A mythical sea-creature with the upper body of a woman and the tail of a fish.
Stories of mermaids, sea-dwelling creatures of human size with the upper body of a beautiful woman and the tail of a fish, are common in ancient mythology; they persisted in European folklore from medieval times up till the 18th century, with many reported sightings. Mermaids, from Old English mere, meaning ‘sea’, and maegden, meaning ‘maiden’, are usually portrayed as having long flowing hair, silvery blonde to light red in colour, either blue or green eyes and pearly white skin with a silver sheen. They live much longer than humans, and dwell in magnificent undersea palaces decorated with gold and jewels salvaged from wrecked ships, but they frequently come to the surface and sit on rocks, with a mirror in one hand and a comb in the other, grooming their long hair and singing with unbearable sweetness. Their beauty and their bewitching voices often lure sailors to their deaths. In some traditions they are more actively malevolent, dragging humans, especially young men, under the sea and keeping their souls in cages, or else drowning their victims and eating them. When angered, they can call up powerful winds and storms by dancing through the waves.
Mermaids have the ability to change their fish-tails into human legs so that they can come ashore and mix with people whenever they want, and although they have no souls, it is said that they can gain one if they marry a human and are baptized. Stories of mermaids marrying human husbands are common in British folklore, but sooner or later the mermaid will long to return to the sea again. She cannot do so as long as her husband keeps some magical possession of hers hidden, such as a sealskin, comb, belt, necklace or cap, but as soon as she finds the object, she will escape back to the sea. Mermaids are often credited with the ability to grant three wishes and to see into the future, and sometimes they are caught and held to ransom for these gifts. However, if pressed to grant wishes they will do their best to twist the words of the wish to the person’s disadvantage.
In Ireland, mermaids are said to be female pagans banished from the island by St Patrick along with snakes. The legend of the mermaid probably developed from ancient mythological figures such as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess who was born from the sea, or the Syrian fish-tailed moon goddess Atargatis. It has been suggested that many of the recorded sightings of mermaids were in fact brief glimpses of marine mammals such as manatees.