Mermaids and Mermen in Art

This blog addresses mermaids and mermen in the visual arts. In an earlier blog we discussed the morphing of the incubus and succubus into the Piren (my term) and Siren. Male Sirens or Pirens did exist in ancient times. The Siren and Piren further morphed into mermaids and mermen that morphed into the prostitute and muse. For reasons unknown, the blog defining the Piren went missing. The prostitute and muse will be a topic of a future blog. All became topics for the visual artist. We are fascinated by and attracted to the unknown and forbidden.

A mermaid is a mythical aquatic beautiful creature with the head and upper torso of a female human and the tail of a fish. Mermaids as did Sirens serve as an excuse or surrogate for passion and obsession. Mermaids appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, including the Near East, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The first stories appeared in ancient Assyria, in which the goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover. Mermaids and mermen are frequently associated with perilous events such as extreme weather events, shipwrecks, and drowning’s but as often can be benevolent and helpful. So far, they have not been blamed for climate change.

Figure B-1 shows a painting by Howard Pyle (1910) of a mermaid raising from the water in one of her more beneficial and seductive roles.

B-1. Howardpyle_themermaid_1910

Figure B-1. The Mermaid, by Howard Pyle (1910) (public domain)

Mermaids from the Isle of Man, known as ben-varrey, are also considered more favorable toward humans than those of other regions. One story tells of a fisherman who carried a stranded mermaid back into the sea and was rewarded with the location of treasure. Another recounts the tale of a baby mermaid who stole a doll from a human little girl, but was rebuked by her mother and sent back to the girl with a gift of a pearl necklace to atone for the theft. Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of FairiesPantheon Books; 3rd Printing edition (August 12, 1978) 

Mermen are mythical male equivalents and counterparts of mermaids. Like mermaids they are legendary creatures that have the form of a male human from the waist up and are fish-like from the waist down, having scaly fish tails in place of legs. A “merboy” is a young merman. They are traditionally depicted as unattractive. However, some modern depictions show them as handsome.

Figure B-2 is an Image of a Merman as the god Dagon. Dagon is often presented as fish-god hence associated with merman. Although controversial, the association has been used as a topic by artists.

B-2. picture-of-merman-as-semitic-god-dagon

Figure B-2. Image of a Merman as the god Dagon. (Public domain)

While there is no evidence that mermaids or mermen exist outside folklore, reports of mermaid sightings continue to the present day, including a 21st-century example from Israel. In 2009, a mermaid was sighted off the coast of Israel in the town of town of Kiryat Yam. It (or she) performed a few tricks for onlookers before sunset, and then disappeared. .html, last assessed 30 April 2019. Benjamin Radford, Mermaids & Mermen: Facts & Legends in Live Science.

Once, I was walking along a beach on Prince Edward Island and encountered a live mermaid. Turned out that a movie was being filmed on the beach involving a fisherman and an actress dressed as a mermaid. If she were alone I would have accepted her for what she appeared to be. Imagination is reality.

E.R. Snow recounted a similar mermaid encounter once offered as a true story, where the sea captain John Smith sailing off the coast of Newfoundland described his 1614 encounter in which he saw a mermaid swimming about with all possible grace. He pictured her as having large eyes, a finely shaped nose that was somewhat short, and well-formed ears that were rather too long. Smith goes on to say that her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive. In fact Smith was so taken with this lovely woman that he began to experience the first effects of love as he gazed at her before his sudden (and surely profoundly disappointing) realization that she was a fish from the waist down. Edward Rowe Snow, (1902-1982). Incredible Mysteries and Legends of the Sea. 1967 publisher Dodd, Mead ISBN 039605627X

C.J.S. Thompson (1862- 1943), a former curator at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, notes that traditions concerning creatures half-human and half-fish in form have existed for thousands of years, and the Babylonian deity Era or Oannes, the Fish-god is usually depicted as having a bearded head with a crown and a body like a man, but from the waist downwards he has the shape of a fish. Several modern religions including Hinduism and Candomble (an Afro-Brazilian belief) worship mermaid goddesses to this day. J. S. Thompson. The Mystery and Lore of Monsters. 1931, re-published June 1970 by Lyle Stuart

The merman is the male equivalent of the mermaid. Triton was the mighty merman son of the God Poseidon and Goddess Amphitrite, deities of the sea. Triton is often shown as having a fish tail. He was half-human in form. He was believed to have inhabited a salt-water environments and would occasionally come ashore. Nereids are nymphs represented as very beautiful girls, crowned with branches of red coral and dressed in white silk robes trimmed with gold, but who went barefoot. The nymph Nereid symbolized the beautiful and kindness of the sea. They were often part of Poseidon’s entourage. In Modern Greek folklore, the term “Nereid” is used for all nymphs, fairies, or mermaids, not merely nymphs of the sea. Figure B -3 shows a Triton family as envisioned by the artist. The male is half fish and half human. The female and children are represented without a tail. The female is probably a Nereid. The children are born without fish tails. I visited the temple of Poseidon in 1973; Triton was not at home nor were his mother Amphitrite or any nymphs.


