Should reports of mermaids be classified as folklore expressing aspects of the human condition or is the mythical element around their existence merely our attempt to explain the origin and existence of something very real? Many people theorize humans created mermaids to try to understand their existence as both an animal and something entirely different. Mermaids have a mixed reputation. Some reported their unearthly beauty, others feared them as a sign of bad luck. Many sailors believed mermaids were either proof they would never see land again or out to kill and loot them. Other stories describe Mermaids helping sailors, even healing people from illness.
The earliest reference to mermaids came from Mesopotamia, where Babylonian depictions of their god Ea looked just like one (Ea is believed to be the model for the later Poseidon and Neptune).
Assyrians wrote about mermaids in records dating to around 1000 BCE. They believed the first mermaid was a goddess who took a human shepherd as a lover and eventually killed him. Feeling bad about murdering her boyfriend she went to hide in a lake but it could not encompass the power of her beauty and so turned half of her into a fish. Now if this doesn’t sound like a society trying to make sense out of mermaids in their midst through some origin folklore, what does?
The Greeks also believed in mermaids they called Derketo. Supposedly Alexander the Great’s sister was transformed to a Mermaid after her death, and she still lives in the seas in the Aegean. If you run into her she will ask you is King Alexander alive? You better answer he lives and reigns and conquers the world (but in ancient Greek, so, good luck with that).
Lucian of Samosata while in Syria (2nd century CE) recounted the Syrian temples he had visited in De Dea Syria (“Concerning the Syrian Goddess”)
“Among them – Now that is the traditional story among them concerning the temple. But other men swear that Semiramis of Babylonia, whose deeds are many in Asia, also founded this site, and not for Hera Atargatis but for her own Mother, whose name was Derketo”
“I saw the likeness of Derketo in Phoenicia, a strange marvel. It is woman for half its length, but the other half, from thighs to feet, stretched out in a fish’s tail. But the image in the Holy City is entirely a woman, and the grounds for their account are not very clear. They consider fish to be sacred, and they never eat them; and though they eat all other fowls, they do not eat the dove, for she is holy so they believe. And these things are done, they believe, because of Derketo and Semiramis, the first because Derketo has the shape of a fish, and the other because ultimately Semiramis turned into a dove. Well, I may grant that the temple was a work of Semiramis perhaps; but that it belongs to Derketo I do not believe in any way. For among the Egyptians, some people do not eat fish, and that is not done to honor Derketo.”
Ancient Africans had Sea deities called Mami Watta fitting the description of a mermaid as well as a mermaid goddess they believed was responsible for preserving all life in the Ocean.
Nearly every culture has a type of mermaid: selkies, melusines, roanes, rusalkas, undines, loreleis and nixies to name a few.
Irish mermaids are reported to be the souls of old pagan women banished from the land by St. Patrick.
In China, mermaids are believed to be childish water nymphs with colored tails, which smelled of either happiness or sadness. Chinese people would try to find a mermaid to smell their tails. Apparently, if the mermaid had a purple tail their tale smelled of happiness, if they had a red tail it smelled of sorrow. I’m pretty sure dog tails smell of happiness, the whole smelling each other’s poop thing has got to be a cover.
Slavic stories tell of the rusalka, a mermaid demon who lives in waterways. Usually the rusalka is woman who has died a violent death, often from suicide or murder. During Rusalka days in June, they come out of the water climb into trees and try to lure men to their deaths with their enticing singing. I would very much like to see this.
Christopher Columbus said he saw three mermaids in the area of the Dominican Republic in 1493. Instead of the beautiful depictions of mermaids in art, Columbus was bummed out to see they looked masculine in their faces. Most scholars now believe he saw a group of manatees but I’m not sure how he could get those confused. Clearly manatees ooze femininity (okay maybe not, but they don’t really look manly in the face either). They may have similar tails to mermaids but the rest doesn’t quite fit.
