A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse
A mermaid is a legendary aquatic creature with the upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish.1 Mermaids appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, including the Near East, Europe, Africa and Asia. The first stories appeared in ancient Assyria, in which the goddess Atargatis transforms herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover. 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.
Mermaids are associated with the Sirens of Greek mythology and with the Sirenia, a biological order which comprises dugongs and manatees. Historical sightings by sailors may have been the result of misunderstood encounters with these aquatic mammals. Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids while exploring the Caribbean, and sightings have been reported in the 20th and 21st centuries in Canada, Israel, and Zimbabwe. The US National Ocean Service stated in 2012 that no evidence of mermaids has ever been found.
Mermaids have been a popular subject of art and literature in recent centuries. Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote his popular fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" in 1836. They have subsequently been depicted in opera, paintings, books, films, and comics.
The word mermaid is a compound of the Old English mere (sea), and maid (a girl or young woman).1 The equivalent term in Old English was merewif.2 They are conventionally depicted as beautiful with long flowing hair.1 They are sometimes equated with the Sirens of Greek mythology (especially the Odyssey), half-bird femme fatales whose enchanting voices drew sailors onto the rocks of their island, shipwrecking them.3
Sirenia is an order of fully aquatic, herbivorous mammals that inhabit rivers, estuaries, coastal marine waters, swamps, and marine wetlands. Sirenians, including manatees and the dugong, have major aquatic adaptations: arms used for steering, a paddle used for propulsion, hind limbs (legs) as two small bones floating deep in the muscle. They appear fat, but are fusiform, hydrodynamic, and highly muscular. Before the mid 19th century, mariners called these animals mermaids.4
Sirenomelia, also called "mermaid syndrome", is a rare congenital disorder in which a child is born with his or her legs fused together and reduced genitalia. This condition is about as rare as conjoined twins, affecting one out of every 100,000 live births5 and is usually fatal within a day or two of birth because of kidney and bladder complications. Four survivors were known as of July 2003.6
The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. The goddess Atargatis, mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis, loved a mortal shepherd and unintentionally 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 a fish with a human head and arm, similar to the Babylonian god 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 otherwise.
A popular Greek legend turns Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike, into a mermaid after she died.7 As a mermaid, she lived in the Aegean and when she encountered a ship she asked its sailors only one question: "Is King Alexander alive?" (Greek: "Ζει ο Βασιλιάς Αλέξανδρος;"), to which the correct answer was: "He lives and reigns and conquers the world" (Greek: "Ζει και βασιλεύει και τον κόσμο κυριεύει"). This answer pleased her so she calmed the waters and wished the ship farewell. Any other answer would spur her into a rage. She would raise a terrible storm, dooming the ship and every sailor on board.89
- "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 fish 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."10
The One Thousand and One Nights collection includes several tales featuring "sea people", such as "Djullanar the Sea-girl".11 Unlike depictions of mermaids 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, and the children of such unions have the ability to live underwater. In the tale "Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman", the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land. The underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist. 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.11
The Norman Chapel in Durham Castle, built around 1078 by Saxon stonemasons, has what is probably the earliest artistic depiction of a mermaid in England.12 It can be seen on a south-facing capital above one of the original Norman stone pillars.13
Mermaids appear in British folklore as unlucky omens—both foretelling disaster and provoking it.14 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,15 and some have been described as monstrous in size, up to 2,000 feet (610 m).14
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.16 On occasion, mermaids could be more beneficent, teaching humans cures for disease.17 Mermen have been described as wilder and uglier than mermaids, with little interest in humans.18
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 at Pendour 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.19
Some tales raised the question of whether mermaids had immortal souls, answering in the negative.20 The figure of Lí Ban appears as a sanctified mermaid, but she was a human being transformed into a mermaid. After three centuries, when Christianity had come to Ireland, she was baptized.21 In Scottish mythology, there is a mermaid called the ceasg or "maid of the wave",22 as well as the Merrow of Ireland and Scotland.
Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" was published in 1837. The story was adapted into a film by Disney, with a Bowdlerized plot. In the original version, The Little Mermaid is the youngest daughter of a Sea King who lives at the bottom of the sea. To pursue a prince with whom she has fallen in love, the mermaid visits a sea witch to obtain legs and agrees to give up her tongue in return. Though she is found on the beach by the prince, he marries another. Told she must stab the prince in the heart to return to her sisters, the mermaid finds that she cannot due to her love for him. She then rises from the ocean and sees ethereal beings around her who explain that mermaids who do good deeds become Daughters of the Air, and after 300 years of good service they can obtain a human soul.24
A world-famous statue of The Little Mermaid, based on Andersen's fairy tale, has been in Copenhagen, Denmark since August 1913, with copies in 13 other locations across the world – almost half of them in North America.252627
Rusalkas are the Slavic counterpart of the Greek sirens and naiads.28 Although the Russian word rusalka is commonly translated as mermaid, they do not have a fish-like tail. The nature of rusalkas varies among folk traditions, but according to ethnologist D.K. Zelenin they all share a common element: rusalkas are the restless spirits of the unclean dead.28 They are usually the ghosts of young women who died a violent or untimely death, perhaps murder or suicide, and especially by drowning. Rusalkas are said to inhabit lakes and rivers. They appear as beautiful young women with long 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 southern Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus and was emphasized by 19th century Russian authors.293031
In Sadko (Russian: Садко), a Russian medieval epic, the title character—an adventurer, merchant and gusli musician from Novgorod—lives for some time in the underwater court of the "Sea Tsar" and marries his daughter before finally returning home. The tale inspired such works as the poem "Sadko"32 by Alexei Tolstoy (1817–1875), the opera Sadko composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the painting by Ilya Repin.
