I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
― T.S. Eliot
Just as Adam came before Eve, so the merman came before the mermaid. At least, that’s how legend goes. The Babylonian god Oannes predates the first known legend of the mermaids by more than a thousand years. Unlike the mermaids and merman we picture now, Oannes had both a human body and a fish body, allowing him to live both among men and beneath the sea. Convenient, huh?
The Syrian mermaid, Atargatis, came along much later than Oannes. One version of her story says that, when she was a goddess (and not yet a mermaid) she fell in love with a humble shepherd, but killed him by accident. Mortified, she threw herself into the sea intending to take the form of a fish. The waters could not hide her beauty, however, and instead of a fish, a mermaid was born. Ancient depictions of Atargatis showed her as a fish with a human head and legs.
Greek mythology has stories of the god Triton, the merman messenger of the sea. In much of European folklore, of course, mermaids were considered unlucky. They were known to sing enticing songs, luring sailors to their deaths on rocky shoals. However, this representation of mermaids more accurately describes Sirens, who were originally bird-women, or demons of death sent to hunt souls. But years of time combined the characteristics of these two half-human creatures, and mermaids acquired a rather bad reputation as a result. Nereids (sea nymphs), on the other hand – not to be confused with the Sirens – were always quite protective of sailors. They reserved their beautiful voices to sing only for their father’s amusement – not to tempt sailors to a watery grave.
Mermaids do not have souls. Well … this also may be a characteristic they inherited from the demonic Sirens, who themselves were soul-catchers. Stories say that one way a mermaid could gain a soul is to marry a human man. Perhaps one of the best illustrations of this is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Andersen also left the “Siren” angle behind when he caused his own little mermaid to not only NOT kill the human man, but to save his life instead.
Sightings of these mythical creatures? You bet. From thousands of years ago even to modern times there have been “sightings” of mermaids, findings of their bodies, and documentaries made entertaining the idea of their existence. One or two displays were made of a mermaid’s “remains” – although later discovered to be fake, of course.
There are documents and journals from long ago which record sightings. Virginia’s Captain John Smith claimed to have seen one in 1614 while exploring the West Indies, describing her as having long green hair, and even claiming to have felt “the first pangs of love” when looking upon her. Christopher Columbus saw “three sirens” that “came up very high out of the sea,” in 1492.
In 1608 the English navigator Henry Hudson wrote of his own supposed mermaid sighting off the arctic coast of Russia:
“This morning, one of our companie looking over board saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up, and by that time shee was close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly upon the men: a little after, a Sea came and overturned her: From the Navill upward, her backe and breasts were like a woman’s.., her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long haire hanging down behinde, of colour blacke; in her going down they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a Porposse, and speckled like a Macrell.”
Were these men seeing things? Manatees, for example? Dugongs? Seals? Or perhaps they had been too long at sea, too exhausted from exposure to sun or cold or salty sea air. Perhaps they saw from a distance, and filled in the details with their own mythical/imaginative mindsets and subconscious, with the stories they themselves had heard while growing up.
I myself have sighted several mermaids … although always between the pages of a book, I’ll admit J But that, I believe, is where mermaids truly shine. Stories, legends, fantasies and fairytales – these are the places these creatures of the sea were always meant to be. Where they can spark our imaginations and lead us into stories greater than ourselves, stories in which the strength of beauty is enough to lead men willingly into the arms of death, stories where a girl gives up her soul and turns to sea foam in order to save the man she loves.
This intrigue, this excitement, this heart-wrenching pain and love and angst, this bigger-than-me quality – isn’t that what stories are truly about, in the end, after all?