As divers, we know better than most the human fascination with the ocean. Perhaps it is the water’s vastness, combined with its enigmatic nature that holds us in such thrall; certainly those qualities have made the ocean the inspiration for countless myths and legends. Even now, in an age defined by scientific enlightenment and advanced technology, the sea continues to reveal new secrets, for example, the world’s third largest shark was only discovered as recently as 1976. In the days before satellite imaging, before every corner of the Earth’s surface had been mapped and explored, the oceans were even more mysterious. The whispered tales of mariners returning half-crazed from long months at sea often intertwined with ancient religious beliefs and the stuff of folklore passed down from generation to generation to create new legends like the kraken, the giant squid and the mermaid. As perhaps the most enduring legend of all, mermaids appear in the mythology of many cultures dating from several thousand years BCE until the present day. With their name meaning “woman of the sea” in Old English, mermaids are thought of differently from one culture to the next with variations in traditions relating to their origins, their appearance and their nature.
What is a Mermaid?
The first representation of a being that was half human, half fish in ancient culture was not a mermaid at all, but a merman, Oannes. Believed to be the emissary of the Babylonian god of water and wisdom, Mesopotamian mythology portrayed him as having the head of a man and the body of a fish. During the day, he would emerge from the ocean to instruct humanity in science, writing and the arts. The first known reference to a mermaid in ancient mythology occurred several thousand years later, in a legend that dates back to Assyria in c.1000 BCE. According to that legend, the first mermaid came into being as the result of an ill-fated romance between a goddess, Atargatis, and her mortal lover. After accidentally killing her partner, Atargatis took to the water, hoping to transform into a fish to escape her shame and agony. However, her beauty was too potent to be concealed by the waters completely, and only the lower half of her body turned into a fish, leaving her with the upper body of a woman. Later, the idea of a being that was half human, half fish was often explored by the legends of Ancient Greece and Rome, where the form was attributed to deities and monsters alike. Several gods and demigods of these cultures spent their lives in the ocean, and their amphibious nature meant that they were often depicted in paintings and sculpture as having fish-like parts.
One of the most powerful influences on later portrayals of the mermaid came from Homer’s Odyssey, in which his hero’s ship is almost lured onto the rocks by the bewitching song of the sirens. Although the sirens of the Odyssey were half woman, half bird, the term ‘siren’ has since become synonymous with mermaids, and over the years, the murderous nature and enchanting beauty of Homer’s sirens have become defining traits of both creatures in many cultures. The mermaids of British folklore, for example, are often associated with maritime disasters such as storms, shipwrecks and drownings, or often act as omens of those perils. In many cases, mermaids were said to intentionally lure men to a watery grave; in others, the mermaids accidentally killed the sailors they fell in love with, forgetting their lovers’ inability to breathe underwater as they dragged them beneath the waves. In other versions of the myth, mermaids are less vicious; instead, they have the power to grant great wealth, and even enter into lasting marriages with human men. Chinese tradition speaks of a mermaid’s ability to weep tears of pearl, while other stories tell of humans rewarded with treasure in return for an act of kindness towards a mermaid. According to Cornish folklore, one mermaid used to listen to the singing of a gifted choirboy from the shore near a church in the village of Zennor. She fell in love with the boy, Matthew, and when he learned of her love her went to live with her beneath the sea in a nearby cove. Today, the residents of Zennor claim that the pair can still be heard sometimes, singing together in their ocean home.
In the past, mermaids were not considered legend, but rather to be as real as any other sea creature we know today. Many famous sailors and explorers claimed to have laid eyes on a mermaid, including Christopher Columbus during his exploration of the New World in 1493. Others still claimed to possess evidence that mermaids existed, and several freak shows and circuses of the 1800s included mermaids, elaborate hoaxes that typically involved manatees or humans suffering from a rare condition known as sirenomelia, in which the legs are fused together from birth. Perhaps the most famous mermaid hoax of all is that of the ‘Fiji Mermaid,’ made famous by P.T. Barnum in 1842. Barnum’s mermaid consisted of the head and torso of a monkey sewn onto the back half of a fish to create a macabre corpse that he exhibited in New York with huge success. Even today, some still believe in mermaids; as recently as 2009, there were several reports of a mermaid spotted off the coast of Israel, causing local authorities to offer a $1 million reward for anyone who could prove the sightings were real.
The most likely explanation for those mermaid sightings reported by sailors both past and present is confusion with other marine creatures, specifically, the manatee or dugong. Although these herbivorous mammals cannot be said to have the traditional features of a mermaid, their paddle-like tail could be mistaken for a mermaid’s, and there’s no telling how several months at sea could affect a man’s judgment. It’s believed that Christopher Columbus’ report of sighting three mermaids off the Haitian coast may actually constitute the first written record of manatees in Central America. Certainly, their beauty did not impress him, and he wrote that they were not nearly as attractive as legend had led him to believe. Manatees and dugongs both belong to the scientific order sirenia, which recognizes their influence on the mermaid legend, labeling them thusly after the Homeric sirens. Perhaps the tendency of sailors to confuse manatees and dugongs with mermaids explains why mermaid sightings are no longer as common as they once were as both manatees and dugongs are under threat, with populations dwindling each year as a result of poaching, habitat loss, disease and fatal collisions with watercraft.
With all three manatee species and the dugong considered vulnerable to extinction according to the IUCN Red List, we are at risk of losing our real-life mermaids. The fifth member of the sirenian order, the Steller’s sea cow, is already lost to us, hunted to extinction in 1768. The part woman, part fish beauties whose stories spanned several thousand years and countless cultures may not have a place in the scientific, logical world that we live in today, but creatures that inspired those stories, however, do have a place, and it’s up to us to ensure that they remain a reality, rather than becoming yet another legend.