Mermaids–and mermen–appear as consistently in history as faeries and dragons.
Like their “mythological” counterparts, mermaids were considered real until the early 20th century.
In fact, although we think of Disney’s Ariel when we hear the word “mermaids,” their actual history is ancient, well-founded, and–until recent years–treated as fact, not fantasy.
In this article series, we define the merfolk as people with a human upper body and a fishlike lower body. Mermaids and mermen appear in some of our earliest recorded history.
Over 7000 years ago, the Babylonians honored a merman called Ea, later named Oannes by the Greeks. This god of the sea had the upper body of a man and the lower body of a fish. He spoke to the people in their own language, and provided important knowledge in the arts and sciences.
Today, we are more familiar with his later Greek and Roman counterparts, Poseidon and Neptune, although only their descendants appear as mermen.
In Roman history, Neptune is a god of water. Neptune is the son of the god, Saturn. Neptune’s legends seem to have formed after the Greek Poseidon, and draw heavily from the Poseidon lore.
Poseidon, the god of the sea, was the son of Kronos and the brother of Zeus and perhaps Hades. When the world was divided, Zeus took the sky, Hades took the Underworld, and Poseidon took the seas. Although he is shown with a human body, Poseidon was able to live on land or under the sea.
Poseidon was also the father of Triton, one of the most famous mermen in history. Triton has the upper body of a man and lower body of a fish. In art, he is usually shown rising from the sea, blowing on a conch shell.
Triton’s mother was Amphitrite, queen of the sea and one of the fifty Nereids. Although Amphitrite is usually portrayed with a fully human form–so she is not a mermaid–in legend she, like Poseidon, was able to travel under the sea as easily as on land.
One of the earliest mermaids was Syria’s Atargatis, loosely related to Astarte and Aphrodite, and perhaps to Pisces. Sometimes–but not always–this goddess is portrayed with the lower body of a fish, relating to the cycles of the moon and the tides. She is also shown with a sheaf of wheat arched over her head, relating to a plentiful harvest.
Other early literature describes similar creatures, including sea nymphs and perhaps Sirens.
So, although Disney has given us a clear picture of a red-haired modern mermaid, the tradition of merfolk is an ancient one.
Little Mermaid statue – John Nyberg, Copenhagen, Denmark