Picture a mermaid, and most people will go straight for the Disney depiction of an aquatic creature whose upper body resembles a female human while the lower portion is like a fishtail. That’s exactly how a mermaid has been portrayed for centuries.
Not just kids but adults, too, have the same image of mermaids in mind, and based on these depictions it is easy to dismiss any claimed sightings as ridiculous. But the history of mermaids goes back far farther than the modern version, and mermaids have been a part of several folklores in different cultures around the world.
But do mermaids actually exist? If not, what are the origins of mermaid stories? What sea creatures that we know of could have been the original mermaids?
The Origin of Mermaid Stories
Assuming for example these are not just tall tales spun after too much rum on board ship, there might be several origins for the stories of mermaids. And if we are to understand these creatures, we must start with the Greek sirens.
In later medieval times, the siren of Greek mythology is known to have influenced the notion of mermaids, but they were very different in appearance. In the early Greek period, the sirens were believed to be human-headed birds, and it is only during the later classical period that these sirens were portrayed as part fish.
In the Middle Ages, the popularity of the fish-like appearance of the sirens increased. At times, the art even showed the sirens having a fish-like lower body, a human torso, and then feet and wings like the birds. The siren-mermaids have been depicted in a number of medieval bestiaries, alongside giants and other outlandish creatures.
The sirens have a lot of similarities with the mermaids of different mythologies, like the Slavic “rusalka”, in that they were known to seduce the sailors. So, the sirens could be a possible origin of the mermaid stories.
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Other mythical figures in Greek mythology that could be the origins of mermaids are the sea monsters Charybdis and Scylla. They are known to live near the sirens, were female (at least we think Charybdis is) and had fish-like attributes.
A significant difference between the sirens and Scylla however was that the sirens were known to be seductive while Scylla was violent, a great monster who would violently destroy sailors and ships. In the Etruscan civilization, Scylla was depicted as a mermaid-like creature having two tails.
The female nereids, Oceanids, and naiads are other mythical deities or water nymphs that could have inspired the mermaid stories. Even though they were not known to have fish tails, they had a lot of similarities with the mermaids. Nymphs and nereids are considered to be the major influence behind the stories about the mermaids.
Other inspirations for the mermaid stories could be the Greek gods. Triton, the Greek god, was known to have two fish tails in place of legs. Glaucus, the prophetic sea deity, was also shown in the images as having a fish tail and fins for arms.
So what are these Greek depictions? Most historians and researchers label them as metaphor. Scylla and Charybdis, for example, are natural forces which have been anthropomorphized as agents of destruction who deliberately attack sailors. Looking through the metaphor, Scylla is seen as sharp rocks and crashing waves, whereas Charybdis is considered to be whirlpools and underwater currents.
Other Mermaid Legends
While Kulullu figures were exclusively mermen, feminine mermaid-like figures or fish-woman also existed. They were mostly used as protective figurines in Neo-Assyrian art. In Mesopotamian artwork, a number of entities have been depicted with upper bodies like humans while their tail is like that of fish.
The Syrian mermaid goddess could also be the origin of the mermaid stories. According to the Roman and Greek writers, there was a mermaid-like goddess named Atargatis or Derceto who was worshipped at the Mediterranean coastal city of Ashkelon.
According to a myth dating from the first century BC, Derceto had given birth to a child out of wedlock. However, Derceto was ashamed, and so she abandoned the child and drowned herself in a lake. She was then transformed into a human-headed fish.
During the second century AD, a statue of Derceto was made in which she was portrayed as having the upper body like a woman and the lower part a fishtail. Semiramis was known to be the child of Derceto. After being abandoned by Derceto, the child was fed by doves and grew up to become a queen. Yet another mermaid legend relates to the sister of Alexander the Great, which was a popular myth during medieval times.
Mermaids in the Modern World
So much for ancient stories, but mermaids have been seen much more recently than these depictions. 18th century sailors would often describe seeing fish-tailed humans in the water, and unless you want to dismiss the entire legend as a conspiracy of horny seamen, something else must be going on here.
Is there a creature unfamiliar to these (mostly) European sailors which fits the bill? As it happens, there is: the manatee of the Americas and the Caribbean. It seems that these docile, vegetarian aquatic mammals have been mistaken as mermaids for centuries.
Such legends also link to the Selkie myths of northern Europe, where seals were said to come ashore and thrown off their fur coat, becoming women. If a man found the hidden fur coat, he could prevent the selkie from returning to the sea, capturing her forever.
The truth is that the sailors saw the manatees and, after a long time at sea and a lot to drink, considered them to be women with the tails of fish. Manatees are capable of turning their heads like humans and have finger-like bones in their forelimbs. Moreover, they have a flat tail.
In recent times, manatees have faced a lot of challenges to survive. Owing to their slow pace and large size, they are often caught in the fish nets. They either get injured or are killed by the fishermen.
Moreover, because they often float close to the surface they also get struck by the motorboats, resulting in injuries. The blooms of poisonous algae also pose a significant threat to the lives of the manatees. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the manatees have already been listed as threatened or endangered. There are three species of manatees.
Even though the mermaids may not exist in reality, the stories relating to the mermaids who live in the sea are quite a fascination for the children. Many people believe even today that they are mermaids or human-like marine creatures who live deep inside the seas and oceans around the world.
Top Image: Sightings of mermaids seem to have been due to misidentified manatees or seals. Source: Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri
Smithsonian, 2019. Mermaid or Manatee? Available at: https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/snapshot/mermaid-or-manatee#
Winick, S. 2018. “The Mermaid”: the Fascinating Tail Behind an Ancient Ballad. Available at: https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2018/05/the-mermaid/
Outdoor Life, 2008. The Truth About Mermaids. Available at: https://www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/gone-fishin/2008/04/truth-about-mermaids/