Mermaids and Merpeople: An Expository

Antara Basu
6 min readMay 21, 2017


An academic paper on the lore and history of the half fish-half human mythical creatures.

Merpeople (lit. people of the sea)[1] are commonly understood to be mythical sea creatures that are top half human and bottom half fish. Legends of mermaids and merpeople have been around for approximately four thousand years and with the sheer vastness of Earth’s oceans, it is easy to see why (Radford, 2014). Merpeople have been described as being benevolent in some cultures and malevolent in others (Jepsen), with the most common perception of mermaids being that of beautiful, yet deadly, half fish-half women, whom sailors fear. Majority of the medieval myths and fantasies described them as being women of disarming beauty, with fish tails, who sat upon rocks combing their hair and baited sailors into death traps before devouring them[2].This is arguably the most common perception of mermaids. The concept of merpeople prevails now as it has prevailed for thousands of years, in cultures and civilizations all over the world. It is deep rooted in folklore and modern popular culture alike. This mythical beast has captured people’s imagination for millennia and continues to do so. This paper attempts to explain, explore and describe Mermaids and Merpeople as mythical sea dwellers and gauge their cultural impact, through a few lenses.

The first appearance of mermaids in our culture is said to have occurred in Assyria c.1000 BC[3]. The fertility goddess Atargatis turned herself into a fish from the waist down, casting herself into a lake. It appears that right from this first instance, mermaids seem to be associated with the idea of disarming beauty, power and foreboding. It is a well known fact that the sailors, pirates and seafarers of old believed that mermaids herald bad luck and death for ships. They were said to distract the sailors with their beauty before killing them (Higgins, 1996). Seafarers have often been depicted as superstitious and weak hearted men (see quotation below), and the concept of mermaids is, seemingly, one of many explanations adopted by them to calm and explain phenomena to their fearful minds. The convenient fact that these are essentially very beautiful women makes it debatably easier to solidify the belief and give them, as well as the general public, something to grasp on to. This deep rooted superstitious belief seems to me to be one of the facts most responsible for the theory of mermaids gaining traction in mainstream culture. It represented adventure, danger and mystery, and had beautiful women too. However, the earliest known depiction of the half human-half fish form was not the seductive mermaid, but that of the Babylonian Fish God Oannes, c.2000 BC, as mentioned by C.J.S. Thompson in his book The Mystery and Lore of Monsters[4]. Although it is the mermaids who are usually spotlight, it appears that the mermen were actually depicted earlier. The belief in certain lore, such as Greek, is that mermen and mermaids generally coexist, (in what could perhaps be called “mercommunities”?) and that mermen are understood to be uglier than their female counterparts[5].

A large chunk of what we know and understand about merpeople comes from Greek mythology. An offering of the Greek on this subject is that of the Sirens. Although they were originally believed to have been women with the bottom half and wings of a bird, some folklore suggests that they lost their feathers and entered the sea, growing tails like fish (Jepsen). The Sirens of Roman mythology, however, are women with a fish tail, descended from the River God Achelous[6]. It can be inferred that Sirens are cousins of the Merpeople. Sirens are essentially beautiful and seductive half-women with exceptional singing abilities, who would sing from rocky cliffs and lure ships and their sailors towards the rocks and hence to their death[7]. A notable mention of Sirens in Greek mythology is that in Homer’s Odysseus, where Odysseus orders his ship’s crew to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast, so that he can listen to the song of the Sirens (Homer, Odysseus). Another instance of folklore regarding merpeople from Ancient Greece is the legend of Thessalonike, the half-sister of Alexander the Great. It is said that when Alexander died, she threw herself into the sea in grief, but her immortality caused her to grow a tail and become a mermaid. She lived in the Aegean Sea, terrorising any sailors that passed her who said that King Alexander was dead[8]. Greco-Roman folklore tells us much of what we know about merfolk and also, I feel, provides us with an insight into the rationale behind their respective depictions: why they are represented the way that they are.

The mermaid was regarded as an image of the seductive pleasures of the world and, as Ann Payne noted in her book on Medieval Beasts, the ‘sweet music of the sirens represented … the honeyed words of worldly temptation; the compliance of their victims typified the weakmindedness of men who allow themselves to be distracted from their proper course. (Higgins 1996, 9)

The beliefs and superstitions about merpeople invoke connotations that can be linked with general human nature and behaviour. The sailor’s-eye-view of mermaids can be interpreted as having implications of sexual desire and a fantasy of courting danger. Although contestable, today, we would perhaps find the older depiction of mermaids as being unnecessarily sexualised, yet, it reflected the time it was born into. This is not to imply that modern day depictions do not stray into sexualised territory, but the incidence of portraying a less feminine and more grotesque merperson is far more common today than it would have been even just fifty years ago. The merpeople depicted in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, are a fitting example of a more asexual and beastly representation. However, the medieval depiction of the mythical creature seems fitting for the searching, wandering and often, lonely sailors, to whom a mermaid can be seen to symbolise the longing that they may feel. This can be seen in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, where the bait-pirates nearly fall into the mermaids’ trap. It is not only the socio cultural aspect that plays a part in mermaid portrayals, but also people’s desire for a guiding figure. A pattern I have observed is that merpeople, through the ages of depictions, have often seemed to reflect peoples’ longing for some sort of divinity or superior being, who is beyond a simple Human: a figure that they can idolise. This can be seen in the cases of the Javanese Mermaid Queen, Nyi Roro Kidul, the goddess Atargatis, as mentioned above, the goddess Aycayia of the Caribbean region, and in Thai folklore, Ravana’s daughter Suvannamaccha, who tried to prevent Hanuman and the Vanaras from building a bridge to Lanka. It would appear that all these regional figures of lore, along with the Babylonia Fish God Oannes mentioned above, are merfolk in a divine stature. It appears then, that the patterns that arise in the depictions of merfolk through the ages can indeed be attributed to certain deep seated aspects of human nature: to be entranced by a mythical and mystical creature like a mermaid, which can be glorified into an idol.

With this, I move to conclude my exploratory investigation on the beings of mermaids and merpeople, and their cultural impact. The myth and lore of merpeople has a grasp on us that is fitting to the theatricality of the lore. They are dramatic creatures who have been given dramatic portrayals, whether on paper, canvas or film, that have captured the hearts and minds of generations of people. It can be expected that the perception, understanding and depiction will develop further over the time to come, as folklore and mythology is studied, interpreted and reproduced further. The exciting fact about folklore and mythology is that it can yield vast quantities of interpretations and creates a huge scope. There is unlikely to come a time when a line will be drawn on the extent of lore regarding merfolk.


  1. Carl Pettit, “10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Mermaids,” TheFW, September 26, 2012, , accessed April 08, 2017,
  2. Jim Higgins, “A Mysterious Mermaid,” Archaeology Ireland 10, no. 3 (Autumn, 1996): 9, accessed April 5, 2017,
  3. Philip Jepsen, “On the Origin of Mermaids,” Mermaids of Earth, accessed April 4, 2017,
  4. Benamin Radford, “Mermaids and Mermen: Facts and Legends,” LiveScience, accessed April 4, 2017,
  5. Linda S. Watts, Encyclopedia of American Folklore (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007), 266.
  6. Jepsen, “On the Origin of Mermaids”.
  7. Mike Dixon-Kennedy, Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1998), 281.
  8. Philip Lee, “Thessalonike of Macedon- The Mermaid Princess,” Quintessential Ruminations (blog), May 27, 2014, accessed April 5, 2017, macedon-the-mermaid-princess/.



Antara Basu

I write about Graphic Design, Product Design and my unruly emotions. Peruse my thoughts here, or see my work at