Mermaids, Merfolk, and Aquatic Humanoids
Seventy-one percent of the earth is water, making it highly likely that there are many aquatic species that we as land lovers haven’t encountered. So why not mermaids?
In fact, in the medieval ages, these human-fish hybrids were so prominent that they were considered to be just another water animal like a whale or fish. It’s therefore not surprising that cultures from all over the world have stories that support the existence of these creatures. Could there be something to these ancient tales?
Let’s look at some of the folklore for mermaids and other aquatic humanoids in different cultures.
As early as the Babylonian era, we have a merman known as Oannes. He was a Babylonian god from the 4th century BC who was part fish and part human. Oannes was known for sharing wisdom with people along the Persian Gulf. He taught them written language, art, and science during the day and then returned to the sea at night. Some artwork shows Oannes as the typical merman with a human torso and a lower fishtail, but some ancient carvings show him as a human in a fish-type costume.
In Assyria, we have Atargatis. She was the chief goddess of Northern Syria who represented fertility and was responsible for the protection and well-being of the Syrian people. Atargatis is described as a fish-bodied goddess.
One story says that she was a normal human woman who made a mistake in love and became pregnant by her lover. She was so ashamed that she threw herself into a lake and her body changed into the form of a fish with her head remaining human. Her child eventually grew up to be Semiramis, the Assyrian Queen.
In India and Indonesia, they have Matsya who is the avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. Matsyas appearance is said to be in the form of a fish with a human torso. She is also sometimes described as having the bottom half of a giant snake. Matsya is considered a friend to man and even rescued the first man from the great deluge.
Cambodia and Thai
In Cambodia and Thailand, they have the “golden mermaid”. Her name is Suvannamaccha and she is the daughter of Ravana. She is a mermaid princess who wanted to spoil the plans of Hanuman, the monkey general and avatar of the Hindu god Shiva, to build a bridge to Lanka. Instead of ruining Hanuman’s plans, she fell in love with him. Pictures of the golden mermaid are hung on charms and from small cloth streamers throughout houses in Thailand to bring good luck.
Japanese mermaids are not good luck, in fact, they are the opposite. They are known as Ningyo (nin-jo) which translates to human fish. The Ningyo are described as having golden scales, a voice like a skylark or a flute, a monkey’s mouth, and small fish teeth. In pictures, they look like a giant fish with a weird human/monkey-type head. Apparently, Ningyo tastes good and if you have the opportunity to eat one, you will be blessed with longevity. But who would want longevity with misfortune? Which is exactly why you wouldn’t want to catch one because if you do, you will bring about turmoil. Fishermen who have caught these creatures are advised to throw them back into the sea. If a Ningyo washed up on a beach, it was considered to be an omen of war and calamity.
One of the earliest recorded mentions of mermaids were the merrows. These are Irish merpeople who have magical red caps that allow them to travel underwater as well as on land. If the red cap is captured by a person, the mermaid or merman is then forced to live on dry land. The merrows are supposed to have green or white skin and hair the color of seaweed. The female merrows are reported to be beautiful and act as sirens lulling men to their watery graves. The male merrows are described as being ugly and quickly trap the souls of dying sailors in pots on the seafloor. Only brave and willing humans can swim down and release them.
Scotland and Iceland
Scotland and Iceland have tales of the Selkies. Selkies are merpeople who can shapeshift between a person and a seal. There are many stories told of sailors capturing Selkie women and taking them home to become their wives. The men hide their seal skin which keeps them trapped on land. In many of the stories, however, the Selkie usually finds her skin and returns home to the sea. Unlike the male Merrows, the male Selkie is considered to be quite attractive. There is a legend that says if a woman wants a Selkie lover she only needs to cry seven tears at the seashore and this handsome merman will come to her. Usually, this ends badly for the woman. Stories are told of women eventually being drowned by their Selkie lovers.
In Greek mythology, we have Sea Nymphs who were the daughters of Oceanus or Nereus. There are four main types of Sea Nymphs. They are the Naiades, Nereids, Oceanides, Sirens, and Mermaids. Probably the most notable ones are the Sirens
Sirens are beautiful women/fish creatures who sing enchanting songs and lure sailors to follow them to craggy rocks that sink their ships close to their islands. Plato categorized the sirens into three groups. The first group were sirens who were under the government of Zeus, the second were under the government of Poseidon, and the third group were under the government of Hades. The sirens of Greek mythology have an otherworldly mediator role where they either helped a soul into heaven and endless harmony or to hades and endless fire. On land, these creatures fulfill their purpose through procreation.
