In folklore, a mermaid is an aquatic creature with the head and upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish.[1] Mermaids appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, including Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Mermaid
John William Waterhouse A Mermaid.jpg
John William Waterhouse, A Mermaid (1900).
GroupingMythological
Sub groupingWater spirit
CountryWorldwide

Mermaids are sometimes associated with perilous events such as floods, storms, shipwrecks, and drownings. In other folk traditions (or sometimes within the same traditions), they can be benevolent or beneficent, bestowing boons or falling in love with humans.

The male equivalent of the mermaid is the merman, also a familiar figure in folklore and heraldry. Although traditions about and sightings of mermen are less common than those of mermaids, they are generally assumed to co-exist with their female counterparts. The male and the female collectively are sometimes referred to as merfolk or merpeople.

The conception of mermaids in the West may have been influenced by the Sirens of Greek mythology, which were originally half-birdlike, but came to be pictured as half-fishlike in the Christian era. Historical accounts of mermaids, such as those reported by Christopher Columbus during his exploration of the Caribbean, may have been sightings of manatees or similar aquatic mammals. While there is no evidence that mermaids exist outside folklore, reports of mermaid sightings continue to the present day.

Mermaids have been a popular subject of art and literature in recent centuries, such as in Hans Christian Andersen's literary fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" (1836). They have subsequently been depicted in operas, paintings, books, comics, animation, and live-action films.

Etymology

 
The Fisherman and the Syren, by Frederic Leighton, c. 1856–1858

The word mermaid is a compound of the Old English mere (sea), and maid (a girl or young woman).[1] The equivalent term in Old English was merewif.[2] They are conventionally depicted as beautiful with long flowing hair.[1]

Origins

The Ancient Greek mythological creature siren was a basis for the Christian European mermaids in medieval times. The sirens were first conceived of as having the appearance of a human-headed bird in the early Greek period,[3] but at some time in the Middle Ages, their appearance shifted to that of part fish—a mermaid.[4][a]

Although when the "siren" was added to the Physiologus in the Latin version (6th century) it was still textually described as part-bird, and this held for some of the subsequent versions,[10][11] the notion that the siren was mermaid-like began to appear.[12] A 9th century Physiologus described the siren as bird-like, but supplied an illustration that was mermaid-like.[13] This confusion of image was thought by some to be the influence of Teutonic myth, later expounded in literary legends of Lorelei and Undine;[4] though a dissenting comment is that parallels are not limited to Teutonic culture.[14] The siren became pictorialized as a mermaid, and later textually described to match in medieval bestiaries.[15] These siren-mermaids, depicted in the so-called "second-family" bestiaries (late 12th cent. and after) typically held an eel in hand, though sometimes also a musical instrument as in Classical art, or the mirror and comb as the symbol of vanity.[16]

The mermaid holding a comb and mirror, which emblematic all over Europe derives from the bestiaries that describe the siren as a vain creature requiring those accoutrements.[9]

The lore of sirens have been compared to that of the mermaids and their Slavic form rusalka, etc., due to the commonality of having a human voice and the penchant of seducing sailors, etc., to their doom. [17] The classical siren of Homer used their beautiful song, to be more specific, as their instrument of enticement, and this aspect has been transferred onto the mermaid in some cases.[18]

Scylla and Charybdis

Greek mythology early on had other creatures described as part-women and part-fish, namely the sea-monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Though Scylla's violence is contrasted with the sirens' seductive ways by certain classical writers,[19] Scylla and Charybdis lived in the neighboring regions to the sirens' domain.[15][b]

A sporadic example of sirens depicted as mermaids (tritonesses) in Early Greek art (3rd century BC), can be explained as the contamination of the siren myth with Scylla and Charybdis.[21]

Scylla was also part of the mythology of the Etruscan civilization that perished in the 6th century BC, with their version of Scylla being twin-tailed.[15] Some have argued that the much later European myth of the Melusine mermaid (infra) was traceable to the two-tailed Scylla of the Etruscans.[23]

Middle Eastern origins

Depictions of entities with the tails of fish, but the upper bodies of human beings appear in Mesopotamian artwork from the Old Babylonian Period onwards, on cylinder seals, These figures are usually mermen (and called kulullû),[24] but mermaids do occasionally appear; the name for the mermaid figure may have been *kuliltu, meaning "fish-woman".[25] Such figures were used in Neo-Assyrian art as protective figures[25] and were shown in both monumental sculpture and in small, protective figurines.[25]

Syrian goddess

 
Atargatis depicted as a fish with a woman's head, on a coin of Demetrius III

The mermaids (tritonesses) of Greek and Roman mythology may have been brought from the Middle East, possibly transmitted by Phoenician mariners, or so Jane Ellen Harrison (1882) has speculated.[4]

In Phoenicia/Syria, there was a mermaid goddess known as Derceto (Atargatis) to Greek writers, with her cult centered at Ashkelon, where her transformation myth is localized,[26][27] according to information provided by Persian defector Ctesias (5th century BC).[28] Later, Lucian (2nd century, AD) wrote a book on the "Syrian Goddess" based on his own fieldwork, and though he saw the goddess (equated to "Hera") represented as mermaid-like in some parts of Phoenicia, her grand statue was entirely human at her Holy City (Hierapolis Bambyce).[30][31]

This Phoenician/Syrian myth is possibly traceable to an earlier Mesopotamian myth. The Phoenician/Syrian myth contains the legend of the goddess Derceto's daughter, Queen Semiramis, who had as her husband a man by the name of Oannes. This Oannes is possibly an equivalent (euhemerization) of the Mesopotamian divine figure Oannes,[32] identifiable as one of the apkallu who were seven sages described as fish-men in cuneiform texts.[33][36]

While Oannes was actually a servant of the water deity Ea, having gained wisdom from the god,[33] English writer Arthur Waugh understood Oannes to be equivalent to the god Ea,[37] and proposed that surely "Oannes had a fish-tailed wife" and descendants,[38] with Atargatis being one deity thus descended, "through the mists of time".[38]

