History & Culture

What are the mermaids said to charm by their song all who heard them?

A mermaid is a legendary aquatic creature that is half woman and half fish. Mermaids appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, including the Near East, Europe, Africa and Asia. The first stories appeared in ancient Assyria, in which the goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover.

Although some mermaids are described as monstrous and ugly, they are more usually very beautiful. Above the waist they appear as a lovely young woman, whilst from the waist down, they are like a fish with fins and a spreading tail.

Mermaids like to comb their long hair. In art, they are often shown with a mirror and a comb. Sometimes they sit on a rock and sing, luring sailors to their destruction. Mermaids lure handsome young men to their homes in the deep seas.


How did myths rise?

Legends of half-human, half-fish creatures go back thousands of years. Everyone has seen pictures of mermaids. Sightings were made by the early Arabs and the Greek Pliny in 586 A.D. Many medieval sailors claimed to have seen them and such reports continued right into the 1900’s.

However such descriptions are very different from the usual portrayal of a mermaid and the idea, of a beautiful but dangerous creature, probably arose from the earlier stories of the Sirens of the Aegean Sea. The Sirens were sea-nymphs who had the power to charm by their song all who heard them, so that the unhappy mariners were irresistibly impelled to cast themselves into the sea to their destruction.


Are mermaids good or bad?

It seems it would depend on which story you read. However, based on the evidence, you would need to be very careful if you ever encountered one. In British folklore they can be bringers of bad fortune, capable of causing storms and killing humans.

Some of the bad things that mermaids are accused of include telling sailors their ship is doomed and enchanting sailors and causing shipwrecks. Seeing a mermaid is a sure sign of a violent storm to come. In other stories, they deliberately drag people down in the water and squeeze the life out of drowning men. They also take men down to their underwater kingdoms.


However, on occasions, mermaids can also bring good fortune by giving humans cures or granting  them wishes. In some tales, they even marry and live with humans. For example, the Merrow of Ireland and Scotland.

Many Cornish (People in Cornwall plateau surrounded by the sea), particularly sailors, have claimed to have seen or heard a mermaid and belief in them was once widespread. There are many stories of mermaids seen on the rocks and of mermaids sitting weeping and wailing on the shore.

The mermaids in Cornish stories possess many of the features of mermaids the world over. They are beautiful, often seen combing their golden hair and live for a long time without ageing. Like many British and Irish mermaids, the mermaid in this story has more sympathy, inquisitiveness and interest in humans than other mermaids.


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