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A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse


Grouping Mythological

Sub grouping Water spirit

Similar creatures Merman



Mythology World mythology

First reported c. 1000BC

Country Worldwide

Habitat Ocean, sea

Mermaid and merman, 1866. Anonymous Russian folk artist.
A mermaid is a mythological aquatic creature with a human head and torso and the tail of an
aquatic animal such as a fish. The word is a compound of mere, the Old English word for "sea,"
and maid, a woman. The male equivalent is a merman, however the term mermaid is sometimes
used for males. Various cultures throughout the world have similar figures, typically depicted
without clothing.
Much like sirens, mermaids would sometimes sing to people and gods and enchant them,
distracting them from their work and causing them to walk off the deck or run their ships
aground. Other stories have them squeezing the life out of drowning men while attempting to
rescue them. They are also said to take humans down to their underwater kingdoms. In Hans
Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid it is said that they forget that humans cannot breathe
underwater, while others say they drown men out of spite.
The sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as mermaid-like; in
fact, some languages use the same word for both bird and fish creatures, such as the Maltese
word 'sirena'. Other related types of mythical or legendary creatures are water fairies (e.g.
various water nymphs) and selkies, animals that can transform themselves from seals to humans.

• 1 History
○ 1.1 Ancient Near East
○ 1.2 Arabian Nights
○ 1.3 British Isles
○ 1.4 Warsaw Mermaid
○ 1.5 Other
• 2 Claimed sightings
• 3 Symbolism
• 4 Art and literature
○ 4.1 Heraldry
• 5 Hoaxes
• 6 Sirenia
• 7 Sirenomelia
• 8 See also
• 9 References
• 10 External links

[edit] History
[edit] Ancient Near East
The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. Atargatis, the mother of
Assyrian queen Semiramis, was a goddess who loved a mortal shepherd and in the process killed
him. Ashamed, she jumped into a lake to take the form of a fish, but the waters would not
conceal her divine beauty. Thereafter, she took the form of a mermaid — human above the waist,
fish below — though the earliest representations of Atargatis showed her as being a fish with a
human head and legs, similar to the Babylonian Ea. The Greeks recognized Atargatis under the
name Derketo. Prior to 546 BC, the Milesian philosopher Anaximander proposed that mankind
had sprung from an aquatic species of animal. He thought that humans, with their extended
infancy, could not have survived early on. This idea reappeared as the Aquatic ape hypothesis in
the twentieth century.
A popular Greek legend has Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike, turn into a mermaid after
she died.[1] She lived, it was said, in the Aegean and when sailors would encounter her, she would
ask them only one question: "Is Alexander the king alive?" (Greek: Ζει ο βασιλιάς Αλέξανδρος;),
to which the correct answer would be "He lives and still rules" (Greek: Ζει και βασιλεύει). Any
other answer would spur her into a rage, where she transformed into a Gorgon and meant doom
for the ship and every sailor onboard.
Lucian of Samosata in Syria (2nd century AD) in De Dea Syria ("Concerning the Syrian
Goddess") wrote of the Syrian temples he had visited:
"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
"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 fishes 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."[2]
[edit] Arabian Nights
The Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights) includes several tales featuring "Sea
People", such as Djullanar the Sea-girl. Unlike the depiction 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, the children of such unions sharing
in the ability to live underwater.
In another Arabian Nights tale, "Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman", the
protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an
underwater submarine society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land, in
that the underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money
and clothing do not exist. Other Arabian Nights tales deal with lost ancient technologies,
advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, and catastrophes which overwhelmed them.[3]
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.[4] "Julnar the Sea-Born
and Her Son King Badr Basim of Persia" is yet another Arabian Nights tale about mermaids.
When sailors come the mermaids would sing, but some men are led straight to their doom. If
they follow the mermaids' lovely and beautiful voices, they do not know what they are doing or
where they're going.
[edit] British Isles

