What is a Mermaid?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A mermaid is a mythical sea creature with the head and torso of a human woman and the tail of a fish. The male version is known as a merman, and the generic term is merfolk. The mermaid appears in folklore from all over the world, including Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, and Japan. As would be expected of any mythical figure with such a wide geographical range, the mermaid has many variations in appearance. The European Melusine, for example, often has a serpent's tail or two tails, sometimes in addition to wings.

Mermaid tales may be rooted in manatee sightings.
Mermaid tales may be rooted in manatee sightings.

Mermaids also vary in their reported behavior. Some are dangerous, such as the Greek Siren who sings enchanting songs from the shore in order to bewitch sailors or lure them to their death. Others are benevolent and may grant the wishes of those who see them. In Japan, eating the flesh of a mermaid is said to confer immortality. In the earliest known mermaid lore, heralding from first century BCE Assyria, the mermaid is a goddess who jumped into the sea in grief over the lover whom she accidentally killed.

The Greek siren was believed to lure fishermen to their deaths with bewitching songs.
The Greek siren was believed to lure fishermen to their deaths with bewitching songs.

The mermaid features extensively in the literature and art of many cultures and eras. She is the subject of one of Hans Christian Andersen's most well known fairy tales, The Little Mermaid, and the 1989 Disney movie based on it. Numerous films, cartoons, and television shows have also had the mermaid as their theme.

It is widely believed that tales of mermaids have their root in sightings of manatees, aquatic mammals that may resemble humans from a distance. The way that manatees carry their young, in particular, is said to resemble the way a human mother holds her child. Manatees often sun themselves on rocks, much as mermaids do in many accounts. Alternatively, seaweed may have given rise to mermaid legends, as it could have seemed to sailors like a mermaid's long hair floating underwater.

The Little Mermaid is a fairy tale published in 1837 by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen that became the basis for a Disney movie.
The Little Mermaid is a fairy tale published in 1837 by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen that became the basis for a Disney movie.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


I think that mermaids are real. Not because of the Disney story. That story of the little mermaid is just to make little kids happy.

But mermaids are real. Some mermaids do not come out of the water when humans are there but at night they do come out. Children, mermaids are real.


I love all tales of mermaids good or bad. They are such enchanting creatures.

I'd like to say this to comment number five. If they aren't real, then they aren't the work of the devil. If you are going to spew religious crap, go elsewhere.


- anon66951: Mermaid/mermen are not the work of the devil. Some mermaids lure sailors to their deaths and are called water demons.

Some mermaids are sweet and kind like luchia, hanon, audrina from mermaid melody (if you watch anime shows). So your comment is wrong but kind of right at the same time.

So in other words, if you're having a test about mythical creatures and you put that as an answer, you would get half off of the regular grade because there are important details that are missing in the answer. So it is like a state test you have to take.


The meraids/merman are a myth, and are the work of the devil. There is no such thing as mermaids and they don't exist.


I think it is totally cool and different to have a whole web page about these mythical man and woman creatures. My little sis is always on this website, now feeling guilty. (I told her not to rest her whole life on made up things people pay enough money to get on t.v). Now I think there might be a chance.


Dana, yes, there are LOTS of 'happier' stories on mermaids. But most of them follow the traditional Disney version of The Little Mermaid. It's...to say the least, highly annoying and very cliché.


Actually, the Disney story that you know isn't a Disney story at all. Like so many of their animated movies, the story is based on a pre-existing fairytale; The Little Mermaid was actually written by Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen's story, as usual, is much darker than Disney's retelling.

It's not surprising that it's hard to find light, happy stories about mermaids, given the origins of the stories and the historical context...


Are there any happy stories or legends about mermaids? And where I can find them? I've been looking online and all I can find are stories of mermaids being horrible man-eating monsters. Other than the disney story of course.

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