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Folklore Files #6: The Mermaid

The Enigmatic Mermaid: Mythology, Sightings, and Symbolism


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Mermaids, those mythical sea creatures with the upper body of a human and the tail of a fish, have captivated human imagination for centuries. From the ancient tales of Assyria to the modern depictions in Disney movies, mermaids have consistently been a subject of fascination and mystery. For this MerMay let’s jump into the origins of mermaid legends, their cultural significance, descriptions, alleged sightings, and how they remain a part of modern folklore and entertainment.


The Enigmatic Mermaid: Mythology, Sightings, and Symbolism

 

Origins of Mermaid Legends


The Legend of the Mermaid



Atargatis, the original mermaid
The goddess, Atargatis

Ancient Beginnings

The concept of mermaids likely has a multitude of origins, appearing in various cultures across the world. One of the earliest known mermaid legends comes from Assyria, around 1000 BC. The goddess Atargatis, the mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis, loved a mortal (a shepherd) and unintentionally killed him. Ashamed, she jumped into a lake and took the form of a fish, but the waters could not conceal her divine beauty. Thus, she transformed into a mermaid—human above the waist, fish below.


Greek and Roman Influence

The Greeks and Romans also had their versions of mermaids, known as sirens in Greek mythology. Initially, sirens were described as beings who were part woman and part bird, but over time their depiction shifted to the fish-tailed creatures we recognize today. These sirens were famously noted in Homer’s "Odyssey," where they lured sailors to their deaths with their enchanting music and voices.


*Suggested reading: The Secret History of Mermaids



 

Descriptions and Variations


A classic depiction of the mermaid
A classic depiction of the mermaid

Classic Description

A typical mermaid is often depicted as a stunningly beautiful woman from the waist up and having the lower body of a fish covered with scales. Their hair is frequently shown flowing and they can be seen sitting on a rock, combing their locks with one hand and holding a mirror in the other.






Cultural Variations

In different cultures, mermaids can vary significantly in appearance and nature. The Scottish and Irish folklore speaks of the selkie, which is a creature that can transform from a seal to a human by shedding its skin. In African folklore, Mami Wata is a spirit associated with water, often depicted as a mermaid or a snake charmer, symbolizing wealth and beauty.




 

Cryptid Crate

 

Eyewitness Accounts and Supposed Encounters


Christopher Columbus mermaid sighting

Historical Sightings

Throughout history, there have been numerous reports of mermaid sightings. In the early explorations of Christopher Columbus, it was documented that he saw three mermaids near Haiti in January 1493, which he described as "not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men." These sightings were later attributed to manatees or sea cows.




Modern-Day Sightings

Mermaid sightings continue to be reported today, though they are often met with skepticism. Occasionally, these sightings gain media attention, stirring public interest and debate. One notable example is the mermaid allegedly spotted off the coast of Kiryat Yam, Israel, in 2009, which prompted the local town to offer a million-dollar reward for proof of its existence.




 

Mermaids in Arts and Media


Literature and Film

The Little Mermaid

Mermaids have been a popular subject in literature and films. Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid" is perhaps one of the most famous fairy tales featuring a mermaid. This story has inspired numerous adaptations, including the iconic Disney animated film, which has played a significant role in popularizing the benevolent image of mermaids as gentle and romantic figures.





In Horror

Mermaid horror

While mermaids are often depicted in this benevolent and enchanting manner, their portrayals in horror take a darker turn, revealing a more sinister side to these mythical beings. In these chilling renditions, mermaids are not the gentle, singing beauties of folklore but are instead cunning predators of the deep, luring unsuspecting sailors to their doom with their hypnotic voices and alluring visages.


These malevolent mermaids embody the treacherous and unforgiving nature of the sea, often depicted with sharp teeth, eerie, glowing eyes, and a voracious appetite for human flesh. In horror, mermaids serve as a grim reminder of the ocean's dark and mysterious depths, where beauty intermingles with horror, and where the allure of the unknown can lead to a deadly trap.


*Suggested watch: Night Tide




Symbolism

In literature and film, mermaids often symbolize the untamable nature of the sea. They can represent danger and seduction, bridging the gap between the known world and the mysteries that lie beneath the waters. Their dual nature (half-human, half-fish) symbolizes the conflict between two opposing states of being—land and water, freedom and captivity, or nature and civilization.



 

Wrap


Mermaids remain a potent symbol within modern culture, embodying the mystery and allure of the ocean’s depths. They continue to inspire art, literature, and film, captivating audiences with their beauty and mystique. Whether seen as benevolent beings or harbingers of doom, mermaids reflect humanity's enduring fascination with the sea and the unknown. Their stories encourage us to look beyond the surface and imagine what wonders might exist in the unexplored corners of our world.


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