A mermaid is a mythological aquatic creature that is half human, half aquatic creature (e.g. a fish or dolphin). Various cultures throughout the world have similar figures. The word is a compound of mere, the Old English word for "sea," and maid, which has retained its original sense.
Much like sirens, mermaids would sometimes sing to sailors and enchant them, distracting them from their work and causing them to walk off the deck or cause shipwrecks. Other stories would have them squeeze the life out of drowning men while trying to rescue them. They are also said to take them down to their underwater kingdoms. In Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid it is said that they forget that humans cannot breathe underwater, while others say they drown men out of spite.
The sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as mermaid-like; in fact, some languages (such as the Maltese word 'sirena') use the same word for both bird and fish creatures. Other related types of mythical or legendary creature are water fairies (e.g. various water nymphs) and selkies, animals that can transform themselves from seals to humans.
Tales of mermaids are nearly universal. The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. Atargatis, the mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis, was a goddess who loved a mortal shepherd and in the process killed him. Ashamed, she jumped into a lake to take the form of a fish, but the waters would not conceal her divine beauty. Thereafter, she took the form of a mermaid — human above the waist, fish below — though the earliest representations of Atargatis showed her as being a fish with a human head and legs, similar to the Babylonian Ea. The Greeks recognized Atargatis under the name Derketo. Prior to 546 BC, the Milesian philosopher Anaximander proposed that mankind had sprung from an aquatic species of animal. He thought that humans, with their extended infancy, could not have survived early on. This idea does not appear to have survived Anaximander's death.
A popular Greek legend has Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike, turn into a mermaid after she died. She lived, it was said, in the Aegean and when sailors would encounter her, she would ask them only one question: "Is Alexander the king alive?" (Greek: Ζει ο βασιλιάς Αλέξανδρος;), to which the correct answer would be "He lives and still rules" (Greek: Ζει και βασιλεύει). Any other answer would spur her into a rage, where she transformed into a Gorgon and meant doom for the ship and every sailor onboard.
The Arabian Nights include 3 tales featuring "Sea People", such as Djullanar the Sea-girl. Unlike the depiction in other mythologies, these are anatomically identical to land-bound humans, differing only in their ability to breathe and live underwater. They can (and do) interbreed with land humans, the children of such unions inheriting the ability to live underwater.
Some mermaids were described as monstrous in size, up to 2000 feet.
Mermaids could also swim up rivers to freshwater lakes. One day, in a lake near his house, the Laird of Lorntie saw, as he thought, a woman drowning, and went to aid her; a servant of his pulled him back, warning that it was a mermaid, and the mermaid screamed after that she would have killed him if it were not for his servant.
On occasion, mermaids could be more beneficient, giving humans means of cure.
Some tales raised the question of whether mermaids had immortal souls to answer it in the negative. The figure of Liban appears as a sanctified mermaid, but she was originally a human being transformed into a mermaid; after three centuries, when Christianity had come to Ireland, she came to be baptized.
Mermen were also noted as wilder and uglier than mermaids, but they were described as having little interest in humans.
The mermaid, or syrenka, is the symbol of Warsaw. Images of a mermaid have been used on the crest of Warsaw as its symbol since the middle of the 14th century.
The origin of the legendary figure is not fully known. Tellers of many stories and legends have tried to explain where she came from. The best-known legend, by Artur Oppman, it that a long time ago two of Triton's daughters set out on a journey through the depths of the oceans and seas. One of them decided to stay on the coast of Denmark and ever since we can see her sitting at the entrance to the port of Copenhagen. The second mer-maiden reached the mouth of the Vistula River and plunged into its waters. She stopped to rest on a sandy beach by the village of Warszowa. Local fishermen came to admire her beauty and listen to her beautiful voice. A greedy merchant also heard her songs; he followed the fishermen and captured the mermaid.