They also have mermaid legends in Russia. These mermaids are called Rusalka. The Rusalka are similar to Celtic mermaids or Greek Sirens. They are beautiful young women who dwell in water and entice men to their deaths.
Their origins are somewhat sinister and it is believed that many Rusalka are brought into being by young women who have died violent deaths. Such as by murder, suicide, or drowning. Usually after being jilted by a lover.
Africa has the Mami Wata. She is a half-fish half-human female water spirit who is not only respected but worshipped and feared by many in the African culture. She represents the balance between the dark and divine.
Mami Wata is able to transform into either a whole human or whole fish at will and she can present herself as a half-woman, half-snake-like creature where her upper half is a woman and her bottom half is a snake.
She is often characterized as having long healthy hair and desirable beauty with a dark, yet tempting mysteriousness. Her human features seem to change to appear similar to the features of the women common to an area she appears.
This goddess chooses to provide spiritual and material healing to her worshippers. It is interesting that she is also known for protecting their emotional, mental health, and growth. Mami Wata is also known for protecting water bodies and many traditional African groups still do not go to the beach or fish on certain days in order to provide peace to her home.
To some, Mami Wata is known as a giver of fertility to women and a protector of women and children. It is said she has a soft spot for women who have suffered abuse. To others, she is known as a provider of wealth and riches and gives children beauty. Sometimes this beauty is said to be destructive for young girls.
As beautiful and favorable as Mami Wata seems, she also possesses just as much evil as good. This evil often focuses itself towards men. Many men have reported being captured by Mami Wata to satisfy her sexual needs. Women, while typically favored, do not always escape the goddess’ wrath. Sometimes, if a woman is not humble, or does not receive Mami Wata’s blessings with thanksgiving, she will be left either barren or without a man until the deity has been appeased.
The French have Melusine. She is a mythological female spirit of fresh water and was said to live in a sacred spring. She is depicted as having a human upper body and either a fish or serpent body from the waist down. Sometimes she has been portrayed as having wings and/or two tails.
The legends of Melusine are associated with the northern regions of France. She is seen in folktales and medieval literature. One such tale says Melusine was the daughter of the fairy Pressyne and King Elinas of Scotland. In the legend, Melusine’s mother left her husband and took her daughter to Avalon after the King broke his oath to never look at her or her daughter in the bath. As she and her daughter would transform into their true fairy form in the water.
History is said to repeat itself and this legend is no different. Melusine is said to have married a nobleman. In each legend or story, the nobleman breaks his oath, and Melusine will shapeshift into her winged form and fly away.
Today Melusine can be seen on the logo for the company Starbucks.
The legend of the mermaid truly is universal as it continues to the American continent. Many Native American cultures tell lore of fish-human hybrids. One such legend has to do with the Halfway people.
The Sabawaelnu or halfway people are Mi’kmaq water spirits. They have human upper bodies and fishtails. They have power over storms. They will not hurt humans as long as they are given respect. It is said that the Mi’kmaq (Mig Mugk) people who have learned to interpret their songs can predict the weather.
Lumpeguins are the mermaids, or water spirits of Wabanaki mythology. Some of these spirits are reported to have humanoid forms, while others are reported to have fishtails. As with many of the spirits of Native American folklore, a Lumpeguin will fall under the power of any human who steals his or her magical garment. In some legends, Lumpeguin women are claimed as wives by men (or animals) who have captured their clothing. Lumpeguins are said to be able to create food. They do this by either turning a small morsel of food into a great feast, baking bread from snow, or using a magical pot to produce an infinite amount of food.
The Passamaquoddy tribe have tales of a mer-creature known as the Ne Hwas. A benign water spirit sometimes characterized as having a fishtail.
In Anishinaabe folklore, they have the Nibiinaabe. The Nibiinaabe are a race of water spirits usually described as having human torsos and fishtails. They are known to be frightened by loud noises.
The indigenous tribes of California and other Western American states have legends of Water Babies. Water Babies are mysterious and dangerous water spirits who take the form of beautiful human babies. Some tribes tell of these babies as having human legs and some say they have fishtails. Some tribes tell stories of these Water Babies as appearing almost reptilian. These babies cry like human babies, but their cry is an omen of death. A response to a Water Baby’s cry will end in catastrophe.
If you think that mermaid stories are relegated to only the legends of times past, you would be wrong. There are encounters and stories that pop up all the time in our modern world.
Kaiwi Point Mermaid
On April 12, 1998, in Kailua-Kona Hawaii, Jeff Leichter photographed a creature which is now known as the “Kaiwi Point Mermaid”. For many years, people have reported seeing a mermaid off of the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, but like most cryptids, the sightings were not taken seriously until dive-boat captain Jeff Leichter told his story and provided proof.
