“The belief in the mermaid is common. There are many mermaid stories throughout the Isles. I took down several of these, some of which may be mentioned. Colin Campbell, crofter, saw, as he thought, an otter on Barra. The otter was holding and eating a fish, with his eyes closed, after his manner. The man raised his gun to fire, when to his surprise the creature before him looked like a woman holding a child. He had a telescope that had been given him by a ship captain for brave service rendered at sea, and looking through the glass he saw that the object before him had the head, the hair, the neck, the shoulders, and the breast of a woman, and was holding a child. The man was greatly astonished, and concluded that this must be the mermaid of whom he had often heard…”Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Vol. 2
Cover art by Alice Yuric
Mermaids have a well known place in folklore. Most of us are familiar with European legends of them but the mermaid features throughout cultures across the entire world from Japan to Brazil. Most of the oldest written and recorded accounts of mermaids relate to the fabled sirens in Greek mythology whom were very mermaid like. Additionally, there are the written legends of Atargatis, a mythical goddess of modern Syria who was fish bodied, which date to 1000 BCE. Mermaids are famously associated with ship wrecks and can be benevolent or beneficial depending on their personalities and have both saved as well as killed sailors or other people located near the sea shore or bodies of water. The word mermaid is derived from a combination of words, ‘mere’ an old English word meaning sea and ‘maid’ as in a woman. There were mermen as well or the merman which were the male counterparts of the mermaids which are also rife throughout old folklore. Together, they were considered merfolk or merpeople.
Some common folkloric motifs surrounding the mermaid or merman are that they would sing very beautifully, deliberately to enchant people and lead them to disaster or their deaths but sometimes they simply fell in love. They were commonly witnessed singing in general or brushing their long hair. Sometimes they were known to ‘forget’ that humans couldn’t breath underwater and accidentally drowned them while in others, they purposefully did so. In the isles and the Atlantic seaboard along the coast of France and Spain they were usually seen as a bad omen. For example, in Scotland, the ballad, Sir Patrick Spens (1765), depicts a mermaid speaking to the doomed ships warning them they will never see land again.
In France, mermaids were and are known as the sirène (siren) or the Mélusine. The most famous literary version of Melusine tales regards an origination tale where an old king named Elynas, went hunting one day and came across a beautiful otherworldly lady in the forest. Her name was Pressyne and he persuaded her to marry and have children with him. She agreed but only on one promise that he not enter her chamber when she was birthing or bathing her children (to see her true form) to which he agreed. She gave birth to triplets and he inevitably broke her rule. In anger she left the kingdom returning to the otherworldly land of Avalon. The three children, all girls, Melusine, Melior and Palatyne grew up in Avalon and one day Melusine asked their mother why were they were taken there to which she explained her father had broken his promise. Melusine, in anger, returned to the human world, captured and locked Elynas away. Pressyne was very angry at hearing this as it seemed an unworthy punishment and so she condemned Melusine to take the form of a serpent every Saturday. Melusine’s tale continued on in yet another legend where she went through a similar experience as her mother but when her husband spied on her bathing, and which she was then doomed to stay in her mermaid form throughout the week instead of only on Saturdays. She disappeared into the Mediterranean in grief and is said to continue to haunt the ocean.
In Ireland, mermaids are known as Lí Ban, ‘beauty of women’, muruach or maighdean mhara, ‘maid of the sea’. One of the oldest legends surrounding mermaids relates to the formation of Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Ireland. It was said that a great lake gushed onto dry land over a family’s home. The entire family drowned except for the mother, Liban who survived in an underwater chamber within the lake for one year after which she transformed into another creature entirely, becoming half woman and half salmon. With her lapdog, which assumed the form of an otter, the mermaid was free to roam the seas for 300 years, while she also maintained her dwelling under Lough Neagh. During that time her angelic singing was heard by St. Comgall on Donegal’s shores, as he was passing her in his coracle. He spoke with her and she agreed to come ashore to become baptized where she was said to die immediately and ascend to heaven. In the Irish Folk Duchas alone, there are over 600 transcripts that include the word mermaid. Their legend here is mixed as well with many tales showing them as well meaning and saving sailor’s lives while others portray them in a negative light such as this one from Leitrim told by Martin McMorrow…
“Once upon a time a girl was steeping flax in Glenade lake, when a mermaid came up out of the water and killed her. At moment a man happened to be passing by with his horse and he saw what the mermaid had done and he killed her. Just as he was up on his horse ready to ride home another mermaid followed him. He was just going in on the stable door when he turned round and saw the mermaid was close behind him; so he drew his sword and cut her in two halves. When this man died he was buried in Rosenver graveyard and monument was erected over his grave with the picture of his coat of arms and the mermaid on it.”
