Two key terms:
1. Mermaids- noun, (in folklore) a female marine creature, having the head, torso, and arms of a woman and the tail of a fish.
2. Siren- noun, a seductively beautiful or charming woman, especially one who beguiles men
~The First Mermaids
Often seen in folklore, the first mermaids were shown as deities. The first mention of mermaids comes from the Babylonian Empire, 2000BC-500BC, where the god Oannes was depicted as half fish (3). Japanese, Polynesians, Syrians, Greeks, and Romans followed the trend, worshiping mermaid-form gods and goddess’ who ruled over the sea (3).
~Alleged Mermaid Sightings
Many sailors, including Christopher Columbus, allegedly saw mermaids on their travels (3). While some of these accounts are made up, many explorers confused mermaids with manatees and dugongs, members of the animal order of Sirenia (3).
The ancient Greeks invested the most time into developing the concept of mermaids. Notably, they established the difference between merwomen and mermen, naming them Nereids and Tritons respectively (2). While the term triton is no longer used to distinguish mermen, the triton became a tri-pronged sword carried by mermen as a sign of power. In myths the Greek god Poseidon carries a triton, laden with powers unavailable to humanity.
~Origin of the Siren
The Greeks first coined the term siren. The daughters of Achelous, Sirens lived on a mystical island frequently passed by Greek sailors (7). The beautiful and hypnotic voices of the Sirens made sailors crash their boats on the rocks, yearning to catch a glimpse of the beautiful women (7). Other sailors lived out the rest of their days on the enchanted island, unable to tear themselves away (7). The livelihood of sirens depended on their ability to tempt men. Legend told how as soon as a sailor was able to avoid the toxic song, the siren was turned into a rock (7). Man’s virtue could be determined by his reaction to the siren’s song. A siren’s power was only as strong as a man’s lust.
~Siren’s in Greek Literature
Sirens made frequent appearances in Greek literature. Homer’s Odyssey, 700BC, depicts a potent encounter with sirens (7). Protagonist Odysseus ordered his crew to put wax in their ears when passing the mystical island of the sirens, so as not to steer the ship onto the rocks (7). Odysseus himself, wanting to hear the song had himself tied to the mast of the ship (7). The song had the power to tempt even heroes.
Lighthouses developed as the staunch opposite of the siren’s song. The lighthouse serves to guide boats away from rocks, ironically the place where sirens sat and sang their deadly songs.
95% of the world’s oceans remain undiscovered, so the thought of mysterious creatures, especially mermaids, can be quite unsettling. With the mass media attracting viewers by depicting mermaids as both ugly and beautiful, and science reaching new heights, it is only natural that the people are still infatuated with the idea of mermaids.
In light of ancient interpretation mermaids came to represent four important themes in the seafaring nations of Ireland, Denmark, and England from 1000 to 1900.
1. Danger of beauty
3. Perilous nature of maritime travel
4. Submission of all creatures to God
For Further Reading:
• “Mermaids.” UXL Encyclopedia of World Mythology. Vol. 4. Detroit: UXL, 2009. 696-699. World History in Context. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.
• Sirens: “Sirens.” UXL Encyclopedia of World Mythology. Vol. 5. Detroit: UXL, 2009. 955-957. World History in Context. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.