American Oceans

The Truth Behind Mermaid Myths

To male Gen Xers, mermaids were real in 1984 when they watched Splash. Why wouldn’t we want to believe there were underwater mythical creatures that looked like Daryll Hannah and were smart enough to learn English in a day by watching TV?

mermaid swimming in the ocean

But not everyone saw that movie, and mermaids have been part of folklore and legend since long before Thomas Edison came up with the idea of the moving picture. So are mermaids real? Or are they as “real” as the Sea God?

Logic says no, probably not. But sightings might make you rethink that idea. Some seem easily disproven, but others aren’t so easily brushed off. The answer to whether mermaids exist might not be so simple. 

What Is a Mermaid, Exactly?

In folklore from a surprisingly diverse collection of cultures’ folklore from around the world, a mermaid is a creature—half woman, half fish—that lives in the ocean and occasionally makes appearances to sailors.

real mermaid posing relax resting ocean shore

As the upper half of the mermaid is the human half, sailors would see them and be struck by their beauty. More than one mermaid story culminates in the man realizing what he’s looking at or talking to. He notices that the woman’s bottom half was like a fish, complete with scales and a tail.

The tales of mermaids go back at least as far as Ancient Greece, and historical accounts of sightings are common.

Humans incorporated the part-fish, part-human trope into mythology as far back as 7,000 years ago—Babylonian god Ea was depicted as part man and part fish. But he was a god, not a mermaid. Still, the idea of a bi-form being has been around for some time.

Mermaid vs Siren

In Homer’s The Odyssey, the goddess Circe warns Odysseus about the sirens. They appeared to be beautiful women and would sing a song irresistible to sailors.

Freediver girl with mermaid tale

The men hearing the song would be unable to stop themselves from sailing their vessel toward the land where they spotted these gorgeous songstresses.

However, upon getting a closer look, the sailors would discover that they were not human women, but bird-like creatures with sharp teeth. By the time the sailors were close enough to see this, their ships would crash into the rocks, and all aboard would perish.

Mermaids are thought of as beautiful creatures, and while sometimes an appearance by one might presage disaster, mermaids are not generally considered the agents of certain death that the sirens were.

Mermaids and sirens are similar in that they’re part human, part something else, but a mermaid’s intentions don’t usually include ensuring the death of sailors.

History of the Mermaid Myth

Mermaid myths began about 3,000 years ago in Assyrian lore. Since then, sightings have only increased, even as the concomitant increase in scientific knowledge renders their existence more and more unlikely. 

Young female free diver swims underwater in a colorful and sexy mermaid costume

The Assyrian mermaid was Atargatis, the goddess of fertility who entered the water and became a mermaid. Other cultures have stories of goddesses doing similar things, and there’s the legend of Thessalonice.

She was real and the half-sister of Alexander the Great. What we know of her life involved politics and the machinations of power, but once she married Cassander, her history gets hazy. In the end, someone murdered her, as her family was a mess of Shakespearean deceit, betrayal, and violent death.

But the legend is a different story. Thessalonice’s famous brother found the Fountain of Immortality on his adventures. He washed her hair with water from it, and she became immortal. So it was a problem for her when Alexander died and she was so sad that she wanted to join him.

She tried to drown herself, but being immortal, she couldn’t die, so she became a mermaid. But Macedonia, from whence she and Alexander the Great hailed, isn’t the only place with mermaid tales.

Asia

The mermaids of Chinese folklore have webbed hands and feet, though other than that, they’re fairly similar to the mermaids of western cultures. Thai mythology tells of Suvannamaccha, a mermaid who bears a child for the prince (a human, of course).

real mermaid

Japanese mermaids are terrifying rather than beautiful creatures. They’re called ningyo, and they’re grotesque and dangerous beings.

If a sailor can eat some of the ningyo’s flesh, he’ll receive immortality, but since they have supernatural powers, wise sailors avoided them. Ningyo sightings were first recorded in Japan more than 2,500 years ago.

