Mysterious Mermaids #folklore

Mermaids are alive and well in every corner of the world. Today we are specifically looking at mermaid-like creatures that fit the stereotype of “mermaid”.


The Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man A. W. Moore [1891]

The Mermaid, too, was well-known. She had no special name in Manx, being called simply Ben-varry, or “Woman of the sea,” and had the same form, half fish, half woman, as represented in the tales of other countries. She was generally of an affectionate and gentle disposition, though terrible when angered, and she was greatly given to falling in love with young men. Of her mate, the MermanDooiney-varrey, “Man of the sea,” or Phollinagh, as he is variously called, less is known.

The Fairy Mythology by Thomas Keightley [1870]

The Neck no more upon the river sings,
And no Mermaid to bleach her linen flings
Upon the waves in the mild solar ray.

IT is a prevalent opinion in the North that all the various beings of the popular creed were once worsted in a conflict with superior powers, and condemned to remain till doomsday in certain assigned abodes. The Dwarfs, or Hill (Berg) trolls, were appointed the hills; the Elves the groves and leafy trees; the Hill-people (Högfolk [a]the caves and caverns; the Mermen, Mermaids, and Necks, the sea, lakes, and rivers; the River-man (Strömkarl) the small waterfalls. Both the Catholic and Protestant clergy have endeavoured to excite an aversion to these beings, but in vain. They are regarded as possessing considerable power over man and nature, and it is believed that though now unhappy, they will be eventually saved, or faa förlossning (get salvation), as it is expressed.

Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, [1909]

The Mermaid or Siren

This fabulous creature of the sea, well known in ancient and modern times as the frequent theme of poets and the subject of numberless legends, has from a very early date been a favourite device. She is usually represented in heraldry as having the upper part the head and body of a beautiful young woman, holding a comb and glass in her hands, the lower part ending in a fish.

Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper

Ben Varrey

“Woman of the Sea”, or mermaid, in Manx folklore, which has many tales of the half-fish, half-woman’s beauty enchanting young men and luring them into the sea. Mermaids from the Isle of Man are also portrayed as benevolent toward deserving mortals, warning fishermen of impending storms and thereby averting disaster.

*Read more in the book.


A Scottish mermaid. Half-woman, half-grilse (young salmon). Her top half is that of a beautiful woman, while below the waist she has the tail of grilse. She may grant three wishes to anyone who catches her.

Like most sea maidens, the ceasg is also believed to have a darker, dangerous side.

An idea common to tales from the Scottish Highlands is that of the separable soul. Ceasgs are believed to keep their souls separately from their bodies, hidden in an egg or in a box. To destroy a ceasg, one must find and destroy her soul.

*Read more in the book.

Dinny Mara

Manx merman. The dinny mara has a gentler temperament than the English merman.

*Read more in the book.


Brazilian queen of the ocean, patron of fishermen. Often depicted as a mermaid. Her origins lie in the African Yoruba people’s belief in orishas – spiritual entities that have control over the elements of nature – which spread from their homeland in Nigeria to other parts of Africa and to South America.

*Read more in the book.

Liban the mermaid

When a sacred spring overflowed, Liban’s family were drowned except for Liban and her pet dog. Liban and her dog were swept away by the flood, but found shelter in an underwater cave. Seeing fish swimming past their bower, Liban prayed that she might be turned into a salmon. Her prayer was granted when she was transformed into a mermaid. She had the tail of a salmon, but from the navel up remained a beautiful woman. Her dog was transformed into an otter.

*Read more in the book.


Half-woman, half-fish, the mermaid is a familiar figure in the folklore of cultures around the world. Usually described as having the upper body of a beautiful woman, with long, flowing locks, and a shiny fish’s tail from the waist down, she is most often depicted sitting on a rock combing her tresses. Her name derives from mere, Old English meaning “sea”, and maid, “a girl or woman”.

Sometimes the mermaid is portrayed as a gentle, romantic figure with the ability to grant wishes, heal, foretell the future, warning sailors and fishermen of imminent danger. At other times she appears as a dangerous, lustful temptress, luring ships to crash onto the rocks or using her charms to entice men to a watery death.

*Read more in the book.