In his memoirs, John Smith claimed to see mermaids near Massachusetts, though he also claimed to have witnessed blue men with square heads, Pocahontas, and have a run in with cannibalistic women warriors which wanted him for sexual slavery. Right, I’m sure everyone and their mom was trying to get a piece of Smith ass pie.
In 1608, Henry Hudson saw a mermaid with two of his crew. They described it as half porpoise and half woman, spotted skin, with large, “magnificent” breasts. Okay so perhaps these are not the most credible sources. I would point out these sighting happened before we knew the fungus ergot, most commonly found growing on rye bread, is known to cause hallucinations. If you were vigorously tripping and saw two of your crewmembers fondling disembodied breasts, you would probably go ahead and hallucinate a mermaid attached to them.
These strange sightings aside, the accounts of mermaid sightings or fisherman finding fish with hand made spears in them in the middle of the Ocean are innumerable. Could mermaids be more than just a persistent legend? The theory that mermaids as an idea came about to reconcile humanity’s strange duality of both being an animal and being different sounds pretty fair. The theory would almost be convincing if it were not for so many ancient societies from across the globe with entirely no contact with each other had reported seeing these creatures.
The famous English naturalist Henry Lee attested “in the sea of Angola mermaids are frequently caught which resemble the human species. They are taken in nets, and killed . . and are heard to shriek and cry like women (p. 22).”
A story tells the Viceroy of Goa, India, autopsied seven mermaid bodies found in fisherman’s nets of the coast of Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka)
The crew of the Halifax claimed they had hunted mermaids and eaten them, and said they tasted like veal. They also claimed they were good at catching tons of mermaids near the East Indies. (Really? You find a mermaid and best thing you can think of is to kill and eat it?)
According to Blackbeard’s logs recounted in a BBC documentary Pirates, he told his crew on several voyages to stay clear of parts of the Ocean he called “enchanted” for fear of Merfolk or mermaids. Blackbeard and many members of his crew reported seeing mermaids.
In August 2009, the town of Kiryat Yam, Israel offered a prize of $1 million to anyone who could prove the existence of a mermaid off of its coast after dozens of people witnessed a mermaid leaping out of the water and doing aerial tricks before swimming back underwater. The prize has not yet been awarded. My guess is several people brought proof of the mermaid but the officials were too skeptical and far too cheap to admit it was legitimate.
In February 2012, work on two reservoirs near the towns of Gokwe and Mutare in Zimbabwe stopped when workers refused to work there, claiming that mermaids had chased them away from the sites. Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, the Water Resources Minister had to report the claim. I don’t envy him. So I’d love to hear what you think: are mermaids a product of our collective consciousness or are they the missing evolutionary relative? If they have survived this long, they must be pretty adept at hiding from us. I figure that’s a smart move since we tend to endanger creatures. Perhaps if we become better stewards of our environment they will show up to congratulate us.
- Dalley, S. 2000. Myths From Mesoptotamia. Creation, The Flood,Gilgamesh, And Others. Oxford: University Press.
- Lee, Henry. “Sea Fables Explained.” (London: William Clowns and Sons, Limited, 1883 reprinted Kessinger Publishings).
- Hunter-Hindrew, Mama Zogbé. Mami Wata: Africa’s Ancient God/dess Unveiled. 2nd Edition.” (Georgia: MWHS, 2007).
- Bronze mamma wati statue A statue from the Ovimbundu of Angola, circa 1950s-1960s. http://www.haaretz.com/news/is-a-mermaid-living-under-the-sea-in-northern-israel-1.281876
- “Pirates”. BBC Radio World Service. Retrieved July 26, 2011
- Derketo Phoenician coin
- Newling, Dan (6 February 2012). “Reason for Zimbabwe reservoir delays… mermaids have been hounding workers away!”. Daily Mail. Retrieved 8 February 2012.
- K. M. Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, “Mermaids”, p 288. ISBN 0-394-73467-
- blackbeard mermaid: sodahead.com, muppet tripping: knowyourmeme.com, manatee: singlemindedwomen.com pinocchio: slwakes.files.wordpress.com