You've probably noticed our new line of Getting Nauti “mermaid” shirts (and, if not, now’s the time for a blatant plug!). Somehow that shapely half woman-half fish exudes sexuality despite the fact that fish tails generally don’t do much to stimulate most people’s libidos. In fact, the notion that mermaids should be sexy doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but let’s re-explore that idea later. First, as we are wont to do when discussing something nautically related, we’re going to examine exactly what a mermaid is, flesh out its origins, and determine whether there is any remote possibility that such a creature has ever existed.
Sound like the plan? Well then flap your tail, sing like a siren and then read on.
The first known reference of a mermaid was made by ancient Assyrians, who believed that the goddess Atargatis turned herself into a fish after she accidently killed her human lover. As the ancient story goes, Atargatis initially took the form of a fish, but the waters of the lake she jumped into would not conceal her divine beauty. Thus, she took the form of the mermaid we are familiar with today, with a human body above the waist, and fish below.
Depiction of the goddess Atargatis on silver tetradrachm coin
As so often happens in ancient historical lore, some of the Assyrian gods were co-opted by other rising civilizations, with the Greeks adopting Atargatis, and renaming her Derketo. The Greeks also came up with their own mermaid, with legends about how Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike was turned into a mermaid after her death. According to the legend, when ships encountered her on the Aegean sea, she would ask the sailor whether “King Alexander was still alive.” The correct answer was: "Ζει και βασιλεύει και τον κόσμον κυριεύει"
What? You don’t know Greek?
OK, we don’t either. We just like to show off our erudition with some pompous ostentatiousness, and the like. But that correct answer was: “He lives, reigns and conquers the world.” Thessa liked this answer so much that she would calm any rough seas, stir up some favorable winds and send the boat and sailors happily on their way. Of course, woe be unto those who answered otherwise, as this would lead her to open a can of tempest whip-ass on the ship and sailors, all of whom would inevitably be consumed by the storm.
Whether adopted from Greek mythology or otherwise, a type of mermaid (and merman) was featured in a couple of stories in the Arabian “One Thousand and One Nights” literary collection of the first Millennia. However, these merpeople were described as being anatomically identical to humans, other than having that bonus skill of being able to live and breathe underwater.
Mermaids also played a role in the early folklore of the British Isles, with most stories depicting mermaids as malevolent portends of disaster and shipwreck, who warn sailors that they are doomed and then help bring about the disaster. However, a few British mermaid tales ascribe good deeds to the creature, including the now common Isle of Man story about a mermaid who rewards a fisherman with treasure after he frees her from his nets.
In fact, mermaid stories abounded across the world during the second millennia, with just about every civilization coming up with their own versions of mermaids, some good, some bad, some indifferent; and some beautiful and others ugly. And today Hollywood gives us the occasional mermaid, what with “Splash,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” and “The Little Mermaid,” to name a few.
Splash...also where "Madison" as a first name came from
As for “real” mermaids, Christopher Columbus reported seeing some during his voyages to the Americas; however, most researchers believe that he and his men likely mistook manatees for mermaids.
Perhaps this just goes to show how hard up sailors can get when confined on board for months with a bunch of ugly, smelly shipmates.
The infamous pirate Blackbeard was so convinced that he had seen mermaids that his logbook contains instructions to steer away from specific charted waters that he claimed were inhabited by the creatures. In more recent years, dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of the water near the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam in 2009. Since then there has been a $1 million reward in place for anyone who can prove the existence of the Israeli mermaid.
Kiryat Yam Mermaid?
If a real one is ever found, it will be interesting to see if she is as sexy as so many of the depictions of mermaids tend to be. And why is it that mermaids are so often depicted as being sexy? It doesn’t really make sense if you think about, because consummating one’s love with a mermaid would be awkward at best.
Just ask Fry from Futurama
Just think about that fish tail and consider how fish mate….