The Alluring Story Of Mermaids

Tales of mermaids have been spoken about for thousands of years. But how and when did their stories and the possibility of their existence spring up? Where did they originate? Did they come from sailors’ tales of sightings, or were they known even before that? Are they manatees, dugongs, or something more? Only one way to find out. Read on!

What Is a Mermaid, Exactly?

In folklore (from a surprisingly diverse collection of cultures around the world) a mermaid is a creature, half woman, half fish, that lives in the ocean and occasionally makes appearances to sailors on the surface of the water.

As the upper half of the mermaid is the human half, sailors would see them and be struck by their beauty. More than one mermaid story culminates in the man realizing that he is looking at a woman with a bottom half that is like a fish complete with scales and a tail.

The tales of mermaids go back at least as far as Ancient Greece, and historical accounts of sightings are common. The first account of mermaids was found as far back as 1000 BC in Assyria (known as Syria today). In the Assyrian myth, the beautiful goddess of fertility, Atorgatis, cast herself into a lake and transformed into a mermaid.

Are Mermaids and Sirens the Same Thing?

Many have traced the contemporary conception of a mermaid to the ancient Greek figure of the Siren, despite the fact that similar myths of these creatures can be found across the world.

Sirens were dangerous creatures in Greek mythology. The fearsome figures, which were described and depicted as half woman and half bird, sat perched on rocky craigs along the sea, singing beautiful, seductive songs. They hoped to ensnare nearby sailors, luring them onto the dangerous rocks with their songs, and causing shipwrecks.

The most famous mention of a Siren in ancient Greek literature is the scene from Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, in which Odyseeus is warned by the sorceress of the irresistible song of the Sirens. Curious as to what he would hear, Odysseus ordered his crew to tie him to the mast of the ship, to not untie until they passed the creatures, and plug their own ears with beeswax. Upon hearing their beautiful song, Odysseus begged his crew to release him, but they obediently sailed onward.

According to some ancient authors, the Sirens were fated to die if anyone heard their song and resisted, therefore Odyseeus was the first to kill the Sirens, who jumped to their deaths into the sea after he successfully fled.

While the ancient Greek Sirens do not exactly resemble mermaids, as they are half bird not half fish, the creatures began to shift forms in antiquity.

Many qualities of ancient Greek Sirens, such as their seductive and dangerous nature, were transferred onto beliefs about mermaids across Europe. In European folklore, mermaids were said to have their own beautiful song that could lead sailors to their deaths

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Pliny the Elder Made Mermaids Real

Influential Roman scientist and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, basically invented the field of natural history with his attempt to catalog every animal in the world. His work, titled Natural History (written in the first century AD), played fast and loose with the facts. He wrote about mermaids with such authority that for hundreds of years people believed that mermaids were as real as cows and sheep. He even insisted that there were many sightings of mermaids along the coast of Gaul and that many bodies of mermaids completely covered with scales had washed ashore. He also was one of the first to impart on mermaids a malicious nature that sought to drown humans by capsizing their ships.

Thessaloniki, Sister of Alexander the Great

In Ottoman Greece, a legend about Thessaloniki, Alexander the Great’s sister, began to emerge. According to the story, Thessaloniki did not die but rather transformed into a mermaid at the moment of her death and then continued to live in the Aegean Sea. Legend has it that the mermaid would ask each ship she encountered: “Is King Alexander alive?”

The correct answer is: “He lives and reigns and conquers the world.” Satisfied with the answer, it is said the mermaid would calm any rough waters and wish the ship a safe journey.

Any other answer would enrage Thessaloniki, who would then stir up a storm to try to kill the crew.

Mermaid Sightings Were Recorded on Ancient Maps

Since mermaids were considered dangerous, sea captains avoided areas where mermaids were known to live and worked with mapmakers to create maps that noted mermaids’ lairs as a warning to other sailors. One of these mapmakers was Olaus Magnus, who created the Carta Marina, a comprehensive map of all the sea monsters and mermaids living in the waters around Scandinavia in the 16th century.

Mermaids in Different Cultures

There are many different variations to mermaids, though the common one is that of beautiful maidens with half fish tails that sing, luring sailors and dragging them to the bottom of the sea. But in a few other cultures, mermaids were said to be a blessing and a good omen for seafarers. Here are a few examples of cultures with different views on mermaids and their omens.

