A mermaid is a legendary aquatic creature with the head and upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish. Mermaids appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, including the Near East, Europe, Africa and Asia. The first stories appeared in ancient Assyria, in which the goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover. Mermaids are sometimes associated with perilous events such as floods, storms, shipwrecks and drownings. In other folk traditions (or sometimes within the same tradition), they can be benevolent or beneficent, bestowing boons or falling in love with humans.
The male equivalent of the mermaid is the merman, also a familiar figure in folklore and heraldry. Although traditions about and sightings of mermen are less common than those of mermaids, they are generally assumed to co-exist with their female counterparts.
Some of the attributes of mermaids may have been influenced by the Sirens of Greek mythology. Historical accounts of mermaids, such as those reported by Christopher Columbus during his exploration of the Caribbean, may have been inspired by manatees and similar aquatic mammals. While there is no evidence that mermaids exist outside folklore, reports of mermaid sightings continue to the present day, including 21st century examples from Israel and Zimbabwe.
Mermaids have been a popular subject of art and literature in recent centuries, such as in Hans Christian Andersen‘s well-known fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” (1836). They have subsequently been depicted in operas, paintings, books, films and comics.
The first myths of mermaids may have originated around 1000 B.C. — stories tell the tale of a Syrian goddess who jumped into a lake to turn into a fish, but her great beauty could not be changed and only her bottom half transformed.
Since then, many other mermaid stories have appeared in folklore from various cultures around the world. For instance, the African water spirit Mami Wata is mermaid in form, as is the water spirit Lasirn, who is popular in folklore in the Caribbean Islands.
Throughout history, various explorers have reported sightings of mermaids, the most famous of which was Christopher Columbus.
Columbus claimed to have spotted mermaids near Haiti in 1493, which he described as being “not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men,” according to the American Museum of Natural History.
Captain John Smith is described in Edward Rowe Snow’s “Incredible Mysteries and Legends of the Sea” (Dodd Mead, January 1967) as seeing a big-eyed, green-haired mermaid in 1614 off the coast of Newfoundland; apparently Smith felt “love” for her until he realized she was a fish from the waist down.
Experts believe Columbus, Smith and other mermaid-spotting explorers really caught glimpses of human-sized marine mammals called manatees and dugongs.
Indeed, despite past and recent “sightings” of the mythical sea creatures, mermaids, like the Lock Ness Monster, may just be a case of mistaken identity.