Society has been obsessed with these fancy fish ladies for thousands of years, and we’re going to look at some of the legends that gave birth to these aquatic marvels.
Just incase you haven’t come across The Little Mermaid and its ilk; what is a mermaid? Well, a mermaid is a creature with the top half of a lady and the bottom half of a big ole fish. The modern name for mermaid comes from the old English Mer, meaning sea and Maid, meaning a young lady; thus mermaid (which way sounds better than ‘sea-young lady’)
Nowadays one thinks of mermaids as pretty, nice sea folk, with amazing hair, a talent for singing and an adorable habit for falling in love with random Princes. Well… that is not the case, Disney lied to you.
Historically mermaids were associated with bad omens, shipwrecks and of course:
DEATH BY MUCH BLOODY VIOLENCE.
So, let’s start things off by looking at the concept of merfolk as deities.
The Ancient Babylonians had a mergod called Era who was depicted as half man, half fish. He was the god of the sea (handy that being part fish and all) the Syrians decided to copy the Babylonians and created their own merged, Derketo.
Derketo was depicted in the more traditional way of top half of a lady and bottom half of a fish. This idea was in turn nicked by the Ancient Greeks, who came up with the idea of Sirens.
Siren’s in Greek mythology often get cited as a starting point for the more recognisable mermaid mythology.
Half female, half bird creatures, they morphed into sexy fish fancies, luring sailors to their death on the rocks by singing sweet songs and flashing their knockers.
Now for the scary bleak stuff!!! Mermaids ain’t all cuddly folks, for example; they appear in One Thousand and One Nights (a collection of Middle Eastern fairy tales) and are described as having;
‘moon faces and hair like a woman’s, but their hands and feet were in their bellies and they had tails like fishes’
Some of these tales included whole underwater societies; in Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman, the protagonist, Abdullah, gains the ability to breathe underwater; in doing so he comes across a mermaid society that basically functions as a proto communist society…so obvs he decides to hang out with a load of half fish commie chicks.
The Japanese also got in on the mermaid fun (just in a fully nightmarish way!); creating Kappa; who had human like faces….with the rest of their body a mix of monkey, fish and turtle.
The Kappa liked tricking humans into becoming their own fish food by pretending to be nice and friendly, maybe invite you to play some Sudoku, followed by ALL OF THE DEATH. They were particularly partial to a nice, crunchy, small child.
But it wasn’t just Japan coming up with half fish nightmare fuel.
Mami Wata is an African water spirit who appears as a sexy lady or the more traditional part lady part fish. It’s said that Mami Wata steals men from their homes forcing them to become her lovers, she can also be responsible for killing those who don’t give her offerings that please her. She likes mirrors and combs FYI if you ever run into her.
The Russians also joined in the ‘what the fuck, why; party…but being Russia they kept their mermaid lore nice and miserable.
Rusalka are the spirits of young women who had violent deaths, usually by drowning. They appear as shimmery spirits in the water and lure men and young children to their deaths dragging them underwater with their long treacherous ghost hair.
But mermaid lore wasn’t just for the ladies! Scotland has a cracking legend about Mermen. The Blue Men of the Minch (AKA storm kelpies) who live off the coast of the Outer Hebrides. They had blue skin and really bad tempers. For a laugh (and general sea boredom) they enjoyed fucking about with humans; they’d stop you In your little fishing boat, ask a bunch of riddles and if you got them wrong, they’d tear you to pieces….literally…because they’re fun like that.
In Medieval times it was just accepted as fact that mermaids were real, there’s even an account from the 1400’s of a mermaid being rescued in Holland after getting stuck in a dike.
They moved her to a local lake to recover, teaching her how to speak Dutch and do basic household chores to pass the time, the residents later converted her to Catholicism (yay?)
Now most of us Westerners know mermaids because of Disney.
The Little mermaid has a special place in the hearts of many a girl, but on a recent re-watch (for research) I found myself screaming:
‘SHE’S ONLY 16 TRITON, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU THINKING LETTING HER MARRY SOME FUCKBOI PRINCE!’
So for me it’s an allegory of really bad parenting.
This was based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of The Little Mermaid published in 1837.
Hans’ tale is a bit bleaker, because at the end our mermaid doesn’t get her Prince and so, after having her tongue cut out, she dies and becomes foam on the waves. A pretty wanky death. Ah the good old days where everybody was dead or at least maimed by the end of a fairy tale.
So….with all that historic mermaid lore, the question is: are mermaids real?
Well – No. Historians and anyone with half a brain deciphered that in all likelihood mermaid sightings were just your average curvaceous manatee, being viewed from a distance. Honestly being stuck at sea for months and MONTHS on end would make a manatee look pretty fucking appealing to me to.
Mermaids have had a bit of a resurgence in the last few years (sadly not manatees though).
They are on your Starbucks mugs, on the big screen (like that live action remake of The Little Mermaid NOBODY asked for), all over glittery stationery, T-Shirts and in story books.
Plus there’s still the odd ‘sighting’ of a mermaid. In Israel in 2009 dozens reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of Haifa Bay and playing around in the waves. The local town offered $1million for proof of the mermaid, but they got bugger all.
There was a more recent one in 2012 Zimbabwe where workers were scared off by mermaids while carrying out maintenance work on reservoirs. The government decided to carry out religious rites on the site and brewed a batch of traditional beer for them. It worked and the boozy mermaids left them to it.
So there you have it, we’ve only lightly touched the tip of the mythos behind mermaids. It’s a pretty complicated backstory, DRENCHED IN THE BLOOD OF MEN, which always makes for a fun family friendly read. Have you got any mermaid lore to tell us? Drop us your mermaid tails (geddit?) in the comments or on the socials!
Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.