In Scotland, they are called Maighdean na tiiiniie, ‘maid of the wave’, muirghin na tuinne ‘conception of the sea’ or maighdean mhara, “maid of the sea” as well. Many fascinating legends have survived such as the following that relates to herbalism. In the old book Popular Rhymes of Scotland by Robert Chambers (1841) the great herb mugwort was heralded for curing illness when it was said that…
“Mermaids, in Scottish superstition, were both beneficient and dangerous personages. One of celebrity in Galloway would sometimes communicate useful knowledge to the people living along the rocky coast, which she delighted to frequent. A charming young girl who consumption had brought to the brink of the grave, was lamented by her lover. In the vein of renovating sweetness, the good mermaid sung to him, “Wad ye let the bonnie May die i’ your hand, And the mugwort flowering i’ the land!”
In Wales, there is the famous Mermaid of St Dogmael’s near Pembrokeshire Village. The legend says that a fisherman spotted a creature moving in the water near Cemaes Head. It was a mermaid brushing her hair that failed to notice him approaching. He threw a net over her and caught her to which she immediately began crying, begging for him to set her free to which she promised in exchange, to warn him of impending danger in his greatest hour of need. He agreed and let her go. That summer, she mysteriously appeared one day telling him that he needed to return to land for there was a terrible storm approaching that would cause many deaths. He did as she warned and sure enough, a vicious storm approached that killed many other fishermen that day while he survived.
In Cornwall, there is a local legend in the village of Zennor where a mermaid used to frequent and sing to a local man. The two fell in love and he left with her to live in Pendour Cove where on summer nights the lovers can still be heard singing together.
In England, a deadly mermaid was said to inhabit a small pool in the village of Childs Ercall. In 1893, the writer Robert Charles Hope described a story where two young men met a mermaid on a particular nearby lake. She promised to show them her treasure that was buried at the bottom of the lake and came up with a large piece of gold to prove it to them. She lured them in the water with her lovely voice. Just as they were up to their chins in the water, one of them swore by a holy name and the mermaid gave a scream and was scared away, never to be seen again.
In another creepy English legend, there is a pool called Black Mere Pool in Staffordshire which was believed to be a bottomless pit and home to a mermaid. In one account, she was trapped there after falling in love with a sailor and brought home with him after one of his voyages. He placed her in the pool so that they could be closer together. They lived happily until of course, her being immortal and him being human, he eventually died. She was completely grief stricken, pining and pining away for her lost love and became bitter and angry at other humans, now unable to leave her land locked lake. It then became her ambition to lure people into the lake and ultimately to their death. A second legend relating to the lake of the mermaid suggests it is the spirit of a woman who was wrongfully and brutally murdered there by a local man for refusing his affections. There is a “Mermaid Inn” located nearby in honor of these tales that was build in the 17th century.
Of course the most famous tale of a mermaid comes from Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. He wrote about a young mermaid who was willing to give up her life at sea to gain a human soul and life. The story more or less follows the Disney version except a few details and the ending which are a lot more dreadful in reality. The prince doesn’t fall in love with the mermaid, but instead to a woman he interprets was responsible for his rescue although it was in actuality of course the mermaid who saved him. She is mute however and cannot explain this to him…
“The prince and princess celebrate their new marriage aboard a wedding ship, and the Little Mermaid has her heart broken. She is very grievous, awaiting her imminent death, when her sisters rise out of the water and bring her a dagger that the Sea Witch has given them in exchange for their long, beautiful hair. If the Little Mermaid kills the prince and lets his blood drip on her feet, she will become a mermaid once more and she will live out her full life back in the ocean with her family. However, the Little Mermaid cannot bring herself to do it and she throws the dagger and herself off the ship into the water just as dawn breaks. Her body dissolves into foam, but instead of ceasing to exist, she discovers that she has turned into a luminous and ethereal spirit, a daughter of the air. As the Little Mermaid ascends into the atmosphere, she is greeted by other daughters, who tell her she has become like them because she strove with all her heart to obtain an immortal soul. Because of her selflessness, she is given the chance to earn her own soul by doing good deeds for mankind for 300 years, and will one day rise up into Heaven.” Source (Wiki)
It’s worth mentioning that water nymphs and selkies are very similar in the way they present in folklore but are nonetheless of course unique and different from the mermaid. There is so much fascinating lore and belief surrounding mermaids, the mythical and divine creatures around the world associated with them and the art that has been produced in inspiration of them is truly astounding as well.