Leichter was out on his boat that April day when he noticed a school of dolphins playing in their wake. One of the 10 people aboard the boat suddenly started yelling and pointing.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw. There, not 10 feet from the bow, was what looked like a nude woman. She had long flowing hair and one of the most beautiful faces I’ve ever seen. But there’s no way a human being could be swimming so fast. She was keeping right up with the dolphins. Then she leapt into the air and my heart almost gave out on me. The entire lower half of her was covered with scales and tapered back into a huge fish tail. She jumped once more, then disappeared under the surface.”
All of the people aboard the ship noticed the same thing. About an hour later, Leichter and his group were diving and photographing some of the many colorful fish off of the Hawaiian coastline when Leichter had another sighting.
“Suddenly I felt something brush against my right leg. She shot by me like a streak of lightning, then turned and came back past me, swimming the other way. I just aimed the camera and started snapping pictures. I kept shooting as she broke for the surface and swam away.”
Leicher’s pictures have been analyzed by three noted photography labs and all have verified the photos authentic and untampered with.
Kei Island Mermaids
In 1943, during WWII, Japanese soldiers witnessed mermaids in the Kei (Kay) Indonesian Islands. The local villagers told stories of strange human fish hybrids they called the Orang Ikan or man-fish. They described these cryptids as being about 5 feet tall and having spikes on their spines, shoulders, and necks. They had pink salmon-colored skin and a mouth that resembled a carp fish. They also had long arms and frog-like legs which both ended in talons.
The Japanese soldiers observed that the mermaids seemed to be amphibious, and mostly at home in the water. These creatures spoke with a “gurgling burping” noise and didn’t seem to be friendly.
Sergeant Taro spoke to the villagers and asked them if they ever captured an Orang Ikan, alive or dead, they were to contact him immediately. Not too long after his request, the chief summoned the general who was astonished to see with his own eyes, the lifeless aquatic creature. He described it as being, “Roughly 4-foot 9-inches tall, pinkish skin, human-looking face and limbs, spikes along its head, and a mouth like a carp.”
In 1967 along the coast of British Columbia a ferry filled with tourists witnessed a blonde-haired mermaid sitting topless on the beach eating a salmon while the waves splashed upon her. One witness said she was attractive with dimples. There was one photo taken that shows a blond woman with her lower half being that of a porpoise.
Later that week there was another mermaid sighting, but the story quickly died with skeptics’ questions and the general lack of proof.
In 2009, dozens of locals near Kiryat Yam Israel claimed they saw a mermaid on the shore during sunset. The witnesses said the creature looked like a young girl and would often visit the beach to do tricks in the water.
The Israeli government noticed the attention and issued a $ 1 million dollar reward for anyone who could provide proof by either capturing it or providing an authentic photo. NBC came and did its own investigation. One night, the crew claimed to spot a human figure dipping into the water and disappearing. The researchers were unable to catch the mermaid despite their best efforts of pursuit. They took their film footage to the Coastal Oceans Research center in Los Angeles to have it authenticated and reviewed. The film was pronounced authentic, but the figure could not be verified as a mermaid. They concluded that even though they couldn’t determine the creature to be a mermaid, the idea that it was a mermaid was a viable option.
Zimbabwe dam workers had a run-in with a mermaid in 2012. They were trying to install a water pump to supply much-needed water for local agricultural needs. The pumps were blocked, so local divers were hired to see what was causing the blockage. What they saw frightened them so much, they vowed never to return.
They claimed to have been harassed by mermaids and feared for their lives. The government resource minister then chose to send white men, unfamiliar with the local culture and customs down to fix the pumps. These divers were also frightened by something in the water and came back up vowing to never come back.
The pumps are still not fixed.
Here in the state of Illinois, a Reddit user says that he, his friend, and his brother had a mermaid sighting in 1994 on a river canal going towards Lake Michigan.
According to the story, they witnessed a 3-foot tall creature that appeared to be bright pink and emaciated. It was naked and appeared to be crouched over the water making swirling motions, in the water, with its index finger. The mer-creature had no hair and dark eyes. Once the men on the boat noticed the creature, it calmly dove into the water, never to come back up. This experience frightened the men so much that they immediately hauled their boat out of the water, loaded it into their truck, and left.
As you can see nearly every culture has folklore that details a creature similar to what has become to be known as the mermaid. Some of these creatures are benevolent and friendly, others not so much. Are they real? We may never know, but perhaps, given the overwhelming history, folklore, legend, and first-hand encounters that we have shared regarding this creature maybe we need to give it more precedence as being a reality. One thing is for sure. If real. Mermaids in general, and sirens for sure, give us all one more reason to