How did the mermaid myth get started? Well, the first representation of a half-human half-fish being was the Babylonian sea-god Oannes, who was also a sun-god; he rose out of the sea each day and sunk back into it each night. He was not originally a traditional merman, being at first only wrapped in a fish cloak, instead of actually being half-fish, but he evolved into one eventually. The Babylonian moon-goddess, Atargatis (aka Atergatis aka Derketo) became the first mermaid. While Oannes represented the sun and the 'good' aspects of the sea, Atargatis represented its darker, destructive aspects.
In Greek mythology, we find an actual race of sea-dwelling beings; 300 sea nymphs, called Oceanids, were born of a union between Oceanus and his sister, Tethys. Another 50 sea nymphs were also produced by Doris, an Oceanid, and Nereus, her husband, and were called Nereids. There were also the Tritons, children of Amphitrite, a Nereid, and the sea-god, Poseidon. These were male beings associated with the sea, fish and Aphrodite.
For some reason the Tritons eventually became known as mermen, while the Nereids became mermaids.
The Sirens, also creatures of Greek mythology, were beautiful sea nymphs, more associated with birds then fish, but have become simultaneous with mermaids. They used their beautiful songs to lure men to their deaths in the sea. Odysseus, the Greek hero, was the only man who dared to listen to their song. He had his men's ears filled with wax, while he tied himself to the boat to prevent himself from following the Sirens' song.
Modern mermaid legends include:
THE SILKIES: In Irish tradition, Silkies are beings who are seals, but who can, at times, discard their fur and become men or women. If their skin (fur) is stolen from them, then they can not turn back into seals and must stay with the person who has stolen it. There are many legends of men who steal the skin of female silkies and who then force the creatures to marry them. The silkie almost always manages to get a hold of her skin after she has had a few children, and she then leaps back into the sea, either leaving her children or drowning them if she brings them with her.
THE MORGENS OF BRITTANY: Descendants of Morgan Le Fay, these creatures lure people down to their gold and crystal underwater castles.
THE NORWEGEN HAVFRAU: If you see her, sitting on the surface of the water, combing her golden hair with her gold comb, beware! She portends imminent disaster.
LORELEI OF GERMANY: Lorelei was a beautiful woman who was relentlessly pursued by men. They simply could not resist her, and she was eventually accused of witchcraft. She was summoned to court, and found innocent...but she could not live with the havoc she unwillingly wrecked on men's lives. She had also been spurned by the one man she loved when he went away to a distant land. She pleaded to be sentenced to death. The Bishop, however, refused to condemn an innocent, and decided instead that Lorelei should become a nun. Three knights were summoned to bring her to the convent. On the way there, they passed a cliff overlooking the Rhine, and Lorelei pleaded to be allowed a last view of the river. When she was standing atop the cliff, she said "See that boat on the Rhine. The boatman is my lover!" and jumped in. The three knights did the same. It is said that the beautiful Lorelei is still there, sitting on the edge of the cliff and luring boatmen to their deaths with her song.
© Copyright Sabrina Wish 1999