Alexander legend component

It is also thought that Diodorus's chronology of Queen Semiramis resembles the feats of Alexander the Great (campaigns to India, etc.), and Diodorus may have woven the Macedonian king's material via some unnamed source.[28]

There is a mermaid legend attached to Alexander the Great's sister, but that legend is of medieval vintage (see above).[39]

Rational attempts at explanation

Sometime before 546 BC, Milesian philosopher Anaximander postulated that mankind had sprung from an aquatic animal species, a theory that is sometimes called the Aquatic Ape Theory. He thought that humans, who begin life with prolonged infancy, could not have survived otherwise.[40][41]

There are also naturalist theories on the origins of the mermaid, postulating they derive from sightings of manatees, dugongs or even seals.[42][43]

Still another theory, tangentially related to the aforementioned Aquatic Ape Theory, is that the mermaids of folklore were actually human women who trained over time to be skilled divers for things like sponges, and spent a lot of time in the sea as a result. One proponent of this theory is British author William Bond, who has written several books about it.[44][45]

Folklore and mythography

Great Britain and Ireland

The Norman chapel in Durham Castle, built around 1078, has what is probably the earliest surviving artistic depiction of a mermaid in England.[46] It can be seen on a south-facing capital above one of the original Norman stone pillars.[47]

 
The "mermaid chair" at Zennor, Cornwall.

Mermaids appear in British folklore as unlucky omens, both foretelling disaster and provoking it.[48] Several variants of the ballad Sir Patrick Spens depict a mermaid speaking to the doomed ships. In some versions, she tells them they will never see land again; in others, she claims they are near shore, which they are wise enough to know means the same thing. Mermaids can also be a sign of approaching rough weather,[49] and some have been described as monstrous in size, up to 2,000 feet (610 m).[48]

Mermaids have been described as able to swim up rivers to freshwater lakes. In one story, the Laird of Lorntie went to aid a woman he thought was drowning in a lake near his house; his servant pulled him back, warning that it was a mermaid, and the mermaid screamed at them that she would have killed him if it were not for his servant.[50] But mermaids could occasionally be more beneficent; e.g., teaching humans cures for certain diseases.[51] Mermen have been described as wilder and uglier than mermaids, with little interest in humans.[52]

According to legend, a mermaid came to the Cornish village of Zennor, where she used to listen to the singing of a chorister, Matthew Trewhella. The two fell in love, and Matthew went with the mermaid to her home at Pendour Cove. On summer nights, the lovers can be heard singing together. At the Church of Saint Senara in Zennor, there is a famous chair decorated by a mermaid carving which is probably six hundred years old.[53]

Some tales raised the question of whether mermaids had immortal souls, answering in the negative.[54]

In Irish lore, the figure of Lí Ban appears as a sanctified mermaid, but she was a human being transformed into a mermaid. After three centuries, when Christianity came to Ireland, she was baptized.[55] The Irish mermaid is called merrow in tales such as "Lady of Gollerus" published in the 19th century. In Scottish mythology, a ceasg is a freshwater mermaid, though little beside the term has been preserved in folklore.[56]

Mermaids from the Isle of Man, known as ben-varrey, are considered more favorable toward humans than those of other regions,[57] with various accounts of assistance, gifts and rewards. One story tells of a fisherman who carried a stranded mermaid back into the sea and was rewarded with the location of treasure. Another recounts the tale of a baby mermaid who stole a doll from a human little girl, but was rebuked by her mother and sent back to the girl with a gift of a pearl necklace to atone for the theft. A third story tells of a fishing family that made regular gifts of apples to a mermaid and was rewarded with prosperity.[57]

Scandinavia

The mermaid corresponds to Danish and Bokmål Norwegian havfrue.[c] The Faroese forms are havfrúgv (havfrúg).[58][59] The Swedish form is hafsfru,[60] with other names such as sjöjungfru used also.[59][d]

The beautiful havfrue of Scandinavia may be benevolent or malicious.[62] The Swedish ballad "Hafsfrun"[63] (≈Havsfruns tärna [sv], SMB 23[64]) is an instance where a mermaid kidnaps a human girl at age fifteen, and when the girl's brother accomplishes the rescue, the mermaid declares she would have cracked[e] her neck if she knew she would be thus betrayed.[66]

In other cases the Scandinavian mermaid is considered to be prophetic.[62] Her appearance/sighting alone betides an impending storm[62][67] or poor catch for the fisherman, much as the appearance of the skogsrå (wood-nymph) fortells poor catch for the hunter.[62]

The tale type "The Mermaid's Message" (Norwegian: Havfruas spådom, ML 4060) is recognized as a Migratory Legend [no], i.e., a group of tales found in Scandinavia with parallels found elsewhere, according to the scheme devised by Reidar Thoralf Christiansen.[68] This may not necessarily involve the mermaid's spaeing, and in the following example of this ML type tale, she merely imparts wisdom: A fisherman who performs favors and earns the privilege to pose three questions to a mermaid. He inquires about the most suitable material for a flail, to which she answers calf's hide, of course, and tells him he should have asked about how to brew water (into beer), which would have benefited him more greatly.[69]

 
The margýgr (she has a fish-like tail but is cropped in this view) vs. St. Olaf[f]
―Flateyjarbk fol. 79r[71]

There has also been recorded that in Norwegian tradition the mermaid known as the margygr (margýgr) takes the merman marmennill for husband and produce children called marmæler (sing. Norwegian: marmæle), which the fishermen sometimes bring home to gain insight into the future.[67] It is said margygr will avenge harm done to it, and when she had her hand cruelly lopped off on the gunwale upon being lured near the ship, she caused a storm that nearly drowned the wicked sailor.[67]

But in medieval tradition, the margygr is more of a "sea monster".[72][76] According to a version of the Saga of St. Olaf (Olaf II of Norway) the king encountered a margygr whose singing lulled voyagers to sleep causing them to drown[67][77] and whose high-pitched shrieks drove men insane.[72][77] Her physical appearance is described thus: "She has a head like a horse, with ears erect and distended nostrils, big green eyes and fearful jaws. She has shoulders like a horse and hands in front; but behind she resembles a serpent".[77][75] This margygr was also said to be furry like a seal, and gray-colored.[77][74]

Western Europe

 
Raymond discovers Melusine in her bath, Jean d'Arras, Le livre de Mélusine, 1478.

