Tales of mermaids have been spoken about since humanity had learned how to write. But how and when did their stories and the possibility of their existence spring up? Where did they originate? Did they come from sailors’ tales of sightings or were they known even before that? Only one way to find out, read on!

Origin

Mermaids appear in the folklore of many countries most prominent in Asia, Africa, and Europe. But where did the information of these creatures first appear? The first account of mermaids was found as back as 1000 BC in Assyria (known as Syria today). In the mythical telling of Assyria, the beautiful goddess of fertility Atargatis cast herself into a lake and therefore transformed into a mermaid.

But a tale is not enough to so heavily imagine and spread the word about mermaids lurking in the seas and waiting for ships to sail above them. Word has it that sailors from centuries ago have claimed to spot them. Christopher Columbus was one of them although historians argue that what he could have seen could have been sea animals. But the face of an animal and the face of a human couldn’t be more different. So did he really mistake them for sea animals? Nobody really knows the answer to that but Columbus was an explorer and there might have been many things he saw that have still yet to be explained.

painting of a mermaid that shows her combing her hair and singing while waiting for sailors to come by
A painting of a mermaid that shows her combing her hair and singing while waiting for sailors to come by

Credit: John William Waterhouse, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Famous pirates, like Blackbeard, had marked certain parts of the seas as “enchanted” on his logbook and instructed his ship crew to stay clear of these waters for fear of mermaids and sirens.

Mermaids in Different Cultures

There are many variations to mermaids, though the common one is that of beautiful maidens with half-fish tails that sing, luring sailors and dragging them to the bottom of the sea. But in a couple of other cultures, mermaids were said to be a blessing and a good omen for seafarers. Here are a couple of cultures with different views on mermaids and their omens.

  • Chinese folklore describes mermaids as capable, beautiful and able to turn their tears into pearls. They were seen as gentle, mild and a blessing of the sea.
  • Japan’s version is more dark, believing mermaids are grotesque creatures that brings warfare to land if their body is found washed up on shore. Their flesh is believed to grand immortality if consumed but since mermaids are a symbol of storms and bad luck, sailors sailed away from them.
  • Korean mermaid folklore is similar to China’s in which they depict the sea maidens as a good omen. They see her as a goddess that warns fishermen of sea storms and impending doom. 
  • The British, on the other hand, believed mermaids to be a bad omen.  Although beautiful, they were said to seduce sailors and drowning them merely for the sake of the mermaids’ entertainment or wrath.
  • Tales of mermaids from Brazil spring from the concept known as the Iara translated as “Lady of the Waters.” Through folklore, she is known to be an immortal woman that is blamed for situations where men disappear in the Amazon. 
  • Mermaids described in Ancient Greece are close to the type of mermaids we believe in today. A famous Greek folktale claimed that Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike was transformed into a mermaid and lived in the Aegean sea after her death in 295 BC.

If she spotted a ship she would ask the sailors “Is King Alexander alive?” If the sailors answered correctly by saying “He lives and reigns and conquers the world,” Thessalonike would let them continue ahead without harm. If they fail to answer her this way, it would anger her and she would conjure a rough sea storm, doom the ship and drag the sailors to the bottom of the ocean.

  • African myth calls merfolks the Mami Wata, translated as “Mother of the Water”. Although the name is feminine, they believe in both mermaids and mermen. They are believed to be diabolical creatures who lure people to their deaths.  Zimbabwe believes strongly in mermaids, calling them “njuzu.” The njuzu is blamed for bad weather, water disasters, and the disappearance of men. They live in rivers and lakes and if a person goes missing in these areas, they are said to be taken by the njuzu, never to return again.
Depiction-of-a-mermaid-as-a-bad-omen-to-ships-and-sailors-edited.
Depiction of a mermaid as a bad omen to ships and sailors.

Credit: James Ryman CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Scientific Base?

Here is a question that has intrigued the science world for generations – does the origin of mermaids have a scientific base? Could their existence be possible? The only answer we know so far to that is….maybe. Maybe not.

With only 5% of the ocean discovered means that there is 95% of the big blue left to be explored. The types of marine animals that people didn’t even know existed hundreds of years ago are now found under the sea. We still don’t know what lurks in the dark depths. What kinds of worlds remain hidden beneath the waves. And to some, these uncovered waters could hold the possible existence of mermaids.

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