Mermaids are legendary creatures who have the upper bodies of lovely women and the tails of fish, though the Scots say that under the fish scales are normal human legs. They may occasionally be seen sunning themselves on rocks as they gaze into mirrors while combing their long hair. Like the sirens, they have sweet voices and sing to lure human lovers into the depths of the waves, or to summon storms that wreck ships.
The early church took a dim view of mermaids, saying that they were demons who tempted the righteous. In Irish legend, St Patrick banished old Pagan women from the earth by turning them into mermaids. The mermaid of Iona was offered redemption if she relinquished her sea home, but this she was unable to do, and her tears became the grey-green pebbles of the island’s shore.
Like other fairies, mermaids are said to have no souls, but they can gain one by marrying a human. They make good wives and caring mothers and for this reason many men have sought them. The Clan McVeagh in Sutherland [Scotland] claim descent from a union between a mermaid and a fisherman. To capture a mermaid, it is first necessary to secure her magic cap, her belt or comb and hide it. If she finds it she will return to the sea, which is her greatest desire. In a Scottish tale Johnny Croy got round this by contracting a seven-year marriage with a mermaid and agreed to leave with her at the end of the contract. They duly sailed away to sea after the seven years, together with six of their children, having to leave the seventh because Johnny’s mother had taken the precaution of branding it with a cross.
Mermaids also have the power to grant gifts. One day Lutey of Cury was beachcombing near the Lizard in Cornwall when he found a mermaid stranded in a rock pool. She asked him to return her to the sea and he agreed. In gratitude she granted him three wishes and he chose the power of breaking witches’ spells, the power to force familiars to do good for others and that these powers should be passed on to his descendants. She also rewarded his kindness with two other gifts: that his family should never want and the power to call her whenever he wanted by aid of her magic comb. He then gently carried her down to the sea and true to her nature she tried to bewitch him into entering the water with her, but his dog barked and broke the spell. He remembered his wife and children at home. She slid away, saying that she loved him and would return in nine years. She was true to her word and the family became famous healers. After nine years Lutey was fishing with his son and the mermaid rose from the sea. Lutey told his son it was time to keep his promise and sank beneath the waves with the mermaid, seeming quite happy.[i]
Belief in mermaids was still widespread in coastal areas of Britain in the nineteenth century and as recently as 1947 an eighty-year-old fisherman from the Isle of Muck claimed he had seen a mermaid near the shore, combing her hair.
The word ‘mermaid’ may derive from the French for sea, mer, or be a corruption of meremaid or merrymaid. It is possible that the concept of mermaids derives from ancient beliefs of fish tailed goddesses such as Atargatis, the Semitic moon and love goddess, known in Greece as Derketo, and from later forms of such deities like Aphrodite who was ‘foam born’ in the sea. Aphrodite [Roman Venus] is the goddess of love, fertility, and fair sailing, often accompanied by her sacred dolphins, tritons and tritonids. Like mermaids she is depicted with a mirror and comb, the Greek names of which signify the female vulva. In early astrology her mirror represented the planet Venus. Like the goddesses, mermaids are connected with love and the moon. In Tudor England mermaid was a term for a prostitute, with Anne Boleyn being characterised as a mermaid.
© Anna Franklin, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Vega, 2003
[i] Bottrell, Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall,