The lore of mermaids today is greatly influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. In that fairy tale, which has undergone numerous adaptations since its publication in 1837, mermaids are benign and kindly. Throughout much of history, however, mermaids were often depicted as sinister and dangerous creatures. Below are twenty five things about that and other fascinating historic lore.
The Ancient Greek Origins of Western Mermaid Lore
Fabled marine creatures that are part human and part fish have long existed in the lore of many cultures. One of the earliest mermaid legends, circa 1000 BC, involves a Syrian goddess who dove into the bottom of a lake to become a fish. Her divine beauty could not be erased, however, and only her bottom half was transformed. In East Asian lore, mermaids were the wives of sea dragons. Sub-Saharan Africa has tales of the Mami Wata, benevolent water creatures that offer wisdom and beauty, and ward off evil. In Western mythology, mermaids have human torsos and fish tail, and often possess prophetic and supernatural powers.
Western depictions of mermaids as beautiful creatures who sometimes seduce humans with song can be traced back to ancient Greek sirens. In Greek lore, sirens were half bird, but in the Christian era, they came to be depicted as half fish. Many Western mermaid folktales revolve around their marriage to humans, often after a man steals and hides something she greatly values. She stays with him so long as the object is hidden, but immediately returns to the sea if she finds it. Other human-mermaid marriage tales revolve around the fulfillment of certain conditions, with the marriage’s termination and the mermaid’s return to the sea if the conditions are broken.