Mermaid Legends

A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse

Mermaids are legendary figures found in cultures around the world.   They are frequent features in literature, art and film.   Water faeries are important in many cultures, including ancient myths of Greece, Rome, Celtic regions, Russia, and more.    

In Slavic countries water faeries similar to mermaids are called Rusalka, or in the plural Rusalki (or alternately Rusalky).    These water faerie women are related to the Vila.   They lure men into the water in order to drown them.    This makes them seem like horrifying sirens, but in certain tellings they can only lure men who would be unfaithful, or who are abusive.   They are like Vila in this way, they are protectors of women and nature!

In medieval France there is the legendary water faery Melusine (I have already written a whole post on her for anyone interested).   She is believed to be a faerie ancestress of many noble houses in Europe!    She was a water faerie who asked her human husband to never see her on Saturday’s and when he betrayed her trust he found her to have the tail of a fish or serpent!   She leaves him upon learning of his betrayal of her trust.

In ancient Greece and Rome Aphrodite, and her Roman counterpart Venus, were seen as leaders of mermaids.   Aphrodite had much connection to water faeries because she was in fact born of the water!   The name Aphrodite translates roughly into “foam born.”

Mermaid sightings abounded for centuries, and in the modern day it is believed that many of these sailors were in fact seeing manatees not mermaids!    A boatload of lusty lads mistaking sea cows for fishtailed maidens is an entertaining image that’s for sure!

Tales of Sirens luring men into a watery grave have been around since ancient times.   Although the original sirens of Homer’s Odyssey were actually half bird women, not half fish, we remember later incarnations of mermaidenly sirens!   Of course not all mermaids wished death to sailors.

Probably the most famous of all mermaids is the one created by Danish fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen!    The Little Mermaid tells the tale of a young mermaid who makes a deal with a sea witch to gain legs in order to make a human prince fall in love with her, and thus also become human and gain a soul.   In the original tale (unlike the Disney film) the mermaid feels physical pain of knives cutting into her feet with each step, and she loses her prince to another, in the end dying and turning into sea foam.   She does though get a chance to gain a soul thanks to her sacrifice.    Copenhagen even has a famous statue commemorating the mermaid invented by their famous son Andersen!

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse.   I found the image on   

Further Reading

  • Fairies: the Myths, Legends, & Lore by Skye Alexander
  • Mermaids: the Myths, Legends, & Lore by Skye Alexander
  • The Mermaid Handbook: An Alluring Treasury of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects by Carolyn Turgeon