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HHS Classics - Mermaids

Howdy!! In this HHS Classics, we will cover the infamous mermaid!! Portrayed as beautiful half women, half fish creatures of the sea, mermaids are a part of society, having appeared in countless movies, books, works of art, having people dress up as them, tattoos, documentaries and being a symbol of the ocean. However, before these mysterious beings were cleaned up and made into a Disney story, sailors and sea fearers were afraid of the mythical beings. So what are mermaids exactly? Whats the lore behind them? And should we be scared or fascinated by these being.

Mermaids as depicted in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean

Lets start at the beginning. Mermaids generally have the upper body of a human and the lower body of a fish. They are pictured to have long flowing hair and often sing in beautiful voices to lure men. They live in the ocean and sometimes lakes. The male counter part of a mermaid is a merman however they don’t often appear as predominantly as mermaids. The mythology of mermaids goes back thousands of years and is spread all over the world including Africa, Europe, Asia and the Near East. The earliest stories of Mermaids date back to 2500 BC in ancient Assyria where the tale of the goddess Atargatis (or the Greek Derketo) tells about how she transformed herself into a mermaid after accidentally killing her human love who was a shepard. She tried to jumped into a lake however the water couldn’t hide her beauty and she turned into a half woman and half fish. Much of the modern characteristics of mermaids have been influenced by the Sirens of ancient Greek mythology. There is a legend of a Alexander The Great’s sister turning into a mermaid after her death and now lives in the Aegean Sea. The story warns sailors that she will approach ships indiscriminately and ask “is King Alexander alive” and the answer she should be given is “He lives and reigns and conquers the world”. This will keep her happy and she will ensure a safe passage through the seas. However if she is told any other answer, she will become angry, cause storms and doom all the sailors on the ship to death on the sea. In Arab mythology, mermaids look more human than fish but have the ability to live under the sea in communities which are similar to those on land. They do come up to land and take on lovers and the children of these unions have the ability to live under water.

in the British Isles mermaids are a bad omen as they are thought to either create a disaster or foretell of one coming. There are stories of mermaids telling doomed ships they will never see land again. They can also appear in lakes pretending to drown and when someone comes to rescue them, the mermaid drags them into the lake and kills the rescuer. Some mermaids can be benevolent, especially around the areas of the Isle of Man where mermaids help sailors and bring gifts. Western Europe is where the most famous mermaid story of all time originates from. The Little Mermaid is a classic by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson that talks about a mermaid who is half woman and half serpent. She fell in love with a human prince when she saved him from drowning in a ship wreck. In order to be with her love, she trades her voice and immortal life with a sea witch who gives her legs. The sea witch did warn her walking will hurt the mermaid and she will die if the Prince marries another. Although the Prince and the mermaid develop a deep and caring relationship, the prince is promised to a princess of a neighbouring kingdom and cannot marry the mermaid. The mermaids sisters seek the help of the sea witch to help the mermaid. They trade their beautiful hair for a knife which the mermaid must use to kill the Prince before the morning of his wedding and return to sea. However the mermaid cannot kill her lover and ends up dying and returning to the ocean as sea foam. Disney based one of their classic movies on this story.

Disney's Little Mermaid

Stories of mermaids in China say mermaids tears turn into pearls. West, Central and Southern African traditions talk about a mermaid known as Mami Water. She is often half woman, half fish or snake. She often carries mirrors, watches and a snake which is used for divination. It is said she will appear by the riverside combing her beautiful hair or looking into her mirror and jumping into the water when someone appears. If the person takes her mirror or brush she will appear in their dreams and ask for her items back. If they agree to give her back her belongings, she will demand he become her faithful lover and she will bring him riches. If they refuse she will bring him bad luck. Her character varies from region to region. In Nigeria, she can be a dual deity bringing death, destruction and being masculine as well as beauty, creation and femininity.

A mermaid tattoo

There are many sightings of mermaids from thousands of years ago to present day. Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids in 1493. Infamous pirate Edward Teach better known as Blackbeard had reported seeing mermaids along with his crew. Even as recent as 2008 in Israel doing tricks and in 2012 people in Zimbabwe had reported seeing a mermaid in a reservoir and refused to continue working as the mermaid was scaring them. There have also been many mermaid related hoaxes. PT Barnum famously displayed the Fiji Mermaid which was a bought from an American sea captain Samuel Barrett Edes. It had the upper body of a ape and the bottom of a fish and was marketed by P.T. Barnum as a real mermaid and displayed in London in 1822. In 2012 Animal Planet released a docufiction about scientists who found mermaids and discussing scientific evidence of the existence of mermaids. This was done really well and many believed it as a documentary however it was fiction. Youtube is full of clips of mermaids which have been seen in various areas, none of which have actually been proven to be real.

So is there a chance mermaids could be real? Many claim that drunken sailors or people who have been at sea too long become delusional or see a Manatee off in the distance and think that might be a mermaid. Many claim there could have been something as so many different people separated from distance and time have claimed to have seen them. Some people suggest that the ocean is so vast and undiscovered that there is a chance a creature like that could exist. What I do know is that mermaids continue to fascinate humans to this day and will continue to in the future. Whether as kind spirits who bring wealth and luck or as evil spirits who lure men to their deaths, the mermaid has a lot of symbolism which makes them so intriguing and adds greater depth to the legends of the sea. Y’all come back now here!!

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