Are Mermaids Real? A Look at Mermaid Myths Across Cultures

By: Yara Simón  | 
There's mermaid folklore across cultures, whether the mythical sea creatures are portrayed like sirens trying to lure sailors to their doom or like Mami Wata gifting good fortune. Henrik Sorensen / Getty Images

From Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" to C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" series to Alice Hoffman's "Aquamarine," mermaids have been a fixture in literature and pop culture for centuries. But are mermaids real?

Let's explore mermaid myths that have influenced how we view these human-like figures.


First, What Does the Science Say?

Some believe that mermaids are a possibility — after all, our oceans are so vast that they are hard to explore.

However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a clear-cut answer as to whether mermaids exist: No, they don't. While there are cave paintings of mermaid-like figures, the government agency notes there is no scientific evidence that human women with fish tails exist.


But just because mermaids are mythical beings, doesn't mean there aren't fascinating things happening in our oceans.

Deep sea ecologist Andrew David Thaler says, "When we do venture into the abyss, we find creatures more diverse and incredible that our relatively limited imaginations can conceive. Don't insult that wonder with something as utterly mundane as 'human with fish tail.'"


Origins of Mermaids

Mermaids are sea creatures that are half fish, half human. The upper body resembles a woman, and the bottom half a fishlike sea animal. Mermaids exist in folklore across various cultures, each with different interpretations of the beings.

Just as hard as it is to define a mermaid, it's difficult to pinpoint where mermaids originated.


According to Vaughn Scribner, associate professor of British American history at the University of Central Arkansas, merpeople might have come from ancient gods and goddesses. In his book, Merpeople: A Human History, Scribner writes:

"Murky ideologies of mermaids and mermen originated in ancient gods and goddesses of the sea. Although mermaids now rule as the more popular of the two, merpeople's predominance began with mermen. The Bayblonians had their fish-god Oannes dating back to 5000 B.C.E., while the Philisteines, Assyrians and Israelites created the 'female prototype' for the mermaid with Atargatis, a fertility goddess who was the male counterpart to Oannes."

This inspired more mermaid-like figures in Greek and Roman cultures. Greece's use of Triton served as a blueprint for mermen.

"Oddly, harpies and the Greek 'Scylla' — hybrid monstrosities with little resemblance to half-fish, half-women mermaids — would ultimately spawn modern interpretations of mermaids. Over time, artists and writers took the helm in transforming the monstrous representations of Scylla and Homer's harpies into our modern interpretations of mermaids, replete with sexual overtones, siren songs and the overtly feminine (often naked) form. Thus, while mermen found their origins in a Greek god, mermaids largely originated from hideous beasts who only intended to bring man to destruction through his own lust for sex and power."
— Vaughn Scribner


Mermaid Myths Across Cultures

Many cultures have different mermaid legends, leading to different depictions of the half-woman, half-fish beings. From creatures that can make you immortal to half-seal mythical creatures, here are a few ways that societies have viewed mermaids.


In Japanese culture, ningyo (a word that combines person and fish) is a fishlike creature with the mouth of a monkey, but the term has encompassed other beings. According to mermaid legend, eating ningyo flesh could make one immortal.


In the early 1900s, around the time when Japanese translations of "The Little Mermaid" first became available, the idea of mermaids began to change in Japan. According to Philip Hayward, a professor at University of Technology Sydney, in "Japan: The Mermaidisation of the Ningyo and Related Folkloric Figures":

"The story struck a chord with a number of Japanese writers, particularly female ones, who have provided a series of 'open-ended and nonlinear' engagements with Andersen's tale, including a number of works aimed at a young adolescent audience that use the mermaid and her accrued cultural meanings to explore female subjectivity and experience. Despite the frequent use of the term 'ningyo' in their titles and texts, most of these works drew more heavily on Andersen's model than on traditional Japanese ningyo folklore and didn't attempt significant infusions and/or modifications of the latter."


Mermaid mythology is also present in Scotland and Ireland. As author Jason Marc Harris writes in "Perilous Shores: The Unfathomable Supernaturalism of Water in 19th-Century Scottish Folklore," "the range of Scottish tales and beliefs about the mermaid exemplifies the dynamic of ambivalence that people have towards the powers of the water as well as the checks and balances of folk metaphysics."

In Scottish culture, there are stories of destructive or magical mermaids that share similarities to selkies.

"Selkies are creatures living off the west coast of Ireland and Scotland that are both human and seal," writes Stuart C. Aitken, a professor at San Diego State University, in "The Edge of the World: Embattled Leagues of Children and Seals Teeter on the Rim." "Underneath its seal skin the selkie is human, and when it discards the skin it can walk on land as a man or a woman. If a man steals the skin of a female selkie, she is tied to him as a wife and will not return to the water for as long as he has her skin. it is said that this ancient legend is a precursor to the modern myth of mermaids."

Mami Wata

Mermaids are not just a Western concept. Several countries across Africa celebrate Mami Wata, a "beautiful, protective, seductive and potentially deadly" water spirit, according to art historian Henry J. Drewal. She is half-fish and half-human and can appear as a snake charmer.

"Mami Wata is widely believed to have 'overseas' origins, and depictions of her have been profoundly influenced by representations of ancient, Indigenous African water spirits, European mermaids and snake charmers, Hindu gods and goddesses, and Christian and Muslim saints," Drewal writes in "Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas."

"Although for some she bestows good fortune and status through monetary wealth, for others, she aids in concerns related to procreation — infertility, impotence or infant mortality. Some are drawn to her as an irresistible seductive presence who offers the pleasures and powers that accompany devotion to a spiritual force. Yet she also represents danger, for a liaison with Mami Wata often requires a substantial sacrifice, such as the life of a family member or celibacy in the realm of mortals."


The Christian Church's Role in Mermaid Folklore

The Christian church helped legitimize mermaids, according to Scribner.

Somewhere in the third to fifth centuries CE, the church began to use mermaids to express the importance of "piety, faith and self-control" and to "depreciate the feminine." Churches widely used imagery of hypersexual mermaids in their institutions.


"Such ubiquity helped to facilitate general acceptance of, and belief in, mermaids..." Scribner writes. "The Christian doctrine steadily decentred symbols of the sacred feminine by the medieval period. However, such efforts had unexpected side effects, as by utilizing these hybrid monstrosities to support religious tenets the Christian Church legitimatized such creatures, which in turn created the foundation for belief and acceptance for generations to come."

3 Animals Mistaken for Mermaids

While mermaid sightings continue, people have likely confused them for other sea creatures, such as:

  • Manatees: Known as sea cows, these aquatic animals cannot breathe underwater, so they frequently come up to the surface. Christopher Columbus wrote in his log that he had seen mermaids, but they were manatees. He wrote: "Yesterday, when I was going to the Rio del Oro, I saw three sirens that came up very high out of the sea. They were not as beautiful as they are painted, since in some ways they have a face like a man."
  • Dugong: A close relative of manatees, dugongs also come up for air.
  • Seals: Seals are also mammals that you might find sunbathing. They also can somewhat resemble manatees.


Mermaids for Hire

If you ever thought your party could use more mermaids, you could hire them for your next gathering. There are several businesses that have mermaids you can book. Many go through training programs to learn the art of mermaid swimming.