Why have mer­maids aroused such in­tense fas­ci­na­tion across cul­tures for so many cen­turies?

Scuba Diver Australasia + Ocean Planet - - Contents - By Pa­tri­cia Fur­tado de Men­donça

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 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.


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.


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

The Trustees of the Bri­tish Mu­seum, Lon­don

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

Athana­sius Kircher, Oedi­pus Ae­gyp­ti­a­cus, 1652 / Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

BOT­TOM A draw­ing of Atargatis, also re­ferred to as Derceto by the Greeks, taken from Ger­man Egyp­tol­o­gist Athana­sius Kircher’s tome Oedi­pus Ae­gyp­ti­a­cus

John As­ton, Cu­ri­ous Crea­tures in Zo­ol­ogy

MID­DLE The an­cient god Oannes, as de­picted in John As­ton’s Cu­ri­ous Crea­tures in Zo­ol­ogy

Ox­ford Bodleian Li­brary

Jordan Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum

Bodleian Li­brary, Ox­ford Univer­sity

Bri­tish Li­brary Royal

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