Legend of the Mermaid

While not as popular as other mythological creatures, the myth of the mermaid or siren is nonetheless well known. The idea of a woman (or, occasionally, a man) that lives underwater is fairly widespread. The origin of the myth can most likely be traced back to Assyria through their legends of Atargatis, the goddess of fertility. Throughout history mermaids have been connected to disasters such as floods, shipwrecks and storms in Europe, Africa and Asia.

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Recent adaptations of the mermaid story have conditioned us to think of them as beautiful, kind women, and this is an accurate representations of mermaids in some cultures. In the Scandinavian countries there was mythical creature known as a selkie, half-human and half-seal. While on land a selkie would be in completely human form, and they were known for being excellent wives and mothers. However, some myths are significantly more sinister. Perhaps the most common of these darker myths is that of the siren, a Greek creature known for luring hapless sailors to their deaths with enchanting singing. Less well known is the African folklore of Mami Wata, a water spirit who steals men and kills those whose offerings do not please her. In fact, even Disney’s The Little Mermaid was based on a far darker story by Hans Christian Andersen which could charitably be described as a tragedy.

The most widely accepted reason for the mermaid myth are the aptly named sirenians such as manatees and dugongs. From a distance, these strange creatures could seem somewhat humanoid but with a fish-tail. Sadly, the most impressive sirenian of them all – Steller’s Sea Cow, has been driven to extinction. At an incredible 33 feet long and 24,000 pounds, it was so large that it never need fear predation until humans came along and wiped it out by the turn of the 19th century.

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There is also another, more interesting in my opinion, possible origin for mermaid lore. An extremely rare condition known as sirenomelia manifests itself through the fusion of both lower legs upon birth. In many cases, this gives the appearance of a tail not unlike that of a fish. While it is a rare condition, a few isolated incidences thousands of years ago could easily have been blown out of proportion by the Assyrians before being appropriated by other cultures.

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Sadly, it seems that the myth of the mermaid will have to remain just that: a myth. And it seems that even those creatures that are not mythical may pass into legends in the near future if we keep driving them instinct. Who knows, maybe in a century someone will be blogging about mythical creatures and write about animals like “tigers” or “wolves” as if they never existed at all.


Simon, Matt. “Fantastically Wrong: The Murderous, Sometimes Sexy History of the Mermaid.” Wired, Conde Nast, 19 July 2018, www.wired.com/2014/10/fantastically-wrong-strange-murderous-sometimes-sexy-history-mermaid/.


“The Lore of Murderous Mermaids.” F Yeah History, 6 Oct. 2017, fyeahhistory.com/2017/10/07/the-lore-of-murderous-mermaids/.


Winters, Riley. “Legends of the Selkies, Hidden Gems of Sea Mythology.” Ancient Origins, Ancient Origins, 8 Aug. 2016, www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/legends-selkies-hidden-germs-sea-mythology-006409.


3 thoughts on “Legend of the Mermaid

  1. I am so happy that you have made a post about mermaids, when I was younger The Little Mermaid was my favorite film and I had no idea that this was based on a much darker tragedy! I also think it is interesting that you have highlighted how the mermaid myth varies from country to country, like the different Greek or African versions.

  2. I never knew about the Sea Cow and I didn’t know it was related to the mermaid myth! It’s very sad that it’s extinct, it would’ve been cool to see in real life. I like how you ended the post with speculation about what myths might come about in the future, I thought that was a cool insight.

  3. I had no idea that there were so many different versions of the mermaid myth! Also, I didn’t realize that manatees are classified as “sirenians”, so this was very interesting to read about.

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