Skip to main content
Select Source:

mermaid

mermaid The mermaid is one of the most popular figures in world folklore. Her characteristic appearance is as a nubile young girl, with long hair and a fish tail, carrying a comb and a mirror. Unlike the other part-human, part-animal creatures of myth and folklore, mermaids have been the object of many sightings up to the present day; it is as if there is a desire to prove the reality of mermaids, which makes them closer to creatures such as the Loch Ness monster and the Yeti than to centaurs and sirens. Another expression of this desire to believe can be found in the many fake mermaids, usually made of the upper torso of a monkey and the tail of a salmon, which have been exhibited in fairs and circuses. In the age of trade and exploration, seeing a mermaid was an almost essential part of travelling to new worlds; Christopher Columbus saw three off Haiti, Sir Richard Whitburne sighted one when discovering Newfoundland in 1610, and Henry Hudson's crew saw a mermaid off Nova Zembla in 1625. In each case, the surviving accounts consciously compare what has been seen with the dominant images in art — Columbus finding his mermaids less pretty and more masculine than he expected. The most famous mermaid to have been captured, the ‘mermaid of Amboina’, was found off the coast of Borneo in the eighteenth century and is said to have lived in captivity for four days. She refused to eat, and made plaintive sounds like those of a mouse. The account given of these events in 1754 suggested that dead mermaids were never found because their flesh rots particularly rapidly.

Where do the myths of mermaids come from? Somewhere in the later Middle Ages, the fish-woman mermaid supplanted the bird-woman siren as the creature believed to lure sailors astray, although in many languages words based on ‘siren’ continued to be used for the fish-woman. The shift to fish-women as the danger facing mariners may be related to an increasing ability to travel to the open sea, where mermaids live, out of sight of the coastal rocks where sirens had been thought to perch. Both sirens and mermaids have musical talents; bird-sirens sing and play the pipes and the lyre, whereas mermaids rely on their voices to entice sailors to their death. Mermaids can raise and calm storms at will and, like the Sphinx, they can trap men with questions and riddles. In nineteenth-century Greek folklore, sailors in the Black Sea may meet the fish-woman Gorgona, who asks, ‘Does Alexander live?’ If they do not give the correct answer, ‘He lives and rules the world’, Gorgona will raise a storm and kill all aboard.

Mermaids combine the beauty of a young girl with a repulsive, fishy lower body. Physically, the problem this poses is how the men whom they target are supposed to have sexual intercourse with them. Some medieval representations get around this problem by showing the mermaid with a forked tail, but perhaps the whole point about the mermaid is that she is sexually unattainable except through death. As popular songs of the nineteenth century remind us, a man who marries a mermaid can never leave her, as there is no divorce court ‘at the bottom of the deep blue sea’. An unusual solution to the problem of the sexual availability of mermaids is found in Magritte's Collective Invention (1935), which shows a beached mermaid with the upper half of a fish and the lower half of a woman. A related problem is how mermaids themselves reproduce; male mer-people, or tritons, are shown in art, particularly in the Renaissance, but again they may miss the point. Matthew Arnold's poem The Forsaken Merman (1849) is a rare example of the treatment of mermen in literature; it reverses the common pattern of a mortal man loving a mermaid but being deserted by her, to imagine a mortal woman being called back from the mer-world by the distant sound of church bells.

Modern literary representations of the mermaid are dominated by the influential Little Mermaid of Hans Christian Anderson. Here the mer-world is a systematic inversion of our own, in which not birds, but fish, fly in through open windows. Rather than causing shipwrecks, the little mermaid saves the life of a shipwrecked prince, then makes a bargain with the sea-witch, exchanging her tongue for a pair of human legs. Every step she takes causes her terrible pain, and her feet bleed. Unable to win the love of the prince without her voice, she rejects the chance to kill him and thus return to her life as a mermaid, but instead dies when he marries someone else. Feminist interpretations of this story suggest that the little mermaid's surrender of the power to speak in order to enter the prince's world is an image of women giving up their own voices if they are to be accepted within patriarchy. Anderson's own message was that, by her love for the prince, the mermaid gained the chance of winning the immortal soul she most craved.

