Mermaids were often depicted as beautiful innocent women who married human men, or evil sea monsters who lured men into the depths of the sea. These ten mermaids, sea nymphs, and sea goddesses come from various legends, cultures, and traditions.
In an old French tale, Melusine, a creature with a fish or water serpent tail, marries a mortal man to gain a soul. The oldest extant version of the tale was written sometime between 1387 and 1393, but the legend was well known before then. The story has changed quite a few times, and it is possible that Melusine was originally depicted in a more positive manner as a goddess of the sea. In the most well-known version of the myth, Melusine promises to marry a knight as long as he swears to never see her on Saturdays, so that he might not see her water serpent tail. They get married and somehow have children, and all the while he somehow never notices her tail. One day he breaks his promise to her and peeks at her while she bathes on a Saturday, and he sees her serpent-like tail. He later blames her for a tragic event she had nothing to do with, the death of their son, and in her anger she turns into a dragon. In later versions of the story, Melusine saves herself from her innately evil existence by becoming a Christian.
The Atargatis mermaid myth is one of the oldest, originating in 1000 B.C.E. Atargatis is the Assyrian goddess of the water and fertility and life, which have long been associated with water. People worshipped her in a beautiful temple that probably had a lake or pool next to it, where people waded while they worshipped her, hoping for healing from the sacred water. Atargatis accidentally killed her mortal lover and felt so much shame that she hid in a lake. The lake, however, could not conceal her completely because of her great beauty, so she turned the lower half of her body into a fish tail so that she could remain in the water.
8. Ondine or Undine
Ondine, sometimes spelled Undine, is a sea nymph from an old German tale whose lover was unfaithful. She killed him by robbing him of his breath. Ondine, like other sea nymphs, was immortal and lost her immortality after bearing children. Her mortal lover, a knight, no longer loved her as she began to age, and when she found him with another woman, she reminded him of his promise to love her “with every waking breath” before robbing him of his breath. The term “undine” came to refer to any water nymph or elemental water sprite who falls in love with a mortal and loses her immortality when she bears offspring. Ondine’s Curse, named for this mermaid tale, is a severe form of sleep apnea. The brain stops giving the lungs the signal to inhale. The medical term for this disease is central hypoventilation syndrome. This syndrome has a genetic etiology and is often lethal, especially in infants.
Iemanjá is an African/Brazilian goddess. Africans who migrated to Brazil brought the worship of this goddess to their new home, and she is still worshipped in South America to this day, alongside the Virgin Mary. She is usually worshipped by those who practice Vodun (sometimes called voodoo, although this term often has negative connotations). She, like Mary, is essentially “married” to a god and is considered a mother figure. She married her brother, the god Aganju, and was raped by her son Orungan. She is considered the “Mother of the Water” and is worshipped as the mother of all the gods and the patron saint of sailors. She not only symbolizes motherhood, but also sexuality. She is sometimes portrayed as a large fish or as a traditional half-human, half-fish mermaid. She is usually depicted as a light-skinned woman with long black hair and a rainbow crown or halo. In Africa, she is sometimes depicted as a dark-skinned woman, sometimes holding a serpent or a mirror and comb, symbols that might represent vanity or femininity.
The Inuit goddess Sedna, also called Tallelayuk, was an important part of the Inuit people’s shamanistic way of life. She was the goddess of both sea and land and one of the most important goddesses or spirits in this tradition. She brought animals into view so that hunters could find them, and also hid animals to prevent them from being hunted. In one version of her origin story, Sedna mistakenly marries a bird spirit who is disguised as a man and moves to an island with him. Her father comes by boat to rescue her, and the bird spirit flaps its wings, causing a storm. Her father tries to push her into the sea to save her, and when she doesn’t let go of the edge of the boat he cuts off her fingers. Her fingers become the whales and walruses and other sea animals, and she becomes the mother of all sea creatures and a spirit of the sea.
Ala-Muki was a mythical river dragon-woman of ancient Hawaiian mythology who lived in the Waialua River. Ancient Hawaiians believed in spirit-gods known as kupuas, who could appear in either animal or human form. The greatest of the kupuas were the dragon gods, and the oldest dragon gods resided in rivers and lakes. Volcanic eruptions were often associated with the birth of a kupua, particularly the dragon gods. The greatest of the dragon kupuas was Mo-o-inanea, who brought the other dragon gods and goddesses to the Hawaiian Islands. Her descendants guarded different areas, and most dwelled in rivers and lakes on each of the Hawaiian Islands. The dragon spirits or gods were believed to bring food from the water. Ala-Muki was one of Mo-o-inanea’s descendants. Ala-Muki guarded the area surrounding the Waialua River, sometimes killing those who wandered there.
The Greek goddess Ceto was the daughter of Gaia and Pontus. The ancient Greeks might have depicted her as a sea monster or whale. She represented the dangers of the sea. She had many monstrous children with her brother Phorcys. Ceto was the mother of the Gorgons, the most well-known of which is Medusa, who became mortal. She might have also been the mother of Ladon, a dragon that was slain by Heracles, although some sources claim she was not the mother of Ladon.
At the bank of the Rhine River, near Sankt Goarshausan, Germany lies the Lorelei Rock, named after a legendary maiden who cast herself into the sea after she discovered that her lover was unfaithful. She became a siren who lured sailors to their deaths on the rocks through her beauty. The area by the Lorelei Rock produces a constant echoing sound, and for many centuries this was attributed to the mournful cries of the young maiden Lorelei.
2. The Selkies
The Selkies were a group of “mermaids” from northern European folklore (possible Irish or Scottish folklore, as well as in Icelandic traditions). They were seals who came from the ocean onto land and shed their seal skin, becoming beautiful women. They were very family-oriented and were discouraged from wandering away from their seal families. They sometimes married human men, however, and made good, faithful wives. Selkies would usually grow tired of life on land and would return to the sea, usually leaving while their husbands were away at work. Some husbands tried to prevent their selkie wives from returning home by withholding the magical talismans the selkies required in order to regrow their seal skin. In most of these stories, however, the wives found the hidden talismans and left their husbands.
1. The Yawk-Yawk
The Yawk-Yawk are water spirits in the Australian Aboriginal tradition. They live in sacred water holes and possess great power. They can provide food and water, like the Hawaiian kupuas, and can cause natural disasters when angered. They are also similar to the kupuas in that they can appear as traditional mermaids with fish tails or as reptilian creatures or other animals. According to legend, they sometimes leave the water at night and walk around on land. These female water spirits are associated with fertility and have life-giving powers, including the power to help a woman become pregnant.