Waterhouse a mermaid.jpg
A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse
Mythology World mythology
Grouping Mythological
Sub-grouping Water spirit
Country Worldwide
Habitat Ocean, sea
Similar creatures Merman
Mermaid and merman, 1866. Unknown Russian folk artist

A mermaid is a mythological aquatic creature with a female human head, arms, and torso and the tail of a fish. A male version of a mermaid is known as a "merman" and in general both males and females are known as "merfolk". Mermaids are represented in the folklore, literature and popular culture of many countries worldwide.


Overview and etymology

"Mermaid" is a compound of mer, the French word for "sea", and maid, a girl or young woman. The male equivalent is a merman.

Much like sirens, mermaids will sing to people or to gods to enchant them, distracting them from their work and causing people to walk off a ship's deck or to run their ship aground. Other stories depict mermaids squeezing the life out of drowning men while attempting to rescue them. They are also said to carry humans down to their underwater kingdoms. In Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, it is said that mermaids forget that humans cannot breathe underwater, while other stories say they drown men out of spite, while still other fables portray mermaids as benevolent toward men.This singing chant is probably a curse to the mermaid as well.[citation needed]

The sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as mermaid-like; in fact, some languages use the same word for both bird and fish creatures, such as the Maltese word 'sirena'. Other related types of mythical or legendary creatures are water fairies (e.g., various water nymphs) and selkies, animals that can transform themselves from seals to humans.[citation needed]

In modern times, the mermaid is used as an official animal/mascot of many mythical stories involving pirates and the sea. It is also associated with "sea cows" that are called manatees. Sailors would see the animals and categorize them as mythical mermaids.

Traditionally, mermaids have been depicted unclothed. When censorship is an issue, most prominent in movies, effort is made to have the mermaids’ long hair cover their breasts. In areas with strong censorship, notably in some U.S. family movies, mermaids have been wearing different variants of tops or swimsuits.


Ancient Near East

The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. The goddess Atargatis, mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis, loved a mortal shepherd and unintentionally killed him. Ashamed, she jumped into a lake to take the form of a fish, but the waters would not conceal her divine beauty. Thereafter, she took the form of a mermaid—human above the waist, fish below—though the earliest representations of Atargatis showed her as a fish with a human head and legs, similar to the Babylonian Ea. The Greeks recognized Atargatis under the name Derketo. Prior to 546 BC, the Milesian philosopher Anaximander proposed that mankind had sprung from an aquatic species of animal. He thought that humans, with their extended infancy, could not have survived otherwise.

A popular Greek legend turns Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike, into a mermaid after she died.[1] She lived, it was said, in the Aegean and when she encountered a ship, she asked its sailors only one question: "Is King Alexander alive?" (Greek: "Ζει ο Βασιλιάς Αλέξανδρος;"), to which the correct answer was: "He lives and reigns and conquers the world" (Greek: "Ζει και βασιλεύει και τον κόσμο κυριεύει"). This answer pleased her so she calmed the waters and wished the ship farewell. Any other answer would spur her into a rage. She would raise a terrible storm, with certain doom for the ship and every sailor on board.[2][3]

Lucian of Samosata in Syria (2nd century AD) in De Dea Syria ("Concerning the Syrian Goddess") wrote of the Syrian temples he had visited:

"Among them - Now that is the traditional story among them concerning the temple. But other men swear that Semiramis of Babylonia, whose deeds are many in Asia, also founded this site, and not for Hera Atargatis but for her own Mother, whose name was Derketo"
"I saw the likeness of Derketo in Phoenicia, a strange marvel. It is woman for half its length, but the other half, from thighs to feet, stretched out in a fish's tail. But the image in the Holy City is entirely a woman, and the grounds for their account are not very clear. They consider fish to be sacred, and they never eat them; and though they eat all other fowls, they do not eat the dove, for she is holy so they believe. And these things are done, they believe, because of Derketo and Semiramis, the first because Derketo has the shape of a fish, and the other because ultimately Semiramis turned into a dove. Well, I may grant that the temple was a work of Semiramis perhaps; but that it belongs to Derketo I do not believe in any way. For among the Egyptians, some people do not eat fish, and that is not done to honor Derketo."[4]
The Land Baby, by John Collier (1899)

Arabian Nights

The One Thousand and One Nights includes several tales featuring "Sea People", such as Djullanar the Sea-girl. Unlike the depiction in other mythologies, these are anatomically identical to land-bound humans, differing only in their ability to breathe and live underwater. They can (and do) interbreed with land humans, the children of such unions sharing in the ability to live underwater.

