Mermaid Mythology

Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story “The Little Mermaid” echoes folk tales in its theme of a mermaid who falls in love with a prince in a passing ship; the mermaid takes on human form in order to gain a human soul and be close to the prince, but although constantly near him, she cannot speak. When the prince marries a human princess, the mermaid’s heart is broken.

Mermaid was known as beautiful siren-like women, with the upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish. The first stories of mermaid appeared in ancient Assyria, in which the goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover. In addition to legends of mythology and folklore, however, there are many claimed accounts of sightings and contact with actual mermaids and mermen throughout history.

In 1187 a merman was caught off the coast of Suffolk in England; it closely resembled a man but was not able to speak, so the story goes. The Landnama or Icelandic doomsday book tells of a merman caught off the island of Grimsey, and the annals of the country describe such creatures as appearing off the coast in 1305 and 1329.

In 1430 in Holland violent storms broke the dykes near Edam, West Friesland. Some girls from Edam had to take a boat to milk their cows, and saw a mermaid floundering in shallow muddy water. They brought her home, dressed her in women’s clothing and taught her to weave and spin and show reverence for a crucifix, but she could never learn to speak, says the tale.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus claimed to have seen three such creatures leaping out of the sea.

In Africa, there is a kind of mermaid venerated in the west and central called Mami Wata. The roots of Mami Wata began with the traditional water divinities that were elaborated by the fifteenth century to include European influences, including the mermaid-man that Africans adopted as a new representation of the water divinities. Light skin and non-African features, sunglasses, powder, and perfume also became familiar in representations of Mami Wata. Africans transplanted by slavery to Surinam in the seventeenth century discovered there a tradition about a riverine water divinity Watra Mamma, who in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was credited with helping slaves secure their liberation.

Mami Wata was believed to be a powerful water spirit with the ability to heal the sick. Benevolent most the time, Mami Wata had a violent temper most often exposed when her followers refused to obey her commands. For revenge she would make them sick, both mentally and physically.

More than 20 African countries still have followers of Mami Wata. She is most often depicted with long straight hair, which is sometimes black and other times green. A snake encircles her as a symbol of her power.



Source: Caulder, Sharon. Mark of Voodoo: Awakening to My African Spiritual Heritage. St. Paul, Minn., 2002.

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