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For many people, it will be Ariel, the redheaded Disney princess who trades her tail for legs and her voice for a chance to win herself a life on land. Like Ariel, they are depicted as hybrid creatures, with the torso and head of a beautiful woman and the tail of a fish. They often carry a mirror and a comb, and have the speech and personality of a human woman.
However, the history of the mermaid myth, and its many manifestations across the globe, reveals a far more complex picture. Mermaids transform depending on which seas we find them in. Mermaids, regardless of where they call home, are persistently contradictory, ambivalent and powerful figures, used to represent the unknown and the undiscovered. The origins of mermaids are difficult to trace. While some cultural historians believe that fish goddesses in early religions were their ancestors, others consider sirens to be the first models for mermaids.
In the 13th century, writer Richard de Fournival recorded three kinds of sirens, two of which are actually half woman and half fish. This helps to explain why sirens and mermaids became interchangeable in Renaissance Europe. Both were consistently associated with fertility, seduction and the dangers of sexual encounter — and people really did believe in their existence.
Tales of mermaids and sirens were spread by travellers from sea to land, and sightings are recorded by sailors from the Middle Ages right through to the 18th century. According to legend, sirens haunt Haitian waters to this very day. A symbol of wealth and seduction, she bestows prosperity on those she favours, but angers easily. Carrying a mirror to represent the portal between the human and mystical worlds, she might visit you in a dream and take you down to her underwater realm, to teach you sacred secrets. One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon is the Feejee Mermaid, which made its way from Nagasaki to London in In Japan, instead of mermaids an explorer might find ningyo.
All have fish bodies, but some have a horned human head, others a monkey-like head or a scaled face. According to legend, eating the flesh of these creatures will elongate the life of the consumer. The folktale Yao Bikuni tells of a young girl who does just that, and becomes immortal. After outliving several husbands she seeks solace in a convent, but suffers so much ennui that she eventually takes her own life. Another tells of a fisherman who manages to catch a ningyo and feeds its flesh to his children.
However, instead of gaining eternal youth, they immediately grow scales and die. Both tales warn us that encounters with Japanese mermaids might have devastating consequences. Inwhen Japan opened more widely to trade, exportation of ningyo to sideshows in America and Europe, where they were rebranded as mermaids, became a prosperous business.
Captain Samuel Barrett Eades bought one from Dutch sailors, for a vast sum of money. He seems to have been convinced that his Feejee Mermaid, with the head of a monkey, the bottom of a fish and a face contorted in pain and terror, was not only worth the expense, but real — despite the expert opinion of various naturalists who deemed it a fabrication.
Apparently, the general public were as convinced as Eades, or at least very curious: the Mirror estimated that 3, 4, people per day paid their shilling to visit the mermaid. Eventually, as new marvels were brought to shore by other explorers, interest in the Feejee Mermaid waned and the exhibition shut down. Rivers, lakes and seas have been crucial historically in African regions for trade, food, communication and transport.
However, bodies of water also have far darker associations due to the Transatlantic slave tradewhich transported millions of enslaved people across the Atlantic, a journey during which many died. Water spirits, which had long been honoured and celebrated in Africa, become entangled with European iconography of mermaids from the 15th century onwards, as Euro-African contacts increased. In the Yoruba tradition, saints and spirits called orishas are sent by Olodumare, the origin of virtue and morality, to rule the forces of nature.
The orisha Yemonja is mother of the oceans and is often visualised as a siren or mermaid — a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish — holding a conch shell. Temperamental and associated with fertility, Yemonja is worshiped as a protector of women and children and a champion for justice. She increased in prominence in the Caribbean and Americas when enslaved survivors of the Middle Passage began petitioning her for alleviation of their suffering.
Another Yoruba water deity is Oshun. Folktales describe her spiteful temper and the sinister smile she reserves for those who have wronged her. Thousands of years ago, so legend has it, an egg fell from the sky into the Euphrates river. A fish, realising it had found something special, nudged the egg to shore where it hatched a goddess. Thought by many to be the first mermaid, Atargatis also known as Dekerto was a Semitic goddess, worshipped in northern Syria 3, years ago.
Associated with the Moon and fertility, Atargatis reigned over the sea and controlled its waters. However, her story is a tragic one. She fell in love with a shepherd, but ended up killing him after bearing his .
Consumed with guilt and shame she jumped into the sea, where she acquired the lower body of a fish and where she is said to remain to this day. She agreed to marry him, on one condition: he must leave her alone on a Saturday. Inuit mythology tells of a girl who refused to take a husband and instead, married a dog. When she tried to climb back in, he cut off her fingers to drown her. But her fingers changed into seals — or whales, according to other versions of the legend — and she survived.
The girl became Sedna, a sea goddess who guards the oceans. With sea creatures entangled in her hair, Sedna is half woman and half fish, and is often depicted with the bottom half of a killer whale.
While her name seems to have emerged with the slave trade, the concept of Mami Wata can be traced right back to the earlier African orishas and other indigenous water spirits. A powerful and contradictory figure, she is always attractive, with the torso of a woman and the bottom half of a fish tail, often accompanied by a snake.
Mami Wata is traditionally worshipped in trance dances, a practice that slave owners tried to curb. A symbol of female liberation and empowerment, the deity allows women to become powerful priestesses and healers in return for their devotion. Mermaids, from the waters of Haiti to the sacred groves of Nigeria, continue to seduce us.
Mysterious and powerful, forces for destruction and protection, mermaids not only hold up a mirror to the mystical, the supernatural and the unknown, but also to our own societies — and to ourselves. What to read about more fantastical creatures? Here are some of our most popular articles…. in. Back to Main menu Virtual events Masterclasses.
Ulysses is tormented by the dulcet tones of the sirens in this Herbery James Draper painting Photo by Getty. A Japanese folktale tells of a fisherman who manages to catch a ningyo and feeds its flesh to his children. Three memorable mermaids from around the world Atargatis Thousands of years ago, so legend has it, an egg fell from the sky into the Euphrates river.
Sedna Inuit mythology tells of a girl who refused to take a husband and instead, married a dog. Here are some of our most popular articles… Basilisks, manticores and more: medieval fantastic beasts and where to find them From dragons to unicorns: finding fantastic beasts in ancient history 5 facts about the Loch Ness Monster.
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