As children, we may have read The Little Mermaid, the tale of the Sea King’s daughter Ariel, who falls in love with a human prince. She trades her beautiful tail fin for human legs so that she can marry her prince and turn into an immortal soul. However, in the end, when the prince marries another girl, she loses her life, turning into foam in the ocean.
The story, while heartbreaking, presents to us a magical possibility of a whole other world underwater. It makes us wonder if there are supernatural creatures living in the depths of the oceans: magical beings who are half human and half fish. If truth be told, it isn’t just children who wish to someday spot a mermaid in the seas. In the past, lonesome sailors who spent months together at sea sought–even claimed to have seen–this fascinating creature.
Indeed, so strong is the allure of mermaids that they are a common feature in mythology from around the world. In this article, Soulveda explores the various forms these creatures take in myths and what they represent.
Mermaids are often imagined as beings of incredible beauty. However, according to mythology and pop culture, not all kinds of mermaids are easy on the eyes. Those of us who have read the Harry Potter novels may recall that in the Great Lake of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry lives a colony of merpeople. They are described as having grey skin, yellow eyes, and wild, dark green hair. The author J K Rowling writes in one of her more recent books Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: “The oldest recorded merpeople were known as sirens (Greece) and it is in warmer waters that we find the beautiful mermaids more frequently depicted in Muggle (of the non-magical world) literature and painting. The selkies of Scotland and the merrows of Ireland are less beautiful, but they share that love of music which is common to all merpeople.”
In some stories, merfolk are far from the beautiful, docile beings they are commonly believed to be. They are considered rulers of the sea who can summon storms and destroy ships when angered.
Indeed, as Rowling points out, the love of music is a characteristic feature of merpeople. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for instance, Harry discovers that while the song of the merpeople is unbearable cacophony above the ground, it sounds melodious underwater. In The Little Mermaid too, mermaids sing soothing tunes when they see a sinking ship. This they do in order to reassure drowning sailors that there is a welcoming world awaiting them underwater.
Like with popular culture, many a mythology too commonly features merfolk. The Mesopotamian mythology features the earliest known appearance of a merman, the male equivalent of a mermaid. In 3rd century BC, Babylonian priest Berosus described a merman as a half-human, half-fish being who swam up to the shore during the day to impart wisdom to humans about art and science. He was believed to have been an emissary of Ea, the god of water.
In some stories, merfolk are far from the beautiful, docile beings they are commonly believed to be. They are considered rulers of the sea who can summon storms and destroy ships when angered. In fact, the very myth of the mermaid is believed to have originated from the sirens of the Greek mythology. These creatures are half-human and half-bird. They are similar to mermaids in that they are found at sea and sing melodiously. The sirens’ songs are even believed to lure sailors into crashing their ships onto rocky islands.
Even Christopher Columbus claimed to have seen a mermaid as he sailed around the world.
Similar to the Greek sirens are the mermaids of several other myths. They are beautiful, yet dangerous creatures. According to a Slavic myth, water nymph or Rusalka is the form that girls who die wrongful deaths at the hands of men take to come back and seek revenge. The finfolk of Norwegian myths are believed to be just as dark. They are said to abduct humans from their spouses and turn them into slaves. The Brazilian Iara, according to mythology, lures sailors from ships and takes them underwater to keep them as her lovers.
As per some myths, mermaids are amphibious and they occasionally wander into the land to live amongst humans. Some are even said to marry humans and have children with ghastly scales. However, eventually, they return to the sea, with or without their human family, as they never quite feel at home on land.
While merfolk are indeed mythical, throughout history, there have been several stories of sighting these creatures. Even Christopher Columbus claimed to have seen a mermaid as he sailed around the world. However, one could argue that in the trick of the light, he–like many other sailors–could have mistaken manatees (known as cows of the sea) for these mythical beings. We can’t blame the desolate sailors for searching for a bit of magic in the vast expanse of the sea, can we? Who wouldn’t wish for mermaids to be real! Even though they are believed by some to be evil creatures, the mystique of mermaids is undeniable. If anything, their dangerous nature only adds to our fascination with them.