A 15th-century compilation of quotations from Chinese literature tells of a mermaid who "wept tears which became pearls".33 An early 19th-century book entitled Jottings on the South of China contains two stories about mermaids. In the first, a man captures a mermaid on the shore of Namtao island. She looks human in every respect, except that her body is covered with fine hair of many colours. She is unable to speak, but the man takes her home and marries her. Upon his death, the mermaid returns to the sea where she had been found. In the second story, a man sees a woman lying on the beach while his ship was anchored offshore. Upon closer inspection, the woman appears to have webbed feet and hands. She is carried to the water and expresses her gratitude toward the sailors before swimming away.34
Suvannamaccha (lit. golden mermaid) is a daughter of Ravana that 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 of Thai folklore.35
Mami Wata are water spirits venerated in West, Central, Southern Africa, and in the African diaspora in the Caribbean and parts of North and South America. They are usually female, but are sometimes male.
Among the Neo-Taíno nations of the Caribbean, the mermaid is called Aycayia.3637 Her attributes relate to the goddess Jagua and the hibiscus flower of the majagua tree Hibiscus tiliaceus.38 In modern Caribbean culture, the mermaid is found as the Haitian Vodou Loa La Sirene (lit. "the mermaid") who is the loa of wealth and beauty and the orisha Yemaya.
Examples from other cultures are the Jengu of Cameroon, the Iara from Brazil, and the Greek Oceanids, Nereids, and Naiads. The ningyo is a fish-like creature from Japanese folklore whose flesh grants amazing longevity. Mermaids and mermen are also characters of Philippine folklore, where they are locally known as sirena and siyokoy, respectively.39 The Javanese people believe that the southern beach in Java is a home of Javanese mermaid queen Nyi Roro Kidul.40
In 1493 while sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, Christopher Columbus reported seeing three "female forms" which "rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are represented".4142 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.43 These sighting 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 1967.4445
During World War II in 1943, Japanese soldiers witnessed several mermaids on the shores of the Kei Islands. They reported seeing creatures swimming in the water—and one sighting on the beach—which had pink skin and spikes along their head. These creatures reportedly were about 150 centimeters tall and had limbs and faces that were similar to that of a human but a mouth like a carp. The locals called them Orang Ikan, which means "fish man" in Malay. Several of these sightings occurred and were reported to Sergeant Taro Horiba, who asked the locals about it and learned that they sometimes got caught in the nets. The locals promised to send word to the Sergeant next time one was caught. Eventually, one of the creatures was found dead on the shore and the Sergeant was allowed to examine it. Being convinced, he returned to Japan and tried to convince scientists to go study them but he was never believed.46
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.47 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.48
In the middle of the 17th century, John Tradescant the elder created a wunderkammer (called Tradescant's Ark) in which he displayed, among other things, a "mermaid's hand".50 In the 19th century, P. T. Barnum displayed a taxidermal hoax called the Fiji mermaid in his museum. Others have perpetrated similar hoaxes, which are usually papier-mâché fabrications or parts of deceased creatures, usually monkeys and fish, stitched together for the appearance of a grotesque mermaid. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, pictures of Fiji "mermaids" circulated on the Internet as supposed examples of items that had washed up amid the devastation, though they were no more real than Barnum's exhibit.51
In July 2012, the National Ocean Service (a branch of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) stated that "no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found".52 The statement was a response to public inquiries following Mermaids: The Body Found, a pseudo-documentary television film which aired in May 2012 on Animal Planet and which some had mistaken for a completely factual documentary.5354
According to Dorothy Dinnerstein’s book The Mermaid and the Minotaur, human-animal hybrids such as mermaids and minotaurs 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."55
Famous in more recent centuries is the fairy tale The Little Mermaid (1836) by Hans Christian Andersen, whose works have been translated into over 100 languages.56 The mermaid (as conceived by Andersen) is similar to Undine, a water nymph in German folklore who could only obtain an immortal soul by marrying a human being.57 Andersen's heroine inspired a bronze sculpture in Copenhagen harbour and influenced Western literary works such as Oscar Wilde's The Fisherman and His Soul and H.G. Wells' The Sea Lady.58 Sue Monk Kidd wrote a book called The Mermaid Chair loosely based on the legends of Saint Senara and the mermaid of Zennor.
