When I was a little girl, I wanted to be part of their world. Mermaids, that is. I swam in the pool, with my feet “fused” together, and emerged to the surface only to flip my long hair behind me. Just like Ariel. I was obsessed with all things mermaid. Following this Disney affliction (I mean, addiction), I spent years of my life researching and reading about these illusive mythical sea creatures. And I learned that there are literally dozens of types of mermaids…and they’re not just seen in Europe. They’re seen worldwide!
Are mermaids real? And what is a mermaid, exactly? These are questions that most little girls and imaginative individuals of all ages ask. There was a “documentary” some years back that gave us a glance into the supposed mermaid sightings worldwide. Unfortunately, most of the documentary was fabricated and it confused many of us. They portrayed mermaids as being real, corporeal beings with flesh and bone. I feel the problem with this depiction is that mermaids, mermen, and many other mythical sea creatures are in fact in the spirit realm. They are elementals. Guardians of sea and sky. And if they are in fact spiritual beings, this explains how they are able to shapeshift, traverse between worlds, and much more.
Mermaids are a comparative myth. This means multiple cultures, on nearly every continent, share similar legends about human-like sea creatures. Dating back thousands of years, we have archaeological proof of people’s belief in these mysterious beings. There were even gods and goddesses who were portrayed as part-fish, part-dolphin, etc. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope you learn something new! And, for clarification, any human-like creature whose home is the sea can be called a mermaid or merman. Mer-maid means sea-maid. So, the typical depiction of the mermaid looking like a human up top and having one fin on the bottom, is an over-generalization.
River Alven are an interesting type of mermaid found in The Netherlands. They are also called ottermaaner, meaning otter-men and are technically also classified as a type of elf. They are similar to the Selkie in that they shapeshift into otters using magical otter-skins (whereas the selkie shifts using seal-skin). Some say the Ottermaaner travel in bubbles, bobbing to and fro above the water. They are most commonly seen inhabiting the River Elbe.
The Blue Men of the Minch are the type of mermaid you don’t want to meet in person. They’re known for being violent and causing shipwrecks along the Scottish coastline. They’re also called Storm Kelpies. With blue skin and a craving for poetry, the Blue Men are sometimes linked to the ancient Picts of Scotland, who painted their skin blue. If you see a Blue Man, floating on top of the water, he’ll ask you to recite a poem to entertain him. If you refuse, he will turn over your boat or, unbeknownst to you, lead you to your death later on.
Speaking of gods and goddesses, the Camenae were Greek goddesses of the sacred wells and fountains. They were invoked to guard and guide women in childbirth and eventually became syncretized with the Greek Muses. The Camenae’s dedicated spring is located just outside the Porta Capena. The Baths of Caracalla sit in the valley that used to be covered in forests and springs. A site in which healing was given to those who sought it from the water goddesses. The Camenae were also known to prophesy.
The people of Brittany, France descend from the Bretons, a Celtic people who also inhabited parts of the British Isles in ancient times. And we all know the Celts had strong beliefs in faeries and elementals. Corrigans, similar to Camenae, are a type of mermaid that inhabit smaller bodies of water in Brittany. Rivers, springs, wells and fountains are their home. They also share common qualities with Sirens: singing, combing their hair, and luring men to their deaths. Interestingly, they’re one of few mermaids that steal children and replace them with changelings.
No, we’re not talking about Dracula. Though the names correlate. The syllable drac means dragon. And so we have these French female water-serpents that shapeshift into anything they please including beautiful young women and dragons. Oddly, dracs also appear above the water as golden chalices…only to lure you to the water’s edge. When you reach in to grab the treasure, the drac pulls you under! This terrifying type of mermaid is seemingly related to the dragon-spirit Melusine. They’ve been seen in the River Rhone, but are also known to visit nearby towns searching for children and young women to steal.