In another Arabian Nights tale,r "Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman", the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater submarine society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land, in that the underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist. Other Arabian Nights tales deal with lost ancient technologies, advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, and catastrophes which overwhelmed them.[5]

In "The Adventures of Bulukiya", the protagonist Bulukiya's quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, where he encounters societies of mermaids.[6] "Julnar the Sea-Born and Her Son King Badr Basim of Persia" is yet another Arabian Nights tale about mermaids.

When sailors come the mermaids sing, and some men are led straight to their doom. If they follow the mermaids' lovely and beautiful voices, they do not know what they are doing or where they're going.

The Fisherman and the Syren, by Frederic Leighton, c. 1856–1858

British Isles

The Norman Chapel in Durham Castle, built around 1078 by Saxon stonemasons has what is reputed to be one of the earliest artistic depictions of a Mermaid in England. It can be seen on a south-facing capital above one of the original Norman stone pillars. [7]

Mermaids were noted in British folklore as unlucky omens – both foretelling disaster and provoking it.[8] Several variants of the ballad Sir Patrick Spens depict a mermaid speaking to the doomed ships; in some, she tells them they will never see land again, and in others, she claims they are near shore, which they are wise enough to know means the same thing. Mermaids can also be a sign of approaching rough weather.[9]

Some mermaids were described as monstrous in size, up to 2,000 feet (610 m).[8]

Mermaids have also been described as being able to swim up rivers to freshwater lakes. One day, in a lake near his house, the Laird of Lorntie went to aid a woman he thought drowning; a servant of his pulled him back, warning that it was a mermaid, and the mermaid screamed after that she would have killed him if it were not for his servant.[10]

On occasion, mermaids could be more beneficent, teaching humans cures for disease.[11]

Some tales raised the question of whether mermaids had immortal souls, answering in the negative.[12] The figure of Lí Ban appears as a sanctified mermaid, but she was a human being transformed into a mermaid; after three centuries, when Christianity had come to Ireland, she was baptized.[13]

Mermen were noted as wilder and uglier than mermaids, and they were described as having little interest in humans.[14]

In Scottish mythology, there is a mermaid called the ceasg or "maid of the wave".[15]


In some ancient fairy tales of China, the mermaid was a special creature whose tears could turn into priceless pearls. Mermaids could also weave an extremely valuable material, translucent and beautiful. Because of this, fishermen longed to catch them, but the mermaids' splendid singing could simply drag them down into a coma.

In other Chinese legends, the mermaid is wondrous, but brainless and easy to trap. The legend said that mermaids were born with purple tails that smelled of happiness, but if sadness or death occurred during the mermaids' lifetimes their tails would turn red, and smell like sadness. So fishermen longed to catch mermaids in order to sniff their purple or red tails.

1659, Coat of arms of Old Warsaw on the cover of an accounting book of the city.

Warsaw mermaid

The mermaid, or syrenka, is the symbol of Warsaw.[16] Images of a mermaid symbolized Warsaw on its crest since the middle of the 14th century.[17] Several legends associate Triton of mythology with the city, which may have been the mermaid association's origin.[18]


Among the Neo-Taíno nations of the Caribbean the mermaid is called Aycayia.[19][20] Her attributes relate to the goddess Jagua, and the hibiscus flower of the majagua tree Hibiscus tiliaceus.[21] In modern Caribbean culture, the mermaid is found as Haitian Vodou Lwa La Sirene (literally, 'the mermaid') who is lwa of wealth and beauty and the orisha Yemaya.

Examples from other cultures are the Mami Wata of West and Central Africa, the Jengu of Cameroon, the Merrow of Ireland and Scotland, the Rusalkas of Russia and Ukraine, the Iara from Brazil and the Greek Oceanids, Nereids, and Naiads. One freshwater mermaid-like creature from European folklore is Melusine, who is sometimes depicted with two fish tails, and other times with the lower body of a serpent. It is said in Japan that eating the flesh of a ningyo can grant unaging immortality. In some European legends mermaids are said to be unlucky.[citation needed]

Mermaids and mermen are also characters of Philippine folklore, where they are locally known as sirena and siyokoy, respectively.[22] The Javanese people believe that the southern beach in Java is a home of Javanese mermaid queen Nyi Roro Kidul.[citation needed]

In "Sadko" (Russian: Садко), a Russian medieval epic, the title character - an adventurer, merchant and gusli musician from Novgorod - lives for some time in the underwater court of the "Sea Tsar" and marries his daughter before finally returning home. The tale inspired such works as the poem "Sadko"[23] by Alexei Tolstoy (1871–1872), the opera Sadko composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the painting by Ilya Repin.

Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom by Ilya Repin

Claimed sightings

Claimed sightings of dead or living mermaids have come from places as diverse as Java and British Columbia. There are two Canadian reports from the area of Vancouver and Victoria, one from sometime between 1870 and 1890, the other from 1967.[24][25]. In some of the earliest accounts of Blackbeard's sail logs in the BBC documentary Pirates, he instructed his crew on several voyages to steer away from charted waters which he called "enchanted" for fear of Merfolk or mermaids, which Blackbeard and many members of the crew reported seeing and documenting.[26] These sighting were often recounted and shared by many sailors and pirates who believed the mermaids were bad luck and would bewitch them into giving up their gold and dragging them to the bottom of the seas.

In August 2009, the town of Kiryat Yam in Israel offered a prize of $1 million for anyone who could prove the existence of a mermaid off its coast, after dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of the water like a dolphin and doing aerial tricks before returning to the depths.[27] The prize has not yet been awarded.


According to Dorothy Dinnerstein’s book, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, human-animal hybrids such as the minotaur and the mermaid convey the emergent understanding of the ancients that human beings were both one with and different from animals:

"[Human] nature is internally inconsistent, that our continuities with, and our differences from, the earth's other animals are mysterious and profound; and in these continuities, and these differences, lie both a sense of strangeness on earth and the possible key to a way of feeling at home here."[28]

Human divers

For centuries, in Japan and other Pacific island countries, female Ama divers would swim nude searching for shellfish. These divers slowly developed the ability to hold their breath for long periods of time and to survive in cold water that would kill most people from hypothermia. Women make better divers than men because of their physiological advantages in tolerating cold. After surfacing they would hyperventilate to restore their oxygen levels which would make a loud sighing sound referred to as the isobue or "sea whistle" or in Japanese as the "song of the sea". They needed to rest periodically and so after diving, as aid to maintaining lung capacity, these women frequently would sing loud songs and this may have been the origin of the Siren myth.

It is plausable that ancient sailors might have encountered these divers and assumed they were not human because of their ability to withstand the cold water and to submerge for several minutes at a time. There were laws restricting poaching in the sea so local village people would have had an interest in propagating and reinforcing the Siren and Mermaid myths to protect the divers and their wealth.

The tradition of women divers has been documented in many other countries outside of Asia. In fact, many of the early artistic depictions of mermaids showed normal human women with legs rather than the typical fish-tail of the modern mythical image. [29]

16th century Zennor mermaid chair

Art and literature

One influential image was created by John William Waterhouse, from 1895 to 1905, entitled A Mermaid, (see the top of this article). An example of late British Academy style artwork, the piece debuted to considerable acclaim (and secured Waterhouse's place as a member of the Royal Academy), but disappeared into a private collection and did not resurface until the 1970s. It is currently once again in the collection of the Royal Academy.[30]

Famous in more recent centuries is Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid (1836), which has been translated into many languages. Andersen's portrayal, immortalized with a famous bronze sculpture in Copenhagen harbour, has arguably become the standard and has influenced most modern Western depictions of mermaids since it was published. The mermaid, as conceived by Andersen, appears to represent the Undines of Paracelsus, which also could only obtain an immortal soul by marrying a human being.[citation needed]

The best known musical depictions of mermaids are those by Felix Mendelssohn in his Fair Melusina overture and the three "Rhine daughters" in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Lorelei, the name of one of the Rhine mermaids, has become a synonym for a siren. A more recent depiction in contemporary concert music is The Weeping Mermaid by Taiwanese composer Fan-Long Ko.[citation needed]

Sue Monk Kidd has written a book called The Mermaid Chair. The title comes from a mermaid who becomes a (fictional) saint.

Saint James Comics published an 8-page comic in which the mermaid queen Atargatis captures two adventurers and attempts to imprison them forever.

