For thousands of years, in just about every culture spanning the globe, humankind has told tales that blur the line between what’s real and what’s magical. Often these stories have been told in hopes of explaining the unexplainable, or to teach a lesson, or simply to delight and entertain the ears of all who heard them. And while the stories of the world are as diverse as the people living in it, across cultures and countries there are many that coincide in their themes and indeed their characters and creatures.
That includes mermaids. For millennia, they have lived in the folklore of so many civilizations. Mermaid culture is prevalent across the globe as these mythical wonders have been revered, romanticized and immortalized in fables, artwork and literature.
The earliest we know of a mermaid story is from Assyria around 1,000 BC. The goddess Atargatis was the subject of a myth where she accidentally killed the human she had fallen in love with, then jumped into the water to hide in shame. But her godly beauty could not be concealed and so she became half human and half fish. From there, the Greeks recognized her in their own mythology as Derketo. After that, there is speculation this myth influenced in some way the tale of Aphrodite and Eros who became fish and are today honored in the constellation Pisces.
Why Half Human and Half Fish?
No one can say for sure. But it was long before Christ that people first speculated that humans may have developed from seagoing creatures. From there, it’s not a huge leap to consider the idea of a hybrid species and thus the mysticism and romanticism behind a mermaid or a merman.
Beware the Stereotype
We’ve all seen images of the classically beautiful long-haired woman with a fish tail from the waist down. It’s the first image that comes to mind when we think of a mermaid. You may be surprised that different cultures depict these sea creatures in much different fashion. It is in these differences that we see the true beauty and influence of mermaid culture.
The Ningyo from Japan is markedly different from the western view of a mermaid. The Ningyo is depicted as a giant fish with a human face and the mouth of a monkey. It was believed that whomever ate one would be granted eternal youth and beauty. This came at a risk, however, for it was believed that catching one would bring terrible storms and mishaps upon a person’s village.
The cradle of human civilization, Africa, has its mermaid tales about water spirits called Mami Wata (‘mother of the water’). Sometimes they were described as mermaids, sometimes as men, others as snake charmers. They’re venerated in African folk stories and the stories even made it to the Americas.
But it also appears that mermaids, Mami Wata and the sirens of Greek mythology may share a connection. The Mami Wata were feared, especially the females that allegedly lured men to their deaths. This bears striking similarity to the Greek tales of sirens with their captivating voices luring sailors into shipwreck.
Speaking of luring sailors, Brazil has its stories of Iara, the Lady of the Waters. Originally a water snake, over the years through folklore, Iara changed into an immortal woman with long flowing hair and piercing green eyes who lured men to her underwater palace. To this day, Iara is thought by some to have been responsible for the accidents and disappearances of many men of the Amazon.
Hmmm… I seem to be fixating on mermaid culture where the creatures cause trouble. But at least I haven’t yet mentioned Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and the famous statue of the same name in Copenhagen Harbor. Oh, whoops.
Well, onto that and much more in part 2 of this blog where we’ll explore mermaids in the legends of other cultures.
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