Mermaids and mermen – aquatic creatures that are part-human and part-fish – feature in mythology from all over the world. They are as old as the very first written stories. And sure, you’re familiar with Disney mermaids (Hello Ariel!), but how much do you actually know about her ancient origins? Check out these amazing mermaid facts for kids, to find out more-
The first known record of a mermaid comes from Assyria (modern day northern Iraq and south eastern Turkey) sometime around the year 1000 BCE. Her name was Atargatis, and she was a fertility goddess with long, flowing hair and the tail of a fish. She was often shown wearing a crown, holding a sheaf of grain and surrounded by lions. The story of Atargatis travelled to ancient Greece and throughout the Mediterranean. The Greeks called her Derceto, and the Romans referred to her as Dea Syriae the Assyrian goddess. Her sacred animals were doves and (somewhat unsurprisingly) fish.
Atargatis wasn’t the only Assyrian fish person. The Assyrian-Babylonian god Ea was also called Enki by the Sumerian people. He was known as Oannes by the people of ancient Greece, and was both man and fish. Oannes had a trident and a conch shell, which were used to calm seas or to create great storms. The Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, and his Roman equivalent, Neptune, both have tridents, and hair and beards made of seaweed. Ea isn’t just god of the sea though, oh no! He’s the god of all waters, even the water that is found deep underground.
In Japanese folklore there is a creature called the ningyo. The Japanese word for this animal appears in an ancient dictionary from 937 CE, and combines the characters for fish and human. The ningyo is believed to have shiny golden scales, the mouth of a monkey, and the voice of a flute or skylark. Apparently this animal tastes delicious and, although ningyo is not served at many restaurants for obvious reasons, eating it can increase life expectancy (the human’s, not the ningyo’s).
In England, the earliest surviving depiction of a mermaid can be found on the top of a stone column in the Norman chapel at Durham Castle, dating back to 1078. She is pictured with two leopards, a little like Atargatis and her lions, maybe?
Another famous English mermaid is the mermaid of Zennor, who appears in a well-known Cornish folktale of the same name. The story takes place in the Cornish village of Zennor, near Land’s End, and concerns a mermaid with a beautiful voice, who falls in love with a human man and convinces him to join her in her undersea home. The tale is commemorated with a carving of the mermaid in question. Made in the 15th century, it can be found on a chancel chair in the local church. The story itself wasn’t recorded until 1873 though, so we don’t know which came first. Did the story inspire the carving, or did the carving inspire the story? What do you think?
[That’s all very well, but how close can humans actually come to a glamorous mermaid existence? Ed]
That’s a great question. I mean, who hasn’t occasionally dreamt of becoming a real life mermaid! Unfortunately humans can’t actually live under the sea without a lot of specialist equipment, which kind of ruins the vibe. But, with the right expert training and a lot of practise, we may be able to visit for very short periods.
Some highly skilled divers are able to travel way down into the depths of the ocean while holding their breath. You might say this is the closest modern-day humans can get to the merfolk of mythology. This is not a hobby for the uninitiated though. Free diving takes a long time to master, can be very dangerous, and must only be attempted with lots of proper training and safety precautions in place.
Roman writers mentioned the use of natural sponges, so, even in antiquity, there must have been free drivers who were capable of harvesting them from the sea bed. It is thought that pearl divers have been operating for 2000 years around Japan, and this has also happened in other warm water areas, like the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. In many parts of the world – and even here in the UK – divers still collect seafood like scallops and clams.
Free diving today is a popular sport. Competitors look to push the barriers by trying to break world records. Most of their attempts are unaided, although they do don tight fitting smooth-skin wet suits to keep out the cold and aid buoyancy, and they wear elongated flippers attached to their feet. Guide lines are often used to help direct them to the required depth and weighted belts may also produce a more rapid descent.
World free diving records tend to vary according to where you look, but Czech diver David Vencl went 50 m down on a single breath without wearing a wet suit in the frozen Lake Sils, near St Moritz in Switzerland. Arnaud Jerald is recorded as reaching a depth of 112 metres wearing some specialised gear. The average person can hold a single breath for somewhere between a minute and 90 seconds, but free divers have been known to hold it in for up to ten minutes. In some swimming pool experiments others have claimed even longer!
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Written by John Davis