  • Chinese folklore describes mermaids as capable, beautiful, and able to turn their tears into pearls. They were seen as gentle, mild, and a blessing of the sea.
  • Japan’s version is dark, believing that mermaids are grotesque creatures who bring warfare to land if their body is found washed up on shore. Their flesh is believed to grant immortality if consumed, but since mermaids are a symbol of storms and bad luck, sailors stayed away from them.
  • Korean mermaid folklore is similar to China’s in that they depict the mermaid as a good omen. They see her as a goddess that warns fishermen of sea storms and impending doom.
  • The British, on the other hand, believed mermaids to be a bad omen. Although beautiful, they were said to seduce sailors and drown them merely for the sake of the mermaid’s entertainment or wrath.
  • African myth calls these creatures Mame Wata, translated as “Mother of the Water.” Although the name is feminine, they believe in both mermaids and mermen. They are believed to be diabolical creatures who lure people to their deaths.
  • In Zimbabwe mermaids are called “Njuzu.” The Njuzu is blamed for bad weather, water disasters, and the disappearance of men. They live in rivers and lakes, and if a person goes missing in these areas, they are said to be taken by the Njuzu never to return again.
  • Mermaids  are not mentioned in the Bible, but the 15th century Nuremberg Bible contains a woodcut image depicting mermaids swimming around Noah’s Ark that drew biblical scholars of the day into debate. Some scholars argued that because mermaids were not aboard the Ark, they must not have been worthy of being saved from the Great Flood. Others pointed out that as water creatures they would be at home in the flood waters

Mermaids Were Once Considered Marine Animals

People from the Medieval Ages assumed mermaids were as organic as fishes. Even then, they were mythical creatures that resided in the sea. Mermaids were commonly featured in Medieval churches to represent Lust, one of the seven deadly sins.

The People of Atlantis Turned into Mermaids

Fictional or not, the sunken city of Atlantis has fascinated people for centuries. There have been arguments about whether its citizens died along with the island, or if they adapted to their surroundings and evolved into mermaids. Some people believe that mermaids originated from Atlantis itself.

Christopher Columbus Claimed He Saw Mermaids

A lot of alleged mermaid sightings end up being a mistake. Christopher Columbus ended up making the same mistake. The explorer described the creatures to be “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Apparently, what Columbus saw in 1493 were three manatees, not mermaids

Mermaids (and Mermen) Terrified Blackbeard

The West Indies pirate, Blackbeard, is known for being absolutely fearsome. But, in the 1700s, Blackbeard claimed he saw merfolk (maids or men) and recorded the area in his logbook where he thought they may inhabit and made sure not ever to sail in that area again.

Even Captain John Smith Documented His “Mermaid” Sighting

While sailing off the coast of Newfoundland, in 1614, the Englishman thought he saw a Rubenesque figured woman with “long green hair” and even added “below the waist…gave way to the fish.”

Alleged Mermaid Bones Are on Display in a Japanese Temple

The Japanese are no strangers to curious mermaid tales. Legends call these mermaids ningyo and one allegedly drifted ashore from Hakata Bay before dying in 1222. The “bones” were unearthed 800 years ago and are currently on display at Ryugiyi Temple in Fukuoka.

Here is a question that has intrigued the science world for generations: Does the origin of mermaids have a scientific base? Could their existence be possible? The only answer (so far) to that is…maybe. Maybe not.

Oceans are vast places; only 5% have been discovered. This means that 95% of the big blue is left to be explored. The types of marine animals that people didn’t even know existed hundreds of years ago are now found under the sea. We still don’t know what lurks in the dark depths. What kinds of worlds remain hidden beneath the waves? And to some, these uncovered waters could hold the possible existence of mermaids.

A Final Thought from The Kings Bay

In the beginning, mermaids represented the unknown of the sea and the challenges of open and unexplored waters. But as culture and science have evolved, mermaids have taken a firm hold in our imagination and have become a part of art and media. Here at The Kings Bay we are fascinated by mermaids, and after reading this you might feel the same. People have clearly been fascinated with these mythical creatures for thousands of years.

Here’s a suggestion: transform your home or garden into a dreamscape with our selection of handcrafted mermaid statues. Each statue has been meticulously molded to showcase the splendor and mystique of these legendary beauties. Shop today!

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