perils of women and of sexuality.
In 1493 while sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, Christopher Columbus mistakaned manatees for mermaids and reported seeing three “female forms” which “rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are represented”. The logbook of Blackbeard, an English pirate, records that he instructed his crew on several voyages to steer away from charted waters which he called “enchanted” for fear of merfolk or mermaids, which Blackbeard and members of his crew reported seeing. These sightings were often recounted and shared by sailors and pirates who believed that mermaids were bad luck and would bewitch them into giving up their gold and dragging them to the bottom of the sea. Two sightings were reported in Canada near Vancouver and Victoria—one from sometime between 1870 and 1890, the other from 1967.
In August 2009, after dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of the water and doing aerial tricks, the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam offered a $1 million award for proof of the mermaid. The Mermaid Medical Association, an American mermaid advocacy group, threatened to take legal action against the town in response to their offer, which “badly and outrageously damages the legendary mermaid legacy.” 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.