Mermaid

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A Mermaid, by John William Waterhouse, 1901.
Mermaid and merman, 1866. Anonymous Russian folk artist.

A mermaid is a mythological creature with a female human head and the tail of a fish. Mermaids live mostly in the water, although sometimes they are known to come out and sit on the rocks above the sea.

Overview and etymology[change | edit source]

The word is a compound of mere, the Old English word for "sea", and maid, a woman. The male equivalent is a merman. Much like sirens, mermaids sometimes sing to people and gods and enchant them, distracting them from their work and causing them to walk off the deck or run their ships aground. Other stories depict them squeezing the life out of drowning men while attempting to rescue them. They are also said to carry humans down to their underwater kingdoms. In Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, it is said that they forget that humans cannot breathe underwater, while others say they drown men out of spite.[citation needed] The sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as mermaid-like; in fact, some languages use the same word for both bird and fish creatures, such as the Maltese word 'sirena'. Other related types of mythical or legendary creatures are water fairies (e.g., various water nymphs) and selkies, animals that can transform themselves from seals to humans.

History[change | edit source]

Ancient Near East[change | edit source]

The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. The goddess Atargatis loved a shepherd and accidentally killed him. She was so sad she jumped into a lake to become a fish, but the waters would not let her beauty be hidden. Because of this, she took the form of a mermaid.

A popular Greek legend turns Alexander the Great's sister into a mermaid after she died.[1] She lived, it was said, in the Aegean that when she met a ship, she asked its sailors only one question: "Is King Alexander alive?" (Greek: "Ζει ο Βασιλιάς Αλέξανδρος;") The answer was "He lives and reigns and conquers the world" (Greek: "Ζει και βασιλεύει και τον κόσμο κυριεύει"). If they answered her question correctly, she calmed the waters for the ship, but any other answer would make her angry, and raise a storm.[2][3]

Arabian Nights[change | edit source]

The Land Baby, by John Collier (1899)

The One Thousand and One Nights includes several tales have "Sea People", such as Djullanar the Sea-girl. Unlike other mythologies, these are almost the same as humans, except the fact that they can breathe and live underwater. They also breed with land humans, the children of them being able to live underwater.

In "The Adventures of Bulukiya", the protagonist Bulukiya's explore the seas, and meets some mermaids.[4]

British Isles[change | edit source]

The Fisherman and the Syren, by Frederic Leighton, c. 1856–1858

Mermaids were noted in British folklore as unlucky omens.[5] Several parts of the song Sir Patrick Spens is about a mermaid speaking to doomed ships, or telling them they will never see land again. Mermaids can also be a sign of bad weather.[6]

Some mermaids were described as very big, up to 2,000 feet (610 m).[5]

Mermaids could also swim up rivers to freshwater lakes. One day, in a lake near his house, the Laird of Lorntie went to help a woman he thought drowning, and a servant of his pulled him back, warning that it was a mermaid, and the mermaid screamed after him that she would have killed him if it were not for his servant.[7]

Sometimes, though, mermaids could appear as nicer characters, teaching humans how to cure diseases.[8]

Mermen were thought of as more wild and ugly than mermaids, but they also were not interested in humans.[9]

Warsaw Mermaid[change | edit source]

1659, Coat of arms of Old Warsaw on the cover of an accounting book of the city.

The mermaid, or syrenka, is the symbol of Warsaw.[10] Images of a mermaid symbolized Warsaw on its crest since the middle of the 14th century.[11]

Claimed sightings[change | edit source]

Some people claim to have seen dead or living mermaids from places such as Java and British Columbia. There are two Canadian reports from the area of Vancouver and Victoria, BC, one from sometime between 1870 and 1890, the other from 1967.[12][13]

In August 2009, the town of Kiryat Yam in Israel offered a prize of $1 million for anyone who could prove that mermaids existed off its coast, after dozens of people said they had seen a mermaid leaping out of the water like a dolphin and doing tricks in the air before returning back to where it had come from.[14] The prize has not yet been awarded.

Art and literature[change | edit source]

16th century mermaid chair

One famous image was created by John William Waterhouse, from 1895 to 1905, called A Mermaid (see the top of this article). It was an example of late British Academy style art, but disappeared and was not found until the 1970s. It is again in the collection of the Royal Academy.[15]

The most famous in more recent centuries is Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid (1836), which has been translated into many languages.

