The powers and attributes of these mythological figures are commonly mixed but I’m particularly curious as to the original distinctions which, as you will see, vary depending on culture. As always each image is linked back to the source simply click to follow. Also, let’s be clear: I like seeing different mixes but we are dealing with the traditional figures in these two posts.
Let’s start with the most common mix up, ey? Mermaids have appeared in Walt Disney Pictures’ 2011 film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, stories about Peter Pan, and C.S. Lewis’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia. The earliest mermaid comes from Assyrian mythology in 1000 BC by the Goddess Atargatis – the first mermaid (known as Derketo in Greek mythology). Goddess Atargatis was the goddess of fertility and responsible for the conservation of fish – fish were sacred to her and it was forbidden to consume them especially in Ascalon. Atargatis fell in love with a human shephard who she then accidentally killed during lovemaking. Guilt overcame her and she threw herself into the ocean to become a fish but her beauty was so great that the transformation was not completed. Why? Because the waters refused to conceal her divine beauty.
Another origin story belongs with Thessalonike of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s sister. Her story is tied to that her hair was bathed in water from the fountain of immortality in the Aegean. After Alexander’s death she was so stricken with grief that she threw herself into the sea to drown but was instead transformed into a mermaid who thereafter lived in the Aegean. Any sailors who discovered her were asked only one question: “Is Alexander still the king?” Should they answer no, she transformed into a gorgon and summon a deadly storm. Should the sailors answer yes, she would grant them calm seas for the remainder of their journey. There is also the African water spirit, Mami Wata/Mamba Muntu, who was a source of healing and good luck for her followers but dealt sickness, delusion, and drowning for those who disobeyed. She sometimes appeared as a mermaid but never as a human and was often associated with a snake. There was also the chance that she could return a person to land with increased wealth, beauty, and psychic power. Mermaids from the One Thousand and One Nights were anatomically similar to humans but could breathe underwater. They could and would reproduce with humans and their children would have the ability to live underwater as well as on land.
In most cultures where mermaids were present it was always considered bad luck to do anything unkind to them. They could grant wishes or present humans with cures They could not thrive out of water except for the ‘Merrow’ from Scotland and Ireland who would sometimes marry and live with humans. Some mermaids wore a red cap which if it was stolen and hidden from them they would shed their tails and live on land much like with selkies when their whole skins were hidden. However, in British folklore seeing one was a sign of bad luck and they were attributed of causing storms that brought ships to wreckage. Though mermaids lived for a long time none of them had souls, particularly in Slavic mythology where mermaids came from the spirit of a drowned woman who then lured men to their death, dragging them down to their underwater kingdom.
Any recorded biological possibility of becoming a mermaid surfaces in the medical condition of sirenomelia (Mermaid Syndrome) where an infant is born with their legs fused together. Historically they never live more than a few days due to bladder and kidney malfunctions but there are modern cases when the mutation has been corrected for prolongued land life. It seems the rule of thumb is the more beautiful the mermaid the less likely they were to outright kill you and the more sympathetic and helpful they were likely to be – although mermen were typically wilder, uglier with green seaweed for hair, and had little interest in humans.
Sirens are the most commonly crossed with mermaids. The physical distinction is that mermaids and mermen were part fish while sirens were part bird although they also lived by the sea on an island or cliffs. Though mermaids had beautiful singing voices their power lay in the ability to cause storms which wrecked sailors and their ships while sirens mesmerized men into a trance with their voices, compelling them to reach the siren whereby she brought sailors to death from her perch upon rocky islands, cliffs, and the shore. Sirens are present in the 2003 Dreamworks movie Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, before that they are notably present in Homer’s Odyssey and date as far back as the Greek story of Persephone and Hades. In the original Greek story the Sirens began as the human companions of Persephone. After Persephone was abducted by Hades they were turned into half-bird, half-woman by Persephone’s mother Demeter. In some versions Demeter did this to help the women locate her daughter but in others it was punishment for failing to either prevent Persephone’s capture or locate Persephone. A siren’s song is irresistibly sweet yet sad, an eternal call for Persephone’s return.
In India they are usually depicted with harps, lutes, or lyres which were used in combination with their voices to lull men to sleep before then tearing the men to shreds with their talons. Sirens were said to be so gifted musical talents that they could calm the wind. The bane of the siren comes in the elaboration by post-Homeric writers: if someone heard a siren’s song and escaped alive that siren would die as after Odysseus passed their island unharmed the sirens singing to him flung themselves down to perish among the rocks and waves. When Jason and his Argonauts came across sirens in their search for the Golden Fleece, Orpheus drowned out the siren call with his lyre. When Christianity took over sirens became a mere symbol of worldly temptations such as that of prostitutes.
There is abundant research to be had on all of these figures and their variations and I have only covered bare basics for each of the umbrella nominations as far as origin, appearance, and attributes. Want to delve into more information but not sure where to start? Check out my references below!
- A Mermaid and a Magic Comb – origins. Myths and Legends. 2006 <http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/origins532-a-mermaid-and-a-magic-comb.html>
- Atargatis, the First Mermaid. Sea-thos Foundation. 6 October 2011 <http://www.seathos.org/atargatis-the-first-mermaid/>
- Becoming Mermaids. American Museum of Natural History. 2016 <http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/mythic-creatures/water-creatures-of-the-deep/becoming-mermaids>
- Cartwright, Mark. Siren. Ancient History Encyclopedia. 16 April 2015 <http://www.ancient.eu/Siren/>
- Mermaid. Wikepedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mermaid>
- Siren. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2016 <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Siren-Greek-mythology>
- Sirens. Greek Mythology. <http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Creatures/Sirens/sirens.html>
- Sirens Mythology, The. Gods and Monsters. 2010-2016 <http://www.gods-and-monsters.com/sirens-mythology.html>
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