The first time I read about the Finfolk, I was utterly taken. These sea gardeners are best known in the Orkeny Islands for growing and tending to lavish underwater gardens. Finfolk appear to be of the same species as your typical mermaid or merman: half-human with the tail of a fish in place of legs. Finwives (female finfolk) are beautiful, have long hair, and were often kidnapped and forced to marry human men. Finmen (male finfolk) were less attractive, had dark countenances, and cause ships to wreck when their territory is threatened. Some stories say finfolk kidnap humans and take them to their underwater world, forcing them to marry and stay there forever.
Yet another type of mermaid from Brittany is the Mal-de-mer. Their name translates to “evil of the sea” or malevolent mermaid. They are also accused of wrecking ships. Not surprisingly, mal-de-mer is also a term that means seasickness.
The longer I study mer-beings, the more I believe mermaid and merman are more general terms for human-like sea creatures worldwide. It’s a general classification. Similar to saying a blue jay is a type of bird. You’d also say a Drac or Corrigan is a type of mermaid. But, if we don’t have specific names for a mermaid, this term gets the point across. As discussed, mermaids and mermen sightings have occurred all over the world for thousands of years. We have archaeological evidence of belief in mermaids dating back at least 7000 years ago on cave walls. The most recent sighting was in Kiryat Haim Beach, Israel in 2009. There was even a million dollar reward for footage.
In Ireland there are many tales of the “wee folk” (fairies), and not surprisingly, the people have their version of the mermaid/merman called merrows. Sailors and people who lived by the seashore had a whole gamut of merrow lore, and many still tell the enchanting tales today. In writer W.B. Yeats’ collection of Irish folk tales, there is an entire section dedicated to stories of merrows. According to legend, the merrow has a greenish tint to its skin with webbed fingers, the tail of a fish, and seaweed-green hair.
One particularly frightening story of the Irish mermaid tells the tale of male merrows who capture the drowned souls of sailors and trap them in pots. These pots are sunk at the bottom of the sea, never to release the poor sailors’ souls…unless a willing human being were to release them. The male merrows were said to be malevolent and incredibly ugly. Perhaps this is why we have stories of female merrows seducing human men. The females would seduce young men by singing to them and then drag them under the waves to the bottom of the sea. No one knows what happened to these men, were they made into merrows themselves or did they drown?
One particularly interesting aspect of these Gaelic legends is the merrows were only able to swim underwater with the aid of magic—a magical red “cap” they wore on their heads. If a person stole the merrows’ cap and never returned it, the merrows would then be unable to return to their home underwater. In one legend, an Irish man uses the red cap to visit a male merrow’s home under the sea.
Probably my favorite story of a real mermaid encounter is the story of an Irish man who found two dying merrows on the seashore. Apparently they washed up to shore from a bad storm. One was badly hurt and the other was dead. The man wanted to help the merrow and took the merrow home to nurse it back to health. He kept the merrow in a tub of water and fed it shellfish and milk. The boy merrow would not drink or eat anything else offered to him. This occurred in the 1800’s and was a big story in the local paper.
This type of mermaid is seen in the ocean, Baltic Sea and gulfs around Scandinavian countries. The Neck or Nokk is the Norwegian version of the Nixie in Germanic lore. And just like the Nixie, she is dangerous. She seductively sings and plays beautiful harp music, luring men and then drowning them. The neck also shapeshifts.
A specific kind of sea nymph who were also the daughters of Nereus and Doris. In stark contrast to the neck, nixie, and drac, nereids are helpful to humans. They are mentioned quite a bit in Greek mythology, and helped Jason and the Argonauts in their voyages. Their names include: Amatheia, Amphitrite, Asia, Calypso, Doris, Doto, Maera, Opis, Panope, Thetis, and Xantho (among many others). They’ve been seen with Tritons and are accompanied by dolphins and other sea creatures.