A freshwater mermaid-like creature from European folklore is Melusine. She is sometimes depicted with two fish tails, or with the lower body of a serpent.[78]

The alchemist Paracelsus's treatise A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits (1566) spawned the idea that the water elemental (or water sprite) could acquire an immortal soul through marriage with a human; this led to the writing of De la Motte Fouqué's novella Undine, and eventually to the famous literary mermaid tale, Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, "The Little Mermaid".[79]

A world-famous statue of the Little Mermaid, based on Andersen's fairy tale, has been in Copenhagen, Denmark since August 1913, with copies in 13 other locations around the world–almost half of them in North America.[80][81][82]

During the Romanesque period, mermaids were often associated with lust.[83][84]

Byzantine and Ottoman Greece

The conception of the siren as both a mermaid-like creature and part bird-like persisted in Byzantine Greece for some time.[85] The Physiologus began switching the illustration of the siren as that a mermaid, as in a version dated to the 9th century.[22] Whereas the 10th century Byzantine Greek dictionary Suda still favored the avian description.[86][87]

There is a modern Greek legend that Alexander the Great's sister Thessalonike turned into a mermaid (Greek: γοργόνα) after her death, living in the Aegean. She would ask the sailors on any ship she encountered only one question: "Is King Alexander alive?",(Greek: "Ζει ο Βασιλεύς Αλέξανδρος;") to which the correct answer was: "He lives and reigns and conquers the world" (Greek: "Ζει και βασιλεύει και τον κόσμον κυριεύει").[39] This answer would please her, and she would accordingly calm the waters and bid the ship farewell. Any other answer would enrage her, and she would stir up a terrible storm, dooming the ship and every sailor on board.[88] This legend derives from an Alexander romance entitled the Phylláda tou Megaléxandrou (Φυλλάδα του Μεγαλέξανδρου) dating to the Ottoman Greece period,[39] first printed in 1680.[89]

Eastern Europe

Rusalkas are the Slavic counterpart of the Greek sirens and naiads.[90] The nature of rusalkas varies among folk traditions, but according to ethnologist D.K. Zelenin they all share a common element: they are the restless spirits of the unclean dead.[90] They are usually the ghosts of young women who died a violent or untimely death, either by murder or suicide, before their wedding, especially by drowning. Rusalkas are said to inhabit lakes and rivers. They appear as beautiful young women with long pale green hair and pale skin, suggesting a connection with floating weeds and days spent underwater in faint sunlight. They can be seen after dark, dancing together under the moon and calling out to young men by name, luring them to the water and drowning them. The characterization of rusalkas as both desirable and treacherous is prevalent in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and was emphasized by 19th-century Russian authors.[91][92][93][94] The best-known of the great Czech nationalist composer Antonín Dvořák's operas is Rusalka.

In Sadko (Russian: Садко), an East Slavic epic, the title character—an adventurer, merchant, and gusli musician from Novgorod—lives for some time in the underwater court of the "Sea Tsar" and marries his daughter, Chernava, before finally returning home. The tale inspired such works as the poem Sadko[95] by Alexei Tolstoy (1817–75), the opera Sadko composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and the painting Sadko by Ilya Repin.

China

Merfolk are mentioned in the Shanhaijing (Classic of Mountains and Seas) compilation of Chinese geography and mythology, dating from the 4th century BC.

The jiaoren (鮫人) or "shark people"[98] are mentioned in the Bowuzhi (c. 290 CE) as "weep[ing] tears that became pearls".[99][g] They are included in other texts,[100] including the Shuyi ji [zh] "Records of Strange Things" (early 6th century CE).[101]

Korea

Korea is bound on three sides by the sea. In some villages near the sea in Korea, there are mysterious stories about mermaids. Mermaids have features just like humans. Kim Dam Ryeong, a mayor of the town, saved four captured mermaids from a fisherman, as recorded in the Eou yadam (unofficial histories).[102] In Dongabaek Island of Busan is a tale of Princess Hwang-ok from Naranda, a mythical undersea kingdom of mermaids; this tale is based on the historical Heo Hwang-ok from India.[103] Another tale concerns a mermaid named Sinjike (Korean: 신지끼) who warned fishermen of impending storms by singing and throwing rocks into the sea from Geomun Island. The island's residents believed her to be a goddess of the sea and that she could predict the weather.[104]

Japan

 
"Ningyo no zu": A flier of a mermaid, dated 5th month of Bunka 2 (1805).

The Japanese equivalent is ningyo (人魚, literally "human-fish"[105]). According to one dictionary, ningyo oftentimes refers to a "half-woman and half-fish fabulous creature", i.e., mermaid, though not necessarily female, i.e., includes mermen.[106]

Despite the dictionary stating it has the appearance of half-woman half-fish, the creature has been pictorialized rather as a being with a human female head sitting on a body which is entirely fish-like (see fig. right).[105]

Ningyo flesh

The ningyo's flesh was purported to be an elixir, and consuming its flesh said to bestow remarkable longevity.

