Mermaids have long captured the imagination of the public. They’ve thrilled us in “documentaries“, paintings fairytales and in the cinema. Sometimes these seafaring fish-ladies come to the aid of men (helpful!), and sometimes they just want to hug you to death and drown you (less helpful). Here are a few “facts” about these mythical creatures you might want to know before your next boat trip.
One of The Earliest Mermaid Legends Comes From Syria
In ancient Syrian (~ 1000 BC), there was a goddess who went by the name of Atargatis. She was a fertility goddess whose cult eventually spread to Greece and Rome and was associated with water (especially lakes) and fish. Often depicted in mermaid form, Atargatis is perhaps the “original” mermaid. Legend has it that she dove into a lake to become a fish, but only her bottom half was transformed.
Before anyone dreamed of a mermaid, the ”merman” was front and center. The Babylonian god Oannes predates the Syrian mermaid Atargatis by several thousand years. Apparently he had both a fish body and a human body. His human form was beneath his fish form, which allowed him to live among men, as well as in the sea.
Mermaids Are Literally ‘Women of the Sea’
In Old English, “mer” means “sea,” and “maid” simply meant woman. Mermaids are therefore “women of the sea.” Following this line of etymological logic, a “mer” man (merman) would be a “man of the sea.” Both names make perfect sense and describe their natural habitat without a lot of fuss. Mermaids and mermen are fish-like people who swim through the oceans and the seas.
Some Societies Believe Humans Are Descended from Mermaids
In some of the legends of the Pacific Islands, it is said that human beings are descended from both mermaids and mermen. It seems somewhere back in time, their tails somehow dropped off, and people were magically able to walk on land. A good example of this is the creator god Vatea, who was usually depicted as being half-human and half-fish.
Aquamarine is the gemstone of the sea, and it’s supposed to be a cherished object for mermaids. In addition to being treasure, people once believed this gemstone came from the tears of mermaids, and it used to be thought had the power to protect sailors when they were at sea, or when they fell into the water.
Mermaids Can See Into The Future
Hans Christian Andersen based the mermaids in his tale, ‘The Little Mermaid,’ on Scandinavian mermaids called the Havfine. These northern merfolk were able to live in both freshwater and saltwater. They were also supposed to be fairly temperamental, and have the ability to foretell the future. If a human being ever caught sight of one, it was considered a bad omen. Oddly he makes no mention of crabs singing reggae music.
The Infamous Sirens Started Out As Bird Women
Sirens bring to mind images of lovely mermaids sitting on rocky shores, singing out and luring impressionable sailors to their doom. A ton of folk art as well as many myths support this notion, but the sirens of Ancient Greece were actually bird-women (half woman, half bird). Eventually these bird women, or harpys, were transformed into mermaids in some of the later stories, but they kept their beautiful, bird-like voices, in order to draw the mariners in.
Mermaids Spell Trouble
As a general rule, Mermaids usually meant trouble to the people of Europe, and fishermen and sailors in particular. The presence of these odd creatures could mean a terrible storm was a-brewin’ at sea, or that your luck was about to change from good to bad, or that you were about to be taken down to the bottom of the sea to die.
Sailors Once Mistook Manatees for Mermaids
When European sailors first made it to the Caribbean, they encountered an unknown creature that looked like a mermaid from the waist down. From the midsection up, they look more like cows. When sailors would spot them at night, perhaps in the moonlight, many thought they were gazing upon mermaids. If they happened to see them during the day, the sailors would totally pretend that they never thought the manatee was hot and that they knew it was a busted-up merman all along.