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Mermaids are a species of aquatic beings which are present in the mythology of several cultures. They are most commonly depicted as having the upper body of a human lady and the lower body of a fish or other aquatic animal; and their appearance may range from stunningly beautiful to grotesquely beastlike, depending on the reports.
Although they're almost invariably depicted as intelligent beings, their behavior too may vary greatly, ranging from hostile to friendly, depending on each story. The existence of Mermaids has been reported worldwide, in both sea and freshwater.
Mermaid stories have been widely present in human culture, dating back to thousands of years and even earlier. In both myth and popular culture, they may take a number of forms. They usually combine features of humans and sea creatures, but whether they are depicted as predominantly mammalian, piscine or reptilian varies.
As the name suggests, they're most commonly female. The male form is usually called Merman, and the name Merfolk is generally used to refer to both genders. The Irish-English word Merrow is generally thought to mean the same as Mermaid, although some may claim there are differences between them.
Traditionally, legends have often depicted Mermaids as dangerous creatures, supernaturally linked to floods, storms or shipwrecks. An especially common trait is that they enchanted sailors with their beauty and hypnotic singing, and dragged them underwater to their death.
All of these ideas have historically been associated with female water spirits and creatures such as the Sirens of Greek mythology, the Morgens of Celtic mythology, and the freshwater Nixies of Germanic tradition. All of these may have been sources of inspiration for the modern Mermaid tales. Other inspirations may include the aquatic Nymphs of Greek mythology, such as the oceanic Nereids and the freshwater Naiads; as well as other female freshwater spirits such as the Asturian Xanas and the Slavic Rusalka.
Mermaids may also be linked to the female water elementals called Undines, first described by the alchemist Paracelsus. The idea that an Undine has no soul, but may acquire one by marrying a human, was the main source of inspiration for Hans Christian Andersen's tale The Little Mermaid, which has since become one of the most famous works featuring Mermaids.
The most typical kind of Mermaids (sea-dwelling; upper half of a woman, lower half of a fish) are also present in the mythology of Southeast Asian peoples. In the Philippines, they're known as Sirena. Their male counterparts, however, are not similar to traditional Mermen. Rather, they're a humanoid race with fish-like features, similar to the fictional Gill-man, and are known as Siyokoy.
Thai myth features the story of a Mermaid princess called Suvannamaccha. The Javanese sea goddess Nyai Roro Kidul is typically depicted as a Mermaid.
Meanwhile, traditional Japanese folklore depicts a different kind of Mermaid-like creatures known as the Ningyo. Far from the beautiful sea maidens of other parts of the world, the Ningyo is a grotesque being which only has the face of a woman and the entire body from the neck-down is fish-like. They may also have monkey-like faces and their voice is described as soft and similar to a bird's singing. While their flesh has a pleasant taste and brings great longevity to those who consume it; catching one of them was also believed to be a source of misfortune and catastrophe, so fishermen typically threw them back in the sea.
A different Japanese species would be the Amabie, which has a bird-like beak and is also described as covered in scales from the neck down.
In Indian mythology (Hinduism, Buddhism and others) Mermaids might be linked with the Apsaras: shapeshifting female spirits which inhabit clouds and water bodies. Another possible connection would be the aquatic Nāgas (snake people), which in turn may be related to oriental Dragons and Sea Serpents.
The Amazonian Mermaid is called Iara, as featured in Tupi and Guaraní mythology. Another South American example is the Sirena chilota of the Chiloé Islands.
Nowadays, Mermaids are still commonly depicted in popular culture, including literature, comics, television, films and video games. They're most usually given the appearance of a beautiful woman with a scaly fish-like tail. In order to facilitate their interaction with human characters, these works will often give Mermaids the supernatural ability to temporarily shift their tails into a pair of legs, thus acquiring a fully human appearance and the ability to walk on land.
In several works (especially those primarily aimed at children), Mermaids will be depicted as living in an underwater monarchy ruled by King Neptune: who will then be almost invariably portrayed as an old, wise and benevolent Merman. Also, in order to avoid nudity, the Mermaids will sometimes be shown to cover their breasts with seaweed or shells, or in some cases, even wear human clothes.
