Did you know that 71% of planet earth is covered by water? That leaves us, humans, with only 29% to live on! we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the deepest depths of our oceans. As a result of this many watery mysteries, myths and legends have been passed down all the way to the modern-day, and one of the most interesting is that of merpeople. Even in the enlightened times of 2021, the prospect of mermaids and mermen is a tantalising one, so let’s take a deep dive into exactly what we know about the history and legends of these half-human, half-fish creatures.
What is the definition?
The best thing to do is to get a good understanding of what we are talking about, so, what exactly is a merperson?
Merfolk, or merpeople, are legendary creatures from folklore and mythology that are said to be water-dwelling human-like beings that also boast some of the classic characteristics of a large fish. A half-human, half fish, if you will. Female merfolk, as most of you already know are referred to as mermaids, whilst male merfolk are referred to as mermen.
When it comes to what merpeople look like, the legends vary depending on which culture you are researching. In Chinese myth, for example, merpeople are said to be spun from a type of raw silk that can be seen on lines of naturally grown molluscs. In fact, Chinese mythology is where the first mention of the word ‘merfolk’ was originally found, dating back to the 4th century BC.
Something that also changes depending on the story or culture that you choose to research is the aesthetic appeal of merpeople. In some accounts, mermaids and mermen are described as being beautiful creatures, whilst others describe them in ugly and almost terrifying terms.
Most commonly and the most accepted view of modern times, merfolk are depicted as being human, from the head to the waist and a fish from the bottom half ending in a tail. Another common trait is that they are usually depicted with long flowing hair (both mermaids and mermen).
Now that you have some of the necessary facts, let’s take a closer look at the chronological history of the mermaid and merman legend.
8th century BC Greek poet Homer’s epic work, The Odyssey, features creatures known as Sirens, dangerous sea-dwelling females that would use their enchanting voices to hypnotise sailors and cause them to wreck their ships. The location and characteristics of Sirens became synonymous with the notion of mermaids, especially in the Middle Ages.
5th century AD The first description of a mermaid as we are familiar with, was penned by Physiologus in his Bestiary as having the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a fish, split at the navel. This reference remained influential all the way into the 18th century.
1493 Famous explorer Christopher Columbus claims to have seen three mermaids playing and jumping in the water on one of his voyages.
The mythology born around the topic in Western Europe first presents the idea of a water sprite (or merperson) being able to acquire an immortal soul by marrying a human. This is taken to its most famous form in the writing of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Little Mermaid.
This, of course, leads to the creation of Disney’s animated feature The Little Mermaid, a worldwide success that brought the myth of merpeople back into the forefront of popular culture. Disney’s take on Hans Christian Andersen’s story is less bleak in its outcome, but effectively blends much of the legend around mermaids from the past, including Homer’s trait of a beautiful singing voice, and the theme of marrying a human being to achieve an elevated form of existence.
The legend has been depicted in the film Splash, where a mermaid arrives to live in New York with the male who she had saved twice from drowning, once as a boy and then as a man.
Another recent pop culture reference to merpeople that children and adults alike will no doubt be familiar with is their inclusion in the Harry Potter universe. In Harry Potter, they are depicted as being much larger than humans, and on the more sinister side of things in terms of their temperament. They have their own language that humans can only hear underwater.
In 2012, a science fiction ‘documentary’ was aired on the Discovery Channel that showed its subjects searching for answers about a mysterious unidentified marine body that was discovered. This show puts forward something known as the aquatic ape hypothesis. Keep that in mind, we will be returning to it later.
Something that has kept the interest of the mermaid legend so strong in popular culture across the centuries are the various sightings that people claim to have had of the creatures. Here are some of the most notable sightings that have ever occurred.
A black and white photograph emerged of a stereotypical-looking mermaid that had been taken on the shore of Helen Point, Mayne Island. Though much excitement was generated at the time, even attracting a high cash reward for finding the mermaid, the photograph was later revealed to be a hoax.
A divemaster swimming in the sea on Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, claimed to have captured a photograph of a half-woman, half-creature in the water nearby him. After being analysed at the time by three independent photography labs, the photographs of the Hawaiian mermaid were deemed to have been untampered, and therefore many still believe them to be real to this day!
several people claimed to have seen a mermaid on the coast of the Israeli town Kiryat Yam. Described as being a cross between a young girl and fish, the mermaid supposedly appeared only at sunset and performed a series of tricks for onlookers before disappearing back into the water.
What animals might look like mermaids?
Of course, there is always the chance that these mermaid sightings might actually be cases of mistaken identity. Some of the animals that are most commonly confused with mermaids include:
As we mentioned a little bit earlier, manatees are very commonly confused with merpeople. This trend is said to have been started by drunken sailors in the 16th century who would encounter these large sea creatures and hazily mistake them for more human-looking figures.
Dugongs are a cousin of the manatee, also having a very similar plump, extended appearance with a dolphin-like tail. The presence of dugongs around sailors and other sea-faring people who might not have had all of their senses working correctly can again be added to the list of things that might have inspired so many mermaid sightings.
The aquatic ape theory
Remember the Discovery Channel documentary that was referred to earlier: let’s take a closer look at the theory that it was promoting. The aquatic ape hypothesis is a theory that puts forward the idea that a set of modern humans, at one point in time, took a divergent route from the accepted path of evolution from our great ape ancestry, and instead became a species that adapted to an aquatic (ocean) habitat.
Whilst this theory certainly makes for an interesting topic of discussion, at this point of the 21st century it has pretty much been disregarded by the vast majority of experts in the field.
So, now that you have some of the most important facts relating to the myth of merpeople in the world, what do you think?
From a cultural point of view, there is no doubt that the legend of the mermaid and to a lesser extent the merman is something that is going to continue to be part of civilization for millennia to come. If individuals around the world are still claiming to have seen a similar creature to the ones written about by Homer more than 2000 years ago, then that is long enough to prove a lasting impression!
From a purely factual and logical standpoint, it is hard to believe that there is a population of half-human, half-fish creatures swimming around in the ocean, but as we have already mentioned, we know even less about the watery depths of our own planet than we do about the moon!
It’s safe to say that the legend of the mermaid is not only something that is culturally important to lots of different groups of people in each corner of the globe. It is also a fun conspiracy theory akin to that of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. Those might be more modern examples compared to a myth dating back to before the 1st century AD, but they all share one thing in common, and that is their ability to capture the imagination of the human beings that continue to share stories, and the desire to believe in something beyond our own comprehension.