Movie depictions include the comedy Splash (1984) and "Aquamarine"(2006). A 1963 episode, The Cruelest Sea, of the television series Route 66, featured a real mermaid working at Weeki Wachee aquatic park. Mermaids also appeared in the popular supernatural drama television series Charmed, and were the basis of its spin-off series Mermaid. In Mermaid Chronicles Part 1: She Creature (2001), two carnival workers abduct a mermaid in Ireland, circa 1900, and attempt to transport her to America.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides old and new myths about mermaids are mixed. Mermaids are said to sing to sailors to entice them and enchant them into the water. Once in the water, they take the sailor down to the depths of the sea where the sailor drowns, and the mermaids eat them. Mermaids that are taken onto dry land change and have legs, but they will dry up and die if out of water too long. The kiss of a mermaid will physically heal a human, and her tears have magical properties, needed to activate the true power of the Fountain of Youth.

Animated films include Disney's popular musical version of Andersen's tale, The Little Mermaid, and Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo.

Coat of arms of Warsaw


In heraldry, the charge of a mermaid is commonly represented with a comb and a mirror, and blazoned as a 'mermaid in her vanity'. Merfolk were used to symbolize eloquence in speech.[citation needed]

A shield and sword-wielding mermaid (Syrenka) is on the official Coat of arms of Warsaw. The city of Norfolk, Virginia also uses a mermaid as a symbol. The capital city of Hamilton, Bermuda has the mermaid in its coat of arms.[citation needed]

The personal coat of arms of Michaëlle Jean, a former Governor General of Canada, features two mermaids as supporters.[31]


During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, dugongs, frauds and victims of sirenomelia were exhibited in wunderkammers as mermaids.[citation needed]

In the 19th century, P. T. Barnum displayed in his museum a taxidermal hoax called the Fiji mermaid. Others have perpetrated similar hoaxes, which are usually papier-mâché fabrications or parts of deceased creatures, usually monkeys and fish, stitched together for the appearance of a grotesque mermaid. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, pictures of Fiji "mermaids" circulated on the Internet as supposed examples of items that had washed up amid the devastation, though they were no more real than Barnum's exhibit.[32]


Sirenia is an order of fully aquatic, herbivorous mammals that inhabit rivers, estuaries, coastal marine waters, swamps, and marine wetlands. Sirenians, including manatees and the dugong, have major aquatic adaptations: arms used for steering, a paddle used for propulsion, hind limbs (legs) are two small bones floating deep in the muscle. They appear fat, but are fusiform, hydrodynamic, and highly muscular. Prior to the mid 19th century, mariners referred to these animals as mermaids.[33]


Sirenomelia, also called "mermaid syndrome", is a rare congenital disorder in which a child is born with his or her legs fused together and reduced genitalia. This condition is about as rare as conjoined twins, affecting one out of every 100,000 live births[34] and is usually fatal within a day or two of birth because of kidney and bladder complications. Four survivors were known to be alive as of July 2003.[35]