Curiously, these traditional-looking Mermaids will most often be depicted as friendly creatures, which may hide from humans, but will readily save shipwreck victims from drowning (exactly the opposite of what most of them did in the old myths) and bring them safely to the shore. It's extremely common to have Mermaids falling in love with a human male, rather than the other way round. Sometimes, they will be able to have children with humans.
Alternatively, some works of horror, fantasy and/or science fiction will typically feature more grotesque and even monstrous Mermaids with predominantly reptilian or piscine features and sometimes shapeshifting abilities. In these cases they might be linked with legends of fish-men and abyssal humanoids. Attempts to produce more scientifically plausible, fully mammalian Mermaids aren't unheard of either, some examples of which would be the creatures from the Animal Planet mockumentary Mermaids: The Body Found, and the sirenian Merfolk from Harry Turtledove's State of Jefferson universe.
In some media, such as the DC multiverse and Sanctuary, Mermaids also have natural telepathic abilities which can manifest even at great distances.
Mermaids are also cryptids, as even today there are still numerous reports of Mermaid sightings all over the world. Perhaps the most well-known historical case is that of the Mermaids sighted by Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean Seas in 1493. It's often said that Columbus had actually observed manatees, which he mistook for Mermaids.
A particular infamous case in the cryptozoological community is the taxidermy hoax known as the "Fiji Mermaid", which is created by combining parts of fish and monkeys, and are often sold in curiosity shops. A similar case, although not always directly linked to Mermaids, is the "Jenny Haniver": a semi-humanoid fake sea creature made from the corpse of a stingray.
Mermaids in cryptozoology may also be sometimes linked with mythical reptilian "fish-men" such as the Adaro and the above-mentioned Siyokoy, as well as Sea Serpents in general. It's perhaps significant that in Filipino folklore, the Siyokoy is simply the male form of the Sirena (Mermaid).
The historically reported Steller's Sea Apes are also of interest, being purportedly a species of oceanic primates.
Works Featuring Mermaids
- The Circus of Dr. Lao, by Charles G. Finney
- The Elf Mound, by Hans Christian Andersen
- The Faery Convention, by Brett Davis
- The Fisherman and his Soul, by Oscar Wilde
- Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling
- The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen
- The Merman's Children, by Poul Anderson
- Peter and Wendy, by J. M. Barrie
- The Sea Fairies, by L. Frank Baum
- The Sea Lady, by H. G. Wells
- Something Fishy, by Harry Turtledove
- Wet Magic, by Edith Nesbit
- Brewster Rockit: Space Guy!
- A Centaur's Life
- Doctor Who - "Guests of King Neptune"
- Dragon Ball
- Hägar the Horrible
- Les Centaures
- Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch
- Monster Musume, a.k.a. Daily Life with a Monster Girl
- One Piece
- Rosario + Vampire
- Big Finish's Doctor Who - "Cryptobiosis"
- Adventures of the Gummi Bears
- Destination Truth
- Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files
- The Garfield Show
- H2O: Just Add Water
- Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
- Johnny Bravo
- The Little Mermaid
- Mermaids: The Body Found
- Night Gallery
- Sabrina the Teenage Witch
- Sofia the First
- Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
- Xiaolin Showdown
- Zig & Sharko
- Killer Mermaid, a.k.a. Nymph
- King Neptune
- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
- She Creature
- Dark Parables
- Donkey Kong 64
- Feeding Frenzy
- The Goonies II
- The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
- The Legendary Starfy
- Shantae series
- Alim Coelacanth
- Granmamare's Daughters
- Human (Sentōru no Nayami)
- Mer Creature
- Mermaid (The Adventures of Puss in Boots)
- Mermaid (The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3)
- Mermaid (The Garfield Show)
- Mermaid (The Little Mermaid)
- Mermaid (Mermaids: The Body Found)
- Mermaid (She Creature)
- Mermaid (The Smurfs)
- Merfolk (The Merman's Children)
- Merfolk (Siren)
- Merfolk (State of Jefferson)
- Merpeople (Harry Potter)
- Moray (The Little Mermaid)
- Naiad (Grimm)
- Sea People (One Thousand and One Nights)
- Siren (Ice Age)
- Siren (Man from Atlantis)