Helen King


See also chimera.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"mermaid." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"mermaid." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mermaid

"mermaid." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mermaid

Mermaids

Mermaids

Female mermaids and male mermen are imaginary beings with the upper bodies of humans and the lower bodies of fish. Often mentioned in European legends, they also occur occasionally in the folklore of seagoing peoples from other regions of the world. Although mermaids are usually portrayed as being lovely, they are also associated with danger. Their dual nature reflects humankind's relationship with the sea, which can be either a beautiful and bountiful place or a realm of fear and disaster.

deity god or goddess

The idea of a deity or creature in which human features are combined with the bodies of fish is very ancient. Babylonian* texts mentioned a god named Oannes, who was part man and part fish and lived among humans. The Near Eastern god Dagon may have been portrayed as a merman, and the Syrian goddess Atargatis had the form of a mermaid. Ancient Greek and Roman sea gods and their attendants often appeared as human torsos rising from the waves with curved fish tails below. The Greeks called these beings nereids if they were female and tritons if they were male. Japanese folklore features a mermaid called Ningyo, and Polynesian mythology includes a half-human and half-porpoise creator god called Vatea.

In European folklore, mermaids were associated with sirens, beautiful creatures whose singing lures sailors to their doom. Mermaids were commonly pictured as floating on top of the waves, singing or combing their long hair and gazing into mirrors. Seeing a mermaid was considered bad luck, as mermaids often appeared before storms or other disasters and were believed to carry drowned men away to their kingdom at the bottom of the sea. Although encounters with mermaids and mermen often ended badly for humans, in some legends, these sea creatures married human partners and took completely human form to live on land.

See also Sirens.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Mermaids." Myths and Legends of the World. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Mermaids." Myths and Legends of the World. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mermaids

"Mermaids." Myths and Legends of the World. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mermaids

mermaid

mermaid a fictitious or mythical half-human sea creature with the head and trunk of a woman and the tail of a fish, conventionally depicted (especially in heraldry) as beautiful and with long flowing golden hair, holding in the right hand a comb and in the left a mirror. In early use, the mermaid is often identified with the siren of classical mythology. Recorded from Middle English, the word comes from mere with the obsolete sense ‘sea’ + maid.
Mermaid Tavern a tavern in Bread Street, London, which was frequented by Shakespeare, Donne, and other literary figures.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"mermaid." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"mermaid." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mermaid

"mermaid." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mermaid

mermaid

mermaid, in folklore, sea-dwelling creature commonly represented as having the head and body of a woman and a fishtail instead of legs. Belief in mermaids, and in their counterpart, mermen, has existed since earliest times. They are often described as having great beauty and charm, which they use to lure sailors to their deaths (see Siren). In some legends they assumed human shape and married mortals (see Mélusine). The origin of the mermaid is thought by some to be the dugong (see sirenian).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"mermaid." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"mermaid." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mermaid

"mermaid." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mermaid

mermaid

mer·maid / ˈmərˌmād/ • n. a fictitious or mythical half-human sea creature with the head and trunk of a woman and the tail of a fish, conventionally depicted as beautiful and with long flowing golden hair.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"mermaid." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"mermaid." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mermaid-1

"mermaid." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mermaid-1

mermaid

mermaid XIV. f. MERE1 + MAID.
Hence merman XVII.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"mermaid." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"mermaid." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mermaid-2

"mermaid." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mermaid-2

mermaid

mermaid See SIRENIA.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"mermaid." A Dictionary of Zoology. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"mermaid." A Dictionary of Zoology. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mermaid

"mermaid." A Dictionary of Zoology. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mermaid

mermaid

mermaidabrade, afraid, aid, aide, ambuscade, arcade, balustrade, barricade, Belgrade, blade, blockade, braid, brigade, brocade, cannonade, carronade, cascade, cavalcade, cockade, colonnade, crusade, dissuade, downgrade, enfilade, esplanade, evade, fade, fusillade, glade, grade, grenade, grillade, handmade, harlequinade, homemade, invade, jade, lade, laid, lemonade, limeade, made, maid, man-made, marinade, masquerade, newlaid, orangeade, paid, palisade, parade, pasquinade, persuade, pervade, raid, serenade, shade, Sinéad, spade, staid, stockade, stock-in-trade, suede, tailor-made, they'd, tirade, trade, Ubaid, underpaid, undismayed, unplayed, unsprayed, unswayed, upbraid, upgrade, wade •nightshade • renegade • decade •Medicaid • motorcade • switchblade •Adelaide • accolade • rollerblade •marmalade • razor blade • handmaid •barmaid • Teasmade • milkmaid •dairymaid • bridesmaid • housemaid •chambermaid •parlourmaid (US parlormaid) •mermaid • nursemaid • escapade •ram raid • centigrade • multigrade •comrade • retrograde • lampshade •eyeshade • sunshade

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"mermaid." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"mermaid." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mermaid-0

"mermaid." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mermaid-0