Mermaids Off The Port Bow!

What if mermaids were real? C’mon, what little girl hasn’t watched Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and secretly wished for their own fins and sea-shell cups? There is a great deal of folklore surrounding mermaids, and my recent research blitz found some interesting stuff.

Now, hear me out. Most folklore has been found to have its roots in real fact if you search it out. What if mermaids were real?

Mermaids are mythical creatures with human top halves and fins instead of legs. Mermaids are usually portrayed with long flowing hair that strategically covers their bare breasts, while mermen go bare-chested. Triton was said to be the king of the seas and the merpeople. Tales of mermaids are sprinkled in literature here and there, notable examples being The Odyssey, Peter Pan, Arabian Nights and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. We are fascinated with mermaids. You can buy a mermaid style dress, the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise features vampiric mermaids – and there’s even mermaid syndrome where a child is born with both legs fused together.

Not everyone liked mermaids, sometimes called sirens. Odysseus encountered sirens in his journey and was waylaid by them. The sirens were said to bewitch men with their songs, and either imprison or kill them. Mermaids, according to most folklore, don’t eat fish and are often recorded as snacking on men. Irish folklore says that if you steal the skin or cap of a mermaid while she’s on land, she’s forever bound to you. You can find mermaid folklore in many many places around the world.

Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I came across some ancient Near-Eastern folklore that claimed fallen Amazons (the all-female society, man-killing warriors of Greek lore) became mermaids. There’s an interesting story about how Thesselonike, the sister of Alexander the Great, was turned into a mermaid, and in some tales she lives in the Black Sea, and in others the Aegean. When she met sailors on the sea, she would ask them ‘Does Alexander live?’ The correct answer was ‘He lives and rules the world.’ Incorrect answers always met with the sailors’ demise.

Many ‘sightings’ and mermaid cadavers have been reported over the years, all found to be hoaxes.

But then I found the story of the Ama people from Japan. I can’t post any pictures of this real people because they swim topless and are mostly female, and I’d have to post content warnings. However, Anthony Luke has some great photos of the Ama people on his blog. These women dove for food, finding shellfish and other things, and even pearls. Women were said to be better divers because they typically have higher body fat content than men to insulate against the cold water. The older the diver, the longer it’s said they could stay underwater (sans modern diving equipment).

Now, imagine you’re a sailor in an ancient time, the Ama people are said to have been diving like this for 2000 years, and you find your boat surrounded by women in water so cold hypothermia should kill in minutes. They are topless, long-haired foreign women who swim like fish, smile, and laugh before diving back under the water staying down longer than any man could. There’s a legend that the Ama women, in order to increase their lung capacity to stay down longer, came up from dives and began singing. I think I read that this culture, sadly, died out in the 1960’s.

Now, a group of men who haven’t seen women in a long time…one story leads to another and I don’t know – just maybe this is where truth is stranger than fiction. What do you think? Could this be the basis for all the mermaid folklore?

A nod to Gene Lempp’s Designing From Bones blog series that inspired this post. Make sure you check it out every Wed. for fun ways history intersects with fiction.


I’m on Twitter and G+, but I hang out on Facebook – would love to chat. :) If you’re a writer, I post great writing links everyday on my Facebook page. Consider signing up for the monthly newsletter I write with my cowriter – Marcy Kennedy.

“It would be different if one had tried to tell the whole truth. That would have some value.” – Ernest Hemingway

“A woman is like a teabag – you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Eleanor Roosevelt


  1. says

    Very cool. The research paid off, and there might actually be another story in there somewhere :) I completely buy that mermaids myths might have evolved from the Ama women. It makes sense to me.

  2. says

    Mermaids are fascinating creatures and I love all the forklore surrounding them. Now I would love to have met those Ama women. Talk about good role models! :)

  3. says

    Lisa, I think you are absolutely correct. Something real gave rise to the mermaid tales (deliberate word choice D ) I have heard of the diving skills of Japanese women before, but never that they swam topless. Fascinating!

    How terrible that the culture has died out! Thanks for sharing!

    By the way, I’ve got a link about a modern day mermaid that I’m sharing tomorrow on my blog. Be sure to drop by!

  4. says

    This is so interesting, especially the part about the Ama people. How sad that they’re no longer here. I can just see how their appearance to seamen would cause the mermaid myths. Very cool, Lisa!

    • says

      Thanks! Mermaids have always fascinated me because I’m not confident in the water at all – they’re always portrayed with such beauty and grace in the water.


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