Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is a heartwarming tale of a mermaid falling in love, battling evil to be with her love, and living happily ever after as a human. Just kidding. That’s the Disney version. In Andersen’s, the young mermaid has her tongue cut out, gets burned hard by the prince when he chooses another woman, and eventually dissolves into sea foam instead of saving her own life by ritualistically stabbing said prince through the heart and bathing in his blood. Seriously.
It was for this reason that Starbucks adopted the mermaid as its logo. (No it isn’t, that’s libel. Is it still libel if I admit it’s libelous? I guess we’ll find out.) Regardless, it took mermaids millennia of mythology to land on those coffee cups. But relations weren’t always so good between our two species—mermaids have largely been thought of as hell-bent on seducing sailors into the depths, or just smashing boats with storms if they’re not really feeling like putting the effort into being charming.
So why the mixed reviews? Where did the legend of the mermaid come from in the first place? From ancient deities to corporate lackeys, the history of our aquatic cousins is certainly a strange one.
According to Terry Breverton in his book Phantasmagoria: A Compendium of Monsters, Myths, and Legends, before there were mermaids, some 4,000 years ago there was a merman: Ea, the Babylonian god of the sea. He had the lower body of a fish and upper body of a human, and was one of those handy all-purpose deities, bringing humankind the arts and sciences while also finding the time to battle evil. And because he was associated with water, he was the patron god of—no joke—cleaners because, well, someone needed to be. Ea would later be co-opted by the Greeks as Poseidon and the Romans as Neptune.
The earliest mermaid-like figure was likely the ancient Syrian goddess Atargatis, who watched over the fertility of her people, as well as their general well-being. She, too, was human above the waist and fish below it, and was accordingly associated with water. The Syrians bestowed Atargatis with the biggest, most resplendent temple they could muster, which came complete with a pond of sacred fish that you probably weren’t allowed to throw coins into for a good luck.
Never one to be left out of disseminating misinformation, the great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, whose Natural History would serve as scientific gospel for centuries to follow, wrote of the nereids. These were nymphs we’d recognize as half-human half-fish mermaids, though “the portion of the body that resembles the human figure is still rough all over with scales.” He notes that Legatus of Gaul once wrote to Emperor Augustus claiming he found a “considerable number” of them “dead upon the sea-shore.” Pliny also mentions “sea-men,” who when night falls “climb up into ships; upon which the side of the vessel where he seated himself would instantly sink downward, and if he remained there any considerable time, even go under water.”
Such maliciousness is echoed in the sirens of Greek mythology, which variously were presented as beautiful women, half-bird half-women, and as mermaids. These fiends would lure men to their deaths with some sexy singing, as Odysseus well knew. He had his men strap him to the ship’s mast to avoid falling victim as they passed the island of the sirens, while his men plugged their ears with wax.
And so mermaids entered European mythology with conflicting personalities: Sometimes they were portrayed as beautiful, seductive maidens—almost goddesses like Atargatis—greatly desired by lonely sailors, while also being cast as siren-esque beasts that dragged men into the inky-black depths. But whatever the portrayal, mermaids wound their way deep into the nautical lore of the Middle Ages onward.
Really, it was best to avoid mermaids and mermen, just to be sure. Olaus Magnus, the 16th century writer and cartographer whose seminal map Carta Marina obsessively cataloged the many monsters of the seas around Scandinavia, noted that fishermen maintain that if you reel in a mermaid or merman, “and do not presently let them go, such a cruel tempest will arise, and such a horrid lamentation of that sort of men comes with it, and of some other monsters joining with them, that you would think the sky should fall.” Sea-people, it was widely held, were terribly bad luck to see or snag.
Other encounters were more harmless. In 1430 in the Netherlands, it was said that after the dikes near the town of Edam gave way during a storm, some girls rowing around in a boat found a mermaid “floundering in shallow, muddy waters,” according to the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. “They got her into the bat, took her home, [and] dressed her in women’s cloths,” which was a solid choice on account of her being a woman. She couldn’t be taught to speak, however, and remained totally mute.
Now, it was a pervasive ancient belief that every land animal must have a counterpart in the sea, and humans were no exception. Clearly, there must be sea cows and sea horses and sea swine out there. So while we had the mermaid representing us in sea, some claimed that things got even more specific, and that the clergy had their own aquatic representatives.
In the mid-16th century the French naturalist Guillaume Rondelet supposedly got his hands on two specimens bearing a striking resemblance to a pair of religious types: monks and bishops. The Encyclopaedia Metropolitana of 1817 describes the supposed “sea monk” accordingly: “The face was human, but coarse and clownish, the head smooth and without hair, a sort of hood resembling that of a monk covered the shoulders,” while its “lower parts ended in a spreading tail.” The “bishop fish” was “yet more wonderful, being clad by nature in the garb of a bishop.” It was taken to the king of Poland, who in his benevolence decreed it be carried back to the ocean and set free.
But out at sea, the number of mermaid sightings exploded as the Age of Discovery kicked off, as men in big, expensive boats made their way around the world. John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, caught sight of one off of Newfoundland in 1614, noting that “her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive.” And in 1493 the expedition of Christopher Columbus took time out of their wanton murdering to sight the mythical mermaid near what is now the Dominican Republic. As Columbus wrote in his diary: “The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men.” And then they got back to the murdering and enslaving.
In reality, the admiral had likely seen a manatee (what Smith had seen is anyone’s guess, considering manatees don’t venture that far north). And indeed it was strange creatures like these, a group known tellingly as the sirenians that also includes dugongs, that explorers encountered as they made their way around the world. Sadly, they ended up driving the most incredible sirenian to extinction: Steller’s sea cow. At an astonishing 33 feet long and 24,000 pounds, it was 20 times heavier than the manatee. But because it was so large, it never needed to fear predators before humans. By the turn of the 19th century, it was gone.
But it was the dugongs that were likely the source of the myth in the first place. They swim the waters around what used to be the former Syrian and Babylonian empires, and could well have inspired the half-human half-fish gods Atargatis and Ea. And as Michael Largo notes in his Big, Bad Book of Beasts, the mermaid as a bad omen could come from ships sailing too close to shore, where sirenians congregate, only to run aground. Because when in doubt, blame the harmless aquatic mammal.
But as science and reason solidified their hold in European and American society, the mermaid slipped further out of natural history and deeper into sailor lore. After all, out on the high seas, it never hurts to dream. I mean, it worked for Tom Hanks when he got rescued by a mermaid in Splash, and look at him now. He’s got, like, Oscars and stuff.