From the water, countless stories have sprung up, none more ubiquitous with the sea than mermaids. Taking various forms throughout history and pop culture, half-fish, half-human beings have withstood the test of time as being one of the most popular symbolic mythical creatures.
Read on to learn about the symbolic meaning, history, and cultural significance, of mermaids.
Symbolic Meaning of Mermaids: What do Mermaids Represent?
Since mermaids have been portrayed in various ways throughout history, the symbolism of the mermaid depends most on the individual's interpretations of these mystical creatures. And of course, beyond the general, recognize the symbolic meaning of mermaids, is the personal stories behind why someone wears a mermaid charm. That said, below are some of the most common themes that mermaids, sirens, and other half-fish, half-human creatures represent:
Water, Swimming, the Ocean
The mermaid wouldn’t exist without her ocean. Merfolk are something of a mascot for the water and no doubt if you wear a mermaid around your neck, you have a fondness for the sea.
Femininity and Motherhood
While half-fish, half-human beings aren’t exclusively feminine, they’re mostly depicted as female. The water is often thought of as a feminine element in itself and mermaids are too considered representations of womanly power. Whether as seductresses or objects of invited attention, mermaids are desirable and usually aware of that fact. While mermaids aren’t commonly thought of as being particularly maternal, many modern mermaid fans have come to see them for representing the distinctly female state of being a mother. Motherhood is a life-changing transformation that leaves many women feeling half their old selves, and half a new person, which lends itself to the mermaid-metaphor.
Independence, Rebellion, Discernment
Mermaids may fall in love (and make rash choices when tempted by love) but at the end of the day, they are a symbol for independence and self-interest (and not in a bad way). They don’t want to be caged or forever landlocked - they crave the freedom of the sea and to swim where they please. Mermaids are also famous for only making themselves known to humans when they choose.
Temptation and Provocative Nature
Sirens especially evoke feelings of temptation and manipulation. They’ll lure you to your doom (perhaps to avenge their fish brethren that men so often hunt after). Mermaids can represent cheekiness, seductive prowess, and adoration.
Transformation and Fluidity
Mermaids reconcile two opposites states of being: water-dwelling and land-dwelling. Therefore, mermaids often come to represent times of transformation or sacrifice in our lives. Some legends hold that mermaids could move between land and sea as their discretion, so much like the water, they are fluid and changeable.
History of Mermaids
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.
The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton
Mermaids in Literature
The rich cultural history of mermaid lore built by generations of oral tradition has given rise to many literary mentions of mermaids. Among the most famous mermaids of literature are the sirens that tempt Odysseus and his crew in Homer’s Odyssey. These enchanting creatures sought to lure sailors to their deaths using their beautiful voices. The unsuspecting sailors, driven insane by the beauty of the unearthly music, were compelled to follow the sirens beneath the waves where they would drown.
Arguably, the most influential to our modern understanding of mermaids is Hans Christian Andersen’s infamous 1837 novel The Little Mermaid. The novel described mermaids as lovely young creatures that had to live underwater until age fifteen. On their fifteenth birthdays, they were allowed to visit land for a day and continue to do so once a year.
The Little Mermaid inspired numerous reproductions including operas, paintings, other books, comics, and of course, the famous Disney film. The rosier children’s film adaptation gained massive global attention and spurred a renewed cultural interest in mermaids, particularly with the new rise of mermaids costumes and fashion pieces.
While not the central theme of these works, mermaids have played a supporting role in many books. Herman Melville's Moby Dick mentions mermaids. Merpeople are apart of the massive Harry Potter universe. J.K. Rowlings' Harry Potter series, notably talks about them in the fourth and sixth books of the series ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"). Mermaids also make a few appearances in C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia series.
Modern Mermaids in Film and TV
One of the other famous cinematic depictions of mermaids is the 1984 film Splash, starring Tom Hanks, and Daryl Hannah. The film tells the story of a young man who falls in love with a curious and beautiful mermaid that saved his life as a child and comes to land to find him. As he tries to decide between a normal life on dry land and a paradisaical underwater existence with his dream woman, the lovers are pursued by a scheming scientist.
A more recent film adaptation was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The movie featured mermaids that followed the model of Homer’s sirens. The casting director famously hired world-famous models to capture the unearthly beauty sirens. The state-of-the-art computer animation rendered beautiful creatures that only revealed their terrifying, needle-sharp teeth once the pirates were lured under the water’s surface.
There have been a few television shows featuring mermaids such as H2O: Just Add Water, a popular Australian TV show about three teenage mermaids, and 2018's Siren (on the FreeForm network), about a mysteriously sinister mermaid that comes onto land in the US, drawing the attention of a curious marine biologist and other less well-meaning characters.
Mermaids: A Powerful Mythological Creature
Regardless of the roots of legends, mermaid folklore has held strong as one of the most prevalent and influential mythical images in history. Man has explored less than five percent of the world’s ocean floors, so to this day, the underwater realm remains a mysterious frontier - the perfect setting for supernatural conjurings of our imagination. Whether you subscribe to the belief that mermaids represent benevolence and femininity, or temptation and danger, the mermaid symbol is no doubt a powerful talisman.