Figure B-3. Triton Family, Giovanni Battista Palumba.

Giovanni Battista Palumba, “A triton family in the sea, with a mother and child seated on the back of a half-man, half-sea monster with a child blowing on a conch shell on his shoulders,” ca 1500–1510. 7 7/16” × 6 5/16” engraving. Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed 11 June 2018,

As reported by C. White for BBC, men in England have been dressing up in the costumes of mermaids in order to become mermen. There appears to be a revival and a growing interest mostly among women in mermaids and “mermaiding” (the practice of wearing, and often swimming, in a mermaid tail). Miss Mermaid international competitions are being held. Mermaid training camps have surfaced for the preparation of becoming a mermaid. Why not, we train for most events. One Internet site saw 7 million mermaid posts. Deep down, is it more than wanting to just putting on a tail and to swim, it may be a desire to return to our aquatic heritage! Festivals and Conventions for merfolks are now common. Catriona White, “When I’m in my tail, everything else just floats away: the real life mermaids of Britain,” accessed 20 March 2018,

Figure B-4 shows a mermaid and a merman by an unknown Russian folk artist. The image suggests that mermaids fraternized with mermen or at least were socially connected. The artist also follows the idea that misfortune follows both, in that a ship appears distressed or headed for destruction.


Figure B-4. A Russian print from 1866 shows a mermaid and a merman. Unknown Russian folk artist. Credit: Public domain.

The recognition of mermaids and mermen are common in many cultures, as might be expected, for those with a sea tradition. Scandinavia and England and island cultures ­have many legends related to them.

In Vodou practice in Haiti, La Sirene is the Goddess of the Ocean. She is described as a beautiful mermaid, long dark hair mulatto skin, beautiful and with a beautiful voice. Figure B-5 is a sculpture ‘La Sirene’ by the Haitian sculptor Georges Liautaud (1899-1991).

B-4. Siren Georges Liautaud Haiti 3x5

Figure B-5. La Sirene, Georges Liautaud, Haiti.

Georges Liautaud, La Sirene, Circa 1980, Port au Prince, Haiti. Brass Flat 16“ Sculpture, Private Collection, Massachusetts. “LaSirene,” Wikipedia, accessed 20 March 2018, also “La Sirene The Lwa Series: Haiti,” Amino, accessed 23 March 2018, 0

A notable merman from Greek mythology was Glaucus. He was born a human and lived his early life as a fisherman. One day, while fishing, he saw that the fish he caught would jump from the grass and into the sea. He ate some of the grass, believing it to have magical properties, and felt an overwhelming desire to be in the sea. He jumped in the ocean and refused to go back on land. The sea gods nearby heard his prayers and transformed him into a sea god. Ovid describes the transformation of Glaucus in the Metamorphoses, describing him as a blue-green man with a fishy member where his legs had been. last accessed 2 May 2019.

Kathy Warnes discusses and relates some of the merman legends in Scandinavian culture. In one Swedish legend, a poor fisherman with a beautiful daughter lived beside Lake Fagertarn. One day as the fisherman fished in his oak dugout, he met a Neck or a merman and the merman offered him prosperous fishing in exchange for the hand of his beautiful daughter the day that she turned eighteen years old. The desperate fisherman accepted the merman’s offer, and the day his daughter turned eighteen she went down to the shore of Lake Fagertarn to meet the merman. The merman offered the girl his hand so she could follow him to his watery home, but declaring he would never have her alive, the girl drew a knife from her clothes and stuck it into her heart. She fell dead, into the lake, her blood coloring the water lilies red. From that day forth, the water lilies of Lake Fagertarn have been red.

In another legend from Denmark she describes an unusual underwater sculpture by Suste Bonnen called “Agnete og Havmanden” or “The Merman with Seven Sons” is in the center of Copenhagen. It is located in the canal by the Hojbro Bridge on the other side of the bridge from the fisherwoman sculpture. It is the least known sculpture in Denmark. Suste Bonnen based her inspiration for the “Merman With Seven Sons” on the legend of “Agnete and the Merman.” As a young peasant girl named Agnete walked by the seashore, a merman rose from the waves and offered her his hand. She immediately fell in love with him and followed him to the bottom of the sea to live with him as his wife. She gave birth to his seven sons, and had entered her eighth year of living under the sea when she heard the church bells ringing from her old village. The sound of the church bells made Agnete realize how much she missed the church and her family and she asked the merman to allow her to go home for a visit. He gave her permission on the condition that she would return after Mass. Once on land again, Agnete decided that she couldn’t return to the sea so she remained with her family and languished of land for her husband and her sons under the sea.


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