The prefix ‘mer’ comes from the old English word mere meaning sea. These creatures of the deep have some human qualities — most commonly human torsos— and have marine qualities like fishtails, which embody the mystery, beauty, and changeable nature of the sea.
Though sometimes benevolent, merfolk usually elicit feelings of danger. They often offer gifts that eventually bring misfortune to men and can cause floods and disaster if offended.
Some early people thought human beings evolved from merfolk, which may be rooted in some truth since science says all life began in the ocean. Regardless, folkloric depictions almost always bestowed mermaids with an air of divinity.
Some ancient cave paintings depicted humanoid figures with tails. But the first written mention of a half-fish, half-human creature occurred around 1000 B.C.E. in Syria of classical antiquity. There are numerous variations of the legend, but the most common one tells of a beautiful goddess named Atargatis who fell in love with a young shepherd. When the two made love, the powerful deity accidentally killed him. Heartbroken over her lover’s death and pregnant with his child, she threw herself into a lake. Underwater, she transformed into a mermaid and became a powerful maternal deity.
Atargatis was a symbol of fertility and well-being and was is heavily associated with water. Her following spread throughout the Greek world where she was generally regarded as one of the forms taken by the goddess Aphrodite.
Atargatis is just the first in a rich history of mermaid lore. The mermaids of European folklore were beings similar to fairies, possessing magical and prophetic powers. They usually had an affinity for music and lived long lives, but were mortal and said to have no souls.
One of these myths is the Celtic legend of merrows. Merrow is a compound name composed of the Gaelic word muir, meaning sea, and oigh, or maid. The native Irish fable said pagan women transformed into mermaids when St. Patrick chased them from the land in his quest to convert Ireland to Christianity.
These sea nymphs were believed to be gentle and benevolent. They were said to wear a cohuleen druith, a magical cap that allowed them to live and breathe underwater. If the cap was lost, stolen, or concealed —sometimes by would-be lovers— the merrows could not return to their watery realm. They sometimes married humans, but always longed to return to their home beneath the waves.
The Scottish neighbor of the Irish merrows is the selkie. Selkie are unique among mermaid lore because they are shapeshifters. Male and female selkies were said to take human forms on land and donned skins that turned them into seals in order to live underwater. Similar to merrow lore, if this skin was stolen or hidden, the creature was forced to stay on land. Sometimes a female selkie had children with her human husband, but would immediately return to the sea and abandon her children if she rediscovered her skin.
Male selkies were said to be extremely seductive to human women and sought out those who were unsatisfied with their lives. Their targets were typically fishermen’s wives who were tired of waiting for their husbands to return from the sea. In some versions of the myth, selkies are fallen angels or the condemned souls of humans punished for wrongdoing.
The condemned soul aspect is something shared by other variations of mermaid folklore, including the rusalka myth. Rusalki are the beautiful, seductive, female water spirits of Slavic folklore. There are two variations of the rusalka myth: the older version in which rusalki would benevolently bring water and fertility to the land, and the more recent version that emerged in the 19th century which describes them as being dangerous, unclean, restless, and often undead spirits. The more recent and widespread versions usually say rusalki are the spirits of young women who had untimely deaths in or near bodies of water. These more sinister variations say a rusalka’s purpose is to lure young men and children to their watery deaths, sometimes trapping victims with their long hair and tickling them underwater, laughing as they drown.
One of the less well-known mermaid iterations is Mami Wata. Sometimes described as a mermaid, sometimes as a snake charmer, and occasionally as a combination of the two, Mami Wata is a water spirit with African origins. Intermittently portrayed in art and lore as a mermaid or as deceptively human, the myth of the Mami Wata was brought to the African Atlantic by slaves. Though sometimes seen as a single deity, the name also refers to plural spirits and even masculine personas called Papi Watas.
Belief in Mami Wata emerged between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries with the rise of African international trade. Perhaps due to the rising capitalist ideals, Mami Wata is believed to bring good fortune in the form of material wealth. She was also believed to be able to heal the body and spirit.