A famous ningyo legend concerns the Yao bikuni [ja] who is said to have partaken of the flesh of a merfolk and attained miraculous longevity and lived for centuries. It is not discernible whether the flesh was a female; a pair of translators call it "flesh of a mermaid" in one book,[107] but merely a "strange fish with a human face" in another.[108]

As yōkai

A ningyo might be counted as a yōkai since it is included in Toriyama Sekien's Hyakki Yagyō series.[109] Gender is unclear, as it is only described as a being with "a human face, a fish body", and Sekien equates the nigyo to the Di people or Diren [zh],[109] which are described in the Classic of Mountains and Seas and translated as the "Low People".[110][111]

Southeast Asia

In Thailand, Suvannamaccha is a daughter of Tosakanth appearing in the Thai and other Southeast Asian versions of Ramayana.[112] She is a mermaid princess who tries to spoil Hanuman's plans to build a bridge to Lanka but falls in love with him instead.[113]

In Cambodia, she is referred as Sovanna Maccha, a favorite for Cambodian audiences.[114]

In the Javanese culture of Indonesia, Nyai Roro Kidul is a sea goddess and the Queen of the Southern Seas. She has many forms; in her mermaid form, she is called Nyai Blorong.[115]

In the Philippines, mermaid concepts differ per ethnic group. Among the Pangasinense, the Binalatongan mermaid is a Queen of the sea who married the mortal Maginoo Palasipas and ruled humanity for a time.[116] Among the Ilocano, mermaids were said to have propagated and spread through the union of the first Serena and the first Litao, a water god.[116] Among the Bicolano, mermaids were referred as Magindara, known for their beautiful voice and vicious nature.[117] Among the Sambal, mermaids called Mambubuno are depicted as having two fins, instead of one. The general term for mermaid among all ethnic groups is Sirena.[118]

Hinduism

Suvannamaccha (lit. golden mermaid) is a daughter of Ravana who appears in the Cambodian and Thai versions of the Ramayana. She is a mermaid princess who tries to spoil Hanuman's plans to build a bridge to Lanka, but falls in love with him instead. She is a popular figure in Thai folklore.[119]

Africa

Mami Water (Lit. "Mother of the Water") are water spirits venerated in West, Central and southern Africa, and in the African diaspora in the Caribbean and parts of North, Central and South America. They are usually female, but are sometimes male. They are regarded as diabolical beings, and are often femme fatales, luring men to their deaths.[120] The Persian word "پری دریایی" or "maneli" means "mermaid".[121]

In Zimbabwe mermaids are known as "njuzu". They are believed to be solitary and occupy one body of water. Individual njuzu may be benevolent or malicious. Angry njuzu may be blamed for unexpected misfortunes, such as bad weather or the sudden disappearance of people. Benevolent njuzu are thought to reside in peaceful lakes or rivers. If a person goes missing near such lakes or rivers, they may have been taken by the njuzu. To obtain the person's release, local elders will brew beer as a propitiatory offering, and ask the njuzu to return the person alive. Those seeking the person's release are not supposed to cry or shed tears. If the njuzu releases the person, they will become or be regarded as a n'anga, or traditional healer, with knowledge of herbs, medicinal plants, and cures.[citation needed]

One Thousand and One Nights

The One Thousand and One Nights collection includes several tales featuring "sea people", such as "Jullanâr the Sea-born and Her Son King Badr Bâsim of Persia".[122] Unlike depictions of mermaids in other mythologies, these are anatomically identical to land-bound humans, differing only in their ability to breathe and live underwater. They can (and do) interbreed with land humans, and the children of such unions have the ability to live underwater. In the tale "Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman", the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land. The underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist. In "The Adventures of Bulukiya", the protagonist Bulukiya's quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, where he encounters societies of mermaids.[122]

Other

The Neo-Taíno nations of the Caribbean identify a mermaid called Aycayia[123][124] with attributes of the goddess Jagua and the hibiscus flower of the majagua tree Hibiscus tiliaceus.[125] In modern Caribbean culture, there is a mermaid recognized as a Haitian vodou loa called La Sirene (lit. "the mermaid"), representing wealth, beauty and the orisha Yemaya.

Examples from other cultures are the jengu of Cameroon, the iara of Brazil and the Greek oceanids, nereids and naiads. Mermaids and mermen are also characters of Philippine folklore, where they are locally known as sirena and siyokoy respectively.[126] The Javanese people believe that the southern beach in Java is a home of Javanese mermaid queen Nyi Roro Kidul.[127] The myth of "Pania of the Reef", a well-known tale of Māori mythology, has many parallels with stories of sea-people in other parts of the world.

According to Dorothy Dinnerstein's book The Mermaid and the Minotaur, human-animal hybrids such as mermaids and minotaurs convey the emergent understanding of ancient peoples that humans were both one with and different from animals:

[Human] nature is internally inconsistent, that our continuities with, and our differences from, the earth's other animals are mysterious and profound; and in these continuities, and these differences, lie both a sense of strangeness on earth and the possible key to a way of feeling at home here.[128]

Reported sightings

Roman Empire

In his Natural History 9.4.9–11, Pliny the Elder describes numerous sightings of mermaids (nereids) off the coast of Olisipo[129] (present-day Lisbon, Portugal)[h] noting that their bodies were covered all over in scales[131] and that their corpses frequently washed up on shore. He comments that the governor of Gaul even wrote a letter to Emperor Augustus to inform him.[134][130]

17th century Swedish writer Olaus Magnus quotes the same passage from Pliny, and further notes that the nereid are said to utter "dismal moans at the hour of her death", thus observing a connection to the legend of sea-nymphs[135] and the sister Fates whose cymbals and flutes could be heard on shore.[136][137][135] Olaus in a later passage states that the nereids (tr. "mermaids") are known to "sing plaintively",[138][139] in general.[i]

It has been conjectured that these carcasses of nereids washed up on shore were "presumably seals".[129][141]

Explorers in America

In 1493, sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, Christopher Columbus spotted three sirens or mermaids (Spanish: serenas) which he said were not as beautiful as they are represented, due to some masculine features in their faces, but these are considered to be sightings of manatees.[142][143]

During Henry Hudson's second voyage on 15 June 1608, members of his crew reported sighting a mermaid in the Arctic Ocean, either in the Norwegian or Barents Seas.[144] Dutch explorer David Danell during his expeditions to Greenland in 1652–54 claimed to have spotted a mermaid with "flowing hair and very beautiful", though the crew failed to capture it.[145]