In South Korea, a mermaid named Sinjiki appears from time to time to warn sailors of incoming inclement weather.

South America

Brazilian legend tells of Iara, a creature who, depending on the story, is either a siren, nymph, or mermaid, and she lives in fresh water, despite the country’s more than 5,000 miles of coastline.

She uses her beautiful songs to lure men to her, but they don’t drown. Instead, they go with her to live underwater, and she cares for them there.

European Mermaids

The founder of Luxembourg, Count Siegfried, married Melusina, according to legend. She made him promise not to look at her when she was in her mermaid form, but the story goes that he saw her bathing, so she left him for the seas.

Mermaid silhouette

Undine is a German mermaid-like creature that must have a child with a human man to receive a soul. Of all the mermaid myths, Undien’s story may be the one that inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” This story involved true love, but not all mermaid tales do. 

The Merrow in Ireland are the most familiar kinds of mermaids in that they are kind, are half human with a fish bottom half, and marry humans. 

Scotland has the Selkies, who aren’t necessarily mermaids, but rather shape-shifters who change between being seals and being humans.

Some stories hold that these creatures used to be humans, but after they drowned themselves, rather than die, they became Selkies. Scots also told of the Ceasg, who is part human and part salmon. She grants wishes to anyone who captures her.

Russian rusalkas don’t have fishtails, but these aquatic humanoids come out of the water to seduce young men. They are supposedly the ghosts of young women who have died violently.

The South Pacific

The Indonesian island of Java, not surprisingly (because it’s an island) has many mermaid stories in its folklore. A mermaid queen called Nyi Roro Kidul controls the waves and sends tsunamis against those who displease her.

Filipino mermaids sing, sometimes luring sailors to watery deaths, so they hew closely to the Greek sirens.

New Zealand has the legend of Pania of the Reef. She marries a chief of the Maori people and bears him a son.

She abandons the pair when the chief tries to make her stay with him forever as a human. Before that, he let her spend days in the ocean living as a mermaid, and live as a human wife and mother on land by night.

Africa

The Mami Wata is an androgynous sea creature often depicted as a mermaid. She is part of African cultures in countries along the west and southern coasts, and Cameroon lore tells of the Miengu, who are essentially freshwater mermaids.

Mermaid Facts

While mermaids aren’t real creatures, there are certain things we know about them from the stories told around the world. Since so many people love mermaids, we have kept tabs on what marine creatures can and can’t do.

What Do Mermaids Eat?

Since we’ve never been able to ask a mermaid what she eats, we can only suppose. As a sea-dwelling creature, she would probably eat kelp and seaweed. Many legends tell of mermaids specifically being vegetarians, which makes sense.

If a mermaid is part fish, wouldn’t it be cannibalistic for her to eat other fish? Perhaps for protein, she would eat crustaceans, but sushi is probably off the menu.

In the Disney adaptation of Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel meets Flounder, a fish who assumes she plans on eating him because she’s, as far as he’s concerned, a bigger fish. She reassures him by telling him that she’s not a fish, she’s a mermaid, implying that mermaids don’t eat fish.

How Do Mermaids Reproduce?

Two main theories dominate this topic. The first says that since they have a fish-like bottom half of their mermaid bodies, fish rules would govern reproduction.

Reproduction would involve her laying eggs, after which a merman would come along and fertilize them. Later on, they would hatch, and lots of baby merfolk would swim away.

The other theory considers that not all sea creatures are fish. Some are mammals, like dolphins, so perhaps mermaids mate like dolphins do, carry their young to term, and engage in a live birth.

Are Mermaids Dangerous?

In the most popular iterations of the mermaid legend, marine creatures don’t often pose threats to humans. Sometimes, like in the South Korean stories, they try to keep humans safe by warning them of danger.

But as evidenced by some of the many mermaid stories from around the world, sometimes, they seek to harm humans. In that way, they can sometimes resemble sirens a little more closely.

