Tails from the deep: separating the real folklore of mermaids from Disney stories

Mermaids are beautiful, benevolent and captivating – or at least that is the Disneyfied version. Writing for BBC History Revealed, Dr Hetta Howes separates the real-world legends from the fishwives’ stories...

A mermaid combing her hair

What image comes to mind when you hear the word ‘mermaid’? 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. For others, the word will conjure the wan heroine of Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairytale who, unlike her Disney counterpart, is rejected by her prince and dissolves into sea foam, losing the chance to gain an immortal soul.

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It’s largely thanks to the popularity of Andersen’s fairytale that mermaids have become standardised in the west over the past two centuries. 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. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes monstrous, sometimes seductive, sometimes maternal – and oftentimes all of these at once – these enchanting entities can be a far cry from the tragic victim of Andersen’s influential tale.

Mermaids, regardless of where they call home, are persistently contradictory, ambivalent and powerful figures, used to represent the unknown and the undiscovered.

Were mermaids and sirens one and the same?

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. Made famous by Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, sirens are bird-woman hybrids who lure sailors to their deaths through song and who may eat the flesh of men who do not please them sexually.

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. In 1608, explorer Henry Hudson wrote that on one morning “one of our companie looking over board saw a mermaid”, reportedly with the tail of a porpoise and long dark hair.

  • Read more about Sir John Mandeville, the medieval knight whose (tall?) tales made him more popular than Marco Polo

In 1493, near the Rio del Oro (on what is present day Haiti) Christopher Columbus recorded a disappointing encounter with three sirens, describing them as “not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face”.

According to legend, sirens haunt Haitian waters to this very day. Lasirèn, a beautiful woman with a fish tail, is a Haitian spirit summoned by the blowing of a conch. 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.

Sirens climb from the water into a boat in this scene from the Odyssey
Ulysses is tormented by the dulcet tones of the sirens in this 1909 Herbery James Draper painting (Photo by Getty)

Folktales and Victorian freak shows

During the Renaissance, cosmographers often marked unexplored waters with the phrase Hic sunt sirenae – here be sirens/mermaids. As mermaids often represent the mysterious unknown, it is unsurprising that anyone who managed to get their hands on one was eager to show it off, and to turn the public’s fascination to their own financial gain.

One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon is the Feejee Mermaid, which made its way from Nagasaki to London in 1822.

In Japan, instead of mermaids an explorer might find ningyo. Literally translated as ‘human fish’, these are more varied, and often more monstrous, than European mermaids. 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.

A Japanese folktale 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

In 1854, when 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.

The advertisement for its London exhibition declared Eades’ mermaid “The wonder of the World, the admiration of all ages, the theme of the Philosopher, the Historian, and the Poet”. Apparently, the general public were as convinced as Eades, or at least very curious: the Mirror estimated that 3,000- 4,000 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. It eventually ended up in the hands of ‘greatest showman’ PT Barnum, who successfully toured the creature around America.

The mermaids of Africa

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 trade, which transported millions of enslaved people across the Atlantic, a journey during which many died.

African mermaid lore therefore represents both the dominance and ambivalence of water in the continent’s culture. 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.

African mermaid lore therefore represents both the dominance and ambivalence of water in the continent’s culture

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. Goddess of sensuality and fertility, she reigns over the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in Nigeria. Folktales describe her spiteful temper and the sinister smile she reserves for those who have wronged her.

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. 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 3,000-4,000 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 child. 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.

Mélusine

According to medieval French legend, a beautiful fairy named Mélusine was singing by a fountain when she met a nobleman, Raymond. She agreed to marry him, on one condition: he must leave her alone on a Saturday. The couple enjoyed a happy marriage for many years, and Mélusine used her powers to build the powerful fort of Lusignan.

But, one fateful Saturday, Raymond spied on Mélusine. He found her bathing – and spotted that she had the tail of a ‘serpent’. Mélusine was transformed into a dragon by Raymond’s betrayal and flew away. Some say that Mélusine’s cries still haunt Lusignan. But those seeking the mermaid today are more likely to find her on their Starbucks coffee cup, as the company’s logo is reportedly based on a 16th-century depiction of her likeness.

Sedna

Inuit mythology tells of a girl who refused to take a husband and instead, married a dog. Furious, the girl’s father took her out to sea in a boat and threw her overboard. 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.

During the 20th century, local water goddesses became increasingly homogenised under the general name of Mami Wata, pidgin English for ‘Mother Water’. 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. While she is known to be seductive and dangerous, Mami Wata is also associated with fertility (although, ironically, it is believed that her followers can’t bear children).

A liaison with Mami Wata often requires a significant sacrifice – perhaps celibacy, or even the life of a family member – but she can bestow great wealth in exchange; known as a “capitalist” deity, she is materialistic and associated with social mobility.

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. Disney’s The Little Mermaid is about to get a live-action reboot, Beyoncé dressed up as Oshun in her music video for the single ‘Hold Up’, and Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch was awarded Costa Book of the Year for 2020.

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.

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This article was first published in the May 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed