Water is mysterious. Water is life-giving. Water is deadly. Water is home to merfolk.
Mermaids have taken many faces over the centuries. Some accounts say they are beautiful women that occasionally come on land and marry human men (more on Selkies next week!). Others have mermaids as omens of bad luck and bringers of destruction (we’ll visit Sirens later this summer). Disney says they’re rebellious teenagers with phenomenal pipes. So, where do the legends come from?
Stories of half-fish, half-human people have abounded in cultural stories for thousands of years. Even the Bible has a merman! The god of the Philistines, Dagon, was man on top, and all fish on the bottom (www.biblegateway.com). Merfolk appear in other ancient cultures as gods or goddesses like Ea, the Chaldean god of the sea, or the Greek Triton, the son of Poseidon (www.britanica.com). England and Iceland have their fair share of mermaids tales as well. It’s believed that early settlements near water, possibly where the tails of large fish could be seen breaking the surface of the water now and then, may account for some of the mermaid tales that have circulated (www.realmermaids.net). It has also been suggested that sightings of dugongs or manatees—mammals that nurse their young, and that from afar, have a (notably plump) humanoid shape, could have been mistaken for these mythical maidens (www.britanica.com).
As most early civilizations formed near water, it’s only natural that there would be legends that sprung up from their surrounding environment. It seems that most of these “Mer” deities were male to begin with, only later veering into more female counterparts, starting with Astargatis, an Assyrian goddess. Astargatis reportedly killed her human lover (www.legendsandmyths.net) and then escaped to the sea. Only in her vanity, refused to give up all her beauty, and kept the upper half of her body human. Greeks later took Astargatis and made her Aphrodite (www.realmermaids.net). Interesting! But what is even more fascinating is the mapping of these stories. Nearly every ancient culture in the Mesopotamia area has stories of merfolk. It does make one think…
Mermaids became wildly popular with the (rather grim!) story of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. Though it was changed significantly by Disney to give us Ariel and her singing backup (sha-la-la-la….), it became an enduring part of modern culture and brought about a resurgence of mermaids.
Even more prevalent in today’s culture, though perhaps less realized, is the logo that graces every Starbucks cup (www.northernstar-online.com). This is the representation of Melusina—a girl cursed by her mother and betrayed by her husband and fated to remain a lonely woman with two fish tails (sometimes serpent tails) for the rest of her near-immortal life (www.pitt.edu). Kind of a downer mascot for a pick-me-up drink?
Why do you think we’ve remained so fascinated with mermaids? Go up to the top of the article, click the grey “comments” and let me know!
“The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen
Everblue by Brenda Pandos
Seaweed by Lee Strauss
Creative Writing Prompts
“I see it! Look! It splashed again!” I swore it was a mermaid. The very thing we’d been searching for the past four months.
The creature writhed on the beach. Shimmering scales dimmed and fell off, littering the sandy shore with iridescent pebbles. Was the sea girl dying…or…transforming?
Either I was going crazy, or I’d just seen a plump woman plunge beneath the surface of the water carrying an infant with her.
Kiss the Girl…because no post about mermaids is complete without this song.
And because I like this version, too…
I thought this last clip was superb speculation and story telling in a short snippet. What do you think?