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PostHeaderIcon Mermaid myths, legends, and folklore

Mermaid mythology and legends
Mermaids are marine beings commonly depicted as having human-like upper bodies and piscine lower bodies. Their existence has been reported for centuries by sea-faring folk, but has been dismissed as either mere superstition or the confusion of a drunken sailor.

The traditional image of a mermaid has existed since antiquity and likely has its origins in part-fish sea Gods such as Atargis and Dagon. Mermaids are shown as having long hair and holding a comb and a mirror. Mermen are few and far between. While the single-tailed mermaid is popular nowadays, in earlier times mermaids were frequently drawn with twin tails. Such mermaids can be seen in the older European cathedrals. They bear a strong resemblance to their cousin the Sheila-na-Gig.
Types of mermaids:
  • Ben-varry: On the Isle of Man, the mermaid is called a ben-varry. She generally appears as a benevolent fish-tailed woman, though some few have been known to lure sailors to their doom.
  • Dinny-mara: Manx mermen are termed 'dinny-mara', but they are not normally seen or described.
  • Havfrue: The Scandanavian mermaid is beautiful in appearance with long golden hair and carrying a golden comb to entice fishermen. However, her appearance is regarded as an omen of poor fishing and storms. The havmand, the Scandanavian merman, is seldom seen by humans but is considered handsome with green or black hair when he does appear. He lives near the sea shore and is generally helpful to humans.
  • Merrow: A mermaid found in Ireland. The females are reported to be beautiful, while the males are green in colour with red eyes and pig ears. All merrows have long fish tails and webbed fingers. They are normally friendly to humans, even to the extent of intermarrying.
  • Melusine: Refers to a twin-tailed mermaid. These are usually depicted in medieval bestiaries.
  • Merrymaid: The merrymaid, as Cornish mermaids are termed, are capricious creatures. Their actions depend solely on their whim at that moment. While some merrymaids rescue sailors from drowning, others prefer to actively encourage sailors to drown. Their siren song as they sit on nearby rocks causes ships to founder and sink.
  • Ningyo: One of many Japanese monsters. They are primarily depicted as human-headed fish, as opposed to the fish-tailed woman seen in Western culture. The fish-flesh of the ningyo grants the gift (or curse) of immortality when eaten, and their blood can be used to cure all ills. Their tears take the form of pearls which are highly prized in magic. The sighting of a ningyo is considered an omen of impending war.
"Jenny Haniver" is a general term referring to composite creatures created for display in sideshows as a hoax. These sideshow mermaid creatures were usually billed as "Living Mermaids" but are usually made from the torso of a (very dead) monkey and the tail of a (very dead) fish. On occasion one might come across one with wings, claws, or other interesting additions.

The first of these Jenny Hanivers were created in the 1500s and 1600s. They were brought back to Europe as curiosities by travellers to Asia. Due to their popularity, a thriving market in these forgeries flourished until the late nineteenth century. The most famous of these is the Feejee Mermaid, which was owned by P.T. Barnum.
Currently out of print:
  • Folklore and the Sea by Horace Beck.
  • The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History by Jan Bondeson.
  • Mermaids: Nymphs of the Sea by Theodore Gachot.
  • Sirens: Symbols of Seduction by Meri Lao.