Mermaids – History of Mermaids

Mermaids have long fascinated humans, right from the days of Hans Christian Anderson’s novel, The Little Mermaid, to the children of today that read about Mermaids and Mermen in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The fascination of humans with these peculiar creatures is not restricted to the West. Philippines, Japanese and a variety of other completely distinct and separate cultures refer to mermaids and mermaid like creatures.

Firstly, what is a Mermaid?

A mermaid is a creature that is half human, and half fish. Mermaids are female, while the Mermen, naturally, are the males. They have the torso of a fish, and the upper body of a human being. Mermaids are also often interchanged with water nymphs, water fairies and selkies. Mermaids are usually considered to be very beautiful, and extremely attractive in looks, as opposed to one’s normal presumption that their scales would make them look repulsive. According to legends of yore, there were many instances where in sailors that caught a glimpse of the Mermaid were so attracted to it, that they jumped into the sea to make contact, and were eventually drowned in the process. Some cultures accuse Mermaids of possessing such beauty that they have a hypnotic effect on men. Some claim that the Mermaid drowns them in the process of taking them to their underwater homes, while others insist that Mermaids are creatures to stay away from, as they drown their victims of lust purposely, and suck out their life from them.

The word Mermaid itself is a word made of two parts; the first being the word Mer, the ancient English word for sea, and maid referring to a female.

Historical insight of the Mermaid

Unlike the Disney movie, The Little Mermaid, the original mermaid referred to by various cultures and civilizations, and their records and books testify to the presence of the mermaid. However, many of these reports cite that the mermaids were not very pretty, as depicted in the movie! The numbers of references available to Mermaids, from Russia to Japan, India to East Indies, The British Isles to the Atlantic Ocean bring forth a spirit of curiosity and awe in these magnificent and wonderful creatures that grace the sea.

One of the earliest mentions of the mermaids dates back to well over five thousand years ago, and finds mention in ancient Mesopotamian culture. According to them, it was the merman, Oannes, which rose everyday from the water and gave man knowledge, reasoning and brought writing, wisdom, science and other such civilization institutions. The Mesopotamian culture credits Oannes with the deed of thrusting forward the civilization by advancing their development and helping man in technology.

The Assyrians mention mermaids or half human half fish like creatures in records that date back to 1000 BC. According to their folklore, the first mermaid was a goddess that loved a human shepherd, and eventually killed him. The story goes forth that she tried to hide in a lake out of sheer ill fame and agony, but the waters could not contain the power of her beauty. Hence, she was transformed into half a fish, and lo! The first Mermaid was born!

The Greeks also recognized the Assyrian Mermaid and referred to her as Derketo. According to Greek mythology, King Alexander the Great’s sister was transformed to a Mermaid after her death, and she still lives in the seas in the Aegean.

The Arabians and Persians also mention the Mermaids and Mermen in their famous folk lore, the Arabian Nights. References to Mermaids and Merpeople are made in a number of stories. However, more than as half human and half fish creatures, the Arabian version of the Mermaid looked like a normal human being, but had the uncanny ability to breathe underwater. Some of the stories of the Arabian Nights deal almost completely with these strange peoples, their cities, their way of life and their character. The Arabian Nights also make mention of the mermaids that have the hypnotic effect on sailors. This time it is not their looks that make the sailors helpless and drive them to their doom, but the beautiful and irresistible songs that the mermaids sing to lure them into their traps.

Strangely enough, the British and English mention of the Mermaid in their folklore does not do the mermaid any kinder. They consider the mermaid to be a bad omen and the Mermaid is usually an indication of an upcoming thunderstorm, hurricane or a ship that will eventually sink and go down. The sight of a Mermaid meant death for all the sailors of the ship that sighted the Mermaid.

The number of paintings of Mermaids and Mermen by various artists and the poems written on these fascinating creatures has indeed reinforced firmly the fact that they possess a strong hold over native cultures throughout the world.

The African folklore is also not far behind in the tales of Mermaids. African culture gives the mermaid a special place in their religion. The god of water Yemaja, is actually a mermaid, and is referred to as the mother whose offspring are like fishes! The Africans deem the water goddess Yemaja as a very important and crucial personality among all their gods. According to them, the water goddess Yemaja, supports all life underneath the water, and without her existence, no other sea creature can survive.

The West Africans also mention the Mami Wata, which is their version of the mermaid, which matches the description of what we currently consider the Mermaid to be. According to their legends, Mami Wata is a powerful spirit that can bestow upon one horde of wealth, health, power and immense beauty. The spirit however, demands in return, a strict confidential sexual fidelity. The goddess sprit is difficult to please and any slight displeasure caused to the spirit by the human partner will result in the complete removal of all the accumulated wealth and powers of the human being, rendering the unfaithful mate helpless in the world. There are festivities that are celebrated in Western Africa even today, of which Mami Wata forms an important part.

Legends from Warsaw say that the Mermaid swam all the way to Warsaw from the Baltic seas, in order to take the position of the slain Griffin that the mermaid greatly loved and admired. The Griffin was the defender of Warsaw, and was killed in the war that followed a Swedish invasion. As a tribute to the loyalty and courage of the Griffin, the Mermaid took its place unhesitatingly, and has ever since, been the symbol of Warsaw.

Christopher Columbus also reported sightings of Mermaids in his travel logs. He claimed that he saw three mermaids that were playing with themselves in the water. According to him, the mermaids were not as beautiful as ancient texts and literature had mentioned they were, and he testified that they had a face that resembled a human one with striking and distinctive human like facial features.

Henry Hudson, the explorer and traveler also reported sightings of Mermaids along the coasts of Russia, near the North Pole. The explorer claims that the mermaid, upon attracting the attention of the whole crew of his boat, looked earnestly upon all the sailors that gathered. He reported that the Mermaid had long, flowing black hair, white skin and fully developed breasts of a woman.

There is also the story of the Viceroy of Goa, in India, that performed a completely autopsy on the bodies of seven mermaids recovered by them from fishermen, after they were caught in their nets off the coasts of Ceylon, currently Sri Lanka.

There are also reports from Borneo, where local fishermen claimed to have trapped a mermaid in their nets, following which they brought it to land, and kept it in a large vat, where it died after a few days. According to them, the mermaid made the noises of a mouse, and shrieked many times, before it finally died.

Sailors of the ship The Halifax also claimed that they had hunted down mermaids in the seas, and eaten them. They claimed that mermaid meat tasted like veal, and that they were successful in capturing many such mermaids, near the East Indies.

P.T.Barnum, in the year 1842, claimed to the world that he had finally procured the body of a real mermaid from an English scientist that found the Mermaid near the islands of Fiji. He called his exquisite display, the Fiji Mermaid. However, the Mermaid was a fake, and again, there was no concrete proof towards the existence of the mermaid in this world.

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