From earliest recorded history, mermaids have fascinated and frightened water-dwellers and sailors around the world. In Germany, they were known as Meerfrau (women of the lake). Iceland legends called them Margygr. The Danish knew them as Maremind, and the Irish called them Merrow or Merruach. In Wales, they were known as Morforwyn. Even Native Americans believed in "woman-fish" and "man-fish."
Many folklorists have discovered that the origin of the mermaid myth is the same in most countries. The story goes that they were once earth creatures who angered a powerful and contentious rival. He cast them off to the waters where they could challenge him no more.
Although today we associate mermaids and mermen with the sea, hundreds of years ago they were thought to inhabit lakes and rivers. Nearly all peoples, however, viewed them as semi-human beings capable of living on land, and entering into relationships with men and women.
Some fables tell of mermaids living in underwater castles, complete with herds of livestock that occasionally require a trip to the water's edge to graze. Other tales insist that mermaids shelter the bodies and souls of those who drown at sea.
The mermaid's greatest ability, most agree, is her power to foretell the future. Mermaid children, according to Scandinavian mythology, were sometimes accidentally caught by fishermen. On these occasions, many sailors took these "mermaeler" home where they were forced to share their knowledge of coming events.
For many ancient mariners, sightings of mermaids signalled bad luck or foul weather. Such havoc is seemingly at odds with the oft-repeated descriptions of silken-haired beauties, sunning themselves on rocks, and combing their locks while gazing at themselves in hand-held mirrors.
For other sailors, the outcome of such sightings depended greatly on gender. Mermen were typically viewed as kindly and good, while mermaids were treacherous and dangerous. With their mesmerizing comeliness, these half-women could easily lure men from ships or shore. Once enchanted, the mermaids dragged them to the depths of the sea, never to be seen again.
In 1403, it was widely reported that a mermaid had been captured on a beach in Holland. Later evidence suggested the "mermaid" was actually a woman of foreign tongue who had survived a shipwreck and made it to shore.
Though the belief in mermaids and mermen faded by the 19th century, it did not stop hucksters from making money on these mythical sea creatures. Enterprising con artists carried with them boxes supposedly containing "recently captured" specimens. In 1842, P.T. Barnum exhibited a horrific hoax known as the "Fiji Mermaid." It was nothing more than a Frankenstein-like oddity made from the head of a young monkey sewn on to the body of a fish.
In reality, mermaids are probably born from simple false identification. The dugong (a distant relative of the manatee) is most often credited with sparking the mermaid legend. Because of its size and its human-like habit of holding its young in one flipper, it would be easy - especially from a distance - to mistake this very real creature for a more fantastical one.
If nothing else, tales of mermaids and mermen prove one remarkable fact: regardless of our country of origin, we are all more than willing to believe in the magical possibilities of life under the sea.