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

Mermaids were noted in British folklore as unlucky omens - both foretelling disaster and
provoking it.[5] Several variants of the ballad Sir Patrick Spens depict a mermaid speaking to the
doomed ships; in some, she tells them they will never see land again, and in others, she claims
they are near shore, which they are wise enough to know means the same thing. They can also be
a sign of rough weather.[6]
Some mermaids were described as monstrous in size, up to 2000 feet.[5]
Mermaids could also swim up rivers to freshwater lakes. One day, in a lake near his house, the
Laird of Lorntie saw, as he thought, a woman drowning, and went to aid her; a servant of his
pulled him back, warning that it was a mermaid, and the mermaid screamed after that she would
have killed him if it were not for his servant.[7]
On occasion, mermaids could be more beneficent, giving humans means of cure.[8]
Some tales raised the question of whether mermaids had immortal souls to answer it in the
negative.[9] The figure of Lí Ban appears as a sanctified mermaid, but she was originally a human
being transformed into a mermaid; after three centuries, when Christianity had come to Ireland,
she came to be baptized.[10]
Mermen were also noted as wilder and uglier than mermaids, but they were described as having
little interest in humans.[11]
[edit] Warsaw Mermaid
1659, Coat of arms of Old Warsaw on the cover of an accounting book of the city.
The mermaid, or syrenka, is the symbol of Warsaw.[12] Images of a mermaid have been used on
the crest of Warsaw as its symbol since the middle of the 14th century.[13] Several legends
associate Triton of mythology with the city, which may have been where the association with
mermaids originated.[14]
[edit] Other
Among the Neo-Taíno nations of the Caribbean the mermaid is called Aycayia.[15][16] Her
attributes relate to the goddess Jagua, and the hibiscus flower of the majagua tree Hibiscus
tiliaceus.[17] Examples from other cultures are the Mami Wata of West and Central Africa, the
Jengu of Cameroon, the Merrow of Ireland and Scotland, the Rusalkas of Russia and Ukraine,
the Iara from Brazil and the Greek Oceanids, Nereids, and Naiads. One freshwater mermaid-like
creature from European folklore is Melusine, who is sometimes depicted with two fish tails, and
other times with the lower body of a serpent. It is said in Japan that eating the flesh of a ningyo
can grant unaging immortality. In some European legends mermaids are said to be unlucky.
Mermaids and mermen are also characters of Philippine folklore, where they are locally known
as sirena and siyokoy, respectively.[18] The Javanese people believe that the southern beach in
Java is a home of Javanese mermaid queen Nyi Roro Kidul.
Mermaids are said to be known for their vanity, but also for their innocence. They often fall in
love with human men, and are willing to go to great extents to prove their love with humans (see
mermaid problem). Unfortunately, especially with younger mermaids, they tend to forget humans
cannot breathe underwater. Their male counterparts, mermen, are rarely interested in human
issues, but in the Finnish mythology merpeople are able to grant wishes, heal sickness, lift
curses, brew magic potions and sometimes can carry a trident. Mermaids share some of the same
[edit] Claimed sightings
Claimed sightings of dead or living mermaids have come from places such as Java and British
Columbia. There are two Canadian reports from the area of Vancouver and Victoria, one from
sometime between 1870 and 1890, the other from 1967.[19][20]
In August 2009, the town of Qiryat Yam in Israel offered a prize of $1 million for anyone who
could prove the existence of a mermaid off its coast, after dozens of people reported seeing a
mermaid leaping out of the water like a dolphin and doing aerial tricks before returning to the
[edit] Symbolism
According to Dorothy Dinnerstein’s book, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, human-animal
hybrids such as the minotaur and the mermaid convey the emergent understanding of the
ancients that human beings were both one with and different from animals and that, as such,
humans' "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".[22]
[edit] Art and literature
See also: Mermaids in popular culture

16th century Zennor mermaid chair

One influential image was created by John William Waterhouse, from 1895 to 1905, entitled A
Mermaid, (see the top of this article). 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 in the collection of Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
The most famous in more recent centuries is Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Little
Mermaid (1836), which has been translated into many languages. Andersen's portrayal,
immortalized with a famous bronze sculpture in Copenhagen harbour, has arguably become the
standard and has influenced most modern Western depictions of mermaids since it was
published. The mermaid, as conceived by Andersen, appears to represent the Undines of
Paracelsus, which also could only obtain an immortal soul by marrying a human being.
The best known musical depictions of mermaids are those by Felix Mendelssohn in his Fair
Melusina overture and the three "Rhine daughters" in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des
Nibelungen. A more recent depiction in contemporary concert music is The Weeping Mermaid by
Taiwanese composer Fan-Long Ko.
Sue Monk Kidd has written a book called The Mermaid Chair. The title comes from a mermaid
who becomes a (fictional) saint.
Movie depictions include the 1984 comedy Splash starring Daryl Hannah. A 1963 episode of the
hit television series Route 66, featured an episode The Cruelest Sea about a real mermaid
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.
[edit] Heraldry
Coat of arms of Warsaw
In heraldry, the charge of a mermaid is commonly represented with a comb and a mirror, and
blazoned as a 'mermaid in her vanity.' Merfolk were used to symbolize eloquence in speech.
A shield and sword-wielding mermaid (Syrenka) is on the official Coat of arms of Warsaw, the
capital of Poland. The city of Norfolk, Virginia also uses a mermaid as a symbol, and a civic art
project with variously decorated mermaid sculptures has been displayed all over the municipal
area. The capital city of Hamilton, Bermuda has the mermaid in its coat of arms, displayed across
the city.
The personal coat of arms of Michaëlle Jean, Canada's Governor General, features two Simbi,
mermaid-like spirits from Haitian Vodou, as supporters.
[edit] Hoaxes
During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, dugongs, frauds and victims of sirenomelia were
exhibited in wunderkammers as mermaids.
In the 19th century, P. T. Barnum displayed in his museum a taxidermal hoax called the Fiji
mermaid. Others have perpetrated similar hoaxes, which are usually papier-mâché fabrications or
parts of deceased creatures, usually monkeys and fish, stitched together for the appearance of a
grotesque mermaid. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, pictures of Fiji "mermaids" circulated on
the Internet as supposed examples of items that had washed up amid the devastation, though they
were no more real than Barnum's exhibit.[23]
[edit] Sirenia
Sirenia is an order of fully aquatic, herbivorous mammals that inhabit rivers, estuaries, coastal
marine waters, swamps, and marine wetlands. Sirenians, including manatees and the Dugong,
have major aquatic adaptations: arms used for steering, a paddle used for propulsion, hind limbs
(legs) are two small bones floating deep in the muscle. They appear fat, but are fusiform,
hydrodynamic, and highly muscular. Prior to the mid 19th century, mariners referred to these
animals as mermaids.[citation needed]
[edit] Sirenomelia
Sirenomelia, also called "mermaid syndrome", is a rare congenital disorder in which a child is
born with his or her legs fused together and the genitalia are reduced. This condition is about as
rare as conjoined twins, affecting one out of every 100,000 live births[24] and is usually fatal
within a day or two of birth because of kidney and bladder complications. Four survivors were
known to be alive as of July 2003.[25]

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