Sculptures and statues of mermaids can be found in many countries and cultures, with over 130 public art mermaid statues across the world. Countries with public art mermaid sculptures include Russia, Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Denmark, Norway, England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, India, China, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Guam, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Cayman Islands, Mexico, United States (including Hawaii and Virgin Islands) and Canada. A map of these mermaid statues and sculptures can be seen at http://www.mermaidsofearth.com. Some of these mermaid statues have become icons of their city or country, and have become major tourist attractions in themselves. The Little Mermaid (statue) in Copenhagen is an icon of Copenhagen and of Denmark. The Havis Amanda statue symbolizes the rebirth of the city of Helsinki in Finland. The Syrenka (mermaid) is part of the Coat of Arms of Warsaw, and is considered a protector of Warsaw, which has 2 public art statues of their mermaid.
Musical depictions of mermaids include those by Felix Mendelssohn in his Fair Melusina overture and the three "Rhine daughters" in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Lorelei, the name of one of the Rhine mermaids, has become a synonym for a siren. The Weeping Mermaid is an orchestral piece by Taiwanese composer Fan-Long Ko.59
An influential image was created by John William Waterhouse, from 1895 to 1905, entitled A Mermaid. An example of late British Academy style artwork, the piece debuted to considerable acclaim (and secured Waterhouse's place as a member of the Royal Academy), but disappeared into a private collection and did not resurface until the 1970s. It is currently once again in the collection of the Royal Academy.60 Mermaids were a favourite subject of John Reinhard Weguelin, a contemporary of Waterhouse. He painted an image of the mermaid of Zennor as well as several other depictions of mermaids in watercolour.
Film depictions include the romantic comedy Splash (1984) and Aquamarine (2006). A 1963 episode of the television series Route 66 entitled "The Cruelest Sea" featured a mermaid performance artist working at Weeki Wachee aquatic park. Mermaids also appeared in the popular supernatural drama television series Charmed, and were the basis of its spin-off series Mermaid. In She Creature (2001), two carnival workers abduct a mermaid in Ireland, circa 1900, and attempt to transport her to America. The film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides mixes old and new myths about mermaids—they sing to sailors to lure them into the water to drown, they grow legs when taken onto dry land, and their kisses have magical healing properties. Animated films include Disney's musical version of Andersen's tale, The Little Mermaid, and Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo. The Australian teen dramedy H2O: Just Add Water chronicles the adventures of three modern-day mermaids along the Gold Coast of Australia.
A shield and sword-wielding mermaid (Syrenka) is on the official Coat of arms of Warsaw.64 Images of a mermaid have symbolized Warsaw on its arms since the middle of the 14th century.65 Several legends associate Triton of Greek mythology with the city, which may have been the origin of the mermaid's association.66
Interest in mermaid costuming has grown alongside the popularity of fantasy cosplay as well as the availability of inexpensive monofins used in the construction of mermaid costumes. These costumes are typically designed to be used while swimming, in an activity known as mermaiding. Mermaid fandom conventions have also been held.6869
The Ama are Japanese skin divers, predominantly women, who traditionally dive for shellfish and seaweed wearing only a loincloth. The Ama have existed for at least 2000 years,70 but since the 20th century they have increasingly been regarded as a tourist attraction.71 They operate off reefs near the shore, and some perform for sightseers instead of diving to collect a harvest. They have been romanticized as mermaids.72
Professional female divers have performed as mermaids at Florida's Weeki Wachee Springs since 1947. The state park calls itself "The Only City of Live Mermaids"73 and was extremely popular in the 1960s, drawing almost one million tourists per year.74 Most of the current performers work part-time while attending college, and all are certified SCUBA divers. They wear fabric tails and perform aquatic ballet (while holding their breath) for an audience in an underwater stage with a glass fourth wall. Children often ask if the "mermaids" are real. The park's PR director says "Just like with Santa Claus or any other mythical character, we always say yes. We're not going to tell them they're not real".75
Mermaid and merman, 1866. Unknown Russian folk artist
Havfrue, by Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann (1873)
The Play of the Naiads, by Arnold Böcklin (1886)
The Land Baby, by John Collier (1899)
The Mermaid of Zennor by John Reinhard Weguelin (circa 1900)
The Mermaid, by Howard Pyle (1910)
The Mermaid and the Satyr, by Ferdinand Leeke (1917)
Mermaids, by Jean Francis Aubertin (circa 1920)
- List of piscine and amphibian humanoids
- Mermaid Syndrome
- Mythological hybrid
- Neck (water spirit)
- Sea monster
- Undine (alchemy)
- The Mermaid of Warsaw
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|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- 17th century pamphlet telling the story of an alleged sighting of a mermaid near Pendine, Wales, in 1603
- Older archived version, with brief synopsis and commentary