Of Poseidon by Anna Banks is our June Book of the Month, and since it features mermaids so heavily, we wanted to spend some time this week exploring mermaid mythology, mermaids in pop culture, and other related topics! Today, we’re diving deep to explore MERMAIDS.
Mermaids have appeared in stories and myths from many cultures and parts of the world. Here are some of the versions told across the globe:
Known as “Sirens,” many equate these creatures from Greek mythology with mermaids. In classic retellings, the sirens use their beautiful singing to lure sailors towards rocks, sinking their ships.
One Greek legend claims that Alexander the Great’s sister Thessalonike was turned into a mermaid after she died, living in the Aegean sea and asking sailors for news about her brother.
Assyria & Syria
Some of the earliest mermaid stories appeared in Assyria around 1000 BC:
The goddess Atargatis 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. The earliest representations of Atargatis showed her as a fish with a human head and arm.
One Thousand and One Nights
The story collection “One Thousand & One Nights” includes stories about “Sea People.” In the story “Djullanar the Sea-girl,” the mermaid characters are described without the traditional fin:
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 story, “The Adventures of Bulukiva,” some sailors are lead to their doom when they are mesmerized by the mermaids’ singing.
Stories of mermaids are also found throughout the UK.
In Scottish Mythology, mermaids are known as the “ceasg” — or “maid of the wave.”
In British folklore, mermaids are considered bad omens. They are seen as a sign of disaster, and in many of the stories mermaids are depicted as a source of disaster, such as shipwreckes and storms. (Though occassionally, mermaids were seen in a kinder light, sometimes offering up cures for human ailments.)
Stories about mermaids in the UK also feature mermaids that swim up rivers and into freshwater lakes.
One of the earliest artistic depictions of a mermaid in England can be found in Durham Castle, built around 1078.
In Chinese fairy tales, mermaids are valued for their ability to weave a beautiful, transluscent material and for their tears, which could turn into pearls. In these stories, fishermen would try to catch the mermaids, but would often fall prey to the mermaids’ singing voices.
In other Chinese legends, the mermaids are much easier to trap.
The story of “The Little Mermaid” is Danish in origins — though it is certainly the most well-known mermaid story today, thanks to the likes of Disney. In the original version by Hans Christian Andersen, the mermaid visits the surface and falls in love with a prince she sees on a ship. She bargains with the Sea Witch to turn human, but it is a painful form for the mermaid — and ultimately, the prince does not fall in love with her. According to her bargain with the Sea Witch, the mermaid would have turned to sea foam — but because her love for the prince was so true, she becomes a spirit of the air and watches over the prince.
The mermaid is the symbol of the city of Warsaw, Poland. The mermaid has been part of the Warsaw crest since the 14th century. The city has long been associated with the legends of Triton, who is often linked to mermaids.
Mermaids — or versions of mermaids — appear in legends, stories and mythology from plenty of other places, as well. Stories about across the Caribbean, central African, Europe, Asia, and Russia.
For the comments: What sort of mermaid myths have you heard about from your culture?