MERMAIDS: FROM MYTH TO REALITY
Why have mermaids aroused such intense fascination across cultures for so many centuries?
By Patricia Furtado de Mendonça
There is no mythology or religion in the world that does not tell of how life originated on Earth. In all of them, there are references to the primordial ocean, where it is believed the first forms of life sprung from. One need only see the abundance of symbolisms that originate from the ocean’s most diverse narratives to realise its mysterious allure. It is no surprise, then, that amid the many mythological creatures of folklore and legend, the mermaid is among those that provokes the most curiosity and interest – she brings us back to our past, reminding us of our aquatic genesis before we were born into the terrestrial world.
MERMAIDS AND SIRENS
Mermaids and sirens are not the same creature, even though it has become commonplace to use both terms when referring to the same being. The etymology of the word “siren” is uncertain, but some scholars claim that it derives from the pre-Greek term seirá, which means “rope”, “to tie”, “to fasten”. Hence, it refers to the sense of someone who binds and captures. In the case of sirens, this takes place through their magical chanting. Other scholars believe that this name comes from the Ancient Greek word seirén, which means “enchanting”.
In Greek mythology, the sirens were three nymphs who were servants to Persephone, the queen of the underworld. When Persephone was abducted by Hades, Demeter, Persephone’s mother and the goddess of harvest and fertility, turned the three nymphs into winged beings, half woman, and half bird, so they could locate her daughter more easily. After failing to find Persephone, Demeter punished the nymphs and did not lift the spell. They ended up on the island of Anthemoessa, luring passing sailors with their seductive chanting. Beguiled sailors ended up stranded on the island till they perished. As such, the sirens are said to be creatures that spread death and destruction.
The word “mermaid” is a compound of the
Old English “mere”, meaning sea, and “maid”, meaning young woman. These are legendary aquatic creatures that appear, since antiquity, in different folkloric and mythological traditions around the world, usually represented as beings that are half woman and half fish. They are often mistaken for the Nereids of Greek mythology – kind
They are often mistaken for the Nereids of Greek mythology – kind and beautiful sea nymphs and deities who are often depicted mounted on dolphins with a half-fish, half-human body
and beautiful sea nymphs and deities who are often depicted mounted on dolphins with a half-fish, halfhuman body. Some scholars claim that mermaids originated from these creatures.
Nowadays, when one mentions a mermaid, the first image that comes to mind is that of a very beautiful woman with long hair and an ample bosom, often displaying sensual behaviour. The fishtail – more precisely, that of a cetacean – concludes the seductive image of this creature, which invites humans to dive into the water with their sweet song.
At some point in history, these two figures merged into the same creature, now more remembered by the typical characteristics of mermaids. But while the siren is a winged creature seen as treacherous and dangerous, the mermaid is an attractive and enchanting aquatic being. It was this union that allowed their stories, with countless variations, to endure over the centuries.
ATARGATIS: THE FIRST MERMAID
Mesopotamian mythology and culture is filled with anthropomorphic beings, represented in reliefs, stories and coins. One of the first creatures with both human and fish characteristics is the Sumerian water god, Enki, who came to be known as Ea in Babylon and was later called Oannes by the Greeks. He took the form of an amphibian human and was portrayed in several different ways.
However, the figure that most interests us is Atargatis, the mermaid goddess. This amphibian figure begins to appear around 1,000 BC and possesses diverse representations: fish from the waist down and woman from the waist up; a fish’s body with the head of a woman; a woman’s body with the tail of a fish. As a goddess of fertility and protection, she had many sanctuaries built in her honour, usually with pools filled with carp – a sacred fish that, in many cases, could only be touched by the priests in charge of the services in Atargatis’ honour.
Some scholars claim that Atargatis is the continuation of other goddesses from the Bronze Age, such as Atirat, Anat and Attart. At first, she was often worshipped in northern Syria, especially in Hierapolis. Later, her worship spread to all of Syria, then to northern Mesopotamia and the whole of the Roman Empire. She gained notoriety in Greece, where she arrived in the late fourth century BC and was called Derketo or Derceto. Syrian merchants, who carried statuettes of her for good fortune, were responsible for her popularity. She became important all over the Roman Empire (including Egypt), where she came to be known as the Syrian goddess.
In time, certain deities of previously independent cults and mythologies merged. With syncretism, Atargatis was confounded with other goddesses, such as Aphrodite. She was then called the goddess of Nature. Eventually, she took on all the aspects of protection that water entails in life, thereafter being known as the goddess of fertility.
MERMAIDS BETWEEN THE 4TH AND 16TH CENTURY
Mermaid figures appear in artefacts all over the world with different characteristics that often follow local tradition. In the West, the amphibious figure gained ground over the winged Greek figure, despite the previous amalgamations. This is also owed to the replacement of pagan beliefs by Christianity, which saw these seductive creatures as dangerous and amoral – at times comparing them to prostitutes. They could not, then, be winged creatures, as that would give them divine characteristics and bring them closer to God. As such, they lost their wings, left the heavenly paradise and were cast into the waters, gaining their fish tail.
Merman and other strange beings that had a mix of different human and aquatic features also emerged.
From around the 14th century onward, mermaids were pictured holding a comb and mirror, pointing towards their vain and seductive nature. The mirror was considered a magical object attributed to an impure woman, as it was useful to contemplate the face of death or to worship the devil.
RIGHT A depiction of a scene from Homer’sOdyssey, where Ulysses is tied to the ship’s mast to resist the bewitching song of the sirens. Detail from Attic black-figure vase, from 480–470 BC
TOP In this modern replica of the Adda Seal, Enki is walking out of the water while two rivers are pouring from his shoulders. The Adda Seal is an ancient Akkadian cylinder seal dating to circa 2300 BC
BOTTOM A drawing of Atargatis, also referred to as Derceto by the Greeks, taken from German Egyptologist Athanasius Kircher’s tome Oedipus Aegyptiacus
MIDDLE The ancient god Oannes, as depicted in John Aston’s Curious Creatures in Zoology