Fantastically Wrong: The Murderous, Sometimes Sexy History of the Mermaid
View pictures in App save up to 80% data. 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.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.