Mermaids: Aquatic Rescuers Or Malicious Predators?
WORLD HISTORY | June 14, 2019
Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). Source: (disney.wikia.com)
Thanks to Disney and Hans Christian Andersen, mermaids are most often thought of as human-like creatures who live in the ocean. Despite having fishtails and the ability to breathe underwater, they are not so different from people. In fact, some of them, like Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, have been known to rescue humans from shipwrecks, fall in love with humans, and even to become human themselves. However, the merfolk of mythology and legend have much more in common with the horrific creatures of another Disney movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).
According to Terry Breverton’s book, Phantasmagoria: A Compendium of Monsters, Myths, and Legends, the earliest merfolk in mythology was actually a merman. Ea, the Babylonian god of the sea, was described as having the lower body of a fish and the upper body of a human. Ea eventually made his way into Greek and Roman mythology where he was known as Poseidon and Neptune, respectively. The first mermaid was Atargatis, the ancient Syrian goddess of fertility and well-being.
Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, and philosopher who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and whose nephew, Pliny the Younger, was responsible for providing an accurate description of the event, wrote about mermaid-like creatures called Nereids. According to his writings, Legatus of Gaul claimed to have found several of these creatures “dead upon the sea-shore.” Pliny the Elder also wrote of “sea-men” which would climb aboard ships at night, often causing them to sink. These sea-men were similar to the sirens of Greek mythology, frequently described as mermaids, whose singing would lure sailors to their deaths. During the 16th Century, fishermen believed it bad luck to catch a mermaid.
But it wasn’t just mermaids who had a reputation for malice. Mermen were also known for wreaking havoc on ships. The Blue Men of the Minch, who lived in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, would allegedly challenge the ship’s captain to a rhyming contest and only by winning the contest could the captain save his crew and his ship from being sunk. Similarly, the Japanese Kappa, which were child-sized water spirits, were said to challenge humans to games of life or death. The Kappa were also believed to devour children or anyone who swam alone.
Other tales of merfolk have regarded them as just another creature of the sea, no different than whales. In fact, there have been numerous alleged “mermaid sightings” in history, including ones by well-known figures such as John Smith and Christopher Columbus. While it is unclear what John Smith saw in Newfoundland which he described as having long green hair, it has been concluded that the three mermaids allegedly sighted by Columbus near the Dominican Republic were most likely manatees.
Not all stories painted merfolk in a bad light. Scottish and Welsh legends told of mermaids befriending, and sometimes marrying, humans. Mermaids of the Shetlands Islands are said to be beautiful women who can walk on land but must don the skin of the fish to return to their home under the sea. Perhaps it was these legends which inspired Hans Christian Andersen to write his tale of the young mermaid who falls in love with a human.
Like it? Share with your friends!