As well, the logbook of Blackbeard, an English pirate, records that he instructed his crew on several voyages to steer away from charted waters which he called 'enchanted' for fear of merfolk or mermaids, which Blackbeard himself and members of his crew reported seeing.[dubious ][146][failed verification] These sightings were often recounted and shared by sailors and pirates who believed that mermaids brought bad luck and would bewitch them into giving up their gold and dragging them to the bottom of the sea. Two sightings were reported in Canada near Vancouver and Victoria, one from sometime between 1870 and 1890, the other from 1967.[147][148] A Pennsylvania fisherman reported five sightings of a mermaid in the Susquehanna River near Marietta in June 1881.[149]

Sightings in modern China

The Yuezhong jianwen (Wade–Giles: Yueh-chung-chieh-wen; the "Seens and Heards", or "Jottings on the South of China", 1730) contains two accounts concerning mermaids. In the first, a man captures a mermaid (海女 "sea woman") on the shore of Lantau Island (Wade–Giles: Taiyü-shan). She looks human in every respect except that her body is covered with fine hair of many colors. She cannot talk, but he takes her home and marries her. After his death, the mermaid returns to the sea where she was found. In the second story, a man sees a woman lying on the beach while his ship was anchored offshore. On closer inspection, her feet and hands appear to be webbed. She is carried to the water, and expresses her gratitude toward the sailors before swimming away.[150][151]

21st century

In August 2009, after dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of Haifa Bay waters and doing aerial tricks, the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam offered a $1 million award for proof of its existence.[152]

In February 2012, work on two reservoirs near Gokwe and Mutare in Zimbabwe stopped when workers refused to continue, stating that mermaids had hounded them away from the sites. It was reported by Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, the water resources minister.[153]

Hoaxes and show exhibitions

Manufactured merfolk specimens

A celebrated example of mermaid hoax was the Fiji mermaid exhibited in London in 1822[j] and later in America by P. T. Barnum in 1842,[k][155] in this case an investigator claims to have traced the mermaid's manufacture to a Japanese fisherman.[156]

 
―Baien's sketch (1825)

Fake mermaids made in China and the Malay archipelago out of monkey and fish parts were imported into Europe by Dutch traders since the mid-16th century, and their manufactures are thought to go back earlier.[157] The manufacture of mermaids from monkey and fish parts also occurred in Japan, especially in the Kyūshū region,[158] as a souvenir industry targeting foreigners.[159][l] Mōri Baien painted full color illustrations of such a compositely manufactured ningyo specimen in his ichthyological tract (1825).[159][161] For much of the Edo Period, Nagasaki (in Kyūshū) was the only trade port open to foreign countries, and the only place where non-Japanese aliens could reside. Jan Cock Blomhoff, the Dutch East India Company director stationed in Dejima, Nagasaki is known to have acquired merfolk mummies; these and other specimens are now held in the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Netherlands.[162][163]

 
A mummified "Sea Devil" (Persian: شیطان دریا) fish, Mashhad Museum, Iran.

The equivalent industry in Europe was the Jenny Haniver made from dried rays.[164]

In the middle of the 17th century, John Tradescant the elder created a wunderkammer (called Tradescant's Ark) in which he displayed, among other things, a "mermaid's hand".[165]

Mermaid shows

Scantily clad women placed in watertanks and impersonating mermaids performed at the 1939 New York World's Fair. It was part of the "Dream of Venus" installation by Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. The mermaid interacted with Oscar the Obscene Octopus, and the ongoings were portrayed in E. L. Doctorow's novel World's Fair.[166]

Professional female divers have performed as mermaids at Florida's Weeki Wachee Springs since 1947. The state park calls itself "The Only City of Live Mermaids"[167] and was extremely popular in the 1960s, drawing almost one million tourists per year.[168] Most of the current performers work part-time while attending college, and all are certified Scuba divers. They wear fabric tails and perform aquatic ballet (while holding their breath) for an audience in an underwater stage with glass walls. Children often ask if the "mermaids" are real. The park's PR director says, "Just like with Santa Claus or any other mythical character, we always say yes. We're not going to tell them they're not real".[169]

The Ama are Japanese skin divers, predominantly women, who traditionally dive for shellfish and seaweed wearing only a loincloth and who have been in action for at least 2,000 years.[170] Starting in the twentieth century, they have increasingly been regarded as a tourist attraction. They operate off reefs near the shore, and some perform for sightseers instead of diving to collect a harvest. They have been romanticized as mermaids.[171]

Scientific inquiry

The topic of mermaids in earnest has arisen in several instances of scientific scrutiny, including a biological assessment of the unlikelihood of the supposed evolutionary biology of the mermaid on the popular marine science website DeepSeaNews. Five of the primary reasons listed as to why mermaids do not fit current evolutionary understanding are:

  • thermoregulation (adaptations for regulating body heat);
  • evolutionary mismatch;
  • reproductive challenges;
  • digestive differences between mammals and fish;
  • lack of physical evidence.[172]

Mermaids were also discussed tongue-in-cheek in a scientific article by University of Washington emeritus oceanographer Karl Banse.[173] His article was written as a parody,[174] but mistaken as a true scientific exposé by believers as it was published in a scientific journal.

Arts, entertainment, and media

 
Arthur Rackham, Rhinemaidens, from The Rhinegold & The Valkyrie (1910).
 
An illustration of Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp as a man-killing mermaid, by the work's author William Thackeray.

The best-known example of mermaids in literature is probably Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, "The Little Mermaid", first published in 1837.[79] The title character, youngest of the Merman-king's daughters, must wait her turn to reach the age when she will be allowed to emerge from the sea and sit on a rock to observe the upper world. The mermaid falls in love with a human prince,[m] and also longs for an eternal soul like humans, despite the shorter lifespan. The two cravings are intertwined: only by achieving true love will her soul bind with a human's and become everlasting. But the mermaid's fish-tail poses an insurmountable obstacle for enticing humans, and a sea-witch offers a potion to transform into human form, at a price (the mermaid's tongue and beautiful voice). The mermaid endures the excruciating pain of having human legs, and despite her inability to speak, almost succeeds in wedding the prince, but for a twist of fate.[n] The mermaid is doomed unless she stabs the prince with a magic knife before his marriage. But she does not have the resolve and dies the mermaid way, dissolving into foam.[175]

Andersen's works has been translated into over 100 languages.[176] The mermaid (as conceived by Andersen) is similar to an Undine, a water nymph in German folklore who could only obtain an immortal soul by marrying a human being.[177] Andersen's heroine inspired a bronze sculpture in Copenhagen harbour and influenced Western literary works such as Oscar Wilde's The Fisherman and His Soul and H.G. Wells' The Sea Lady.[178] Sue Monk Kidd wrote a book called The Mermaid Chair loosely based on the legends of Saint Senara and the mermaid of Zennor.

Sculptures and statues of mermaids can be found in many countries and cultures, with over 130 public art mermaid statues across the world. Countries with public art mermaid sculptures include Russia, Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Denmark, Norway, England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, India, China, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Guam, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, the Cayman Islands, Mexico, Saudi Arabia (Jeddah), the United States (including Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands) and Canada.[179] Some of these mermaid statues have become icons of their city or country, and are major tourist attractions in themselves. The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen is an icon of that city as well as of Denmark. The Havis Amanda statue symbolizes the rebirth of the city of Helsinki. The Syrenka (mermaid) is part of the coat of Arms of Warsaw, and is considered a protector of Warsaw, which publicly displays statues of their mermaid.

Musical depictions of mermaids include those by Felix Mendelssohn in his Fair Melusina overture and the three "Rhine daughters" in Richard Wagner's opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. Lorelei, the name of a Rhine mermaid immortalized in the Heinrich Heine poem of that name, has become a synonym for a siren. The Weeping Mermaid is an orchestral piece by Taiwanese composer Fan-Long Ko.[180]

An influential image was created by John William Waterhouse, from 1895 to 1905, entitled A Mermaid. An example of late British Academy-style artwork, the piece debuted to considerable acclaim (and secured Waterhouse's place as a member of the Royal Academy), but disappeared into a private collection and did not resurface until the 1970s. It is currently once again in the Royal Academy's collection.[181] Mermaids were a favorite subject of John Reinhard Weguelin, a contemporary of Waterhouse. He painted an image of the mermaid of Zennor as well as several other depictions of mermaids in watercolour.

Film depictions include Miranda (1948), Night Tide (1961), the romantic comedy Splash (1984), and Aquamarine (2006). A 1963 episode of the television series Route 66 entitled "The Cruelest Sea" featured a mermaid performance artist working at Weeki Wachee aquatic park. Mermaids also appeared in the popular supernatural drama television series Charmed, and were the basis of its spin-off series Mermaid. In She Creature (2001), two carnival workers abduct a mermaid in Ireland c. 1900 and attempt to transport her to America. The film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides mixes old and new myths about mermaids: singing to sailors to lure them to their death, growing legs when taken onto dry land, and bestowing kisses with magical healing properties.

Disney's musical animated version of Andersen's tale, The Little Mermaid, was released in 1989.[182][183] Notable changes to Andersen's story include the religious aspects of the fairy tale, including the mermaid's quest to obtain an immortal soul. The sea-witch herself replaces the princess to whom the prince becomes engaged, using the mermaid's voice to prevent her from obtaining the prince's love. However, on their wedding day the plot is revealed and the sea-witch is vanquished. The knife motif is not used in the film, which ends with the mermaid and the prince marrying.[184]

Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo is an animated film about a ningyo who wants to become a human girl with the help of her human friend Sosuke.

The Australian teen dramedy H2O: Just Add Water chronicles the adventures of three modern-day mermaids along the Gold Coast of Australia.

The Starbucks coffee logo is a melusine.

Heraldry

 
Arms of Warsaw

In heraldry, the charge of a mermaid is commonly represented with a comb and a mirror,[185][186] and blazoned as a "mermaid in her vanity".[187] In addition to vanity, mermaids are also a symbol of eloquence.[188]

Mermaids appear with greater frequency as heraldic devices than mermen do. A mermaid appears on the arms of the University of Birmingham, in addition to those of several British families.[186]

A mermaid with two tails is referred to as a melusine. Melusines appear in German heraldry, and less frequently in the British version.[186]

A shield and sword-wielding mermaid (Syrenka) is on the official coat of arms of Warsaw.[189] Images of a mermaid have symbolized Warsaw on its arms since the middle of the 14th century.[190] Several legends associate Triton of Greek mythology with the city, which may have been the origin of the mermaid's association.[191]

The Cusack family crest includes a mermaid wielding a sword, as depicted on a memorial stone for Sir Thomas Cusack (1490–1571).[192]

The city of Norfolk, Virginia also uses a mermaid as a symbol. The personal coat of arms of Michaëlle Jean, former Governor General of Canada, features two mermaids as supporters.[193]

Fandom

Interest in mermaid costuming has grown with the popularity of fantasy cosplay, as well as the availability of inexpensive monofins used in the construction of these costumes. The costumes are typically designed to be used while swimming, in an activity known as mermaiding. Mermaid fandom conventions have also been held.[194][195]

