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The Legend of the Mermaid

Updated on May 24, 2013

The legend of the mermaid has, in its way, endured and while few people may believe mermaids actually exist, they still appear in our stories, pictures, sculptures and other cultural references. When you think about it, it's a curious myth - a woman who is half fish. Why half fish? Why not half-snake or half-gazelle or half-cat? Fish surely aren't the most glamorous or sexy of creatures to base a legend on, so where did the mermaid myth originate?

Well, mermaids of course are linked to the mysteries of the ocean and the conventional wisdom has it that the legend of the half-woman half-fish began with the sexual deprivation and poor eyesight of sailors or perhaps true to reputation, they were all too drunk to tell the difference between a manatee, seal, walrus or dugong.

Liban by Robert M Place
Liban by Robert M Place

It's Lonely at Sea

Reports of mermaid sightings were consistantly made by sea voyagers throughout the centuries, sometimes by famous figures, who's credibility would seem sound; explorers Henry Hudson and Christopher Columbus both claimed to have spotted one. So were they mistaken? Just how hard can it be to tell a walrus from a woman...? I would have thought, not very.

Author William Bond, who has written a book titled The Secret History of Mermaids, brings some interesting theories to light. Evidently the vaginal opening of a female sea cow is quite similar to that of a woman (you learn something everyday), thus some have suggested that just as the lonely sheep farmers of New Zealand sometimes turned to their flock for sexual comfort, so too did the occasional sailor seek intimate solace with a female manatee and in order to conceal his deviation, claimed it was really a woman. However Bond points out that the bulk of the mermaid stories derive from tales told by village based European fisherman who did not spend months or years at sea. Nor did the New Zealand sheep-lovers invent some mythical half-sheep half-woman creature to conceal their depravity, so why should the sailors feel the need to? The plot thickens.

Hot for a Dugong?

Perhaps they'd spent little too long at sea but according to folklore, sailors used to mistake the curvacious, blubbery dugong for women.

Mermaids are Common to Many Cultures

Reports of alluring, mermaid-like creatures can be traced back from the sea nymphs of Ancient Greece, all the way up to the 19th Century, with a few scattered sightings in the 20th century. There are variations on the theme too, depending on time and location, with some cultures reporting the mermaids had legs, some with legs only on land or other variations. The Orkland Islanders for example, described their mermaids as posessing not fish tails but long petticoats that merely resembled fish tails.

Bond posits, rather prosaically, that the whole woman-with-a-fish-tail legend stems simply from the female divers who lived on the islands that the ancient ships used to pass by, and in particular the islands off korea and Japan, where records of female pearl divers date back 1500 years. According to Bond:

They dive for shellfish, seaweed, starfish, octopuses and pearls and do this all year round, even in the winter where the water temperature is down to 50┬░F. They have been known to dive as deep as 30M and stay underwater for over 3 minutes. The food they gather, they place in a net around their waists and many keep on diving to up to 60 years of age or more.

Excerpt from The Secret History of Mermaids

Sea Womb

Bond's theory is interesting and it's entirely possible that the native pearl divers contributed to the legend of the mermaid but I should think there was more to it than that. The fish/woman connection and the woman in the water myth is is so old, widespread and varied that I fancy the legend has a more deep-rooted, psychological basis.

All life on Earth began in the sea and we all begin our human lives swimming around in the amniotic fluid of our mothers. Thus there is already a symbolic connection between the sea and women. In all likehood, we began our evolutionary journey as some sort of rudimentary  ocean creature and somewhere floating deep within the darkest pools of our psyche is an archaic genetic memory of that earliest life-form. Could it be possible that legend of the mermaid is the unconscious expression of that memory? A metaphor for our evolutionary journey from ocean creature to human-being?

A fishy story eh..?.

Extraordinary 16th century image of a double-tailed mermaid
Extraordinary 16th century image of a double-tailed mermaid

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    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i think mermaid are just a legend stories, mistaken of identity

    • profile image

      danny 3 years ago

      Im still surprised on this is brought up near the water and was swimming before I could. Walk properly I love the sea and being deep under water but 30 metres come on I can only go down as deep as 20 to 25 feet and that's hard

    • profile image

      Felicia 3 years ago

      Wrong it started in in Greece...one of their female goddess unintentionally killed her human lover and shamed herself by turning herself into a fish...according to the legend the waters could not disguise her beauty so she resorted to being half maiden half fish...

