With nearly three-quarters of the Earth covered by water, it’s little wonder that, centuries ago, the oceans were believed to contain many mysterious creatures, including sea serpents and mermaids. Merfolk (mermaids and mermen) are, of course, only the marine version of half-human, half-animal legends that have captured human imagination for ages.
C.J.S. Thompson, a former curator at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, noted in his book “The Mystery and Lore of Monsters” (Kessinger, 2010), “Traditions concerning creatures half-human and half-fish in form have existed for thousands of years, and the Babylonian deity Era or Oannes, the Fish-god, is represented on seals and in sculpture, as being in this shape over 2,000 years B.C. He is usually depicted as having a bearded head with a crown and a body like a man, but from the waist downwards, he has the shape of a fish covered with scales and a tail.”
Greek mythology contains stories of the god Triton, the merman messenger of the sea, and several modern religions, including Hinduism and Candomblé (an Afro-Brazilian belief), worship mermaid goddesses to this day. In folklore, mermaids were often associated with bad luck and misfortune. They lured errant sailors off course and even onto rocky shoals, much like their cousins, the sirens — beautiful, alluring half-bird, half-women who dwelled near rocky cliffs and sung to passing sailors. The sirens would enchant men to steer their ships toward the singing — and the dangerous rocks that were sure to sink them. Homer’s “Odyssey,” written around 800 B.C., tells tales of the brave Ulysses, whose naked ears were tortured by the sweet sounds of the sirens. In other legends — from Scotland and Wales, for example — mermaids befriended, and even married, humans.
There are many legends about mermaids and even a few dozen historical claims of supposedly “real” mermaid sightings. Hundreds of years ago, sailors and residents in coastal towns around the world told of encounters with sea-maidens. One story, dating back to the 1600s, claimed that a mermaid had entered Holland through a dike, and was injured in the process. She was taken to a nearby lake and was soon nursed back to health. She eventually became a productive citizen, learned to speak Dutch, performed household chores and converted to Catholicism.
Another supposed mermaid encounter is described in Edward Snow’s “Incredible Mysteries and Legends of the Sea” (Dodd Mead, 1967). A sea captain off the coast of Newfoundland described his 1614 encounter: “Captain John Smith saw a mermaid ‘swimming about with all possible grace.’ He pictured her as having large eyes, a finely shaped nose that was ‘somewhat short,’ and well-formed ears that were rather too long. Smith goes on to say that ‘her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive.'”
In fact, Smith was so taken with this lovely woman that he began “to experience the first effects of love” (take that as you will) as he gazed at her before his sudden (and surely profoundly disappointing) realization that she was a fish from the waist down. This dilemma is reflected in a popular song titled “The Mermaid,” by Newfoundland band Great Big Sea:
“I love the girl with all me heart
But I only like the upper part
I do not like the tail!”
Another story, from 1830 in Scotland, claimed that a young boy killed a mermaid by throwing rocks at it; the creature looked like a child of about 3 or 4, but had a salmon’s tail instead of legs. The villagers are said to have buried it in a coffin, tho