Human history is filled with mermaid legends. Men and women from just about every corner of the earth have spun yarns, written literature, and created art about creatures and spirits from the water. Some mermaid tales have revolved around spiritual beliefs, some have been about explaining the unexplainable, while others have acted as warnings about the perils of the ocean. These stories have captured the imaginations of people for millennia and will continue to do so for a long time to come. I have mentioned several throughout this website. Here are three more famous mermaids.
The myth of Atargatis is one of the oldest, dating back to 1000 B.C.E. Atargatis was the Assyrian goddess of fertility who protected her people around what is today northern Syria and Iraq. Her followers formed a cult and created a temple near a lake or pool. Although all surviving visual symbols and icons of Atargatis show her to have human characteristics, the legend of her being a mermaid endures. The story mentions her falling in love with a human shepherd but killing him by accident. Overcome with grief, shame and guilt, she retreated to a lake to hide. In a bid to conceal her great beauty and remain hidden in the water, she tried changing herself into a fish, but could not. Only her lower half transformed into a fish tail.
Atargatis’s legend spread throughout the ancient Near East, reaching as far as Rome and Greece. Her legacy is as the mother of fertility, revering fish and doves as sacred and protecting them.
In the great far north of Canada, the Inuit people tell of the goddess Sedna. (To different Aboriginal peoples, she is known as Tallelayuk, Takánakapsâluk, Takannaaluk, Nuliajuk, Arnapkapfaaluk, and other names.) Sedna is the goddess of both sea and land. There are several legends about her, but they all involve her in the ocean. In perhaps this mermaid’s most famous origin story, Sedna mistakenly married a bird spirit disguised as a man and was kidnapped by it. Her father rescued her in a kayak, but the enraged bird spirit flapped its wings to create a storm of large waves. Trying to keep Sedna from the spirit’s clutches, her father pushed her into the sea. As she clung to the kayak in the frigid water, her fingers froze, snapped off and sank (in some versions, her own father cut them off) where they became whales, walruses, and other sea animals. Sedna herself grew a fish tail and thus is revered as the mother and spirit of the sea. Some Inuit believe Sedna protects sea creatures so they can be found by hunters and used to sustain the people.
Undines (sometimes spelled ondines) are spirits or nymphs that represented the classical element of water. Other spirits represented fire, earth and air. Undines are invariably depicted as beautiful females of the water, often with fish tails. Undines were said to occupy waterfalls or pools, and, much like the tales of sirens, they had beautiful and enticing singing voices. Some say that mermaids are even a species of undines.
Writers and playwrights of the 18th and 19th centuries took the ancient Greek concept of undines and developed it. The story became that Undine – a solitary female character, instead of a group – promised her uncle that if her mortal lover was ever unfaithful to her, she would no longer be the source of breath for his lungs. When her lover planned to marry another woman, Undine took her breath from him and he perished. Today, there is a rare form of sleep apnea that endangers the automatic process of breathing that is unofficially called ‘Ondine’s Curse’.
Considering our planet’s surface is 70% water, it is totally understandable that mermaids are famous in so much of human folklore and are interwoven into our cultures. Their stories have enriched people’s lives for many generations and I, for one, intend for their enchanting legacy to continue forever.
Creative Commons Attribution: Permission is granted to repost this article in its entirety with credit to Mermaids of Earth and a clickable link back to this page.