Image: "Mermaid Song" by Josephine Wall
It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere right now, which means you might have spent some time lately playing around in the water. Maybe you headed to a sunny beach or a glimmering lake. And maybe, just maybe, you saw a flicker of a mermaid’s tail while you were at it.
The legend of a mythical water creature with the upper body of a woman and the tail of a fish has been around since the Ancient Assyrian empire. She goes by many names—mermaid, siren, undine. She was the star of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairytale, later turned into a Disney classic. And she continues to captivate our imaginations with her ethereal—and sometimes frightening—beauty.
So where did the mythology of the magical mermaid come from? Is the folklore grounded in reality? And how can you harness the elemental power of the undines in your spiritual practice? Read on to find out:
According to the tales of Classic antiquity, there was a Syrian deity called Atargatis who was sometimes called the ‘mermaid-goddess’. Atargatis was the chief goddess of northern Syria, and was associated with fertility and protection. Legend tells that Atargatis fell in love with a human, and transformed herself into a fish out of shame for accidentally killing him. Atargatis is often depicted as having the upper body of a beautiful goddess, and the tail of a fish...like a mermaid. And thus the first of the mermaid legends was born, though it certainly wasn't the last!
The sea is a common character in Greek mythology. Grecian heroes were often embarking on daring voyages across the sea, and coming across all kinds of mythical friends and foes in their travels. One such figure was that of the enchanting siren. Sirens were sea-bound creatures who lured sailors to their deaths by singing haunting songs. Traditionally, they appeared as part-bird part-woman, but due to their link to the sea, they’ve come to be associated with mermaid mythology. Like the sirens of Greek lore, mermaids are also often depicted as having beautiful singing voices that can hook even the most wily of sailors.
But it wasn’t just in mythical tales that mermaids appeared. Throughout the Age of Discovery, there were many real-life sightings of mermaids at sea. Even Christopher Columbus claimed to have sighted these half-fish half-human creatures while exploring the Caribbean. However, scientists point out that life at sea can often cause men to lose their wits and even hallucinate. And fleshy aquatic animals like the manatee—which would have been an unfamiliar sight to European explorers— could have easily been mistaken for a mermaid.
One of the most famous literary depictions of the mermaid is the titular character from Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale. The Little Mermaid from Andersen’s story fits many of the mermaid myths from throughout history. Part-human and part-fish, the Little Mermaid lives in the ocean has a beautiful enchanting singing voice, which she chooses to exchange for two human legs and a chance to win a handsome prince’s heart. Like many mermaid stories, The Little Mermaid deals with the conflict between the ocean and the land. Mermaids are often torn between the two, belonging in both and in neither at the same time. When romance with a human is involved—as is often the case—the conflict grows all the more stronger.
Selkies are figures from Scottish folklore that have the ability to change between human and seal form. Tales of selkies also normally involve a doomed romance with a human lover. Sometimes, the selkie will seduce the human; in other stories, the human steals the selkie’s seal skin and compels her to stay on land and become his wife. Like The Little Mermaid and other mermaid tales, the selkie is never quite satisfied with life on land and longs for the sea, either escaping human life to return to the waves, or dragging her human lover down with her.
A more cheerful version of the mermaid is that of the undine. Undines are one of the four elemental beings (gnomes = earth elementals, sylphs = air elementals, salamanders = fire elementals), representing the element of water. Undines often appear as female in form, and can be found in all kinds of water bodies, from wells to lakes, and from waterfalls to the ocean. Undines are associated with femininity, fertility, beauty, and music. If you practice elemental magic, you can call on undine energy in your practice when you need to harness any of these forces. As water elementals, undines can help with purification, cleansing and healing.
Whether you find them beautiful or alarming, there's no doubt that mermaids have a fascinating allure. Halfway between human and fish, land and sea, they represent the thresholds of the universe and the powerful energy of water as an element. Take a look at all our mermaid merchandise below, and let us know your favourite mermaid "tails" in the comments.
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