What is a Mermaid?
In all of folklore, there are few characters as iconic as Mermaids. These fish-tailed maidens combine dazzling grace with an eerie lifestyle. Although they can be kind-hearted, there is always danger to their allure, for any human who chooses to follow them to their watery kingdom risks surrendering life on land forever.
Mermaids are women from the waist up. They are slender, with flawless skin and silky hair, which they spend many hours preening each day. They often wear jewelry made of shells, starfish, or coral. Their faces can be lovely and innocent, or they can be bony masks of malice.
Just below their belly buttons, their body turns into a shiny-scaled fish tail. Mermaid tails come in a rainbow of colors, from violet to scarlet, aqua, or gold. Green and blue are the most common colors, since they allow these maidens to camouflage themselves in the water and weeds when they’re feeling shy. Most tails have only one fin, splayed out at the bottom of the tail, but some are edged with additional fins that move like streamers in the water.
Mermen also exist in the magical societies underwater. Like the beautiful maidens who share their home, Mermen have a human head and torso ending in a fish tail. They are more muscular than their dainty sisters, and they generally have a wilder, more hostile look.
Mermaids are highly individualistic. Even in a single community of merfolk, you will find dozens of unique personalities. They are sometimes lumped into the categories of “good” and “evil,” but this doesn’t do justice to their complex behavior.
Good Mermaids are innocent and generous. They never pick fights, and they are charmingly oblivious of evil intentions. While their innocence might make them seem shallow, they have a streak of heroism, and they will readily risk their lives to save humans.
Evil Mermaids are seductive and murderous. They use their charm to lure men to a watery grave.
Another way to classify mermaids is “curious” or “elusive.” Curious maidens will approach humans when they see them near the ocean. They might also collect artifacts from the human world. Elusive maidens flee from human presence, and generally try to pretend that life on land doesn’t exist.
Mermaids may be feminine and dainty, but they pack a lot of power!
They are well known for combining beauty with a spellbinding singing voice. Any man who comes upon one of these maidens, while she is combing her hair on a rock or swimming in graceful loops under the water, can be hypnotized by her song.
But these glamorous, aquatic maidens don’t always choose to keep up their appearance. Some of them are shapeshifters, who can take on a human form and wander into society. They can survive among humans for an indefinite length of time, provided they don’t get wet. A drop of water could spoil their disguise by causing their legs to fuse back into a fish tail!
Sometimes, sea maidens have an important purpose for their visit to human society: delivering a prophecy. These ladies of the sea can foretell disaster, especially the sinking of ships or the arrival of a hurricane. If they are kind-hearted, they try to warn humans, hoping that the disaster can be avoided.
While all Mermaids have a special connection with the water, some of them have a special kind of mastery over their environment. They can speak to ocean animals, asking them to do their bidding, or even manipulate the weather.
The sirens of Greek and Roman mythology may be close relatives of Mermaids. Sailors encountered the sirens when they were passing by rocky island shores, and the sweet siren songs often drove men to leap off their boats into turbulent waters. The sirens were also female chimeras, like mermaids, but they had features of birds instead of fish.
Legends about the Greek naiads and nyrads may also be intertwined with Mermaid lore. These beautiful nymphs loved oceans and rivers. When they basked in shallow water, they risked being spotted by men or gods and pursued as brides. The nymphs usually fled from their would-be lovers.
Merrows, in Irish folklore, and ben-varrey, on the Isle of man are two breeds of friendly Mermaids. They often have romances with humans or send rich treasures to men who show them kindness.
In ancient Assyria, a goddess named Atargatis fell in love with a mortal shepherd-boy. As their relationship heated up, Atargatis either became pregnant with the shepherd’s child, accidentally killed him, or both. Racked with shame, she threw herself into a pool of water and tried to transform herself into a fish, but she was so beautiful that only her legs transformed. Later, Atargatis was worshipped by the Greeks and Romans as Dekerto.
In the eighteenth century, Hans Christian Anderson created the most famous of all time in his story “The Little Mermaid.” The little Mermaid (later named “Ariel” in a Disney film) was a curious, romantic-minded young girl. When she was young, she saved a shipwrecked prince from drowning, and the encounter became a cherished memory. After years of dreaming of the prince, the girl discovered where he lived on the land. She dashed to a cave, where a dreaded sea witch lived, and traded her tongue and her beautiful voice for legs, so that she could go to the prince and try to win his heart. If she failed, the sea witch had warned her, she would die.
Although the prince became fond of the sweet, silent girl who appeared in his castle, he did not fall in love with her. Instead, he fell in love with—and married—another woman, believing that she had been the one who saved his life during the shipwreck years before. The little Mermaid had to witness this in silence. On the night of the prince’s marriage, her sisters appeared to her with a knife they had gotten from the sea witch. All she had to do to save her own life was plunge the dagger into the disloyal prince’s heart—but the gentle maiden couldn’t do it. Instead, she flung the knife away and cast herself into the sea, where she disintegrated into foam and became an air spirit, bound to do good deeds for humanity until she had earned her own immortal soul.
Suvannamacha is a famous Mermaid in Hindu mythology. She is the daughter of Ramayana, a monstrous demon king who rules an island fortress called Lanka. When a hero, Hanuman, tries to build a bridge to Lanka so he can rid the world of demons, Ramayana tells his daughter to destroy the bridge. Instead, the innocent girl falls in love with Hanuman and helps him reach Lanka.
Atargatis, the Assyrian sea goddess, is considered the world’s first Mermaid. She appears in stories as early as 1000 BC, and she was later adopted by the Greeks and Romans, appearing in stories around 500 BC. Mermaids wouldn’t appear in England’s archaeological record until 1000 AD or in China’s record until the fifteenth century.
Throughout history, many of folklore’s creatures have collected camps of staunch believers, people who refuse to admit that the magic doesn’t exist. No creature draws a larger audience than Mermaids.
During Europe’s Middle Ages, skates (a relative of sting rays) were dried, carved, and displayed as “Mermaid remains.” Centuries later, the famous showman PT Barnum upped the show by using taxidermy to piece together parts of a monkey and a fish, creating what he called the “Fiji Mermaid.” So many people turned out to see this “real life evidence” that Barnum had to rent a concert hall to accommodate all his guests.
Still later, Animal Planet released two documentaries in which actors portrayed scientists who had encountered Mermaids. These documentaries fleshed out Mermaid lore with incredible detail about how the creatures might live—and hide—in the great blue sea.
Today, Disney’s movie, The Little Mermaid and its red-headed star, Ariel, have become the biggest icons of Mermaid lore. Other movies have also cashed in on the sea maiden’s stardom. Aquamarine and Splash put mermaids in the spotlight, while other fantasy franchises, including Peter Pan, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Harry Potter also work these alluring creatures into their scripts.
But the most remarkable evidence of the Mermaid’s grip on our imagination is Mermaid cosplay. Mermaid cosplayers, or, as they prefer to be called, “real life mermaids,” invest in expensive, synthetic tails and train themselves to wear these tails and swim as gracefully as the mythical maidens would. The best cosplayers may even find employment as a mermaid, performing in aquariums or amusement parks.