Though it has been a few weeks since I last updated, I’ve returned to continue my “Mermaid-a-Month” series as promised. In January, I gave an introduction to mermaids by discussing their etymology and various translations of the word in other languages. In this edition, I will (begin to) cover the rich and complex history of the mermaid myth.
I say “begin to” because obviously, as with any aspect of myth and history, it is very multifaceted. Different cultures all have different stories regarding the origin of these mythological figures, and it would take hundreds of thousands of words to cover them all.
Which I will not be doing today. But I will be covering mermaids in other cultures in later months, so don’t be too disappointed.
Anyway, I hope to answer some basic questions about mermaids’ history and also give you a taste for more. I am not a historian or professional in any way, so my knowledge is gathered from various sources with the links provided below.
Where and when did the idea of the mermaid begin?
Well, we can never be completely sure, but according to Seathos, mermaids first appeared as deities in mythology between 700 b.c. to 1000 b.c. The story of Atargatis, a myth which appeared in Assyria in 1000 b.c., is about a goddess that becomes a mermaid. She was in love with a human shepherd, but she accidentally killed him and then, overcome with despair, she flung herself into the ocean. She wanted to become a fish, but since she was so beautiful, only her bottom half became fish-like.
Atargatis was worshiped in ancient Assyria first, but was said to be exalted in Rome and Greece. She is known as Derketo in Greek mythology and considered the inspiration for the Greek goddess Aphrodite (who, if you remember, was said to be born of the sea foam). She is regarded as “Great Mother and Goddess of Fertility of the earth and water”. The spread of civilization in the ancient East is also attributed to Atargatis, as she is believed to have taught the people social and religious practices. Her involvement with the conservation of fish and water fertility would explain why the ancient goddess was depicted as a mermaid.
Here’s a photo for reference:
(Wow. What a beauty.)
Now technically speaking, the first mer-person wasn’t female. The Mesopotamian god Oannes predates the Syrian mermaid Atargatis by several thousand years. C.J.S. Thompson, a former English curator, said in his book The Mystery and Lore of Monsters, “Traditions concerning creatures half-human and half-fish in form have existed for thousands of years, and the Babylonian deity Era or Oannes, the Fish-god, is represented on seals and in sculpture, as being in this shape over 2,000 years B.C. He is usually depicted as having a bearded head with a crown and a body like a man, but from the waist downwards, he has the shape of a fish covered with scales and a tail.” And apparently, since his human form was beneath his fish form, he could live among men, as well as in the sea, and thus teach mankind about writing, science, and art. Here is a picture of him:
Is it true that some ancient civilizations believed humans were descendants of mermaids?
Indeed it is. In some of the Pacific Island legends, it is said that human beings are descended from both mermaids and mermen. Somewhere back in time, their tails somehow disappeared and replaced by legs, and people were magically able to walk on land. Also, the creator god Vatea from Polynesian mythology was usually illustrated as being half-human, half-porpoise, and Japanese folklore features a mermaid called Ningyo.
Were manatees mistaken for mermaids?
Unfortunately, yes. Back in 1493, Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, was said to see 3 “mermaids” (manatees) and then describe them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”
Which would make sense, given that manatees are considered to be sea cows, not beautiful woman of the sea. But Columbus thought America was the Indies, so one shouldn’t always trust his discretion.
Anyway, it’s believed that most mermaid sightings by sailors were actually sightings of manatees, dugongs or Steller’s sea cows (which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting). They look like this:
(I guess if you squint, it looks like a really chubby mermaid with no hair and stubby arms)
Note: Let it be known that in European history, mermaids generally meant trouble, especially to fishermen and sailors. Seeing them could mean a terrible storm or ill-fortune was coming, or that you were about to be drowned. This would also explain why mermaids are sometimes believed to be sea witches.
What about sirens?
Sirens deserve a whole month to themselves, so I won’t be going into too much detail now, but if you didn’t know, the original sirens weren’t half-fish at all. They were half-bird and not very appealing, I’m afraid to say. They used their melodious voices to seduce anyone who heard them. They were first mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey.
So there you have it. A brief overview of the history of mermaids. I hope you now feel better informed. Next month, I will be providing some evidence for why mermaids could be real and giving some cases for proof of their existence.
© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic