But remember always, as I told you at first, that this is all a fairy tale, and only fun and pretense; and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true.
- The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

According to the Standard Dictionary of Folklore: Mythology and Legend, Merfolk (mermaids and mermen) are supernatural beings who live primarily beneath the sea. It is in Hellenic literature that one finds the first literary description of Merfolk. Ovid writes that mermaids were born from the burning galleys of the Trojans where the timbers turned into the flesh and blood of the 'green daughters of the sea.' There are other versions of their birth: The Irish say that mermaids are old pagan women transformed and banished from the earth by St. Patrick. A Livonian folktale says they are the drowned children of an unknown Pharaoh - having met their doom in the depths of the Red Sea.

While the common conception of Merfolk is that they are humans from the waist up, but fishes from the waist down, according to myth that is simply not true. Instead, Merfolk are neither human nor fish, but they are mammals that resemble human/fish combinations. Mermaids are usually depicted as having scaly tails, however, many early descriptions of Merfolk mention their dolphin-like tails. A carving on Puce Church in Gironde, France, shows a young mermaid with two tapering tails instead of legs, similar to the siren image shown on the home page of this website. A mermaid's bewitching voice is said to be able to lure ships onto rocks and men to their deaths. They are beautiful in their appearance and are also musically talented, in both their singing and their playing of musical instruments. Though they spend most of their time underwater, they have been known to assume human form and come ashore to markets and fairs.

Other names for Merfolk:

Ben-Varry (Manx Mermaids); Catao (Hiligaynon); Caesg (Celtic -- part trout or salmon); Dinny-Mara (Manx Mermen); Havfrue (Scandinavian Mermen); Havmand (Scandinavian Mermaid); Meerfrau; Merefolk (Phillipine Merfolk); Merfish; Merlady; Merman; Merpeople; Muirruhgach (Merrow -- Irish); Merrymaids (Cornish Mermaids); Merwife; Morgens; Neck (Scandinavian fresh and salt water Mermaids); Ningyo (Japanese human-headed fish of immortality); Sea Maids; Sea Maiden; Sea People; Sea Queen; Siren; Tritons; Undersea Folk; Underwater Folk; Water Babies; Water Maid.

Names of ancient sea gods:

Amphitrite ('The Great Embracer' -- pre-Hellenic sea Goddess); Atargatis (Syrian mermaid Goddess); Lir (Irish sea God); Mami Wata ('Mother Water' -- Nigerian mermaid Goddess); Nereus ('Old Man of the Sea' -- Hellenic sea God); Njord (Norse God of sea travel); Poseidon ('Husband of De' -- Hellenic sea God); Rân ('The Ravisher' -- Norse sea Goddess); Sedna (Inuit sea Goddess).

Sources: mermaid.net, The Standard Dictionary of Folklore: Mythology and Legend.





Psychology of Mermaids

Antipholus of Syracruse:
O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears.
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I'll take them and there lie,
And in that glorious supposition think
He gains by death that hath such means to die;
Let Love, being light, be drowned if she sink!

- Comedy of Errors

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Burthen Ding-dong
Hark! now I hear them,--Ding-dong, bell.

- The Tempest


I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water and back.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

- T.S. Eliot,
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

This evening (June 15) one of our company, looking overboard, saw a mermaid, and, calling up some of the company to see her, one more of the crew came up, and by that time she was come close to the ship's side, looking earnestly on the men. A little after the sea came and overturned her. From the navel upwards, her back and breasts were like a woman's, as they say that saw her; her body as big as one of us, her skin very white, and long hair hanging down behind, of colour black. In her doing down they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise, speckled like a mackerel. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner.

- Henry Hudson, 1625
from Mermaid, by Elizabeth Ratisseau


A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.

- W.B. Yeats

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Last Update: August 7, 2003
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The image of the Art Nouveau maiden was obtained from Art Today.