Mermaids and Merfolk of the Ancient World

Things have been a little quiet round here recently. Sorry about that – term kind of got in the way. But hopefully now things aren’t quite so busy I’ll be able to get a few things written, starting now.

Let’s talk about mermaids, shall we? Well, not just mermaids but mermen and fish-people of all stripes. I’ve been meaning to write something on this for a while, but a discussion on Twitter this morning about Dagan prompted me to actually get started. Dagan has often been seen as a fish-deity because in Hebrew dag means fish. These Mesopotamian images of mermen and priests dressed as fish are often linked with Dagan.


Dagan’s fishiness has been cemented in the popular imagination by H. P. Lovecraft’s use of him as an ancient eldritch horror lurking beneath the seas, worshipped by the sinister, aquatic Deep Ones.


This version of Dagan (or Dagon) is fun – I used him myself in my board game Ancient Horror – but his basis in fact is rather doubtful. While dag means fish in Hebrew, this link is never made in ancient sources. Dgn can also be read as ‘grain’, and seeing Dagan as a terrestrial god of corn makes a lot more sense.

So what about those Mesopotamian mermen? They’re never labelled as anything to do with Dagan and it’s easy to find other mythical figures they could relate to. In particular, we should look towards the Apkallu – sages born of the primordial waters Abzu, who taught humanity in arts and morality and advised its rulers before the Great Flood. Sometimes they’re depicted as bird-headed, others as mer-people or as people dressed as fish. Literary sources refer to them as ‘pure puradu fish’.


One of these fish-sages is recorded in Greek by the Hellenistic Babylonian writer Berossus. He recounts the myth of Oannes, who taught humanity writing.

Merpeople were far from unknown in the Greek world. Unsurprisingly for a culture centred around the sea, sea-nymphs and strange aquatic creatures abound in classical mythology. Early candidates are the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey. In later tradition these alluring and dangerous women of the sea have become merged with tales of mermaids enticing sailors away from their ships; they’re often depicted as conventional fish-tailed mer-people.


The sirens’ physical characteristics aren’t described in the Odyssey, but ancient tradition is pretty united in agreeing that they were actually part-bird, not part-fish.


Euripides’ Helen describes them as:

πτεροφόροι νεάνιδες,

παρθένοι Χθονὸς κόραι


Feathered maidens,

virgin daughters of Earth.


Some medieval bestiaries present a halfway-house, where they appear with both fish-tails and wings. Medieval and later depictions also emphasise the creatures’ sexual characteristics and phase out male sirens, as the story increasingly became a misogynistic allegory for the dangers of women.


There were actual ancient Greek mer-people, though. Poseidon’s son Triton is often depicted as a merman, with many accoutrements which survive into modern mermaid imagery, such as the trident and the conch-shell.






He wasn’t entirely locked into the familiar modern imagery, though. It’s not uncommon to see two-tailed Tritons.



In the plural, Tritons were the god’s spawn, a race of mer-people based at the god’s golden, undersea palace. A lot of this will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Disney’s The Little Mermaid.


Ἐκ δ᾽ Ἀμφιτρίτης καὶ ἐρικτύπου Ἐννοσιγαίου

Τρίτων εὐρυβίης γένετο μέγας, ὅστε θαλάσσης

πυθμέν᾽ ἔχων παρὰ μητρὶ φίλῃ καὶ πατρὶ ἄνακτι

ναίει χρύσεα δῶ, δεινὸς θεός.


From Amphitrite and the loud-roaring Earth-shaker

Great, wide-ruling Triton was born, who

owns the bottom of the sea and dwells with his beloved mother and his father the Great King

in a golden palace, a fearsome god.

Hesiod, Theogony, 930ff.


medusaIf much later mermaid folklore can be traced back to Tritons, they’re not the only thing we should be looking at. The modern Greek word for mermaid is γοργόνα – gorgona, so it’s worth taking a quick detour to look at Medusa and her sisters. Famously hideous, snake-haired and with only one eye between the three of them, the classic image of the gorgons doesn’t have much in common with the stereotypical mermaid. Many modern depictions of Medusa give her a snake tail which isn’t too far removed from the scaly mermaid fish-tail, but this seems only to go back as far as Ray Harryhausen’s hugely influential stop-motion depiction in Clash of the Titans. Ancient depictions of the gorgons are hugely varied, with the main consistency being the apotropaic hideous face rather than the snake-hair. Nevertheless, an association with the sea does appear early on.

Φόρκυϊ δ᾽ αὖ Κητὼ Γραίας τέκε καλλιπαρῄους

ἐκ γενετῆς πολιάς, τὰς δὴ Γραίας καλέουσιν

ἀθάνατοί τε θεοὶ χαμαὶ ἐρχόμενοί τ᾽ ἄνθρωποι,

Πεμφρηδώ τ᾽ ἐύπεπλον Ἐνυώ τε κροκόπεπλον,

Γοργούς θ᾽, αἳ ναίουσι πέρην κλυτοῦ Ὠκεανοῖο

ἐσχατιῇ πρὸς Νυκτός, ἵν᾽ Ἑσπερίδες λιγύφωνοι,

Σθεννώ τ᾽ Εὐρυάλη τε Μέδουσά τε λυγρὰ παθοῦσα.

ἣ μὲν ἔην θνητή, αἳ δ᾽ ἀθάνατοι καὶ ἀγήρῳ


Keto bore to Phorkys the fair-cheeked Graiai,

grey-haired since birth, whom

the immortal gods and humans who walk the earth call the Graiai,

Pemphedo in her beautiful dress and Enuo in her yellow dress,

and the Gorgons, who live beyond the famous Ocean

near the frontier of Night, where the clear-voiced Hesperides are:

Sthenno, Euryale and Medusa who suffered a great curse.

For she was mortal, whereas they were deathless and ageless.

Hesiod, Theogony 270ff.


Keto literally means ‘sea monster’; both she and Phorkys function here as primordial sea deities. There’s often a grey area in mythology between sea-monsters, serpents and dragons. Given the characteristics ‘female’, ‘dangerous’, ‘snakey’ and with marine associations, it’s not too much of a leap to see how gorgons could become elided with mermaids, though their exact historical development is murky.

So that was a quick whistle-stop guide to the mer-people of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. There’s a whole lot more to say about mer-people in wider mythology. I’ve not really mentioned northern European or other traditions, medieval and later legends and how the myth developed under the influence of sailors’ tales in the age of exploration. Maybe it’s a topic I’ll return to another time.

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