Mermaids have long been a source of fascination for humans. From god and goddess-like origins in mythology, mermaids have taken the form of horrible monsters that aim to sink ships, sexy creatures inviting sailors to watery graves, characters in classic films, and today we have the emergence of mermaid-style swimsuits, hair inspiration, product logos, and wedding themes. It really begs the questions: what’s up with our mermaid obsession, y’all?
LOOOOONG before our modern concept of mermaids – (like 4000 years ago) – there was the Babylonian merman, Ra, god of the sea. Much like today’s ‘maids, Ra had the upper body of a man and the lower body of a fish – a body style I, personally, have sincere doubts in the overall functionality of. Like most awesome things that are co-opted, Ra was stolen by the Greeks and the Romans and renamed Poseidon and Neptune, respectively. In an unstoppable chain of thieving events, Neptune would be the moniker scientists stole (I’m sorry, borrowed) to name that one planet between Uranus and Pluto. The first lady-style mermaid appeared in Syria in the form of the goddess Atargatis. She, too, had a human upper body coupled with that fishy lower bod we know and love in our merfolk, and was associated with water – because a mermaid on land is just absurd. It seems to me that mergods were overall awesome and well received by the plebes. But not for long!
Pliny the Elder, Roman naturalist and mermaid hater, wrote of nereids in his magnum opus “Natural History.” Scaly half-human, half-fish nymphs, Pliny confirms that Emperor Augustus received correspondence from Legatus of Gaul claiming he found a “considerable number” of nereids “dead upon the sea-shore.” You and I both know that’s nonsense, because nereids don’t exist, but I am DYING to know what Legatus actually found! Pliny also wrote about “sea-men,” nocturnal creatures who “climb up into ships; upon which the side of the vessel where he seated himself would instantly sink downward, and if he remained there any considerable time, even go under water.” I’m just going out on a limb here, but I think Pliny was definitely afraid of the water, and probably afraid of the dark. The Greeks were no better in their actual treatment of fictional mermaids – their smear campaign included tales of sirens (aka mermaids) singing beautiful, haunting melodies that would lead sailors straight to death. By this time, one (I) might argue that there may have been just a tiny mix of sexual frustration and misogyny playing in with these tales. But, what do I know?
My theory about our mermaid obsession is this: we love the unknown. Humanity has only existed for a blink of the universe’s proverbial eye. There is much we don’t know about the ocean, and in ancient history many ships went out to sea never to return again. Rather than chalk it all up to weather, poor living conditions, and an overall misunderstanding of the actual size of the world we live in, it was easier to blame these events on fictional creatures whose existence would be confirmed by mad, exhausted men returning for dangerous trips. Mermaids are not real, but, just in case, keep a look out the next time you are sailing across the sea. You really never know.