Sailors have been spotting mermaids for centuries and blaming them for storms, distractions and deaths. Entwined in mythology, the mermaid has been both worshipped and despised simultaneously and though reported sightings are common, the existence of mermaids has never been proven.
The merfolk myths started centuries ago, not with mermaids but with mermen. Ea, the Babylonian god of the sea, had the lower body of a fish and the upper body of a human. He was the patron saint of cleaners and was later co-opted by the Greeks as Poseidon and the Romans as Neptune. A few thousand years later, the ancient Syrian goddess Atargatis dove into a lake to become a fish but only her bottom half was transformed, and the first mermaid was created.
Perhaps the most famous mermaid is the smallest one. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale ‘The Little Mermaid’ is quite different to Disney’s one, unsurprisingly. There is no mention of crabs singing reggae music for one thing. Anderson’s mermaid tale is not so heartwarming either. She has her tongue cut out, is ultimately rejected by the prince she sacrifices everything for and eventually dissolves into sea foam because she can’t bring herself to kill her prince. Disney obviously didn’t think that would be a box-office hit.
So what are the mermaids that have been reportedly spotted? Most mermaid sightings have been dismissed as manatee sightings. Except, have you seen a manatee? It doesn’t look like any woman I’ve ever seen. Deprivation surely caused sailor’s visions. Christopher Columbus wasn’t taken with the mermaids he spotted. He wrote in 1493 that the mermaids he had seen “were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men”. Maybe he preferred women with legs.
As recently as 2012, mermaids have been cited as causing aquatic chaos. Essential work on planned reservoirs in Zimbabwe was halted because mermaids were terrifying workers, the country’s Water Resources Minister reported. Minister Samuel Sipepa Nkomo told a parliamentary committee the only way to solve the problem was to brew traditional beer and carry out any rites to appease the spirits. And they agreed. Minister Ignatius Chombo said the government wants to give the population the water it needs, but cannot do so until the rituals are performed and necessary repairs can be carried out. Crazy I know.
So can you spot a mermaid in Britain? The land-locked Peak District is said to be home to not one, but two mermaids, who live in Mermaid’s Pool, just below Kinder Scout in the High Peaks, and Black Mere Pool on the southwestern tip of the Staffordshire Peak District. The Cornish village of Zennor also boasts a fishy tradition, where according to legend, top chorister Matthew Trewhella fell in love with a mermaid and the two were never seen again, but could be heard singing together. At the Church of Saint Senara in Zennor, there is a famous chair decorated by a mermaid carving which is probably six hundred years old.
They may have never been proved, but mermaids will always be a romantic idea. Today, you can even become a professional mermaid, as Freediving UK offer lessons on free diving and swimming with a tail. It seems these well-loved creatures are a legend we just can’t bear to let go.