How Do Mermaids Speak?

While some mermaids—depending on the culture telling the story or the person reporting an interaction—speak to humans in a regular speaking voice, the language they use with each other is thought to resemble dolphin or whale songs. Their language may also sound to human ears like the susurrant sound of the ocean waves.

Can Mermaids Walk on Land?

The mermaids—like Andersen’s little mermaid—who can transform their tails into a human half (complete with legs) walk among us on land.

Legend has it that some mermaids among us must wear a moonstone gem to maintain their fully human form, so spotting a piece of jewelry like this one can be a clue to finding a real mermaid.

Why they come on land varies, too. Sometimes, it’s in a quest for true love, sometimes they’re just fascinated by people and want a closer look.

How Fast Can Mermaids Swim?

Of the mermaid sightings involving a marine creature that might be a real mermaid, some tell of the creature swimming along with a boat or ship, or they may swim with a pod of dolphins.

Since dolphins can reach speeds up to about 18 mph when they’re traveling, the mermaids’ speeds would have to be comparable. Are they faster than that? We’ll need more sightings to know that.

Real Mermaid Sightings

Whether mermaids are real or not, in some cases, doesn’t matter. There’s the idea that perception is reality, so if someone believes they saw a mermaid, as far as they’re concerned, they did. Along those lines, we have written documentation of mermaid sightings dating back for millennia. 

Whether the people making these sightings confused an unremarkable sea creature with a half-fish, half-human being doesn’t change the fact that they recorded seeing something. And these aren’t people from the tinfoil-hat community. None other than Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids on his way to (accidentally) discovering America.

Roman Gaul – 2nd Century

The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder observed all manner of bizarre sea creatures, which isn’t that unusual, considering he was also a naval commander for the empire.

He recorded a sighting made by the governor of Gaul. The sight so affected the governor that he sent a message to Caesar Augustus about the mermaids he’d seen and heard singing.

No one offered an alternative explanation (like that they might have been seals), so the sightings were taken as incontrovertible fact.

Hispaniola, The Caribbean Islands – 1493

Christopher Columbus, months into his historic voyage, wrote about seeing three mermaids off the coast of Hispaniola. He described not beautiful fish women, but burly, masculine creatures that we might call mermen. 

Most historians agree that what he saw was three manatees. On the one hand, manatees weren’t discovered by science until the 18th century, so someone might see one for the first time and mistake it for something else.

Then again, Columbus had some familiarity with the sea and the creatures on and in it, and it’s hard to believe he’d never seen a manatee before, even if the scientific community didn’t have a name for them yet.

The Arctic Ocean – 1608

English explorer Henry Hudson, while trying to find a Northeast Passage, was sailing in the Arctic Circle in June of 1608. He wrote in his ship’s log about seeing a mermaid, but he didn’t just write that he saw something.

He described the creature in great detail, saying the fish part of her body had markings like a mackerel, and that her breasts were decidedly womanly. It’s such a detailed description that it’s hard to brush off as a misidentification of something in the water.

West Indies – 18th Century

The fearsome pirate Blackbeard recorded seeing mermaids in the West Indies around 1700. However, he didn’t go into great detail, and most historians now believe that he just wanted to avoid the area.

Since other pirates claimed the area as their turf, he likely wanted a reason not to go there without compromising his reputation as a fearless warrior.

He convinced his crew that the mermaids would steal their valuables, so his men went along with the tale.

China – 1730

Two different Chinese fishermen recorded mermaid sightings in the South China Sea, and their stories were recorded in a 1730 historical record.

One man claimed to have captured a mermaid who he then married. Another said he saw a mermaid in distress lying on the sand. He took her out into the water, she thanked him and swam away, and he began telling his story. 

It’s hard to think that either of these men mistook a seal for a mermaid in these close interactions, but it’s also hard to believe they weren’t just making things up.