The best known musical about mermaids are those by Felix Mendelssohn in his Fair Melusina and the three "Rhine daughters" in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Movies with mermaids in them are drama television series such as Charmed. Animated movies include Disney's popular musical version of Andersen's tale, and Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo.

Heraldry[change | edit source]

Coat of arms of Warsaw

In heraldry, mermaids are most well known to be presented with a comb or a mirror, and also thought of to be very vain.

A mermaid that had a shield and sword (Syrenka) is on the official Coat of arms of Warsaw. The city of Norfolk, Virginia also uses a mermaid as a symbol.

The personal coat of arms of Michaëlle Jean, Canada's Governor General, features two mermaids.[16]

Hoaxes[change | edit source]

In the 19th century, P. T. Barnum showed in his museum a taxidermal hoax called the Fiji mermaid. Others have made similar hoaxes, which are usually made by paper-mâché or parts of dead creatures, usually monkeys and fish, stitched together too look like a mermaid. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, pictures of Fiji "mermaids" came up on the Internet as examples of items that had washed up onto the beach, though they were no more real than Barnum's exhibit.[17]

Sirenia[change | edit source]

Sirenia is a type of plant-eating mammal like the manatee the dugong that only live in rivers, swamps, and in other large areas of water. Mariners used to call these animals mermaids.[18]

Sirenomelia[change | edit source]

Sirenomelia, also called "mermaid syndrome", is a rare disorder. It happens when a child is born with his or her legs grown together and little or no genitalia. This, however, is as rare as conjoined twins, and only happens to one out of every 100,000 live births.[19] It is usually very bad for the kidney and bladder, and only about four survivors were known to be alive as of July 2003.[20]

Related pages[change | edit source]

References[change | edit source]

  1. Teacher's Guide
  2. Mermaids and Ikons: A Greek Summer (1978) page 73 by Gwendolyn MacEwen ISBN 978-0-88784-062-3
  3. Folktales from Greece Page 96 ISBN 1-56308-908-4
  4. Irwin, Robert (2003). One Thousand and One Nights: A Companion. Tauris Parke Paperbacks. p. 209. ISBN 1860649831
  5. 5.0 5.1 Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermaids", p 287. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  6. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 19, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  7. K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, p 57 University of Chicago Press, London, 1967
  8. K. M. Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermaids", p 288. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  9. K. M. Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Mermen", p 290. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  10. "The Mermaid". http://www.ucl.ac.uk/atlas/polish/mywarsaw/warsaw10.html. Retrieved 2008-02-11.
  11. "Warsaw Mermaid's Statue". http://www.um.warszawa.pl/v_syrenka/perelki/index_en.php?mi_id=47&dz_id=2. Retrieved 2008-07-10.
  12. Myths & Legends
  13. Folklore Examples in British Columbia
  14. "Is a mermaid living under the sea in Kiryat Yam?", Haaretz 12 Aug. 2009.
  15. Prettejohn, Elizabeth et al. (2008). J. W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, p. 144. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London. ISBN 978-90-8586-490-5.
  16. Canadian Heraldic Authority (20 September 2005). "The Public Register of Arms, Flags, and Badges of Canada > Michaëlle Jean". Queen's Printer for Canada. http://www.gg.ca/heraldry/pub-reg/project-pic.asp?lang=e&ProjectID=929&ProjectElementID=3456. Retrieved 23 September 2008.
  17. Urban Legends Reference Pages: Mermaid to Order
  18. "Experts: Sea cow 'sirens' fuel mermaid mythology; sailors' deprivation sparked images". underwatertimes.com. December 25, 2005. http://www.underwatertimes.com/news.php?article_id=05297681013. Retrieved October 30, 2009.
  19. Kallen B, Castilla EE, Lancaster PA, Mutchinick O, Knudsen LB, Martinez-Frias ML, Mastroiacovo P, Robert E (1992). "The cyclops and the mermaid: an epidemiological study of two types of rare malformation". J Med Genet 29 (1): 30–5. doi:10.1136/jmg.29.1.30. PMC 1015818. PMID 1552541.
  20. "Journal of Pediatric Surgery: A surviving infant with sirenomelia (mermaid syndrome) associated with absent bladder". ScienceDirect. 25 July 2003. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WKP-4950J75-14&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_rig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=e3c14c888d56c7c1a6191a3567cfd7c5. Retrieved 2008-02-16.

Other Websites[change | edit source]