Mermaids or Sirens? Odds are good that…that maybe they didn’t care all that much. Mermaids and Sirens…are both alluring beauties of the sea. But which would a shipwrecked sailor rather meet? One could save him, the other lead him to his doom…
Mermaids were dreamed up in ancient Babylonian times—the first appearing in ancient folklore as Era, the half-man and half-fish god. The Greek god Triton came next. The Greeks were responsible for creating the vision of the mermaid as we think of her today. These sea nymphs were described in Greek mythology as beautiful half-woman, half-fish creatures that would cavort with sailors, even bearing their children. Achilles was the son of a mermaid, and there are Greek families even today who purport having mermaids in their ancient family tree.
Mermaids were beautiful and enchanting…but they didn’t really sing. If you set sail at sunset and hear a seductive voice calling to you from the sea, you can bet it’s a siren you’re hearing. And you’d better watch out, because they’re more akin to a black widow spider than a mermaid. Sirens originated as mythical half-woman, half-bird creatures, with a voice so compelling that sailors would forget everything else. The sirens would lure sailors toward their island, where their ships would crash on the rocks, killing them in while their entranced state.
The sirens were invented by the Greeks as well. They began their lives as human women, the three handmaids of Persephone, daughter of the goddess Demeter. Demeter bestowed the three women with the bodies of birds after Persephone was abducted by Hades, so that they could help find the lost woman. They failed in their quest, and upon giving up were cursed by Demeter to forever remain in their half-woman, half-bird form. They settled on the island of Anthemoessa, to spend their days luring hapless sailors with their deadly siren song.
Half-fish, half-bird, 100% mythology, as we know today. But, back in the day, when the world was young and largely unexplored, reports of mermaids and sirens abounded. Christopher Columbus’ men saw them, while sailing near the Dominican Republic in 1493. Columbus wrote, “The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men.” A century or so later, Captain John Smith sighted one off Newfoundland in 1614, saying that “her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive.”
Columbus’ men most likely spotted manatees, not mermaids. No one knows what the heck Smith was referring to, because sea mammals “resembling” mermaids don’t typically live that far north. But we can guess that the malnutrition and inebriation that typically flourished on long voyages at sea had something to do with the sightings. If the sailors did see actual creatures, they were probably manatees, dugongs, or the Steller’s sea cow. They all belong to the aptly named order Sirena, and are strange-looking mammals that would have confounded the sailors, leading them to associate them with the mythical mermaids in absence of any other frame of reference. Sadly, once these creatures became better known, they were killed en mass. In an ironic twist, the sailors made mythical creatures of the Steller’s sea cow, as it will never be seen again. They drove it to extinction by the 19th century. Read more about these fascinating real-life sirens on IndigoScuba.com.
Odds are good that…when you are shipwrecked either one will do…which to your prefer?