History of Mermaids: Myth, Mystery and Legend for Kids

Do you like riddles?  Well, I have one for you:  What is so big that it stretches farther than the eye can see?  It can change colors from turquoise to brown to green – and even black.  It can gobble you up and spit you out.  It can be angry or calm.  Any guesses? Could it be a massive sea monster?  A wily octopus or the mythical Kraken?  Nope – but those are all good guesses.  The answer is: the sea!  Did you know water covers three-quarters of the world’s surface?  That is HUGE!  And that means there are A LOT of things living underneath the water that we can’t see.  Here on land, we can see all sorts of amazing things.  So, what amazing things are underneath the sea?  

Well, thanks to sailors, fishermen, marine biologists, submarine crews, and other explorers, we know a lot more about the sea and what’s in it than at any other time in history.  We have discovered underwater cities and sea life and shipwrecks.  We have found fossils, treasure chests, and planes that disappeared decades ago.  We have developed amazing things like sonar, radar, and underwater vessels to dive deeper and explore further.  But to this day, we have not reached the bottom of some of the deepest seas in the world and we haven’t discovered all there is to see in this vast underwater kingdom.

So, that means: where there is the unknown or a mystery, there is folklore!  Since the beginning of time, man has been connected to the sea.  For ancient man, the sea must have seemed very big and mysterious and scary indeed.  People eventually built boats and started sailing across these seas. They saw strange creatures jumping out of the water or bumping into their boats. They heard spine-tingling screeches on the wind or witnessed large shapes bobbing on the waves.  What could these things be?  Were they ghosts or monsters or gods?  

Well, since ancient man didn’t have any means to go deep under the sea to discover these answers, they had to find an explanation using what knowledge they had.  And that is where sea legends and folklore began.  People crafted stories and carved images to make sense of the sea.  Over time, these tales, myths, legends, and images spread around the world and became part of folklore on every continent.

And one of the earliest and most enduring tales of all time is that of the mystical mermaid.  Many people across the world can describe a mermaid: a beautiful creature, half woman/half fish, with long flowing hair and glittering scales.  And we know this because images of them have been carved into stone in ancient temples or sketched in books dating back centuries.  As far back as the 19th century B.C., people believed that life came from – and started in – the sea. In the city of Babylon (which means “Gate of the Gods” and is now part of Iraq), people prayed to a half human/half fish sea goddess called “Atargadis” who was the ruler of life and fertility.  They carved her image on stone templates wearing a “mural crown” – a crown shaped like towers, walls, and fortresses instead of flowers, arches, and crosses like crowns that came later.  Sometimes she was carved with a human face on a fish body; other times as half human/half fish.  Atargadis was married to a god named Hadad and they were the gods who protected the city of Babylon.  Atargadis also ruled over the city’s religious and social life, as well as the creation of new life. 

But how did Atargadis come to have the form of a fish?  Well, one ancient myth states that the goddess originally had a human form but then drowned herself in a lake, thus turning into half woman/half fish.  She was ashamed for having fallen in love with a handsome man and giving birth to a baby girl – something that was, apparently, forbidden for divine, non-human goddesses.

Over the ensuing centuries, people traveled and traded with people in other cities and countries.  The myth of Atargadis spread throughout the Middle East and Europe.  The early Greeks, who had originally depicted their goddesses as birds with human faces, later changed their goddess images to mermaids.  

Thus, the mermaid legend grew and more tales blossomed.  Mermaids gained nicknames like “sirens” or “water nymphs.” Their image changed into dangerous sea maidens luring unsuspecting ships and sailors to their doom.  They were no longer the praised city protectors of the past.  But like the original goddess Atargadis, they still possessed magical powers and liked music and song.  Early sailors reported hearing strange sounds like otherworldly music on the waves and guessed it must be mermaids singing.  Who or what else could it be?  Today, we might suggest the sounds were coming from pods of whales.  But since the ancient sailors didn’t know about whale communication or have sonar recording devices, they believed in singing mermaids instead.  However, unlike the goddess Atargadis, mermaids of legend were said to be mortal.  The lived about 300 years, had no soul, and eventually turned into sea foam instead of going to heaven.  

