Mermaids have captured our imaginations for thousands and thousands of years, with myths and legends about merfolk and sea creatures coming from all over the world. If such a half human half fish species ever did exist, we don’t know if they were our allies or enemies. Many stories describe mermaids coming to the aid of men at sea, and others depict them as evil sirens who in fact lured and drowned sailors…we just like to think of them as happy beings who simply mind their own business, like in The Little Mermaid.
Mermaidens were a poignant part of sailor mythology, described as a beautiful woman from the waist up and in fish form from the waist down, with an enchanting singing voice. Mermaids and their fins have been a subject matter for artwork and novels for so long, but where did these legends come from in the first place?
Before tales of mermaidens, the first sea creatures to be depicted were male gods. In ancient Babylonian stories, Era the fish god was in fact half man half fish, and so was Greek god Triton. Greek mythology also claims that Achilles was born of a mermaid. The original mermaid probably came from Syria around 1000BC. A goddess who went by the name of Atargatis, legend has it that she dived in a lake to become a fish but only the bottom half of her body transformed.
It’s not just European folklore which features the deity – in Polynesian mythology the creator god Vatea is a mermaid and some societies believe we are all descended from merpeople.
Sirens and mermaidens often get confused in mythology, as features of the two have been linked in folklore for centuries. Sirens are in fact half women half bird creatures, and it is sirens who were known for their enticing singing voices. The beauty of sirens paired with their breathtaking voices would distract sailors and this would cause ships to crash. So basically, a siren is like an evil mermaid who lures men to their death – but actually shouldn’t be associated with a mermaid at all.
Mermaids are portrayed in different ways, but they were often a sign of danger. Seeing a mermaid was bad luck as it often signalled a storm or a disaster was looming. This reflects mankind’s relationship with the sea, which can be beautiful and peaceful or a dangerous encounter.