The male counterpart of the mermaid appears in the folklore of cultures around the world. While mermaids are generally described as beautiful, desirable creatures, mermen are often – although not always – portrayed as ugly and tend to have less contact with humans than the female of the species. The Scandinavian Havmands, however, are handsome creatures that sport green or black beards.

In Greek mythology Triton, the messenger of the sea, is generally depicted as a merman with a barnacled male torso and a fish’s tail. The son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, god and goddess of the sea, he could summon furious storms or calm the waves by trumpeting on his twisted conch shell.

*Read more in the book.


Water spirits of Brittany. These Breton mermaids are described as seductive females who use their beauty to lure men to their deaths at the bottom of the sea. They are also blamed for flooding.

*Read more in the book.


Sea nymphs in Greek mythology, the oceanids were the 3,000 daughters of Oceanus and Thethys. Oceanus was ruler of the rivers and the seas, the oldest of the Titans. Thethys was Titaness of the Oceans.

*Read more in the book.


Male spirits of the rivers and streams in Greek mythology, the sons of Oceanus and Thethys and brothers of the oceanids… often depicted as half-man, half-bull, or half-man with the tail of a fish.

*Read more in the book.

Encyclopedia of Beasts and Monsters in Myth, Legend and Folklore by Theresa Bane


Variations: Ben-Varrey, Gorgone, Haffrii, Halfway People, Ocean Men, Maighdean-Mara, Mary Morgan, Morgens, Morrough, Moruach (“sea maid”), Moruadh, Muir-Gheilt, Murdhuch’a, Moruadh, Nereis, Samhghubh’a, SIREN, Sirena, Suire

Mermaids (“sea maidens”), beings half fish and half women, have permeated the folklore of the ocean since ancient times. Described as beautiful enchantresses, destructive and seductive as the ocean itself, the mermaid also personifies the dangers of rocky coastlines and treacherous waters.

The physical appearance of the mermaid likely dates back to the ancient Babylonian god of the sea, Oannes, and his companions, the Atargatis (Derketo). These companions were in their earliest times depicted as wearing cloaks but over time the cloaks evolved into fish tails. Oannes, an early adaptation of the Sumerian fish-god, Ea, was worshiped as the beneficial aspects of the ocean and a sun god; conversely the Atargatis came to be worshiped as moon-goddesses and represented the ocean’s more destructive aspects.

The physical description of the mermaid has not changed much since its early inception. Typically described as having flowing and long hair either sea-green or sun-ray yellow, they hold mirrors in their hands, symbolic of the moon, as they sit upon the rocks grooming. There are some folklores where the mermaid is not attractive, said to have green teeth, a porcine (piglike) nose, and red eyes. The domain of the mermaid is said to be on the bottom of the sea, made of priceless pearls and coral.

These FAIRY ANIMALS possess a natural fear of man and will quickly flee as soon as they realize they have been seen by mortal eyes. Both mermaids and mermen (see MERMAN) alike long to have a mortal’s soul and according to the legend any one of the merfolk can acquire one if a human falls in love with it. In tales involving the romance of a mermaid and a mortal, the creature will use its singing to lure the sailor in. In the tragic versions of the tales the ship is dashed along the rocky coast or the mermaid takes her would-be love down to the depths where she inadvertently drowns him. In the less romanticized tales, mermaids are vicious and cause the ships to wreck, drowning the survivors at will.

The mermaid of ancient Greece did not have any Piscean attributes but rather looked exactly like a human. Greek mermaids can, however, change their form at will. Usually benevolent, merfolk in Greek folklore can become malevolent and unpredictable.

In European folklore the mermaids wore a cap upon their heads called a cohuleen druith; this magical garment granted them some degree of protection. Should a mermaid be taken as a wife this cap needed to be stolen and kept by the husband, as it would prevent her from returning to the ocean; this is similar to the folklore of the SEAL WOMEN’s coat and SWAN MAIDEN’s cloak.

*Read more in the book.

Merman, plural mermen

Variations: Blue Men, Dinny-Mara, Dooinney Marrey, Dunya Mara, Havmand, Ocean Men

Mermen are the male counterpart of the MERMAID. In the folklore of ancient Greece, mermen were traditionally offspring of a sea god, such as Poseidon (Neptune), but could also be identified with the conch shell dwelling Tritons.