And since mermaids were depicted as beautiful creatures, it was assumed they must be vain.  Artists painted beautiful scenes of mermaids lounging on rocks surrounded by objects of vanity, such as hairbrushes, combs, and mirrors. Myths soon popped up stating that if a human captured and hid these mermaid objects, the mermaid would become human and could be tricked into marriage.  However, if the mermaid found the hidden objects, she could transform back into a mermaid and return to the sea.  

Perhaps because of these myths of humans stealing the mermaid’s items, luring them into human form and marrying them, mermaids then gained the reputation for spitefulness against humans. Tales stated that, if provoked, mermaids could cause floods, storms, or other sea disasters.  A mermaid spotted during a sea voyage was considered an omen of shipwreck. Other legends told of mermaids luring men into the water where they drowned or were forced to live under the sea forevermore, never returning home.  Some myths, however, stated that mermaids could also show compassion.  If something nice was done for them, such as rescuing them from a net, they could bestow gifts or blessings.

And it wasn’t just rum-soaked sailors who reported seeing mermaids out to sea.  Famous explorer Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids while sailing in the Caribbean.  Today, we might guess he saw manatees instead, which can nurse their young like female humans and, from afar, can look to have a human face.

Mermaid folklore was still going strong in 1837, when Danish author Hans Christian Anderson wrote a book called, “The Little Mermaid” and it became an instant classic.  Approximately 150 years later, Walt Disney made a film by the same name, popularizing the mystical mermaid for a new generation of children worldwide.  

Today, you can see mermaids depicted on modern day coat of arms, including those in Britain, Warsaw, and Germany, as well as the University of Birmingham.  However, if you see a mermaid with a serpent tail, two fish tails, or wings, it is called a Melusine and is very common in French folklore.

So, now we know about mermaids, but what about mermen?  Well, mermen are not as common in folklore as mermaids and they can either be shown as handsome or grotesque.  The legend of the merman started in Babylon and became connected with the sea god Ea, the god of water, wisdom, culture, and civilization.  He was also the creator and protector of man and the world.  However, some state that the merman legend refers to Ea’s servant.  Ea was shown as half man/half fish, while some images show him as a man wearing a fish robe.

Later the Greek myth of Triton was born.  Triton was a sea god and the son of Poseidon.  Poseidon had a human form, but Triton was half man/half fish, holding or blowing a conch shell.  Sometimes he held a three-pronged trident.  He lived in a golden palace at the bottom of the sea with his parents and acted as Poseidon’s messenger.  Triton was called both a mighty and dreadful sea god and could blow his conch shell so loudly that it raised or flattened waves and scared away mythical giants. He was said to have green hair and blue skin with barnacles on his mighty shoulders.  However, around the 1500’s several artists started depicting Triton with a fish tail, man’s body, female’s chest, devil’s horns, and thick legs with webbed feet.  People started calling Triton a “sea devil,” “sea monster,” or “sea satyr.”   That was not a good time for the mighty sea god!

And speaking of Greek myths, there is a legend about another merman name Glaucus who started life as a human fisherman.  He noticed that when he caught fish, they would struggle to get back into the water when he placed them on the grassy shores.  Glaucus thought that the grass must give the fish special

powers, so he ate the grass.  He then had an overwhelming desire to jump into the sea and never return.  The sea gods under the waves heard his wish and turned him into a sea god just like them, and Glaucus never returned to land.

Various Scandinavian countries, including Iceland and Norway, have legends about mermen with black hair, long beards, and dusky skin with a man’s torso and a fish tail.  One British folklore writer stated her opinion that mermen were “often uglier and rougher in the British Isles” although how she came to this conclusion is unknown.  In Irish folklore, a merman named Coomara is depicted as a hideous creature with green skin, hair, and teeth, slitted eyes, and a big red nose.  And in Cornish folklore there is a merman named Bucca with hair of seaweed and the skin of an eel who looks for offerings of fish left along the shore.  

Mermen tales can be found around the world, including Europe, China, Japan, Greenland, Canada, and even the Amazon.  

Today, mermen are depicted in comics, movies, and films as handsome, strong, and courageous, such as in the TV show, “Man from Atlantis” and the super hero movie, “Aquaman.” They are featured in the popular game, “Dungeons and Dragons” and in the hugely successful “Harry Potter” movies where merpeople live in a lake near Hogwarts.

So, what do you think about the legends of mermaids?  Do you know of any legends where you live?  If you could have one special power as a mermaid or merman, what would it be?