Another legend says that a mermaid once swam to Warsaw from the Baltic Sea for the love of the Griffin, the ancient defender of the city, who was killed in a struggle against the Swedish invasions of the 17th century. The Mermaid, wishing to avenge his death, took the position of defender of Warsaw, becoming the symbol of the city.
Mermaids and mermen are also characters of Philippine folklore, where they are locally known as sirena and siyokoy, respectively. The Javanese people believe that the southern beach in Java is a home of Javanese mermaid queen Nyi Roro Kidul.
Mermaids are said to be known for their vanity, but also for their innocence. They often fall in love with human men, and are willing to go to great extents to prove their love with humans (see mermaid problem). Unfortunately, especially with younger mermaids, they tend to forget humans cannot breathe underwater. Their male counterparts, mermen, are rarely interested in human issues, but in the Finnish mythology mermen are able to grant wishes, heal sickness, lift curses and brew magic potions.
According to Dorothy Dinnerstein’s book, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, human-animal hybrids such as the minotaur and the mermaid convey the emergent understanding of the ancients that human beings were both one with and different from animals and that, as such, humans' "nature is internally inconsistent, that our continuities with, and our differences from, the earth's other animals are mysterious and profound; and in these continuities, and these differences, lie both a sense of strangeness on earth and the possible key to a way of feeling at home here".
The most famous in more recent centuries is Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Little Mermaid (1836), which has been translated into many languages. Andersen's portrayal, immortalized with a famous bronze sculpture in Copenhagen harbour, has arguably become the standard and has influenced most modern Western depictions of mermaids since it was published. The mermaid, as conceived by Andersen, appears to represent the Undines of Paracelsus, which also could only obtain an immortal soul by marrying a human being.
The best known musical depictions of mermaids are those by Felix Mendelssohn in his Fair Melusina overture and the three "Rhine daughters" in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. A more recent depiction in contemporary concert music is The Weeping Mermaid by Taiwanese composer Fan-Long Ko.
Movie depictions include the 1984 hit comedy Splash starring Daryl Hannah. A 1963 episode of the hit television series Route 66, featured an episode The Cruelest Sea about a real mermaid working at Weeki Wachee aquatic park.
In heraldry, the charge of a mermaid is commonly represented with a comb and a mirror, and blazoned as a 'mermaid in her vanity.' Merfolk were used to symbolize eloquence in speech.
A shield and sword-wielding mermaid (Syrenka) is on the official Coat of arms of Warsaw, the capital of Poland. The city of Norfolk, Virginia also uses a mermaid as a symbol, and a civic art project with variously decorated mermaid sculptures has been displayed all over the municipal area. The capital city of Hamilton, Bermuda has the mermaid in its coat of arms, displayed across the city.
In the 19th century, P. T. Barnum displayed in his museum a taxidermal hoax called the Fiji mermaid. Others have perpetrated similar hoaxes, which are usually papier-mâché fabrications or parts of deceased creatures, usually monkeys and fish, stitched together for the appearance of a grotesque mermaid. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, pictures of Fiji "mermaids" were passed around on the internet as something that had washed up amid the devastation, though they were no more real than Barnum's exhibit.
Sirenia is an order of fully aquatic, herbivorous mammals that inhabit rivers, estuaries, coastal marine waters, swamps, and marine wetlands. Sirenians, including manatees and the Dugong, have major aquatic adaptations: forelimbs have modified into arms used for steering, the tail has modified into a paddle used for propulsion, hind limbs (legs) are but two small remnant bones floating deep in the muscle. They appear fat, but are fusiform, hydrodynamic, and highly muscular. Prior to the mid 19th century, mariners referred to these animals as mermaids.
Sirenomelia, also called "mermaid syndrome", is a rare congenital disorder in which a child is born with his or her legs fused together and the genitalia are reduced. This condition is about as rare as conjoined twins, affecting one out of every 70,000 live births and is usually fatal within a day or two of birth because of kidney and bladder complications. Four survivors are known to be alive today.