In Irish and Scottish folklore the merman is rarely attractive, described as having piggy eyes, breath stinking of rotting fish, and a nose blushed red from having consumed too much brandy from the ships it wrecked.

As the Scandinavian havmand, the merman is rather handsome and has a black or green beard and hair. Living on the bottom of the sea or in the caves in the cliffs along the shore this version of the merman is considered to be a benign creature.

*Read more in the book.

The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by John and Caitlin Matthews


In Danish folk legend, the Havfrue was the mermaid who combs her long golden hair. Like the Havfine of Norway, the Havfrue herds the waves to shore as her cattle, trying to get them to graze upon the dunes. The birth of Christian IV of Denmark was said to have been prophesied by a Havfrue, who have the ability to see into the future. Her male counterpart is the Havmand. A statue of a Havfrue can be found in Copenhagen, based upon the ‘The Little Mermaid’ who features in the Hans Christian Andersen story. The Little Mermaid’s duty was that of a typical Havfrue – to bring the prince and his crew to the bottom of the sea – but she chose not to let him die.

*Read more in the book.


In Danish folk tradition, Havmand is the merman who lives along the shores. He is handsome, bearded and friendly to those whom he meets, although his female counterpart, the Havfrue, is often seductive and predatory. The Havmand sometimes has blue skin and green hair. It is not clear whether the creature that was reported to the Bishop of Bergen in Norway was indeed a Havmand, but the finders said they saw a beached creature with the front paws of a seal calf and the face of a man. It was about 28 ft long.

*Read more in the book.


Perhaps the most famous of the many magical creatures of the sea, the general character of a mermaid is well defined. According to these traditions, mermaids are like beautiful maidens from the waist up, with the tail of a fish below. They carry a comb and a mirror and are often to be seen combing their long, beautiful hair and singing with irresistible sweetness on a rock beside a sea. Shakespeare describes this perfectly, when Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, says:

Once I sat upon a promontory

And heard a Mermaid on a dolphin’s back

Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath

That the rude sea grew civil at her song

And certain stars shot madly from their spheres

To hear the sea maid’s music

But mermaids have a darker side. They lure young men to their death and their appearance presages storms and disasters. According to such beliefs, mermaids not only bring misfortunes but also provoke them, and they avidly seek human lives, either drowning men or devouring them. They are said to be born without souls, and the only way they may obtain one is by marrying a human. In some of the earliest Celtic descriptions, they are sometimes monstrous in size, such as the one recorded in the medieval Irish Annals of the Four Masters, who was 160 ft in length, with hair 18 ft long, fingers 3 ft long and a 7-ft nose! She was believed to have been cast ashore in AD 87.

Some sea creatures were said to be allergic to fresh water, but mermaids penetrated up running streams and were to be found in freshwater lakes. Several stories exist describing mermaids who were caught and held to ransom for the sake of the wishes they could grant and the knowledge they could impart. None ever failed to remain true to their bargains, though the wishes granted by mermaids are often tricky and dangerous. In Scotland and Ireland the question of whether mermaids, like fairies, could ever find salvation was often raised. It was considered unlikely, but in Ireland there was one mermaid, named Liban, who is described as having died and entered heaven—though it should be said that she was not born a mermaid but was transformed into that form.

In general, mermaids are said to live in an undersea world of great splendour and richness, but they may assume human form, especially to visit markets and fairs. They often lure mariners to their destruction, and are said to gather the souls of the drowned in cages.

*Read more in the book.


Mermen are, on the whole, less attractive than their female counterparts, not only in appearance but also by nature. Generally speaking, they do not come ashore or court mortal women and father their children. They often seem to personify stormy seas, and it is they who raise storms and wreck ships if one of their kind is hurt in any way. They were considered rough husbands and even capable of eating their own young if they were hungry enough. The Scandinavian merman or Havmand is described as a handsome creature with a green or black beard, living on cliffs as well as in the sea.

*Read more in the book.