Some years back, a modern Japanese legend grew to great fame worldwide. And the ningen became a cryptid that fascinated many people. The ningen is a humanoid-whale creature that reportedly was seen by Japanese fishing vessels in the Antarctic. They are described as white whales with long arms and legs, being anywhere from normal human height to 90 feet long. Some people call them “Antarctic mermaids”. They’re creepy, if you ask me.
The Nixie, plural Nixen, is a water spirit known throughout Germanic folklore. They are not to be trusted. They typically manifest as a beautiful woman, but one thing gives them away – they are always wet. Their hair drips and their skin beads up with water. Depending on the story and region, the nixie can be nice or cruel. Helpful or homicidal. In the Faroe Islands, the nixie is similar to the kelpie – it shifts shape into that of a horse and drowns those who try to ride it. People have used metal as a weapon against them.
The Dogon tribe, located in Mali, have strong beliefs of their origins dating back thousands of years. One of those origin stories involves a mermaid-type being that came to earth from another planet long ago. These mermaid beings are the Dogons’ ancestors and also considered creator gods (or demi-gods). The Nommo appear on the Dogons’ depictions as half-human half-fish beings. They are credited with the creation of man on this planet.
Roanes are seen off the coast of Northern Ireland and are basically the same type of mermaid as the Scottish Selkie. They are shapeshifters – they take on the form of a woman or wear a seal skin to take on the form of a seal. There have been dozens of sightings over the years and hundreds of tales of Roanes (and of their cousins, the selkies).
The Rusalki are river mermaids in Slavic lore. They lure men, women and children to the water’s edge and drown them. Legend says they’ll hold you just under the surface of the water, and let you struggle, until you’re no longer breathing air but water. Their skin is slippery and pale, sometimes tinted green. They have long green hair that resembles seaweed. Some scholars believe the Rusalki might have originally been goddesses in Old Rus’ (Russia) that were demonized over the centuries. A mischievous and volatile rusalka is featured in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy.
It’s interesting to note there are quite a few sea gods and goddesses who take the form of a mermaid or merman: half-man and half-fish. My question is what came first – the sea god or the mermaid? Some of the sea deities who manifest in mermaid/merman form include Poseidon, Triton, Neptune, the Nommo, Yemaya, Sedna, Mami Wata, Amphitrite, Glaucus and Atargatis.
Sirens are a type of Greek mermaid that have been featured in many sagas, fables, and legends over the years. They make a recurrent appearance in movies and TV series in modern times. Sirens are illustrated as beautiful women with the tail of a fish OR as women who shapeshift into large seabirds. They are known to lure men to their deaths with their enchanting songs. They live on the island Sirenem scorpuli in the Mediterranean Sea.
A lesser known legend of a supernatural sea creature is that of the selkie. The selkie is a seal-person, or a being that is able to change forms between a seal and a human being, depending on if he/she is on land or sea. This legend comes from Orkney and Shetland but can be heard in tales across Ireland and Scotland, as well as in Iceland. According to legend, selkies are shapeshifters, shedding their seal-skins when they come to land.
There are numerous stories about selkie women who are captured by sailors and taken onto land with them to be made into their loyal wives. The men were said to have hidden the selkie’s seal-skin in order to keep her bound to the land. Unfortunately for these men, most of the time the selkie woman has an insatiable longing for the ocean..and if she finds her hidden seal-skin? Well, she puts it on and runs back to her home under the waves, never to be seen again.
The seal-men or selkie males are said to be very attractive (as opposed to male merrows who were ugly), and legend has it that if a woman wants to have a selkie-lover she need only cry seven tears into the water and he will appear to her. Usually these love stories are tragic and end in more tears for the human lovers. Frequently, selkies are malevolent and will seduce humans to the water and drag them under, and still other stories tell of selkies saving drowning sailors.
There are theories of origin for selkies. One of them says that the selkies were merely women from Northern cultures that wore skins and used animal-skins on their kayaks. They came from the sea, and so therefore the legend of the seal-woman was born. Or perhaps the legend comes from old sailor stories where indeed they had sightings of seals and imagined these seals to be beautiful women instead. Today selkies are used as characters in movies, television shows, and books all over the world.