Vancouver, Canada – 1870s/1880s

Three different fishermen reported seeing a blonde woman in the water in the late 19th century around Vancouver. The historical records are sparse regarding these sightings, but it’s assumed that all three of them saw the same mermaid.

One of them had a guide with him, and that guide was so shaken by the encounter that he allegedly quit the fishing guide industry altogether.

Pennsylvania, USA – 1881

Pennsylvania fisherman Henry Loucks claimed to have seen the same mermaid five different times on a tributary of the Susquehanna river.

Newspapers didn’t doubt that mermaids were real but rather took issue with where he saw the creature. Because everybody knows, the paper’s logic held, that mermaids aren’t freshwater creatures.

Kei Islands, Indonesia – 1943

During the second world war, Japanese soldiers claimed to have been attacked by a mermaid-like creature that the natives knew as the orang ikan mermaid.

The locals knew the creature as a benevolent creature that never bothered anyone, but the orang ikan took issue with the Japanese soldiers. They were so scared by the attack that they fired their weapons.

After the attack, the Japanese soldier’s commanding officer demanded that the mermaid be caught, and locals delivered a mystery corpse with arms and a human face but an otherwise fish-like construction. The body is lost to history, so we’ll never know what it was.

Mayne Island, Canada – 1967

Near Victoria, multiple people saw what they said was a mermaid— a pretty and topless blonde with a fish body— two years before we put people on the moon. Two facts make this one harder to dismiss:

  1. It wasn’t just one guy who told a story no one could corroborate. There were several people on a ferry boat who saw this being.
  2. These weren’t people who ascribed to the supernatural anything they didn’t understand, as humans did ages ago. These were 20th-century North Americans who knew what science was. They also presumably could tell the difference between seals and aquatic humanoids.

Then again, it could have been a woman in a wig and a costume.

Kauai, Hawaii – 1998

There were no smartphones or YouTube videos in 1998, but ten scuba divers off Kauai spotted a woman swimming with dolphins. That’s not unusual. 

They found it a little odd that she was naked, though. They thought it was weird, though, when she jumped out of the water because when she did, they all agreed that she had a fish body.

Despite the non-existence of a smartphone, the guy leading the scuba excursion, Jeff Leicher, snapped photos of the mermaid in the water when she swam by him later in the day.

So this one’s a little harder to disregard. For his part, Leicher remains convinced that mermaids are real.

Marina Beach in Chennai – 2005

After a tsunami in Chennai, on the east coast of India, the Internet swirled with rumors that a dead mermaid had washed up on the beach. Several websites today still have photos of this corpse, with all of them claiming that the remains are now kept at the Chennai museum in Egmore. 

The photos (whatever they’re pictures of) have circulated online since before the 2005 tsunami, and a look at the museum’s website doesn’t mention anything about mermaid corpses. It seems like that’s something a museum would lead with to get people to come and buy an admission ticket.

Kiryat Haim, Israel – 2009

This 21st-century sighting was, like other recent ones, reported by multiple people. Kiryat Haim sits on the Mediterranean Sea, and quite a few people reported seeing a mermaid that looked like a little girl. She was often at play in the water or coming up on the beach.

She was so widely reported that two unusual things happened:

  1. The local government offered a $1 million reward for evidence of the mermaid (which remains unclaimed).
  2. NBC sent a camera crew to try and get her on film. They caught something on tape that experts said neither proved nor disproved the existence of a mermaid. 

Zimbabwe Dam – 2012

While building dams for some much-needed reservoirs in Zimbabwe in 2012, workers reported mermaids swimming up to them and running them off. In Zimbabwe, an encounter with a mermaid brings bad luck, so the workers left the site and refused to return.

Whatever they saw, it wasn’t just the result of locals buying into folklore. Zimbabwe’s Water Resources Minister, Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, told a reporter that he even tried to hire white workers to finish the job, hoping that they wouldn’t be afraid of some local legends, but they wouldn’t go back, either. The dam is still unfinished.

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