Mermaids are intriguing, mysterious sea-dwelling creatures that are typically known for being shy and wary of humans. Tales of mermaids date back thousands of years, but what do we really know about these half-women, half-fish creatures?
The legends of mermaids have changed and evolved over the years, with some saying if you stand near the ocean at night you might hear an enchanting song, or even catch a glimpse of such a creature retreating in the moonlight. So, let’s have a closer look at the history of mermaids, as well as some fascinating sightings and fun facts.
What is a mermaid?
A mermaid typically has the top half of a woman, and a fish’s tail below the waist. If you’ve seen The Little Mermaid, this is a fun, animated version of this enigmatic creature, but the appearance of a mermaid changes slightly across different cultures. In English, the name mermaid comes from “mere”, which is Old English for sea, and “maid” meaning girl or young woman.
These half-human, half-fish creatures are present in nearly every culture, from Europe to Asia. In Western Europe, mermaids are known as Melusine, which has a serpent or fish’s tail and sometimes wings. In Southeast Asia, folklore tells the story of a mermaid princess who is a good luck charm across the likes of Thailand and Cambodia. Scotland is home to the Selkies, who take on the form of seals when in the water and humans when on land.
However, the very first mermaid legend dates back to around 1000 BC in Syria. The legend goes that the goddess Atargatis dove into a lake in order to take on the form of a fish. The gods would not allow her to give up her beauty, and so only her bottom half became a fish.
Is a siren and mermaid the same thing?
Over the years, mermaids have been known in folklore to represent good luck but also disaster. In much of British culture, mermaids are believed to be a bad omen.
However, this has been a growing misconception that mermaids are the ones responsible for causing danger across the seas. It is in fact sirens that are more malicious creatures, often luring sailors to the untimely passing with enchanting songs.
In Greek mythology, sirens were depicted as half-women, half-bird and not sea creatures at all. This is also the case in Homer’s Odyssey, whereby the sirens would sing a song to entice sailors into the rocky areas of the sea.
Have mermaids been seen in real life?
For centuries, sailors, fishermen and others have reported sightings of mermaids, including none other than Christopher Colombus. Travelling through the Caribbean Islands, Colombus claims to have seen three mermaids, but many historians now believe that what he really saw were manatees, which hadn’t been discovered at that time.
The English pirate Blackbeard also recorded seeing mermaids across the West indies in the 18th century, but some believe that he just wanted others to stay away from the area so he could claim it as his turf.
There have, however, also been much more recent sightings of mermaids. In 1943, Japanese soldiers claim they were attacked by a mermaid creature. The commanding officer ordered the creature to be caught, and it’s claimed the locals delivered a body with arms and face of a human, but the rest with an appearance of a fish. The body was lost through history, so we’ll never know for sure!
In 1998, ten scuba divers spotted a woman swimming with dolphins in Hawaii, but what makes this strange is that the woman had no clothes on, and when she jumped out of the water, all the divers agreed she had the body of a fish.
As recent as 2012, mermaid sightings have been recorded in Zimbabwe. While building a dam, workers said they saw mermaids swimming up to them. In this part of the world, mermaids are bad luck and so the workers refused to continue working on the dams – they are still unfinished today!
Many people these days believe that the mermaid sightings reported around Bristol and South West England over the years could actually have been other creatures, such as seals or large fish. Or merely the hallucinations of lonely sailors. Even so, modern sightings continue to be reported. After tourists claimed to have spotted a mermaid off the coast of Israel, the local tourist board offered a million dollars to the first person to photograph such a creature. In these days of social media and smartphones, will someone finally snap one of these mermaids for all to see? Or will they continue to remain mysterious and elusive as they have done for hundreds of years?
Meet Bristol’s own mermaid!
Bristol Aquarium’s very own real-life mermaid will be visiting us during the August bank holiday to tell us plenty of ‘tails’ of life beneath the sea. Come and catch a glimpse of her for yourself from 26th-28th August!