Gallery

See also

Explanatory notes

  1. ^ Though as an exception to the rule, there were sporadic examples of sirens depicted as mermaids in objects from the Classical period.[4][5] Harrison names a clay lamp, possibly from the Roman period.[4][6] Holford-Strevens mentions a clay bowl molded with a scene from the Odyssey, with sirens depicted as fish-tailed "tritonesses", to use art jargon.[7][8] A terracotta "mourning siren", 250 BC, is the oldest representation of siren as mermaid familiar to Waugh.[9]
  2. ^ In The Odyssey, after Odysseus' encounter with the sirens, he headed for the place where Scylla and Charybdis dwelled.[20]
  3. ^ Whereas merman answers to Danish/Norwegian havmand.
  4. ^ In Sweden also sjörå[60] and sjö-kona (sjö-kuna in the dialect of Ruhnu, Estonia).[61]
  5. ^ The orignial text gives knäckt (i.e. cracked), rather than kneckt[62] or knackt.[65]
  6. ^ Facsimiles of the miniature painting are found in Fridtjof Nansen's book[70] and Dubois's paper.[71]
  7. ^ A 15th-century compilation of quotations from Chinese literature, the Chengyu kao [zh] (Chinese: 成語考; "Idioms investigated") merely gives a partial quote from the Bowuzhi as "The mermaid wept tears that became pearls".[99]
  8. ^ Incorporated into Lustinia Province
  9. ^ i.e., not qualifying they do so at the hour of death.
  10. ^ This specimen had been on display inside a jar at the Turf coffeehouse, St. James's Street as illustrated in an etching of it was made by artist George Cruikshank.
  11. ^ Although the exhibitors called it "mermaid", the gender (as to the monkey port or fish part used) is probably unclear, and one newspaper renames it "Barnum's merman".[154]
  12. ^ Marine biologist Hondo comments that the Japanese souvenirs tended to use a group of fish shaped like the suzuki (Japanese sea bass), and asserts that in Canton, China, the type of fish used were Cyprinids (carp family), Nibea mitsukurii, and the giant mottled eel.[159] The mermaid drawn by Cruikshank (i.e., the Fiji mermaid) is speculated to be "concocted from a blue-faced monkey and a salmon".[160]
  13. ^ The prince remains unacquainted with her, despite being saved by her from a shipwreck. The mermaid had brought him ashore unconscious and then hid behind rocks and covered herself in foam to hide.
  14. ^ The prince is betrothed to a princess, who turns out to be the girl he mistakenly believed to be his rescuer (due to the mermaid's concealment).

