Ever dream of peacefully swimming out into the middle of the ocean with the dolphins? I have often had dreams like that and have a strong love of water, especially the ocean. The ocean has mystery and one of them is the legend of Merfolk. These creatures were the aquatic people of the deep. They have been written about as mermaids and mermen. Most legends speak of the mermaid with their incredibly beautiful singing voices. Mermaid comes from middle English; mere which is a root for sea, now archaic and maiden. Very often they were known to bask on the rocks singing and luring sailors to their death by their ships being dashed against the rocks. They were also known to draw the life out of those drowning while trying to save them taking them home beneath the sea. There is often confusion with the mermaid and the siren, which I will go into farther in the article.
Many who don’t know all the legends offhand have either read Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” or seen Walt Disney’s animated adaptation of this tale by the same name. Often Movies and TV shows that deal with legend or fantasy tend to include either Merfolk or mermaids. For instance, Splash, an episode of Charmed, Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aquamarine, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire just to name a few. We see them in logos such as Starbucks and Chicken of the Sea Tuna.
Man is fascinated by the idea of humanoid beings living in the sea. The mermaid is the most popularly written about and has been depicted in various mediums all over the world. More often than not stories will deal with the female aquatic rather than the male but this is an excerpt that tells a little more in detail of the merman.
In Greek mythology, mermen were often illustrated to have green seaweed-like hair, a beard, and a trident. The actions and behavior of mermen can vary widly depending on the source and time period of the stories. They have been said to sink ships by summoning great storms, but also said to be wise teachers, according to earlier mythology. A merman, like a mermaid, attracts humans with singing and tones. (2)
Triton was the son of Amphitrite and Poseidon and even though he was a merman his parents were not technically merfolk, but could live both on land and in the sea. He was known for his ability for trumpeting with a conch shell. Oannes and Ea of Bablylonian lore were also considered mermen along with Enki from Sumeria.
It is in Hellenic literature that one finds the first literary description of Merfolk. Ovid writes that mermaids were born from the burning galleys of the Trojans where the timbers turned into the flesh and blood of the 'green daughters of the sea.' There are other versions of their birth: The Irish say that mermaids are old pagan women transformed and banished from the earth by St. Patrick. A Livonian folktale says they are the drowned children of an unknown Pharaoh - having met their doom in the depths of the
While the common conception of Merfolk is that they are humans from the waist up, but fishes from the waist down, according to myth that is simply not true. Instead, Merfolk are neither human nor fish, but they are mammals that resemble human/fish combinations. Mermaids are usually depicted as having scaly tails; however, many early descriptions of Merfolk mention their dolphin-like tails. A carving on
There really isn’t much information other than general. There are entries made in journals either by sailors or someone of authority aboard ship as to sightings or stories written, Any definitive origins of merfolk are virtually unknown.
It has been written that Merfolk can be found in various bodies of water and not just in the oceans. Some of the names for them are:
Gwragedd Annwn: Welsh water maidens
Liban: Mermaids in Christian carvings said to be sanctified
Loreli German or Rhine Mermaid Melusine: Double-tailed mermaids
Merrow: Irish Mermaids that herald the coming of storms
Tritons: Mediterranean Mermen (4)
Many names have been used to describe Merfolk and not in just a few countries but all over the world. The mermaid has been regarded as a symbol of vanity in which she is noted to be combing her long flowing hair while holding a mirror in one hand.
The Apsaras, or "water-nymphs" as mentioned previously, “made up part of the god Indra's court and played the lute beautifully. Native American legend tells of a mermaid who would rise from the water and sing, calling people to her. Her song drove humans first to ecstasy, then to madness. When they could no longer resist it, they plunged into the water and drowned, just as with the sirens of ancient
Mermaids are also characterized as being wanton, vain, and beautiful.(6) Atargatis (pronounced ay-tar-GAY-tis) is described as a Syrian Mermaid/Goddess and sometimes referred to as the “fish goddess”. She is even mentioned in the Talmud. Her followers extended from
Even though some relics show otherwise, she is most often thought of as the typical idea of a mermaid.
This is a Demetrius III coin and the backside of the coin on the right is a rendering of Atargatis.
Henry Hudson wrote journal entries in 1608, of mermaid sightings by two of the crew:
"From the navel upward, her back and breasts were like a woman's. Her body as big as one of us, her skin very white; and long hair hanging down behind, of color black; in her going down they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise, and speckled like a mackerel."
