The Ocean has long been a source of mystery and legend. In times past the farthest reaches of the Seas were marked only with “Here Be Dragons.” Their sheer magnitude and depth made these giant bodies of waters places no man could fully explore or fully understand. This left the Seas wide open for the influence of human imagination.
Water is necessary for life. In many cultures it is a symbol for fertility. Water grows food, keeps people healthy and is even the root of many Fountain of Youth legends. However, water is also associated with death and battle and the unknown in many cultures. It is necessary to live but can also kill with the smallest effort. There are many creation myths in which water represents the great chaos. It is in the taming of this chaos through the defeating of the primordial sea monster that creation occurred.
Thus it makes sense that humanity would try to understand the life giving and life taking beings that inhabit the great vistas of the Oceans. One of the most popular creatures through the ages has been the Mermaid or Merman.
|Artargatis, Syrian Goddess|
The first Mermaid myths began as early as the eigth century BC. The earliest references to Mer-people see them as Gods and Goddesses of the Sea, or even the Moon. One of the earliest recorded “Mermaids” was a Semitic Moon-Goddess, worshipped by the Syrians and the Philistines, named Artargatis. It was in the form of a mermaid that she controlled the ebbing and flowing of the tides. Eventually, after giving birth to a fully human child, she became so ashamed she killed her lover and reverted to a wholly fishy state.
Many cultures in the ancient world contained legends of Merpeople including the Asparas of Indian culture; the Ningyo of Japanese culture; the Vatea of Polynesian culture; the Merrymaids of Cornish culture; the Muirruhgach of Irish culture; and many more. In these earlier manifestations of the legends Mer-people would take on a variety of roles: helper, seducer, enchanter, trickster, and many more.
|Medieval Christian Mermaid|
However, when Christianity began to spread, the legends began to shift. As much as it might surprise you, the medieval church supported the belief in Mer-people, particularly Mermaids. Whereas before, Mer-People took up any number of roles within mythology, during Christendom they came to serve as a moral emblem of sin, the femme fatale. They were typically portrayed with a mirror and a comb to symbolize their vanity and beauty. These represented the beauty which could lead men to their destruction. Thus it served the church’s purpose of subjugating women and teaching a strict sexual morality. This is also when earlier depictions of Mermaids with split tails (for all the easier sexin’) became less popular.
Even today, the Mermaid/Merman holds a special place in people’s hearts. They are found in movies as varied as The Little Mermaid, Splash, Harry Potter and Pirates of the Carribbean. People still report sightings and are die hard believers of this mythological phenomenon. Who knows what could exist in the unexplored deep dark places of the Earth? Whether you believe Mer-people actually exist or that they are symbols of something inherent to humanity, you have to admit, they are facinating creatures.
*Thanks to marinebio.org for some of the earlier mermaid legends.