The Mermaid, like the Merman, derives her name from the Anglo-Saxon word mer, which means 'sea'. She is one of the most popular and decorative of all the fabulous beasts. The image of a creature swimming powerfully through the tumultuous surf, that is a coldly beautiful woman from the waist up and a glistening silvery fish below,has inspired artists from the earliest of times. Some of the earliest depictions of Mermaids and Mermen were in the drawings of the Babylonian Water God Oannes or Ea. At first, pictures of this God showed a man - like creature wearing the head of a fish above his human visage, with his legs ending in a fishtail. Later sculptures figured him as a true Merman, with the upper parts of a bearded man and his lower half the muscular tail of a fish. It was said that this God had a human voice and taught his people the arts of civilization. His retinue. included both Mermen and Mermaids who held vases of lifegiving water.
Early portraits and sculptures of the Mermaid show her as a Goddess; the Sumerian goddess Nin-Nlitk, the Mother of the Universe and the essence or heart of the sea, was often portrayed as a Mermaid; it was written that her heartbeat governed the tides and waves of the Southern Ocean. In Syria she was the Goddess Dercerto, and in Greece the Mermaid or Merrymaid was a disguise of the ancicnt Sea Goddess Aphrodite. It is here that she appears in her familiar in rising from the sea, carrying her attributes of a round mirror and a golden comb.
In Greek mythology, the Merman Proteus, s6metimes called Nereus, was the shepherd of the flocks of the ocean and is portrayed bearing a shepherd's crook. As flowing water is constantly changing, Proteus was also able to change his shape at will. Another Sea God was Triton, also called The Old Man of the Sea. This amphibibious being was very jealous of his skill at playing the conch shell and drowned the trumpeter Misenua whose ability exceeded his own. The Old Man of the Sea was usually a peaceful deity who often assisted seafarers in trouble by blowing on his conch shell which caused even the roughest seas to subside.
Later, in medieval times Guillaume Rondelet described a type of Merman called a Monk Fish in his Book of Sea Fishes. The Monk Fish had a tonsured head, a scaly cowl and a robe that ended in a fish tail. It was known in China as the Hai Ho Shang, or 'Sea Buddhist Priest'. It was said to be so aggressive that it upturned junks and drowned the crew. It could only be driven away by the strong stench of burning feathers or by a member of the threatened crew performing a ritual dance. The Chinese believed that Mermen or other sea monsters with human heads were the spirits of drowned men desperate to find a human substitute to take their place.
Mermaids have reputations, like those of the Srens, for luring men to live with them beneatb the sea, especially if they are young and handsome. Sailors, who are isolated from women by their careers and are particularly susceptible, say that they have seen them sitting on rocks at the site of such dangerous places as
reefs and whirlpools, singing to themselves, coaxing the unwary to come closer. The wind is the Mermaid's song and in stormy weather she can be seen dancing on the waves. Then sailors should beware, for a person soon to die by drowning is said to see a mermaid frolicking in the water in anticipation of fresh company. In northern France, Breton Mermaids sing enchantingly as they comb their long hair, and their great joy in life is to rescue young shipwrecked mariners and care for them. However, they are very possessive and will never let their charges leave them.
Mermaids can sometimes be captured and kept for the knowledge that they can give to humans, particularly their understanding of herbal lore and the ability to prophesy by foretelling the advent of catastrophes, tidal waves and storms. The greatest wish of a Mermaid is to gain a human soul but only rarely can she achieve this, for she must first transform herself into an aeriel spirit and cause no harm for 300 years.