KIDSGAZETTE

The mermaids of mythology weren't like Ariel at all

One of the Long island Mermaid Pod members Kai Wagner, AKA Mermaid Pearl, swims in an exhibit at the Long Island Aquariu
One of the Long island Mermaid Pod members Kai Wagner, AKA Mermaid Pearl, swims in an exhibit at the Long Island Aquarium as part of their "Mermaid Mondays" program on the afternoon of July 16, 2018. (Thomas A. Ferrara/Newsday/TNS)

Contrary to what the Disney movie would have you believe, mermaids are more often associated with bad luck and tragedy than with romance and fabulous red hair.

In legends and folklore about the creatures — which have the upper bodies of humans and the tails of fish — merfolk are often luring sailors to their deaths.

One of the most well-known stories of murderous mermaids appears in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” which was written in 800 B.C. The story’s hero, Odysseus, must sail past the sirens, whose singing is irresistible to all men who hear it. The Greek goddess Circe warns Odysseus of this, and he makes his crew stuff their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast of their ship as they approach.

“They sit beside the ocean, combing their long golden hair and singing to passing sailors,” Odysseus says to his men. “But anyone who hears their song is bewitched by its sweetness, and they are drawn to that island like iron to a magnet. And their ship smashes upon rocks as sharp as spears. And those sailors join the many victims of the Sirens in a meadow filled with skeletons.”

Russian lore depicts a similarly murderous picture of mermaids. Myths from the 19th century depicted rusalka as living in lakes and emerging only to drag people under, according to the English National Opera, which was set to stage Antonin Dvorak’s “Rulsalka” opera this year.

Not all mythology makes mermaids sound so hardcore. In Australia, the Kuninjku people know mermaids as yawkyawk, according to the National Museum of Australia. In their mythology, these female water spirits usually had long hair that resembled trailing algae blooms found in northeast Australia’s streams and rock pools. Legend has it that yawkyawk have married humans, and they can morph into humans or dragonflies.

Of course, all these are just stories and no evidence of merfolk has ever been found, according to the experts at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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