See also


  1. ^ Teacher's Guide
  2. ^ Mermaids and Ikons: A Greek Summer (1978) page 73 by Gwendolyn MacEwen ISBN 978-0-88784-062-3
  3. ^ Folktales from Greece Page 96 ISBN 1-56308-908-4
  4. ^ Lucian of Samosata, De Dea Syria Part 2, Chapter 14
  5. ^ Irwin, Robert (2003). The Arabian Nights: A Companion. Tauris Parke Paperbacks. pp. 211–2. ISBN 1860649831 
  6. ^ Irwin, Robert (2003). One Thousand and One Nights: A Companion. Tauris Parke Paperbacks. p. 209. ISBN 1860649831 
  7. ^ Durham World Heritage Site
  8. ^ a b Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermaids", p 287. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  9. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 19, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  10. ^ K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, p 57 University of Chicago Press, London, 1967
  11. ^ K. M. Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermaids", p 288. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  12. ^ K. M. Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermaids", p 289. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  13. ^ K. M. Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Liban", p 266-7. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  14. ^ K. M. Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermen", p 290. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  15. ^ MacKenzie, Donald A. (1931). Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life — Studies in Race, Culture and Tradition. Blackie. pp. 251. ISBN 9781444656367. 
  16. ^ "The Mermaid". Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  17. ^ "Warsaw Mermaid's Statue". Retrieved 2008-07-10. 
  18. ^ (English) "History of Warsaw's Coat of Arms". Retrieved 2008-07-10.  The mermaid is used as an official animal/mascot of many mythical stories involving pirates and the sea. It is also associated with "sea cows" that are called manatees. Sailors would see the animals and categorize them as mythical mermaids. I think this is an important fact, that we mention real humans converting into realistic mermaids for careers to be features in aquariums, zoos, theme parks, ads, and a means to take this fictitious animal and turn it into a mascot for promotion to save our seas on an environmental standpoint. Famous examples of women who become "Professional Real Life Mermaids" can be found at:
  19. ^ Diccionario de Argot Cubano - Conexion Cubana !
  20. ^ Bennett, Lennie (July 10, 2008). "Four exhibitions woven into 'Textures'". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2009-04-25. 
  21. ^ Hibiscus tiliaceus - Hau (Malvaceae) - Plants of Hawaii
  22. ^ "Tagalog-English Dictionary by Leo James English, Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, Manila, distributed by National Book Store, 1583 pages, ISBN 971-91055-0-X
  23. ^ "A History of Russian Poetry", by Evelyn Bristol, 1991, ISBN 0195046595, p. 149
  24. ^ Myths & Legends
  25. ^ Folklore Examples in British Columbia
  26. ^ "Pirates". BBC Radio World Service. Retrieved July 26, 2011. 
  27. ^ "Is a mermaid living under the sea in Kiryat Yam?", Haaretz 12 Aug. 2009.
  28. ^ Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur. New York: Harper and Row, 1963. Cited by Northstar Gallery
  29. ^ Mermaids are real
  30. ^ Prettejohn, Elizabeth et al (2008). J. W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, p. 144. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London. ISBN 978-90-8586-490-5.
  31. ^ Canadian Heraldic Authority (20 September 2005). "The Public Register of Arms, Flags, and Badges of Canada > Michaëlle Jean". Queen's Printer for Canada. Retrieved 23 September 2008. 
  32. ^ Urban Legends Reference Pages: Mermaid to Order
  33. ^ "Experts: Sea cow 'sirens' fuel mermaid mythology; sailors' deprivation sparked images". December 25, 2005. Retrieved October 30, 2009. 
  34. ^ Kallen B, Castilla EE, Lancaster PA, Mutchinick O, Knudsen LB, Martinez-Frias ML, Mastroiacovo P, Robert E (1992). "The cyclops and the mermaid: an epidemiological study of two types of rare malformation". J Med Genet 29 (1): 30–5. doi:10.1136/jmg.29.1.30. PMC 1015818. PMID 1552541. 
  35. ^ "Journal of Pediatric Surgery: A surviving infant with sirenomelia (mermaid syndrome) associated with absent bladder". ScienceDirect. 25 July 2003. Retrieved 2008-02-16. 
Further reading
  • Andreas Kraß: Meerjungfrauen. Geschichten einer unmöglichen Liebe. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2010.

External links

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  • Mermaid — Mer maid, n. [AS. mere lake, sea. See {Mere} lake, and {maid}.] A fabled marine creature, typically represented as having the upper part like that of a woman, and the lower like a fish; a sea nymph, sea woman, or woman fish. [1913 Webster] Note:… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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  • mermaid — (n.) mid 14c., mermayde, lit. maid of the sea, from Middle English mere sea, lake (see MERE (Cf. mere) (n.)) + MAID (Cf. maid). Old English had equivalent merewif water witch (see WIFE (Cf. wife)), meremenn …   Etymology dictionary

  • mermaid — ► NOUN ▪ a mythical sea creature with a woman s head and trunk and a fish s tail. ORIGIN from MERE(Cf. ↑mere) (in the obsolete sense sea ) + MAID(Cf. ↑maid) …   English terms dictionary

  • mermaid — [mʉr′mād΄] n. [ME mermayde: see MERE2 & MAID] 1. an imaginary sea creature with the head and upper body of a beautiful woman and the tail of a fish 2. a girl or woman who swims well …   English World dictionary

  • Mermaid — Modellboot der Mermaid III Unter dem Namen Mermaid (engl.: Meerjungfrau) entwickelte und produzierte das Karlsruher Unternehmen Bruker Meerestechnik ab 1969 verschiedene Typen von Forschungs U Booten. Die 1971 vom Stapel gelassene Mermaid I… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • mermaid — /merr mayd /, n. 1. (in folklore) a female marine creature, having the head, torso, and arms of a woman and the tail of a fish. 2. a highly skilled female swimmer. [1300 50; ME mermayde. See MERE2, MAID] * * * ▪ legendary being masculine  merman  …   Universalium

  • mermaid — [14] A mermaid is literally a ‘seamaiden’. The word was coined on the basis of English mere [OE], which is now a little used term for ‘lake’, but originally denoted ‘sea’ (it came ultimately from Indo European *mori , *mari ‘sea’, which also… …   The Hutchinson dictionary of word origins

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