Since biblical times there have been written references and artwork depicting legendary sea creatures known collectively as merfolk. Of all the mermen, sirens, selkies, melusines, nixes, sirenias and merrows, the most popular of these figures have been the mermaids, especially as they have evolved from the water goddesses of old myths and folklore, the early mermaids that might have caused bad storms, gigantic waves, shipwrecks, drownings and other bad luck, to the friendly, sugar-coated Disney mermaids we see depicted today. The physical appearance of the mermaid hasn’t changed much over time. She still has long flowing hair, a pretty face, the upper torso of a human female and her lower body in the form of a fishtail.
Mermaids have always been seen as exotic and statues and sculptures in their honor have been erected throughout the world from Russia and China to the United States and Mexico. Over 130 statues of mermaids are located in harbors and on land. La Raine de los Mares sits on a rock in the harbor in Mazatlan, Mexico. In Germany a buxom mermaid sits precariously on the edge of a yellow buoy marking the boundary of a quarantine station. The mermaid statue at Plaza Inmaculada in Madrid, Spain, incorporates a fountain.
The most famous mermaid statue, the bronze “Little Mermaid” in the harbor near Langeline Pier, was given to the City of Copenhagen by Carl Jacobsen of the Carlsberg Breweries. Every year on the anniversary of the date the statue was given to the City, they celebrate its birthday with entertainers in mermaid costumes and formation swimmers. The statue has been copied and set up in thirteen other locations. Being the focus of so much attention hasn’t always been good for the “Little Mermaid” statue. She has been beheaded twice (1964 and 1998), had one of her arms cut off (1984) and very recently she was splashed with red paint as part of a protest by a group to save the whales. In Poland a mermaid is part of the Coat of Arms of Warsaw and is thought to protect the City. In Copenhagen the City has to protect the mermaid.
Worldwide in mythology and folklore there are recognized groups of similar creatures of the sea. The sirens combine the features of women and birds with such beautiful voices, they lured sailors onto the rocks and were seen as trouble. The combination of human and seal was called a selkie. They could remove their sealskins when they came ashore and had human features. They had to keep their sealskins safely hidden while on land because they couldn’t return to the seal without them. Merrows came from the Gaelic muiroighe – the gentle natured merrow sometimes assumed legs and came ashore, mingled with and married humans, but most of them returned to the sea. Sirenia is a class of mammal that has short arms they can use to steer with and has remnants of hind legs. Manatees and dugongs fit in the sirenia group. Mermen are the male counterparts of mermaids, less common in mythology and in number of reported sightings. Mermen were often described as mean spirited trouble makers. Melusines are water spirits, fresh water European mermaids with two fishtails or the lower body of a serpent.
Nixes, also water spirits, are German or Polish shapechangers. They come from the rivers, lakes and waterfalls of Germany or Poland and can completely change their shapes so that they look unmistakably human on land, yet they can go back in the water and breathe and live underwater. Nixes are not as nice as merfolk from other areas.
Mermaids, since early mythology and folk tales, have been described as graceful, slim, the size of a small human, with beautiful singing voices and long, flowing hair that is blonde, black, red, purple, blue or green with webbed hands and a fishtail torso.
Reports of mermaid sightings have been challenged. Perhaps what they saw were not mermaids but manatees. Blackbeard, the pirate, noted the sighting of a mermaid in his ship’s logbook.
Christopher Columbus in 1483 reported seeing three female forms swimming in the water off Haiti that he thought were mermaids.
In 1608 Henry Hudson, in the Arctic Circle, saw a mermaid and had fellow crew members sign his logbook for that day with a description of the mermaid.
Captain John Smith in 1614 saw a mermaid off Newfoundland he described as having long green hair, a lovely young woman, he thought, until he saw she was a fish from the waist down.
In 1833 six fishermen hauled a three foot long mermaid aboard their boat off Scotland. She had become tangled in their lines. They described her as having bristles from her head to her shoulders that could be raised or lowered and that she lacked scales, fins or gills.
A Pennsylvania fisherman at the Susquehanna River near Marietta, reported five sightings of a mermaid in 1881.
In British Columbia, Canada, tourists on a ferry in 1967 saw a woman in the water with the tail of a dolphin eating salmon. The event was reported in the Times-Colonist, the local newspaper, but the woman was never seen again.
Near Kaiwa, Hawaii in April of 1998, Captain Jeff Leicher saw a mermaid off the port side of his boat. She had long, flowing hair, he said, a beautiful face and her lower half was covered with scales and tapered into a huge tail.
In 2009 dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid doing aerial tricks in Haifa Bay off the coastal village of Kiryat Yam. The mayor offered a $1 million reward for proof of the mermaid’s existence but no one collected.
Work stopped on two reservoirs in Zimbabwe in February 2012 when workers said mermaids had hounded them away from the sites.
Mermaid events are usually held in the warmer weather. Every summer on the Saturday closest to the summer solstice, Coney Island celebrates with their annual Mermaid Parade and Ball, featuring marching bands, floats, hot air balloons, mermen and mermaids of every age and description and their outfits reflect their creativity. In England the Brighton Mermaid Parade is modeled after the Coney Island Parade and features mermaids, mermen and other sea creatures. In Rochester, NY a local Lions Club has put on a well-organized Mermaid Festival for over 50 years. In Las Vegas, Nevada they honor the mermaid with a Mermaid Convention every year.
The increasing popularity of mermaids as a result of the Disney movie, Disney World and Weeki Wachee Springs mermaid shows have caught the attention of a new generation of mermaid wannabees. With so many families having backyard pools, having a mermaid theme party is an obvious choice for young female mermaids.
The Weeki Wachee Springs shows in Central Florida started in the 1940s and were very popular until the 1970s. The park lost business as Disney World built up in Orlando. When other small attractions closed, the State of Florida took over Weeki Wachee and made it a state park, which is how it survived.
Mermaiding is now listed as a career available to young women. Working as a mermaid means learning to eat, drink, breathe and perform musical numbers and synchronized swimming while wearing a heavy fishtail costume. It takes a full three months of training to become a Weeki Wachee mermaid. To be accepted for training you need swimming skills, to look attractive and comfortable underwater and have the stamina to do three or four shows a day, seven days a week. After completing training the new mermaid is paid minimum wage to start.
It takes a self-directed, entrepreneurial person to find their own work and get paid at a higher level. There are no employment agencies advertising mermaid jobs, so you also need to have the computer skills to develop your presence and your brand and market yourself through social media. It’s not magical thinking for a young girl to see herself as a professional mermaid.