Why are people enchanted with mermaids? Is it because they have perfectly flowing, magical hair?
Is it their strategic use of shells as a torso covering?
Mysterious, powerful and possibly immortal, mermaids have been featured in ancient folktales as well as modern films. When mermaids surface in trendy movies, a whole new generation is charmed. Some of these include:
- Miranda (1948)
- Night Tide (1961)
- Splash (1984)
- The Little Mermaid (1989)
- Magic Island (1995)
- Aquamarine (2006)
- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
Half Supermodel, Half Fish
A mermaid is technically and anatomically “a legendary aquatic creature with the head and upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish.” Mermaid characters appear in the tales of many cultures all over the world. These stories connect mermaids with perilous storms, floods or shipwrecks. They fall in and out of love with humans. They wield serious powers that help or harm people.
Although not as common as the mermaid, the male counterpart to the mermaid is the merman. This concept has also surfaced in folklore – and in The Thirteenth Year, a 1999 Disney film. Mermen, however, are usually depicted as wilder and uglier than mermaids and aren’t much interested in humans.
The Mermaid Myth
The idea of mermaids started a long time ago – probably influenced by the Sirens of Greek mythology.
Sailors and pirates often believed that mermaids brought bad luck and would bewitch them into giving up their loot. They also feared mermaids would drag them to the bottom of the sea.
Some famous mermaids include:
- Atargatis, a legend dating back to 1000 B.C. To punish herself for accidentally killing her beloved, she tries to change herself into a fish. Only the lower half was transformed.
- The Little Mermaid, from the tale by Hans Christian Andersen. She risked her life to follow a shipwrecked human prince. After he marries someone else, she evaporates into sea foam.
- Sedna, an Inuit legend. While being rescued by her father, Sedna fell into the sea and grew a fish tail.
And let’s not forget the Starbucks mermaid, chosen to represent the Seattle-based coffee company because they wanted a nautical mascot. Her image is loosely based on a Scandanavian woodcut.
So, if mermaids are a myth, what has kept this legend alive over the centuries? Maybe because there have been documented sightings of this legendary lady-fish:
- In Ancient Rome, author Pliny the Elder author includes describes numerous sightings of mermaids in his Natural History. He noted that their bodies frequently washed up on shore off the coast of Gaul.
- In 1493, Christopher Columbus reported seeing three "female forms" which "rose high out of the sea.
- Blackbeard, an English pirate, included written instructions to his crew to “steer away from certain waters for fear of merfolk." Blackbeard did record such sightings in his logbook.
- InI1881, a Pennsylvania fisherman reported sightings of a mermaid in the Susquehanna River.
- Two sightings were reported in Canada– one in the late 19th century and one in 1967.
Most recently, in August 2009, dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leap out of Haifa Bay.
Scoff at the sightings if you wish, but the mermaid concept seems to be immortal. These never-ugly creatures have lasted centuries. It seems that mermaids will forever live on to enchant us in folktales, stories and film.
“It's the sound of the sea that makes you believe in mermaids.”
--Anthony T. Hincks
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