Mermaids Throughout the World
With talk of the new Little Mermaid live-action remake, mermaids are back on the scene. Most of the talk so far is focused on the casting of the titular characters. Here at Bookmans, we thought it would be interesting to explore all the cultures that feature mermaids in their folklore. Here are thirteen versions of the sirens of the sea.
As discussed in our March blog, merfolk are called merrows, or Murrúghach, in Gaelic. They are green-skinned and have seaweed hair. To take their human form, they remove their magical cap or cloak, called a cohuleen druith,when they are on land. If their cohuleen druith is stolen, they must find it or never return to the sea. Fisherman held them to be bad luck, warning that dangerous gales were coming. Of course, there are some stories of human men taking merrow wives. Check out “Flory Cantillon’s Funeral” and “The Lady of Gollerus” for more on that.
With Scotland, Orkney, and Shetland being Gaelic countries, they tend to share similar folklore with Ireland, including having sea creatures called selkies. Selkies are said to shed their seal skins at night and dance along the shores. Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate selkies and mermaids, and they are both referred to as maighdeann-mhara or maidens of the sea.
Like the Irish murrúghach, these shapeshifters can have their sealskins stolen by humans. In these cases, they tend usually end up becoming the human’s wife and bear his children. They or their children will at some point find the skin, and the selkie will return to the sea. However, unlike Irish mythology, the selkie won’t stay with their new family. They will visit their children on land once a year or greet them in their seal form. “The Selkie Bride” and “The Seal Maiden” are some popular tales. The animated film Song of the Sea tells this story beautifully.
In Brazil, Iara originated from the ancient Tupi mythology. Her name means “lady of the lake” or “water queen.” She is typically a green-haired woman with copper-skin as well as a dolphin, manatee, or fish-like lower half. While sitting on a rock by the river and combing her hair, she sings to lure men. Once they see her, they will give up everything to live in under the water with her. Once she lures the men, though, she either takes them as lovers or drowns and eats them. Yikes. You can read a story of how she came to be in a blog by Rejected Princesses.
Usually female, but having some descriptions as male, Mami Wata is a water spirit and snake charmer. Her origins are found in African mythology but she held a major role in the African diaspora in the Americas. Her name is believed to be Pidgin for “Mother Water.” She is associated not only with water but also sex, healing, and fertility. In some stories, she is said to be similar Aphrodite or the African mother goddess Astarte.
If you want to see a French mermaid, look no further than any Starbucks. The coffee shop’s logo is based on the Melusine. She is a female water spirit that is depicted as being a fish or serpent from the waist down. Sometimes she has wings, two tales, or both. It is said Melusine was the daughter of a fairy and King Elinas of Albany (showing some Scottish connection there, ya see?). Doing just as her mother did, she typically leaves her nobleman husband once he breaks his oath not to spy on her as she bathes. No one should see her when she’s in her true form.
The ningyo, unlike many mermaids on this list, is not the prettiest. They are said to have the mouth of a monkey and small teeth. Their whole body is covered with golden scales. Worse still, they are considered bad luck, war, or calamity if one washes ashore. Somewhat more magical, if someone eats their flesh, they have a blessing of longevity in life. As the story goes, one woman lived until she was 800 years old! Two known stories that feature the ningyo is “Yao Bikuni” and the popular 2008 Japanese animated fantasy film Ponyo.
Different from the sirens that lure seamen to crash into the seacliffs, Greek mermaids are called naiads, freshwater nymphs. Though beautiful they are dangerous, known for their jealous tendencies; think of the 1953 Peter Pan mermaids. Some popular myths featuring naiads are “Daphnis and Nomia” and “Samacis and Hermaphroditus.”
In Slavic mythology, rusalkas are the water-dwelling women or nymphs. Unfortunately, their tale is a sad one. Rusalkas are said to be the ghosts of young women who died grisly deaths. This typically happens before their wedding and by drowning, be it by their own hand or an attacker. When seen, they have long, pale-green hair and pale skin. They are seen after dark dancing under the moon, calling out to young men by their names.
If the men respond and are lured into the water, the rusalkas drown them. One popular poem by Alexei Tolstoy called “Sadko” was made into an opera and tells the story of a man who lived underwater for a while with these sea women.
The nøkken, or nøkk in singular form, are dangerous shapeshifting water spirits. They are found in German and Scandinavian mythologies. The catch is that they are usually male, and it is women and childern that must fear them the most. These creatures play the voilin to lure their prey. But not all of them were malovent and attracted men, women, children alike. This poem describes well what a nøkken is capable of.
The Middle East/Arabia
In Mesopotamian mythology, it’s thought the mermaid was called a kuliltu, which means fish-woman. This name derives from Kulullû (fish-man). Kulullû is a monster with the head, arms, and torso of a human with the lower body of a tale of a fish. It is unclear if he was malevolent or benevolent.
In Hindu mythology, there is a mermaid princess called Suvannamaccha (“golden mermaid”) who tried to spoil Hanuman’s plans to build a bridge to Sri Lanka. But instead, she fell in love with the lord of celibacy. Their union created Macchanu, who was also half fish, like his mother.
From our findings, we only found a few Chinese mermaid stories, which were found in a book called Jottings on the South of China. One story told of how a man had captured one off the shore of Namtao Island. Unlike most mermaids that are seen in mythology, this one’s body was covered with “fine hair of many colors,” and though she cannot talk, the man takes her home and makes her his wife.
Once he dies, she returns to the sea where she was found. In a strange sense, it sounds like the Gaelic myths and the fairy tale “Thousandfurs” got combined (comparing the fairy tale to the mermaid’s many-colored hair, of course)!
In Māori folklore, merfolk are called guardians (taniwha) of the sea. Known as the Maraki-hau, they have skin that faintly resembles a seal’s and thick and abundant hair reminiscent of kelp. Strangely, the Maraki-hau also have a long, tubular tongue that they use to destroy canoes and swallow large amounts of fish. This mermaid is usually male, but sadly, we were not able to find any stories relating to this creature.
And that’s our list! If you enjoyed these cultured maidens (and gentlemen) of the sea, you may also enjoy reading a small history of them with wonderful artwork in Russ Thorne’s The Magical History of Mermaids. I found a copy on a shelf at Bookmans myself.
Which mermaid is your favorite? Were there any we didn’t mention that you want to share? Let us know with a comment below!
Written by Sky. D., Bookmans’ favorite, possibly mythological blogger
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