Some that have postulated on the myths of merfolk state if one takes it from a logical evolutionary standpoint that the merfolk have been misclassified as half human and half fish. Rather than fish it would make more sense due to what is known in evolution to be half and half mammals of two types. Human upper torso and lower torso more like a dolphin’s tail. Most sightings documented mention a tail more of this nature rather than covered in scales. It would seem that the scales most often seen are various artist renderings of how they envision merfolk and most often the mermaid. This was stated previously but it has been taken farther by those studying mythology and the nature of evolution that if they ever existed, this would be the most likely form. Some accounts by sailors state that they weren’t as attractive as folklore has painted them but of course there are other accounts to the contrary. Many think they are manatee or dugongs being mistaken for what we view to be a mermaid.
The Sirens of Greece were very different in physical appearance from the Merfolk although the same name has been given to them as well. They are describe similarly in nature as far as entice sailors most often to their deaths by their song. They are most commonly known in the Odyssey. This is the tale of the sailors that had to put wax in their ears so as not to succumb to the singing of the Sirens. Supposedly they were so upset that the sailors made it past them that they threw themselves into the sea and perished while others say they became mermaids.
In Greek mythology, sirens are sea nymphs who possess the bodies of birds and the heads of women, and are the daughters of the sea god Phorcys. Sirens had such sweet voices that it is said that mariners who heard their songs were lured into grounding their boats on the rocks on which the beautiful nymphs sang. (8)
Some writers say that the Sirens were the daughters of the river God Achelous and they were miraculously born from droplets of blood. One story tells of the Sirens challenging the Muses in a musical contest. The Sirens lost and the Muses plucked out all their wing feathers so that they lost the ability to fly. These are some of the names of those said to be Sirens; Teles, Raidne, Molpe, Thelxiope, Parthenope, Lecosia, Ligia, and Aglaophonus. The three most famous of all the Sirens were Parthenope, Ligea, and Leucosia. Many of the names of the Sirens have various spellings depending on the source of the information so I left the spellings as found.
Supposedly the sailors are so enthralled with the beautiful song the Sirens sing that they would jump ship and their ships would often be wrecked against impassible reefs that would have to be passed through to get to where the Sirens dwell.
The Sirens and Ulysses
One of the reasons these two groups are confused and what is interesting about it is that in some languages, the word becomes Sirena and is used interchangeably meaning both creatures. In many cases this makes it hard to sort out the mythology as to which of these two creatures is being written about.
One interesting anecdotal story about the mermaid comes out of the Elizabethan era. In that time period the symbol of the mermaid stood for prostitution. Since Mary Queen of Scots was considered Queen Elizabeth’s archrival it was often used loosely to describe Mary. After Mary had been executed, William Shakespeare wrote this in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and it supposedly is referring to Mary Queen of Scots. All of it being allegorical in regard to Mary, the sea maid referred to her and Dolphin’s back in regard to her husband the Dauphin of France, etc.
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a Dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music.' (11)
Russian folklore has tales of the Rusalka The story of the Rusalka goes as follows:
The Rusalka of Russian myth are the spirits of young women who were murdered before marriage and are then cursed to live in a lake in the form of a mermaid. There they will sing sweet songs to entrap men into the water and drown them. A Rusalka can be released from her demonic form if someone avenges her murder. (12)
They say if someone wishes to go swimming in the lakes where the Rusalka are suppose to dwell, that for protection one should put fern in their hair so they cannot be pulled down beneath the water and possibly drown.
The Merrow of
The female Merrow, which is mulrruhgach in Gaelic, is also called a mermaid (murúch) and sometimes a sea-maiden (maighdean mhara) is the more attractive of the two genders. She is said to be graceful and wears a white gown in the sea foam adorned with purple and red seaweed. Most of the mythology about the female Merrow is the same as with all mermaids except she can create strong waves and capsize ships as well as lure them in by her sirensong.
The Irish merrow differs physically from humans in that her feet are flatter than those of a mortal and her hands have a thin webbing between the fingers. It should not be assumed that merrows are kindly and well-disposed towards mortals. As members of the sidhe, or Irish fairy world, the inhabitants of Tir fo Thoinn (the Land beneath the Waves) have a natural antipathy towards humans. In some parts of
Other historians describe them as very friendly and when the Femorians arrived they played in the water alongside the ships.
The females also wear a red hat and often a black cloak. She will come on land to be with a human male and it is said if the man can get her hat or cloak she will remain with him forgetting her old life in the sea. If they should be retrieved even years later she will put on her hat and cloak and go back to the sea. This is very similar to the tales of the Selkies.
No matter where the stories come from the universal underlying belief is in creatures that lure sailors with their lovely singing voices and are wild and vain yet beautiful and graceful. A subject of undying love if one is fortunate enough to cross paths with one. So much so the person will do almost anything to stay with them to the point of death. They have become a beloved icon the world over seen in art, sculpture, coins and even heraldry. The charm of the mermaid will stay in the hearts of those who love the mystical and the allure of forbidden romance.
11. http://www.whiterosesgarden.com/Enchanted Waters/EW_content_pages/Ew_INDEX_PG.htm