A Mermaid (1901) by J. W. Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Mermaids are aquatic creatures of folklore, myth, literature and legend who are often equated erroneously with the sirens or the sea-woman (Coleman, 2007). the mermaid has a female human head and body with the tail of a fish. This part-woman and part-fish is central to the Mer-folk themselves and occurs widely in folklore and folktale (Waugh, 1960). In the folklore of Britain mermaids are believed to foretell of disaster, misfortune, as well as represent ill-omens (Briggs, 1976). Common in ancient mythologies the ancient European mermaids are fabulous sea-creatures and supernatural divinities consistent with maritime folklore.


Havfrue (1873).  By Elizabeth, J. Bauermann

Mermaids, in common with the mythic water-horses, kelpies, and the seal-folk or selkies, can assume human form (Waugh, 1960). The term is derived from mer the French for sea and maid for a young woman, with the German meerfrau or woman from the sea regarded as akin to humans (Anon, 1896). Mermaids are regarded by some as resembling sirens who use their alluring songs of enchantment to cause mishap to sailors. In this sense mermaids have been connected to selkies, water nymphs, and water-fairies. However, the sea-nymphs must be distinguished from the mermaid because mythologically “…sea maidens, or mermaids, and sirens were very different creatures.” (Anon, 1896).

Victorian mermaid

A Victorian Mermaid

Throughout Europe tales of mermaids in variable forms are to be found. In Scandinavian folklore there is a beautiful aquatic form of the Huldra, a dairy-maid or Lady of the Forest, called Havsfrun or Sjora which is eqated with the mermaid. There is also the Danish maremind, the Irish murdnac which is anglicised to merrow. On the coast of Brittany the morgans or sea-women are beautiful and siren-like and dangerous.


Havsrun by Jona Lajla. Source: public domain.

Hulfra's nymphs

Huldra’s Nymphs (1909) by Bernard Evans Ward.  Source: public domain.

In terms of origin in folklore it was Charles Kingsley in his book “The Water Babies” who suggested that if we can have water babies why not land babies? In terms of mythic origin “…the mermaid of folktale has no kinship with sirens or sea-nymphs, and certainly none with the fish-shaped gods.” (Anon, 1896).


The Land Baby (1899).  J. Collier.

Mermaids may resemble in appearance the sea-nymph or siren but certainly differ in nature. Mermaids may not contain much, if anything, of the supernatural in their origin,  whereas a nymph of the sea is a daughter of a deity. It was the bestiaries of the middle-ages that popularised the idea of the mermaid sitting on rocks with a mirror, combing her long tresses, as she lured sailors to their doom (Coleman, 2007). It follows thus that it was the bestiaries that confused the siren with mermaids (Burnell, 1949).


The Mermaid and the Pirate Ship.  Unknown artist.

This stresses the historical origin of the modern concept of the mermaid in historical and early Christian times (Waugh, 1960). This also despite  the fact early representations of mermaids showed them with wings and bird-like features (Coleman, 2007). Again, in some folkloric traditions the mermaid as a supernatural being is believed related to the banshee and the ‘washer-woman at the ford’ (Campbell, 1900).

mermaid and sailors

The Mermaid and the Sailors.  H. D. Johnson.

In Celtic mythology and folklore there is the muruch from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic and is also an equivalent of the merfolk. These aquatic sprites are also known as the Muir-gheilt; the Samhghublia; the Suire, and the Murrough in Galloway. Again, in appearance they are human from the waist up and fishlike from the waist down. Commonly known as the Merrow their maidens are regarded as very beautiful with a gentle disposition, markedly affectionate and kindly. Recognised by their possessing a soft inter-digital webbing they are reputed to be seen sitting combing their long green hair near the sea shore. These female Merrow Maidens are belived to entice young men beneath the waters of the sea to live below in an enchanted state. In the Isle of Man a mermaid is called a ben-verrey with her male counterpart the dinny-mara.


Merrow Maidens: Source: public domain.

Originally, in Assyria circa 1000 BC, the goddess Atagartis was represented in the form of a mermaid. Atagartis became the fish-tailed wife of the Babylonian god Oannes (Waugh, 1960). In this respect legends of mermaids and fishermen may be a vestige of an archaic ritual of human sacrifice to ancient ocean deities. Hesiod (1981) wrote of some 4000 mermaids who were the daughters of the god Okeanus, just as Horace, in his Ars Poetica,  stated “…to make what at top was a beautiful woman terminate nastily in a black fish’s tail.” (cited in Burnell, 1949). For Virgil (1995) the sea monster Scylla was a “…lovely maiden to the waist, but below it is a fearful dragon with wolfish belly and dolphin tails.”

The worship of the hybrid fish-tailed goddess disappeared eventually from ancient Greece (Waugh, 1960). It was therefore in the East that the hybrid originated “…where very ancient fertility deities had long been represented in that form…the Syrian goddess Atargatis or Derketo, known as the fish goddess was one.” (Burnell, 1949).


Statue relief of fish-tailed Atagartis

Mermaid legends in myth are older than the ancient Greek and ancient Arabic legends as is shown by their commonality in regions not influenced by Greece or Arabia. This illustrates the idea that there has been much embellishment of mermaid tales that are not original (Anon, 1896). In Japanese folklore there is a fish-like creature or mermaid called the Ningyo which means ‘human fish’. whose image is not beautiful.


The Ningyo from Japanese folklore

References and Sources Consulted

Anonymous.  (1896).  The Mermaid Myth.  The Speaker.  Jan 11, 1896. 40-41.

Briggs, K.  (1976).  An Encyclopaedia of Fairies….

Burnell, F. S.  Ino and her veil.  Folklore.  LX (1).  31.3.1949.

Campbell, J. G.  (1900).  The Celtic Otherworld.  R. Black.  Edinburgh.

Coleman, J. A.  (2007).  Dictionary of Mythology.  Capella, London

Hesiod.  (1981).  Theogony.  Penguin Classics.

O’Hanlon, J.  (1973).  Irish Folklore.  E. P. Publishing.

Virgil.  (1995).  The Aeneid.  Wordsworth Classics, |London.

Waugh, Sir A.  (1960).  The Folklore of the Merfolk.  Folkore.  71 (2), June.

Yeats, W. B.  (1896).  Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.  New York.


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