Further Reading:

Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

The Mermaid: A familiar figure in folklore from around the world, this half-woman, half-fish creature is usually depicted as being a beautiful woman from the waist up and a glistening fish from the waist down. For the most part, the mermaid sits on a rock and combs her lustrous hair without a care in the world. “Mere” comes from Old English meaning “sea” or “lake” (large body of water) and “maid” means “young woman”, thus mermaid is a young woman of the water.

Each culture has its own version of the mermaid and thus the appearance (and name) varies from region to region. In Brazil, Iara is the mermaid of the Amazon River. Like most mermaids, she functions as a siren that lures men to their death – usually those lost in the jungle. In Britain, there are various names for the mermaid – and her vicious merman husband. Mermen are found in most periods of Mesopotamian and Babylonian history – they are even called “fish-man” in Syria.

The belief in mermaids has been present for a very long time, seen in how similar they are the world over. As recently as 1947, an octogenarian fisherman from the Inner Hebrides claimed to have seen a mermaid combing her hair near the shore.

Sometimes the mermaid is portrayed as a vicious, lustful temptress using her charms to lure men to their watery deaths. Other times she is a gentle, wish-granting creature that also warns about storms and imminent danger. Depending on the culture and tale, different aspects of the mermaid’s character are emphasised. But stereotypes shouldn’t be believed: the mermaid, by whatever name, is a capricious faery with an agenda all her own.

Mermaids in Modern Culture

I haven’t read a lot of books with mermaids in them, so here’s a list from Goodreads: The Best YA Mermaid Novels.

I have added this book to my TBR:

I did a search for TV shows featuring mermaids, and this one caught my eye:

Although Siren’s set up is overly familiar to other teen dramas, it’s ultimately the allure and dangerous demeanour of the mermaids that make this such a gripping watch.

After military personnel commandeer a ship and snatch up a strange creature found while fishing, the story shifts to focus on a marine biologist named Ben.

He runs into Ryn, a mysterious mermaid who has taken human form. It’s soon clear she’s out to find her sister who happens to be the mermaid these authorities have kidnapped.

Split across two seasons, Siren adapts and advances its mermaid mythology nicely, leading to lots of ensuing drama to bubble up.

From the Review Geek

Sounds pretty cool!

I’ve watched plenty of movies featuring mermaids, though.

Technically, Aquaman and the others from the underwater kingdoms are all mermaids!

Book to Film adaptions.

Peter Pan has mermaids.

The Disney kind…

…And the dark kind.

In the Harry Potter books, mermaids exist, too.

In Harry Potter, the merpeople living in the Black Lake are known as selkies, which are found in both Irish and Scottish folklore. However, during Harry’s bath in Goblet of Fire, he notices that the mermaid portrayed in the bathroom does not look like the rather frightful merpeople in the Lake. This leads us to believe that the variations between merpeople are not reasons for reasonable doubt that they exist, but rather that, just as in all of nature, environment affects adaptations and appearance.


The Little Mermaid (Disney Adaption)

Mermaids in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Mermaids

Mermaids appear in two forms: the first is attractive to their human prey, the other their true form which is usually with gills, sharp teeth, scales all over, webbing between their fingers, and an all-together otherworldly look that would scare humans off if they ever saw it, but gives them lots more power, protects them from the depths of the ocean (cold, pressure, darkness), and boosts their speed.
Just like Merrows and Sirens, they work for the Otherworld and make sure that those lost at sea – human or fae – go to a proper afterlife. They also find human flesh a delicacy and ignore all rules about interacting with humans that the Faerie monarchs might have in place.
They’re not a fan of Mami Wata or the Jengu, seeing them as overstepping their place as merfolk with their interactions with other fae – and their war with the Obayifo.
Just as folklore warns, they are beautiful, deadly, and capricious.

mermaid translation english afrikaans

Where did you encounter mermaids for the first time? What are your thoughts about mermaids? Which kind of mermaid is your favourite? Any folklore about mermaids you’d like to share? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to the subject.

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2 thoughts on “Mysterious Mermaids #folklore”

  1. I don’t remember the first time I encountered mermaids, but it was more of a collection of memories I had as as a child. One of my cousins and I played with her Barbie mermaids, and thought they were majestic creatures that captivated me. I pretended to be a mermaid while imagining the bed as a pool of water. I wrapped my legs up in my bed sheets. This is a fantastic overview! Thanks for sharing!

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