The mystical maidens of the sea, better known as mermaids, have been featured in everything from the folklore of the past to the fiction of the present, but what do we really know about them? Legends of these half-human, half-fish creatures exist all over the globe, and even if they are merely legend, they’re a pretty fascinating manifestation of what the human imagination can produce. Here are six things you might not know about these mythical creatures.
Number One: The first mermaid was a goddess of fertility. The original mermaid came out of ancient Assyria in 1000 B.C. According to legend, Atargatis, or Derecto, as some scholars refer to her, was a goddess of fertility who fell in love with a young shepherd. While some sources say the young man impregnated her, others say she accidentally killed him. Maybe both happened, but either way, she ended up throwing herself in a lake out of shame and transformed into a human with a long fish tail as a result. She is also said to have inspired the worshipping of Venus and Aphrodite, the Roman and Greek goddesses of love, beauty, and fertility.
Number Two: But actually, the first mermaid was a man. Oannes, as referred to by the Greeks, was a respected figure in ancient Mesopotamia with two heads—one of a fish and one of a man, and both a tail and human legs. Freaky, huh? In ancient Babylonian mythology, he was said to provide humans with knowledge, religious counsel and the arts. Some ancient alien theorists believe he might be historical evidence of an otherworldly presence on Earth.
Number Three: It’s apparently very easy to confuse a manatee with a mermaid. Sex-starved sailors and explorers used to mistake sunbathing manatees for mermaids back in the day. So people today might say mermaids are like the original catfish-ers. These false alarms were so commonplace that eventually both manatees and mermaids became scientifically classified under the name Sirenia, named after the mythological creature called a siren.
Number Four: Mermaids and sirens are completely different creatures. Somewhere along the line, mermaids and sirens have been conflated into the same creature and are often depicted as such. The two creatures, however, couldn’t be more different. The original sirens were three women who were given wings by Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest, in order to find her lost daughter, Persephone. Sirens were known to lure and distract sailors at sea with their singing voices, which is likely the reason why these creatures became synonymous with marine-dwelling mermaids.
Number Five: Mermaids are avatars, too. The Matsyāṅganā are mermaids found in Asian folklore, specifically in India, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Burma, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. They are also considered by many to be the first mermaids in ancient folklore. In the context of Hinduism, the mermaid Matsya, meaning “fish” in Sanskrit, is one of the first avatars of the Hindu god, Vishnu.
Number Six: First they’re sour, then they’re sweet. Mermaids were thought to bring along treacherous weather at sea. Remember the scene where Ariel first sees Eric in The Little Mermaid? However, as also depicted in the Disney animated movie, they were known to fall in love with humans and shower them with gifts.