There are probably millions of stories about mermaids across the world; tales of magic and adventure in the seven seas that capture kids and adults alike. Hans Christian Andersen’s legacy, the Little Mermaid, has been adapted by the biggest movie studios in the world, and it seems that the myth of the mermaid will continue to stay afloat.
Today, mermaids continue to capture public imagination. Photos of alleged mermaid sightings in the open seas, lakes, and even recycled swimming pool water still generate a lot of views and engagements. Artists continue to use them as subjects, and there is a never-ending list of movies, television series, and novels about merfolk.
So where did it all began? When did people start imagining that human-like creatures control the seas?
As Old as the First Sailboat
The first documented stories of mermaid-like creatures are ancient cave paintings dating to the Paleolithic Era or the Stone Age (30,000 years ago). During this period, people had full control over land and its bounty. They were beginning to sail the sea. Naturally, without any knowledge of the waters, they attributed the turbulence to deities who could control the waves and the wind. There must be deities with special features that allowed them to live and breathe in the sea.
The legend of sea deities endured until the time of the Babylonians, who worshipped some of the earliest gods who were a combination of men and fish. The god Ea, for instance, was depicted as either half-man and half-fish or half-goat and half-fish. He is the bringer of knowledge, arts, and sciences to the Babylonians.
As time went on, female sea gods appeared. The most famous was the Assyrian goddess Atargatis, who accidentally killed a mortal. Fearful of the people’s revenge, she decided to hide in the waters. She dived deep to become a fish, but the sea did not want to hide her beauty. In the end, only the lower half of her body was turned into a sea creature.
The Legacy of the Greeks
When the mermaid legend was passed down to the Greeks, the creature transformed from protector and benefactor to evil spirits that lured sailors to their death. The sirens, creatures that were presented as either half-bird or half-fish, were lovely to behold and even lovelier to listen to. They sang so sweetly that the sailors entered a trance, leaving no one in charge of ships, which were thrashed on deadly rocks.
As the myth about mermaids spread across the world, it began to take different forms. In ancient Chinese legends, the mermaids created the most beautiful pearls on the earth and granted immortality to worthy men. Irish folktales say mermaids sing to sailors as an act of love, while Persians stories told of mermaids that can live both on land and sea. Legends in the British Isles say mermaids are an evil omen, and seeing one meant the doom of the ship and the person who saw them.
The myth of the mermaid is continually evolving, as new literary works are produced. We can’t say where the story of the mermaid will go. But we can look back and say that the legend of this half-fish, half-human creature is as old as civilization itself, and it shows just how ancient peoples feared and adored the seas.