There’s so much more to mermaids than wearing shell-shaped bras and falling for guys way beyond their reach. The mythical creatures have been roaming the seven seas, as well as the collective mind, for thousands of years and have sparked mass madness more than once. Here are some basics on the fishy ladies:
First of all it strikes me that mermaids, just like dragons, are found in a myriad of different cultures spread all over the world. In general they are described as beautiful women with a fish tail, long floating hair and an enchanting voice that lure seamen to their untimely death –because their intentions are not as fair as their looks. Sometimes they bring luck and grant magical wishes, but in most stories they are a bad omen and live only to seduce, drown or devour whomever crosses their path.
The biggest misconception is to call a mermaid “siren”. The original sirens were half woman/half bird creatures in the Greek mythology. They were believed to be the former handmaidens of the goddess Persephone, whose abduction by Hades, god of the underworld, made her mother Demeter, also a goddess, out of her mind with grief. She transformed the loyal handmaidens in birds and had them search the globe for her dear daughter, but refused to return them back to normal once they failed to do so. The sirens’ bad luck didn’t end their: they foolishly entered a singing contest against the nine muses, which they lost despite having beautiful voices –because, honestly: who can compete with thé muses?! The latter proved to be more than bad winners and stripped the creatures of most of their feathers, leaving them half naked.The angry sirens then settled on a deserted isle, where they spent their days turning their anger towards mankind in general, hypnotizing seamen with their amazing singing and having ships wreck on the coast of the island. One of the only ones who managed to escape their evil plan was smarty-pants Odysseus, who tied himself to the mast of his ship when he sailed by in order to not do anything foolish upon hearing the siren’s music.
The world’s first real mermaid story goes back to 1000 BC Syria, where the goddess Atargatis tried to drown herself after a failed romance. It’s unclear whether she was rejected by her mortal lover, or accidentally killed him in all her godly might, but the thing is she was absolutely mortified after the relationship ended and hoped living a lifetime with the mental capacity of a goldfish would help her deal with the trauma. Her beauty was such however, that it couldn’t be erased completely, and thus she only became half fish -unfortunately for her, her upper part and brains stayed very much devine. You’re starting to get the hang here: mermaid stories are sad!
Atargatis was technically the first mermaid, but there was a mermàn preceding her: the Babylonian god Onasse was believed to be half man half fish. Mermen are less frequent, but have also appeared in folklore worldwide. Described as even fiercer and meaner than their female counterpart, they were also extraordinarily ugly; with sharp fangs, long greenish hair, a red nose and a scaled skin. The most famous merman is Triton, but nowadays a certain superhero called Aquaman is challenging him in that field. The latter also didn’t bother with the ugly look and goes about looking like a groovy Abercrombie model who just happened to fall off his sailing boat and swam 10 miles to the nearest shore.
During the Middle Ages, it was generally accepted that mermaids existed, they were even named and described in biological studies alongside whales, jellyfishes and other sea creatures. Seamen regularly spotted “mermaids”, although always keeping at a safe distance, and in the Golden Age of piracy, Blackbeard and his kin reported many a sighting, the latter going as far as to describe which coves had to be avoided if you didn’t have a certain death-by-fishy-women wish in his diary. Even Christopher Columbus claimed seeing them, although he was very disappointed by how ugly they were. Seems fair: what all these guys really saw, were the sluggish form of sea cows, a then relatively unknown species, whose extraordinary amount of fat gave their tail a leg-like shape…
Nevertheless, to this day people keep sighting mermaids. In 2009 there were dozens of witnesses claiming to have seen one off the coast of the Israeli town of Kiryat Yamoffered. The town council even offered a reward of 1 million dollar to whomever could provide evidence for it. In 2012 there was some commotion during works on two big water reservoirs in Zimbabwe, when local workers refused to finish the project because mermaids had scared them off and forbidden to continue. This story was even officially confirmed by the country’s then minister of water.
Ready for more madness? Brace yourself for some grim details: in the 19th century, the American showman P.T. Barnum (that’s right, the one played by Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman) told the world he had found a reàl mermaid cadaver and displayed it in his cabinet of curiosities. The “Fiji Mermaid”, as it was known, attracted flocks of visitors but didn’t succeed in fooling everybody: after a while, questions (as well as eyebrows) were raised about the origin of the gruesome thing, that turned out to be the upper part of a monkey sewn to the bottom part of a fish. Barnum had a good laugh and stored it away. A fire reportedly destroyed it, but in the years after that, different other “Fiji mermaids” appeared, making it a questionable trend. Some conmen crafted them out of papier maché, while others proved to be very creative in taxidermy… Even the archives of Harvard University hold their own Fiji mermaid and after the 2004 tsunami in Asia, stories resurfaced of Fiji mermaids washing ashore.
Talking about creatives, the particular skate fish takes a weirdly human form when dried and this sparked baby mermaid madness through the ages. When the occasional one was found resting in peace on a rocky shore, people misstook it for a newborn mermaid. There is even a pretty legend about one stealing a little girl’s doll, but its mother forced it to return the toy and to add a beautiful pearl to the treasure as a way to apologize.
There, this way I ended our Little Mermaid 101 in prettiness, far away from fangs, horrible love stories and taxidermist tricks that makes the stomach turn…