Mermaids and mermen are mythological marine creatures that are typically depicted to be half human and half fish or sea serpent. They’re often known to be both mysterious and enchanting as well as possess magical and prophetic powers. First appearing around 1000 B.C. in ancient Assyrian mythology, mermaids and mermen have be recorded in different folklore around the world including Japan, Scotland, Africa, Brazil, New Zealand, France, Ireland, Russia, and Norway.
Each of these tales describe the marine creatures in many different forms. They can be a giant fish with a human face and a monkey’s mouth. They can be creatures who live their lives as seals in the water and shed their skin to become human on land. Or they can be a water snake who becomes an immortal woman with green eyes and brown skin. Mermaids and mermen have also been recorded in many different forms in the world of literature as well. In Arabian Nights, mermaids are described as having moon faces, woman’s hair, hands and feet in their bellies, and tails like fish.
When writing my own fantasy island, Death Island, I wanted to combined maritime folklore with Mayan mythology. In designing the three mermaids, I mixed the traditional mermaid folklore with the Mayan god, Kukulkan—the feather serpent god said to have the ability to transform into a man. They have three different forms. The first being the appearance of a Mayan woman with the tail of a fish.
“Then I noticed a cobalt fin and scales brush the surface of the water circling me, eventually brushing against my leg. The threatening sense of oncoming danger abruptly stopped my laughter and snapped me back into reality. What the hell? I turned to see part of a beautiful woman’s face; her skin a soft bronze, her eyes dark brown, her nose arched, and her hair the same color as a raven’s feather. I was struck in awe by her presence. Her eyes hypnotic while they continued to stare.”
The second form ties in mermaids’ magical powers and their ability to lure men to a watery grave. Establishing a mental link with their victims, they play on their victim’s deepest desires. Letting individual sailors see characteristic traits that attract the victim specifically.
“Even now, I could recall every detail of her image, like she had painted a picture of herself in my thoughts. Her deep, emerald eyes sparkling in the moonlight. Her cheeks a light pink from the sun. Her breasts hovering just above as she leans down for a kiss. Her rose-petal lips as soft as down feathers upon my mouth. She was so perfect. This moment was perfect. Hardly a flaw.”
However, the third form is the mermaids’ true form. The being that lies underneath the surface. For what one learns about Death Island is that its beauty is only a mask.
“A snake-like hiss radiated from behind me, and I turned to find myself staring into bright yellow-orange eyes. They were surrounded by scaly, cobalt skin. The mermaid’s hair became red feathers that ran down her back to the tip of her long serpent tail. Her nose was nothing but two little slits. She dropped her elongated jaw exposing two six-inch fangs and a forked tongue.”
No matter their appearance, most legends agree that these creatures are often associated with misfortune and death, having the power to summon storms, sink ships, and drown sailors. There are a few exceptions, such as the Silkies or the mermaids in the Shetland Islands, where mermaids are considered benign creatures. However, these creatures could be reflecting our human symbolism for the ocean, where the mermaid’s personality can be compared to the sea’s ability to be either beautiful and gentle or horrific and harsh. There is also the possibility that mermaid folklore is simply a way for humans to make the sea feel more approachable and less threatening.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, INC. (2019) Mermaid. https://www.britannica.com/topic/mermaid
- Finklea, G. (2016). 9 Mermaid Legends from Around the World. http://mentalfloss.com/article/75471/9-mermaid-legends-around-world
- Geller. (2018). Mermaid. https://mythology.net/mythical-creatures/mermaid/
- Radford, B. (2017) Mermaids & Mermen: Facts & Legends. https://www.livescience.com/39882-mermaid.html
- Sharer, R. and Traxler, L. (2006) The Ancient Maya: Sixth Edition. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press