References

Citations

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  2. ^ "Mermaid". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  3. ^ Holford-Strevens (2006), pp. 17–18.
  4. ^ a b c d e Harrison, Jane Ellen (1882). Myths of the Odyssey in Art and Literature. London: Rivingtons. pp. 169–170, Plate 47a.
  5. ^ Milliken (2014), p. 125, citing Benwell & Waugh (1965); Waugh (1960)
  6. ^ Benwell & Waugh (1965), p. 46 and Fig. 3a
  7. ^ Rotroff (1982), p. 67.
  8. ^ Rotroff, Susan I. (1982). Hellenistic Painted Potter: Athenian and Imported Moldmade Bowls, The Athenian Agora 22. American School of Classical Studies at Athens. p. 67, #190; Plates 35, 80. ISBN 978-0876612224.
  9. ^ a b Waugh (1960), p. 77.
  10. ^ Mustard (1908), pp. 22–23.
  11. ^ Physiologus "B" text and its derivative. Holford-Strevens (2006), p. 29 et sqq.
  12. ^ Holford-Strevens (2006), p. 31: There were "those who introduced the mermaid into the Latin Physiologus and the bestiaries thence derived".
  13. ^ Leclercq, Jacqueline (February 1989). "De l'art antique à l'art médièval. A propos des sources du bestiaire carolingien et de se survivances à l'époque romane" [From ancient to mediaeval Art. On the sources of Carolingian bestiaries and their survival in the romance period]. Gazette des Beaux-Arts. 113: 88. doi:10.2307/596378. JSTOR 596378. The chapter devoted to the Siren and the Centaur is an excellent example of this because the Siren is represented as a woman-fish whereas she is described in the form of a woman-bird.. (in French) (summary in English); Leclercq-Marx, Jacqueline (1997). "La sirène dans la pensée et dans l'art de l'Antiquité et du Moyen Âge: du mythe païen au symbole chrétien". Publication de la Classe des Beaux-Arts. Collection In-4O. Classe des beaux-arts, Académie royale de Belgique: 62ff. ISSN 0775-3276.
  14. ^ Mustard (1908), p. 22.
  15. ^ a b c Holford-Strevens (2006), p. 29.
  16. ^ Clark, Willene B. (2006). A Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-family Bestiary: Commentary, Art, Text and Translation. Boydell Press. p. 57 and n50. ISBN 9780851156828.
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  19. ^ Xenophon, citing Socrates possibly spuriously, apud Holford-Strevens (2006), p. 22
  20. ^ Holford-Strevens (2006), pp. 20.
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  31. ^ De Dea Syra, 14 apud Cowper (1865), pp. 9–10
  32. ^ Smith, W. Robertson (1887), p. 313–314.
  33. ^ a b Breucker, Geert de (2021), Hokwerda, Hero (ed.), "Berossos and the Construction off a Near Eastern Cultural History in Response to the Greeks", Constructions of Greek Past: Identity and Historical Consciousness from Antiquity to the Present, BRILL, pp. 28–29, ISBN 9789004495463
  34. ^ Goodman, Ailene S. (2021). The Extraordinary Being: Death and the Mermaid in Baroque Literature. BRILL. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 261. ISBN 9789004487895.
  35. ^ Waugh (1960), p. 73.
  36. ^ Oannes was later described by the Babylonian writer Berossus as having an extra human head beneath the head of its fish body.[34][35]
  37. ^ Waugh (1960), p. 73: "the first merman in recorded history is the sea-god Ea, or in Greek, Oannes",
  38. ^ a b Waugh (1960), pp. 73–74.
  39. ^ a b c Russell, Eugenia (2013). Literature and Culture in Late Byzantine Thessalonica. A&C Black. p. xxii. ISBN 978-1-441-16177-2.
  40. ^ Evans, James. "Anaximander". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 14 January 2020.
  41. ^ Bell, Jacob (30 March 2019). "Evolutionary Theory in Ancient Greece & Rome". Classical Wisdom Weekly. Archived from the original on 14 January 2020. Retrieved 14 January 2020.
  42. ^ Waugh (1960), pp. 77–78.
  43. ^ Jøn, A. Asbjørn (1978), Dugongs and Mermaids, Selkies and Seals, p. 95, these 'marine beasts' have featured in folk tradition for many centuries now, and until relatively recently they have maintained a reasonably standard set of characteristics. Many folklorists and mythographers deem that the origin of the mythic mermaid is the dugong, posing a theory that mythologised tales have been constructed around early sightings of dugongs by sailors.
  44. ^ https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/412139.William_Bond William Bond, Goodreads, Accessed 2022-04-29
  45. ^ https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-origins-of-the-mermaid-myth-william-bond/1110956704 The Origins of the Mermaid Myth, by William Bond and Pamela Suffield, 2012, Accessed 2022-04-29
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  58. ^ Jakobsen, Jakob (1891). "havfrú, havfrúgv". Færøsk anthologi: Ordsamling og register udarbejdede af. Vol. 2. S.L. Møllers bogtrykkeri. p. 109.
  59. ^ a b Hayward (2017), p. 8.
  60. ^ a b Tauchnitz, Karl (1883). "mermaid". Nytt engelskt och svenskt handlexikon [A New Pocket-dictionary of the English and Swedish Languages]. Leipzig: O. Holtze. p. 260.
  61. ^ Rietz, Johan Ernst (1877). "kona: sjö-kuna". Svenskt dialekt-lexikon eller ordbog öfver svenska allmogespraket (in Swedish). Vol. 1. Lund: Cronholm. p. 345.
  62. ^ a b c d e f Keightley, Thomas (1850) [1828], The Fairy Mythology: Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of various Countries (new revised ed.), H. G. Bohn, pp. 152–153
  63. ^ a b Arwidsson, Adolf Ivar, ed. (1837). "150. Hafsfrun". Svenska fornsånger. Vol. 2. Stockholm: P. A. Norstedt & söner. pp. 320–323.
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  66. ^ Folksong text published by,Adolf Ivar Arwidsson,[63] discussed by Grimm[65] and Keightley.[62]
  67. ^ a b c d Thorpe, Benjamin (1851). "I. Norwegian Traditions: §The Merman (Marmennill) and Mermaid (Margygr)". Northern Mythology, Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany and the Netherlands: Compiled from Original and Other Sources. Vol. 2. London: Edward Lumley. p. 27.
  68. ^ Kvideland, Reimund; Sehmsdorf, Henning K., eds. (1988), Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, U of Minnesota Press, pp. 35, 262, ISBN 9781452901602
  69. ^ Chapter 52: Spirit of the Sea / 52.4 "Mermaid and the Fisherman" in: Kvideland & Sehmsdorf (1988), pp. 261–262 apud Rekdal, Olav (1933) "Havfrua og fiskaren", Eventyr og segner p. 110. Collected in 1923 from Guri Finnset in Eikisdalen, Romsdalen (Norway).
  70. ^ Nansen, Fridtjof (2014). In Northern Mists. Translated by Chater, Arthur G. Cambridge University Press. p. 244. ISBN 9781108071697.
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  72. ^ a b Sayers, William (April 1994). "Deployment of an Irish Loan: ON'verða at gjalti' 'to Go Mad with Terror'". The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 93 (2): 176. JSTOR 27710979.
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  74. ^ a b Borovsky, Zoe Patrice (1994). Rocking the Boat: Women in Old Norse Literature. University of California, Berkeley. p. 171. ..further compared to a seal: 'Hon er loðin (hairy or furry) sem selr ok grá at lit'
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  76. ^ Also "sea-ogress",[73] "giantess who emerges from the sea",[74] and "described.. as disgusting trolls"[75]
  77. ^ a b c d Vigfússon, Guðbrandur; Unger, Carl Richard, eds. (1862), "Chapter 23. Olafr konungr vann margyghe", Flatejarbók, vol. 2, Christiania: P.T. Malling, pp. 25–26
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  86. ^ "Seirênas", "Suda On Line", tr. Robert Dyer on 13 June 2002.
  87. ^ Wood (2018), p. 52.
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  92. ^ Warner, Elizabeth (2002). Russian myths. Austin, TX: Univ. of Texas Press. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-292-79158-9.
  93. ^ Kelly, Katherine E., ed. (1996). Modern drama by women 1800s–1930s: an international anthology. London: Routledge. p. 326. ISBN 978-0-415-12493-5.
  94. ^ Ivanits, Linda J. (4 March 2015). Russian Folk Belief. Routledge. ISBN 9781317460398.
  95. ^ Bristol, Evelyn (1991), A History of Russian Poetry, p. 149, ISBN 0-19-504659-5
  96. ^ Nakano, Miyoko 中野美代子 (1983). 中国の妖怪 [Chūgoku no yōkai] (in Japanese). Iwanami Shoten. p. 143. ISBN 9784004202356.
  97. ^ Schafer, Edward H. (1952). "The Pearl Fisheries of Ho-p'u". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 72 (4): 156. doi:10.2307/596378. JSTOR 596378.
  98. ^ They are also called jiaoren 蛟人 "flood dragon people" in some (earlier) literature.[96] Edward H. Schafer also refers to "shark" here being interchangeable with jiao dragon (which he suggests translating as "cockatrice").[97]
  99. ^ a b Lockhart, James Haldane Stewart, Sir (1893). A Manual of Chinese Quotations: Being a Translation of the Ch'êng Yü K'ao. Kelly & Walsh, Limited. p. 280.
  100. ^ Needham, Joseph (1971). Science and Civilisation in China: Physics and physical technology: pt. 1. Cambridge University Press. p. 678. ISBN 9780521070607. Abundance of texts describe the shark people (chiao jen), who .. sell their soft unbleached (pongee) silk
  101. ^ Schafer (1952), p. 160, quoting the Shu-i shark-people (extracted in Piya 1.17): "In the South of the Sea are the houses of the shark people.."
  102. ^ Keith, Sarah; Lee, Sung-Ae (2018). Hayward, Philip (ed.). Legend of the Blue Sea: Mermaids in South Korean folklore and popular culture. Scaled for Success: The Internationalisation of the Mermaid. Indiana University Press. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-0861967322.
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Bibliography

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