AskDefine | Define mermaid

Dictionary Definition

mermaid n : half woman and half fish; lives in the sea

User Contributed Dictionary



mermayde, from mere and maid (literally "maid of the sea")


  1. A mythological creature with a woman's head and upper body, and a tail of a fish.

Related terms


mythological woman with a fish's tail

Extensive Definition

Ancient Near East

Tales of mermaids are nearly universal. The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. Atargatis, the mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis, was a goddess who loved a mortal shepherd and in the process killed him. Ashamed, she jumped into a lake to take the form of a fish, but the waters would not conceal her divine beauty. Thereafter, she took the form of a mermaid — human above the waist, fish below — though the earliest representations of Atargatis showed her as being a fish with a human head and legs, similar to the Babylonian Ea. The Greeks recognized Atargatis under the name Derketo. Prior to 546 BC, the Milesian philosopher Anaximander proposed that mankind had sprung from an aquatic species of animal. He thought that humans, with their extended infancy, could not have survived early on. This idea does not appear to have survived Anaximander's death.
A popular Greek legend has Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike, turn into a mermaid after she died. She lived, it was said, in the Aegean and when sailors would encounter her, she would ask them only one question: "Is Alexander the king alive?" (Greek: Ζει ο βασιλιάς Αλέξανδρος;), to which the correct answer would be "He lives and still rules" (Greek: Ζει και βασιλεύει). Any other answer would spur her into a rage, where she transformed into a Gorgon and meant doom for the ship and every sailor onboard.
Lucian of Samosata in Syria (2nd century AD) in De Dea Syria ("Concerning the Syrian Goddess") wrote of the Syrian temples he had visited:
"Among them - Now that is the traditional story among them concerning the temple. But other men swear that Semiramis of Babylonia, whose deeds are many in Asia, also founded this site, and not for Hera Atargatis but for her own Mother, whose name was Derketo"
"I saw the likeness of Derketo in Phoenicia, a strange marvel. It is woman for half its length, but the other half, from thighs to feet, stretched out in a fish's tail. But the image in the Holy City is entirely a woman, and the grounds for their account are not very clear. They consider fishes to be sacred, and they never eat them; and though they eat all other fowls, they do not eat the dove, for she is holy so they believe. And these things are done, they believe, because of Derketo and Semiramis, the first because Derketo has the shape of a fish, and the other because ultimately Semiramis turned into a dove. Well, I may grant that the temple was a work of Semiramis perhaps; but that it belongs to Derketo I do not believe in any way. For among the Egyptians, some people do not eat fish, and that is not done to honor Derketo."

Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights include several tales featuring "Sea People", such as Djullanar the Sea-girl. Unlike the depiction in other mythologies, these are anatomically identical to land-bound humans, differing only in their ability to breathe and live underwater. They can (and do) interbreed with land humans, the children of such unions inheriting the ability to live underwater.


The most famous in more recent centuries is Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Little Mermaid (1836), which has been translated into many languages. Andersen's portrayal, immortalized with a famous bronze sculpture in Copenhagen harbour, has arguably become the standard and has influenced most modern Western depictions of mermaids since it was published.
The most famous musical depictions of mermaids are those by Felix Mendelssohn in his Fair Melusina overture and the three "Rhine daughters" in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. A more recent depiction in contemporary concert music is The Weeping Mermaid by Taiwanese composer Fan-Long Ko.


In heraldry, the charge of a mermaid is commonly represented with a comb and a mirror, and blazoned as a 'mermaid in her vanity.' Merfolk were used to symbolize eloquence in speech.
A shield and sword-wielding mermaid (Syrenka) is on the official Coat of arms of Warsaw, the capital of Poland. The city of Norfolk, Virginia also uses a mermaid as a symbol, and a civic art project with variously decorated mermaid sculptures has been displayed all over the municipal area. The capital city of Hamilton, Bermuda has the mermaid in its coat of arms, displayed across the city.
The personal coat of arms of Michaëlle Jean, Canada's Governor General, features two Simbi, mermaid-like spirits from Haitian Vodou, as supporters.

Popular culture

Like many creatures from mythology and folklore, mermaids appear regularly in popular media. The two most ubiquitous images are surely the Disney character based on the tale by Andersen (see "Art and Literature," above) and the logo for the Starbucks coffee chain, which features a twin-tailed mermaid wearing a crown under a star. In Disney the two-fold nature of mermaids is exploited to tell a coming-of-age story in which the sea represents childhood and land represents adult life--a place where one stands on one's "own two feet." For most of the story the adolescent heroine is torn between the two worlds. The Starbucks mermaid echoes the nautical implications in the name of the franchise (drawn from the famous Starbuck character in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick) while the representation itself is indebted to the pictures of mermaids often encountered on the "Star" card in many Latin suited Tarot decks.


During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, dugongs, frauds and victims of sirenomelia were exhibited in wunderkammers as mermaids.
In the 19th century, P. T. Barnum displayed in his museum a taxidermal hoax called the Fiji mermaid. Others have perpetrated similar hoaxes, which are usually papier-mâché fabrications or parts of deceased creatures, usually monkeys and fish, stitched together for the appearance of a grotesque mermaid. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, pictures of Fiji "mermaids" were passed around on the internet as something that had washed up amid the devastation, though they were no more real than Barnum's exhibit.


Sirenomelia, also called "mermaid syndrome", is a rare congenital disorder in which a child is born with his or her legs fused together and the genitalia are reduced. This condition is about as rare as conjoined twins and is usually fatal within a day or two of birth because of kidney and bladder complications. Four survivors are known to be alive today, with two of them – 19 year-old and 2 year-old girls – having undergone successful operations to separate their legs.


External links

mermaid in Arabic: حورية البحر
mermaid in Bulgarian: Русалка
mermaid in Danish: Havfrue
mermaid in German: Meerjungfrau
mermaid in Esperanto: Sireno (mitologio)
mermaid in Spanish: Sirena
mermaid in Persian: پری دریایی
mermaid in Finnish: Merenneito
mermaid in Faroese: Havfrúgv
mermaid in French: Sirène (mythologie)
mermaid in Irish: Maighdean mhara
mermaid in Scottish Gaelic: Maighdean-mhara
mermaid in Hebrew: בת ים (מיתולוגיה)
mermaid in Indonesian: Ikan duyung
mermaid in Italian: Sirena (mitologia)
mermaid in Japanese: 人魚
mermaid in Korean: 인어
mermaid in Latvian: Nāra
mermaid in Malay (macrolanguage): Ikan duyung
mermaid in Dutch: Zeemeermin
mermaid in Norwegian: Havfrue
mermaid in Polish: Syrena (mitologia)
mermaid in Portuguese: Sereia
mermaid in Russian: Русалка
mermaid in Swedish: Sjöjungfru
mermaid in Thai: เงือก
mermaid in Turkish: Deniz kızı
mermaid in Ukrainian: Русалки
mermaid in Chinese: 美人魚

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Davy, Davy Jones, Dylan, Neptune, Nereid, Nereus, Oceanid, Oceanus, Poseidon, Thetis, Triton, Varuna, bather, bathing beauty, bathing girl, diver, fresh-water nymph, frogman, kelpie, limniad, man fish, merman, naiad, natator, nix, nixie, ocean nymph, sea devil, sea god, sea nymph, sea-maid, sea-maiden, seaman, siren, swimmer, undine, water god, water spirit, water sprite
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