A shellycoat is another type of English and Scottish mer-being that resides at the bottom of rivers and lakes. They wear a coat of seashells, which clicks and clacks when they walk on land. Some say they are dangerous, while others say they are simply mischievous. They enjoy playing pranks on nearby humans. Jacob Grimm (of the Grimm Brothers) claimed the English shellycoat is the same being as the German Schellenrock (bell coat). They’ve been known to make drowning sounds as a prank. And when someone comes running to help, they disappear and laugh hysterically.
Triton is the father of Ariel in Disney’s Little Mermaid. But his character is actually based on legitimate Greek mythology. Triton is a sea nymph and demi-god and is the son of the sea gods Poseidon and Amphitrite. Sometimes Tritons are a classification of sea nymphs, named for their leader. Triton holds a magical seashell, which he blows to command the seas.
In ceremonial magical traditions, the Guardians of the Watchtowers are powerful beings that protect and wield the four elements and four cardinal directions. The Guardians of the Watchtower of the West are Undines. Undines are typically depicted as strong, powerful mermaids and mermen. This type of mermaid is also a type of elemental. They are invoked during ritual when tapping into the water element and all the water element entails. Just like the sea, Undines can be healing and destructive depending on the situation. Learn more about the Guardians of the Watchtowers.
The vodioanoy is another type of water spirit in Slavic mythology. But he doesn’t look quite as mystical as the Rusalka. He has the head of a frog, slimy skin, webbed hands, a fish tail and a gray beard. Interestingly, in parts of Russia, the Vodianoy is called “grandfather” and talked of as a sort of primal ancestor. When someone drowns in Russia, it’s said to be the work of the Vodianoy or a Rusalka. This powerful merman also has the ability to cause storms on the water, break dams, and destroy water mills. An intriguing note – this isn’t the only ancestral spirit that comes from the water. See the Nommo above. Does this idea somehow relate back to our evolution as a species? All of us emerging from the water so many millions of years ago?
See the description of the Vodianoy above to get an idea as to what the Vodnik is like. The main differences? The Vodnik is the Czech version of the Slavic Vodianoy AND the Vodnik doesn’t have a frog face. Instead, his skin is green, he has gills and webbed hands. Eerily, the Vodnik are similar to some of the mermen in Celtic lore that keep the souls of drowned individuals in pots. How is it that two separate people had such a similar mermaid story? Perhaps these beings once existed and our ancient ancestors knew their nature intimately.
Water horse spirits are prevalent in folklore worldwide. The water kelpie is a Scottish water horse spirit. The kelpie legend is so popular, there is a large statue in Falkirk that’s quite a popular tourist attraction today. The Scottish water kelpie is a spirit that inhabits bodies of water known as lochs in Scotland. The debate persists today on whether water kelpies are benevolent or malevolent creatures, as it varies by legend. The water kelpie is a large black horse shifts into human form at will (among others).
Some believe water kelpies were evil creatures, even demons, that drowned and/or ate human beings. This story was told to deter small children from going too near the water. Another legend says water kelpies shifted into good-looking young men and seduced women. Eventually dragging them into a watery grave. Even when the kelpie was in human form, it retained it’s horse hooves. Some say there’s a connection between the kelpie and the Christian’s devil because of this.
Some water kelpies were forced to stay in their human form and wed their human captors. Story goes if you keep the kelpie’s silver bridle hidden away, they’ll stay on land forever. Interestingly, the silver bridle of the water kelpie is similar to the merrow’s magical red cap and the selkie’s seal-skin. Other stories tell of capturing water kelpies using a blessed bridle. Water kelpies are sometimes thought to be dangerous, and other times helpful. If you ask me, they’re ancient water spirits that guard the sacred lakes in Scotland.
Vikings. Valhalla. Thor and Odin. I’ll bet you are at least partially familiar with these …August 30, 2023