Mythological Throwback Thursday: Mermaids and Mermen
It’s time for a special Mythological Throwback Thursday! In honour of Mermay, we’re looking into the depths of mermaid and merman lore. Let’s dive in!
Mermaids are one of the oldest mythological creatures around. Many parts of the ancient world, during various periods, worshipped a goddess known as Atargatis, or Derceto. Originating in Syria, she was a goddess of fertility, a protector of her people, and was often depicted with a fishtail instead of legs. In one origin tale, she is said to have become pregnant by a handsome shepherd boy, Caystrus. Rather than give birth, she tried to drown herself and instead morphed into a half-fish, half-woman.
In ancient Mesopotamia there was also a god known as Oannes, who was depicted as a fish with human feet and also a human head alongside its piscine one. During the day, he would surface in the Persian Gulf and come to shore, instructing those he met in writing, the arts, and the sciences. Smart fish.
Of course, we couldn’t go without mentioning Triton, the Greek god, messenger of the sea and son of Poseidon. A classic merman, he wielded a trident and also possessed a magical conch shell which could control the waves. Triton sired an entire race of merfolk, also called tritons. They had similar powers to their father, but looked rather less human, with gills and broad mouths filled with sharp teeth.
While mermaids are near-universally regarded as highly feminine and attractive, the same cannot be said for their male counterparts. In many parts of the world, mermen were thought of as ugly creatures. In Ireland for example, where merfolk were called merrow, the males were described as having green hair and teeth, both scaly legs and a tail, and stubby arms like fins. As with all merrow, the males had peculiar hats that they needed to wear to be able to live beneath the waves. One type of mermen in Finnish mythology, vetehinen, were helpful, green-bearded fellows with skill in medicine and lifting curses. However, there are also Näkki, which are handsome from the front but hairy and unpleasant from behind. Finnish parents would tell their children that Näkki lay in wait in reflective water, to reach up, drag down and drown inquisitive or vain boys and girls. Creepy.
The image of a man-fish hybrid has also appeared in Polynesian mythology. Avatea, a god of the Cook Islands, is a half-man, half-fish lunar god. Unlike the other merfolk, however, Avatea was split vertically, with his right half being a man and the left being a fish. What a twist!
It seems that wherever humans depended on the ocean, they personified its fickle nature. Perhaps this is the reason for the dualistic personalities sometimes depicted: mermaids good, mermen bad.
If you dig merfolk, you should check out our spin on The Little Mermaid, set in old Down East Maine: Low Tide, by A.M Leibowitz. Download our app Beyond Books for iOS here!