Mermaids: Aquatic Rescuers Or Malicious Predators?

By | June 7, 2019

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Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). Source: (

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.

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Freeform’s Siren. Source: (

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.