The Many Mermaids of Fiction

by J.D. Harlock

There is something ineffable about the allure of the mermaid. Whether it is their boundless potential for riveting tales or the sheer ingenuity of their design, mermaids have somehow managed to capture the imaginations of writers all over the world in a way few other mythical creatures have. Their stories have been told and retold for almost as long as human civilization has existed and are as popular today as they were ages ago. 

The first mermaid tale actually dates back millennia to the ancient Assyrian myth surrounding the goddess Atargatis. According to the myth, Atargatis drowned herself in the lake near Ascalon (transforming into a fish in the process) after accidentally killing her mortal lover Haddad. However, the waters were unable to conceal her beauty, so she only took the form of a fish below the waist. 

What’s striking about the story of Atargatis is that many of the recurring motifs of mermaid fiction are present right from the start. Elements such as their comeliness, their ability to transform from one form to another, and their romances with humans appear in mermaid stories throughout history from the Indian Ramayana to the Maori Pania. Even the grim end to the romance anticipates the bleak outcomes to mermaid/human romances that dominate the early history of mermaid fiction.

Ever since the spread of the Atargatis myth to other civilizations (and especially after the publication of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid), mermaids have appeared in fiction quite often, each time a little differently, so that, over time, the lines between mermaids and other human/fish hybrids (like the Japanese Ningyo or the West African Mami Wata) have blurred. Although the way they appear tends to vary wildly, there are general templates that writers tend to follow when telling their mermaid stories, with each variance dictated by the plot’s demands.

For starters, mermaids are often portrayed as gorgeous young women with fish-like tails in the place of legs. This is only natural when one considers that a romance with humans is a staple of mermaid fiction. However, it also carries over when the mermaids are antagonists, and the work isn’t a romance. This is especially common when mermaids take on a siren-like function in the narrative. No one’s entirely sure why mermaids and sirens were initially conflated with one another, but throughout history, they have taken on each other’s characteristics. Which is quite odd when you realize that Sirens were originally winged bird/women hybrids. The Philippines’ Sirena appear to be one product of this, being mermaid-like creatures who sing lovely songs to lure people to their watery graves.

This is not to say that mermaids are always looking their best; at times have been depicted as repulsive humanoid sea-creatures, as was the case with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The fish motif may also be dropped entirely in favor of features reminiscent of other sea-creatures. This is usually done to distinguish a character from the rest and give the audience some insight into their disposition (like Ursula’s eerie octopus half in Disney’s The Little Mermaid). At times, a sea creature-like lower-half isn’t even needed, with some merfolk looking exactly (or at least almost) like their land counterparts. One early example is the sea people in The Arabian Nights’ tale Jullanar of the Sea, where neither the mermaid Jullanar nor her half-human offspring Badr are distinguishable from the humans apart from the fact they can live underwater. Writers tend to portray their mermaids like this when they need them to function on land properly and/or blend in with human society without complicating the plot with a transformation or a disguise. 

When the writer insists on having a traditional look for their mermaids, they may introduce a way for them to transform into a human. This is either to give the mermaids in question a way to conceal their identity and allow the aforementioned romance to take place (and continue indefinitely) on land or to handwave any issue surrounding copulation without the need for more ‘imaginative’ explanations. This transformation comes in four main varieties. 

The simplest method is to have mermaids switch forms more or less at will. This allows the writer to have the traditional mermaid while having their transformation hold no narrative stakes. 

The second method (which was popularized by The Little Mermaid) has the mermaid invoking a magic spell that allows them to transform. This transformation often comes at a hefty cost or with a time limit in order to introduce some stakes to the story. 

A rather ingenious transformation originates from the film Splash, where a mermaid becomes human when she’s dry and turns back when she’s wet. This transformation adds tension to the narrative by having the mermaid perpetually at risk of having her identity exposed. 

The final type of transformation is when an item (oftentimes magical) allows the mermaids to change from one form to another. Much like the water transformation in Splash, this enables writers to introduce narrative complications by finding ways for that item to be broken, stolen, or lost. 

Of course, writers can just never bring the subject up or even make it impossible for their mermaids to transform into humans even though they may desperately want to. This inability to change can be a rich source of dramatic tension.

One thing that writers play around with is their mermaids’ ability to survive on land. Writers might make their mermaids unable to breathe on land (The Sea People in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) or require them to stay wet (Fujimoto in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea). However, it’s not uncommon for them to have no issues at all and stay above water indefinitely if the author doesn’t want to deal with the ramifications of this contrivance. 

Finally, merfolk are often depicted with a deeper connection to the ocean and the creatures that live in it. This often manifests in an ability to communicate with fish and other sea creatures. It could be telepathic (á la Aquaman), or through a language, we land-dwellers are unfamiliar with. This is usually introduced to allow fish and other sea creatures to be part of the supporting cast or (as often was the case with Aquaman) to have these creatures help out the hero when they are in need of assistance. Laughably, it’s not uncommon to have them just speak in English (or whatever language the work is in) with no thought put into why or how these creatures learned to speak in man’s tongue. Mermaid fiction has always been accompanied by a host of plot holes and hand waves to make the concept work. 

But what a concept it is! 

To think that after thousands of years, humans are still writing mermaid stories with a fervor reserved only for some of human civilization’s most treasured cultural artifacts. And even after all that’s been written, we’re still coming up with ingenious spins on these magnificent creatures. But that’s no surprise. After all, the ocean’s treasures are endless, and the journey ahead is a promising one.


© Copyright J.D. Harlock

J.D. Harlock is a Lebanese writer based in Beirut. You can find him on Twitter @JD_Harlock.


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