The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Mermaid

Edition of 1920. See also Mermaid on Wikipedia, Wikisource's Mermaids portal, and the disclaimer.

MERMAID, a mythical being living within and under the sea, having the form of a woman above the waist and that of a fish below it. They are usually described as having great personal charms, and as using these for the purpose of luring imaginative and amorous men to destruction by enticing them into the depths of the sea; and, as a correlative, they are sometimes represented as securing their own destruction by quitting the sea, through marriage with some favored human husband by which they magically obtain temporarily a complete human form and soul, but always end in bringing disaster to one or both of the sacrilegious pair. Mermen are also occasionally heard of, but take an unimportant part in the legendary lore of the sea.

This mediæval notion is doubtless a survival of the primitive fancies, half fearful, half poetic, which created the classic conceptions of tritons, nereids, and the like. Shakespeare wrote (Ant. and Cleop., II, 2, 211):

Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her..”

All of these ideas probably arose from a mixture of observed human resemblances in certain marine animals with purely mystical fancies which peopled the ocean with similitudes to terrestrial creatures. Primitive men have everywhere derived a large part of their sustenance from the natural products of the waters; and always the vastness and mystery of the sea, full of strange creatures and incomprehensible phenomena, have powerfully affected the imagination of the ignorant and superstitious. To this day the ocean is more familiar and more important in the life of many isolated peoples, who dwell upon its margin and derive their support almost exclusively from it, than is the land; and they invest it and everything it contains with a wondering regard which the inlander can neither share nor understand. To these, even in civilized regions (as on the coast of Ireland or the Hebrides) mermaids remain only one of many present realities, herding sea-cattle and lying in wait for unwary humanity as surely as when sea-horses raced over the Ægean waves with the car of Poseidon or the Sirens tempted the mariners of ancient Greece. In one form or another such stories have been rife in the folk-lore of all maritime peoples since prehistoric times; and, although not so widespread, the belief in mermaids, and their kith and kin, is still a matter of firm faith with hosts of persons in all parts of the world. Folk-lore abounds in evidence of this.

The physical basis for these notions rests upon the resemblance which some marine animals bear to human beings when seen at a distance and in certain attitudes. Such, in northern countries, are various seals, which formerly abounded upon the coasts of western Europe, and still are to be seen in the less frequented spots. They have a way of lifting their round heads and shoulders from the water, with a queer human intelligent look upon their faces, and hugging their young to their bosoms with motherly affection. Impressed with this resemblance, easily turned into a story to beguile a long winter evening or to amuse a child, and growing with imaginative repetitions, the northern peoples were quick to believe the similar and more elaborate stories brought to them by early voyagers from the Mediterranean, and so the tales grew and changed into the rich folk-lore of the coasts of the North Sea.

The southern stories, embellished by classic culture into the sea-myths of Neptune, Proteus and the sea-nymphs of old, and descending into the mermaids and mermen of mediæval folk-lore, yet alive around the Mediterranean and Oriental seas, and among sailors generally, probably have their root in the aspect of the East Indian and African dugongs (q.v.). Near at hand these uncouth monsters would never be mistaken for human beings; but seen at a distance, by fearful and wondering voyages along the coast, such an error might easily happen, for they frequently stand upright among the weedy shallows of the coasts, perhaps draped with loosened vegetation like long hair, and holding to their breasts a young one who nurses from pectoral mammæ much as a human baby would do. Such reports, brought back to the enquiring poetic minds of Greece, might easily blossom into the tales of sea-mythology which formed so large and real a part of the popular belief as well as of the legendary lore of the classic age of India, Persia and the Mediterranean peoples. The fish-gods of the Phœnicians and other idolaters are closely related.

From this has come down to us the extensive and varied use of mermaids and mermen in heraldry. “In French heraldry,” says Robinson, “the mermaid is called the Siren; in German she has two tails; in the Italian she carries a harp; and in many cases in each country she is crowned. In England it is a very ancient crest, and among others the lords Byron, the earls of Portsmouth . . . and many others display the sea-maiden in their armorial bearing. With her comb and looking-glass she smiles at us from the shields of the Holmes, Ellises, Lapps; and as a supporter holds up the arms of the Viscounts Boyne and Hood, the earls of Howth and Caledon, and is borne by the heads of the families of Sinclair of Rosslyn, and Scott of Harden. Two mermaids crowned are the supporters of the Boston arms.”

Artificial mermaids, claiming to be preserved realities, have formed a part of the stock of curiosities of wonder-shows since time immemorial; and most of those exhibited since the days of Barnum have been the products of Japanese ingenuity.