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      I like to think so but it's a mystery eh? Thanks tillsontitan...and sorry about the delayed response.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      I think your ending leaves much food for thought. Surely the mermaid is an unconscious expression of someone;s memory. Great hub full of some interesting information.

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Oh thanks waxi, I feel better about it now.

    • profile image

      waxi 6 years ago

      Hello Dear Jane

      On second reading I have deduced that you did not go over the top with that ending If that para has not been included a vital point would have been left out . My observation.

      Waqxi

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      I think I went a bit over the top with that ending...:)...although, there's something to what you say. I do believe there are very old parts of our brain (genetically speaking). Thanks for the interesting comment.

    • profile image

      waxi 6 years ago

      The closing lines [quote ] "our psyche is an archaic genetic memory of that earliest life-form." is impacting

      I was in a museum in Uk studying Fossils and I got this idea in my head that a bit of part inherited from her ancestors ,millions of years ago , is retained in the back shelfs of our memory and apart from many other functions it performs , its a mnemonic which triggers pangs for a past which is otherwise hard to retrieve.

      Great Hub

      Waqxi

    • profile image

      sharinghelps 6 years ago

      You are a creative writer!

      Linda

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Thankyou for reading sharinghelps

    • profile image

      sharinghelps 6 years ago

      this was great! thanks for sharing

      linda

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Lol, ok.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      A cow is a cow Jane. Not attractive. I was concerned for its safety but that's about it. If you are looking for someone keen on sea cows check out Marge Simpson.

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Rod, did you find it attractive? Just curious...-;)

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      carolinemoon, you say that like you expect it to happen!

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      dahoglund, that's true..the half-animal half-human theme does make a regular appearance in mythology....there goes my sea womb theory!

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Not bad Jane. I saw a sea cow once in northern NSW. The sea cow was in trouble because the waters of even northern NSW are too cold. Efforts were made to get it back to warmer waters. I think there was success there.

    • carolinemoon profile image

      carolinemoon 6 years ago

      I do love swimming and I always look forward to see one someday.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Sea mythology has a special appeal. Yet half human and half animal creatures seem common in mythology.

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      drbj, well that's according to that mermaid 'historian'..he may be wrong. Another thing he said was that the Koreans hid the records of the women divers due to some sort of machismo thing. Sounds strange, so I'm not sure.

      I agree with you about the dugongs..hehe..it'd have to be a very drunk sailor I'd imagine.

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Lol RH, I was wondering about the logistics myself! I'm sceptical of that explaination.I mean, just how desperate would a sailor have to be? Then again, there are those sheep stories...

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Austin, I'm an ocean girl too and if it wasn't for my galeophobia I'd be into scuba diving!

    • Jane Bovary profile image
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      Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Hi Merlin, yes the mermaid would have to be one of the oldest and widespread of myths. I was being way too fanciful at the end there but really, sometimes I do think we have a kind of ancient, collective vision of some of these very old myths.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 6 years ago from south Florida

      This was news to me, Jane. Female pearl divers who dive in waters of 50°F? - that's some feat. I enjoyed reading about mermaids but find it difficult to believe that sailors really thought dugongs resembled real live women. Ah, well, like the sheep herders, to each his own.

      Thanks for the fascinating information.

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Pretty thought provoking hub here Jane - I'm picturing sailors lost at sea and imagining how beautiful the dress on that manatee is! Wouldn't they be hard to catch? Lol!

      I do love the water and when I was a kid - I'd always look for mermaids!

    • Austinstar profile image

      Austinstar 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Interesting tail, er tale. I've always wanted to be a mermaid. I love the water. Scuba diving is as close as I ever got.

    • Merlin Fraser profile image

      Merlin Fraser 6 years ago from Cotswold Hills

      Hi Jane,

      I think you might be surprised just how far back in history the story of Mermaids go. Most certainly Pagan in origin and yet like so many common bonds of Pagan myths and legends they seem to come from all over the world long before world travel was itself common.

      Fascinating Hub.