Worldbuilding Wednesday 1/12/22: Mermaids

Mermaids are one of those mythological creatures everyone thinks they know everything about, yet no one knows anything about. To begin with, in spite of a certain mockumentary, they are not real. I repeat, mermaids are NOT REAL.

You can see the resemblance, kinda.

Any sitings purported to be mermaids in ancient sailor’s tales and the like are probably of sea cows, manatees, or dugongs, sea mammals distantly related to elephants. They have a habit of lolling about with their heads and top parts of their bodies just poking above the water, and with the addition of seaweed, foggy sea air, and nursing young (the nipples of female manatees are located on their chests) they might have been mistaken for aquatic humanoid creatures. Very rotund humanoid sea creatures, as a female manatee can weigh up to 3,500 pounds. The skeletons, too, of these animals could be mistaken for a fish-tailed human, as the skulls of elephants were once mistaken for those of a Cyclops.

Add to this the Roman and Greek propensity for depicting humans, horses, deer, wild boars, lions, etc. with fish tails as decorative elements… and the occasional sirenomelia deformity… it’s no wonder untraveled Medieval people thought mermaids were actual beings.

mermaid with two tails from an early engravingMermaids from illuminated manuscripts and the earliest printed bestiaries were an eclectic bunch. Sometimes they had webbed feet attached to their torsos or snaky tails, affiliating them with female monsters like Lillith and lamias. Sometimes they sported two tails, like the milk-squirting one on the right, whose direct descendant is the crowned, smiling mermaid of the Starbucks logo.

When mermaids entered the realm of fine art, their visual depiction changed yet again. Now, instead of being fishes from the waist down, they are fishes from the groin down, leaving them with human buttocks and, presumably, sexual organs. I’ve never seen any speculation for the reasons for the change in the art world, so I’m going to blame the prurience of the artists’ patrons, and the availability of live female models willing to pose to satisfy it.

This 1900 painting by John Waterhouse seems to conceal the mermaid’s buttocks with a scaly skin, yet also hints her pubis and mons are bare, allowing a would-be suitor easy access. It’s perhaps the most iconic of mermaid images, her red hair inspiring the depiction of Disney’s heroine Ariel a century later.

And yet, as the twentieth century moved on, the mermaid’s fish scales marched back up to their waists again. Above is a slightly naughty postcard from the 1920s, showing some mermaid ass; below, Darryl Hannah in the 1984 mermaid romance Splash. Not a cheek in sight. I have yet to see an explanation for mermaid depictions losing their sexual parts, so I’m going to hypothesize one: Cosplay. It was only in the twentieth century that the materials rose into existence to actually make a functioning, fairly realistic mermaid costume. This meant not only being covered up for modesty’s sake while on display, but being swimmable as well, which required a strong, snug attachment through the waist and hips.

Let’s move on to mermaid names. There’s Madison, of course, named after Madison Avenue in New York and inspiring a generation of female children with that name. The magic-using mermaid in the 1960s anime Marine Boy was named Neptina in the English translation, after Neptune of course, while  Glynis Johns played a mermaid in the 1948 English comedy Miranda. The name doesn’t seem to fit a sea creature on first glance, but then, Miranda was also the daughter of Prospero in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, who lived on a paradisiacal island.

The most famous mermaid of all, the woeful heroine of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid, never even had a name. But Disney gave her one: Ariel. Which is patently ridiculous.

Number one, it’s the name of a winged air sprite in the aforementioned Tempest who has the power to cause storms and fly. Well, I can see the storm part for a mermaid, but Disney’s creation definitely did not fly or have wings. Second, it’s a name steeped in Jewish tradition, meaning “Lion of God” and mostly given to male children. A sequel to the Disney cartoon tries to justify this: Ariel is given six sisters, all whom have names beginning with A (Attina, Alana, Adella, Aquata, Arista, Andrina) implying that, as princesses of the realm of Atlantica, it is a Royal tradition. But even considering this, Aquamarina or Amphitra would have made more sense.

Anyway, you need a name for a mermaid, here’s a list of more appropriate ones.


Mermaid Names




































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