Stories of mermaids have been told for centurie be it in the form of folklore, legends or fairy tales. Images of this creature have plagued artists and writers in their efforts to bring to life themystery, beauty, and, ye eroticism of the mermaid to their audiences. Some still claim, even today, that they exist.
The mermaid and merman legends begin with the worship of god as have many mythologies. The earliest representations and descriptions of these now well-known creatures can be traced back as far as the eighth century BC, where merfolk got their beginnings as pagan water deities andsupernatural female water beings.
The Babylonians were known to worship a sea-god called Oanne or Ea. Oannes was reputed to have risen from the Erythrean Sea and taught to man the arts and sciences. In the Louvre today can be seen an eighth century wall-scene depicting Oannes as a merman, with a fish-like tail and the upper-body of a man.
The Syrians and the Philistines were also known to have worshiped a Semitic mermaid moon-goddess. The Syrians called her Atargatis while the Philistines knew her as Derceto. It is notunusual or surprising that this moon-goddess was depicted as a mermaid as the tides ebbed and flowed with the moon then as it does now, and this was incorporated into the god-like personifications that we find in their art and ancient literature. Atargatis is one of the first recorded mermaid and the legend says that her child Semiramis was a normal human and, because of thi Atargatis was ashamed and killed her lover. Abandoning the infant she became wholly a fish.
In Japanese and Chinese legends there were not only mermaids but also sea-dragons and dragon-wives. The Japanese mermaid known as Ningyo was depicted as a fish with only a human head. Polynesian mythology includes a creator named Vatea who was depicted as half-human and half-porpoise.
Greek and Roman mythology is often placed together as the two are very similar, and it is in the literature from these cultures that one finds the first literary description of the mermaid and, indeed, mermen. Poseidon and Neptune were often depicted as half-man and half-fish, and Homer mentions the Sirens during the voyage of Odysseu although he fails to give a physical description.
The British Isles too had their fair share of merfolk mythology. The Cornish knew mermaids as Merrymaids; the Irish knew them as Merrows or Muirruhgach and some sources write that they lived on dry land below the sea and had enchanted caps that allowed them to pass through the water without drowning. While the women were very beautiful, the men had red nose piggy eye green hair and teeth, and a penchant for brandy.
Germanic mythology has the Meerfrau, the Nix and the Nixe who were male and female fresh-water inhabitant and it was believed that they were treacherous to men. The Nixe lured men to drown while the Nix could be in the form of an old dwarfish character or as a golden-haired boy and, in Iceland and Sweden, could take the form of a centaur. The Nix also loved music and could lure people to him with his harp; if he was in the form of a horse he would tempt people to mount him and then dash into the sea to drown them. While he sometimes desired a human soul he would often demand annual human sacrifices. There was also the more elven-like Nixies that would sometimes appear in the market; she could be identified by the corner of her apron being wet. If she paid a good price it would be an expensive year, but if she paid a low price the prices for that year would remain cheap. In the Rhine were to be found the Lorelei from which the town took its name. The Germans also knew the Melusine as a double-tailed mermaid as did the British heraldry as well.
With the growth of science, the fantastic became childish amongst the writers of the growing educated, especially during the eighteenth century, but began to flourish again with theRomantic Movement at the turn of the century. It was also the time, however, for the scientifically-minded to do their utmost to dispel the myth of the mermaid, claiming that all the recorded sightings were simply men who’d been at sea too long and wanting to believe, and so, when a seal, porpoise, dugong or manatee was spotted from the ship, they’d swear they’d seen a mermaid.
It is not until the twentieth century that the mermaid is tossed back and forth between those that believe, or want to believe, and those that stand behind their logic and scientific proof that a creature such as the mermaid simply cannot exist. A wonderful film of these two meeting is the film Splash, with Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks. No matter how the mermaid is used or what role she plays she will always retain her mysterious air. Perhaps the next move is a more feminine one, bringing back the myth of the mermaid protecting women, or the soul of the woman drowned before her natural time of death…