Mythology is rife with creatures that mix traits of the familiar and the fantastic. Maybe it’s because they resemble us, but half-human legends from werewolves to centaurs have been mesmerizing staples of world mythologies for thousands of years. Particularly alluring is a certain half-woman-half-fish that entices sailors and sea captains with her singing and curvaceous bod. Mermaids have appeared in Polynesian, Celtic, Middle Eastern, and Japanese mythology for centuries, and have swum into popular culture through folk tales, literature, song, and even the silver screen. From Ariel to the Sirens, here are 11 bewitching examples of what you get when you cross a fish and a pinup girl.
1. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid
Perhaps the most famous mermaid is the title nymph of the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, who risks her life in order to follow the shipwrecked human prince she loves onto land. Originally conceived as a ballet, the Danish author’s children’s story appeared in 1837; the original tale includes such elements as the little mermaid’s beloved grandmother, who “was a very wise woman…[who] wore twelve oysters on her tail,” and the exchange of the princess’s tongue for a pair of human legs from an evil sea witch. When her human lover marries someone else, Anderson’s mermaid is unable to return to her underwater kingdom and evaporates into sea foam. A statue of her by sculptor Edvard Erikson sits on a rock in the Copenhagen harbor.
2. The Sirens
One of the earliest records of bewitching sea-women appears in the Odyssey, where Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem, is warned by the sorceress Circe about the sirens whose singing lures sailors to a grisly death shipwrecked on the rocks. Odysseus convinces his crew to stuff wax in their ears so that the mesmerizing song won’t affect them, but has himself tied to the mast and more or less goes ballistic listening. The earliest ceramic paintings depict the sirens as women with the wings of sparrows, but in later folklore this image was changed to one closer resembling a modern mermaid (as in the 1909 painting by Herbert James Draper, above). The word itself survives in the Latin root for the words for mermaid in languages such as Italian (sirena) and French (sirene).
3. Howard Pyle’s The Mermaid
Nineteenth century artist and illustrator Howard Pyle was a celebrity in his time for his illustrations in Scribner’s and Harper’s Monthly magazines and for his vivid paintings of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and other exotic rogues and heroes featured in his numerous children’s books. He invented our modern visual concept of a pirate, and inspired such artists as Norman Rockwell and Hal Foster, the creator of the Prince Valiant comics. Pyle’s mermaid is a standalone example of his work in the golden age of American illustration. Though it appears complete, the 1910 painting was left on the easel prior to the artist’s last trip to Europe, and only partially finished by a student after he passed away in Florence.
4. The Starbucks Mermaid
Since the Seattle-based coffee company is named for a seafaring character (the first mate of the ship Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick), its designers originally wanted a nautical logo. She’s since been watered down to something like the Statue of Liberty with fish bookends, but the original Starbucks queen was based on a voluptuous Nordic woodcut. A more obvious version of a mermaid survives on the coffee shop’s green plastic stirrers (go find one if you don’t believe me).
5. The First Siren in Hollywood
On the long list of things Annette Kellerman could take credit for, her distinction as the first mermaid caught on film is only a flippered footnote. The Australian-born swimmer pioneered the first one-piece bathing costume for women (despite being arrested for public indecency for wearing one in 1907) and is credited as both the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel and the inspiration behind the sport of synchronized swimming. Kellerman had a long-running career in vaudeville and early silent film as well; she was the first major actress to appear nude on film (in Garden of the Gods) and inspired a musical biopic in 1952 starring swimmer-actress Esther Williams (Million Dollar Mermaid). Her short films The Mermaid and The Siren of the Sea, both from 1911, are considered the first to feature an actress in a swimmable mermaid costume.
6. One Fishy Pin-up Girl
Joyce Ballantyne Brand is best known as the creator of the Coppertone Sunscreen girl, but most of her subjects were a little older: She spent the majority of her career as one of the most successful American painters of pinup girls, and was one of the only women in the industry during the art form’s heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s. One of her tamer illustration gigs was the monthly cover for Sports Afield outdoor magazine. Subscribers to the publication, which usually featured a bird dog or hearty fishermen on the cover, were shocked when the April issue of 1949 came out with a buxom mermaid splashed across the front. Critics even accused Brand of corrupting the legions of young men who read the magazine. No report on whether it sold as many copies as some other swimsuit issues we could name.
7. The Fiji Mermaid
In the summer of 1842, news broke in New York City of what many believed was conclusive proof of the existence of mermaids. Doubters and believers alike crowded to Broadway’s Concert Hall to view a curiosity brought from the Fiji Islands by one Dr. J. Griffin, a member of the British Lyceum of Natural History. Griffin’s dried specimen appeared to have the tail of a fish and the shriveled head and torso of a monkey—which, it turns out, was exactly what it was. There has never been a British Lyceum of Natural History, and “Dr. Griffin” was in league the whole time with showman P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum of oddities housed the Fiji Mermaid for nearly 20 years of ticket sales after its run on Broadway. A media frenzy in the newspapers of the time included images of voluptuous, bare-breasted sirens that remained in the popular imagination even after Barnum’s hoax was discovered. The whereabouts of the original critter (probably made by a Japanese fisherman around 1810) are unknown, but a similar stitched-together creation rests in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
In the century since Annette Kellerman swam onto the screen, mermaids in Hollywood have enjoyed intermittent popularity. One of the best films featured a young Glynis Johns as Miranda, a wily seawitch who charms a hapless physician into taking her to London to see the human world and seduce as many landsmen as she can wrap her fins around. The film’s credits included a specific nod to the manufacture of Johns’ tail (the Dunlop tire and rubber company), and a single final frame reading FIN. Of her elaborate costume, the lead actress said, “I was quite an athlete…my muscles were strong from dancing, so the tail was just fine. I swam like a porpoise."
9. Ceasg and Selkies
The British Isles have a long tradition of merpeople lore, and each region has its own incarnation of the half-human-half-fish beguilers. The Scottish Highland ceasg were women with tales of grilse, or salmon, while the selkies of coastal Scotland, Ireland, and the Orkney islands (as well as Iceland and the Faroe Islands) were a race of seals who could shape-shift by slipping out of their leathery skins and cavorting in human shape on land. According to legend, both creatures have been known to breed with humans—the ceasg who married human men produced great sailors and sea captains, while the MacFie clan traces its ancestry to a union between a clan patriarch and a selkie.
10. Disney’s The Little Mermaid
A little different than the fairy tale that inspired it (a Jamaican crab sidekick, and no foamy seppuku), Disney Animation Studios’ story of a wistful Atlantic princess is nonetheless a charming tale of young love, parental disobedience, and what not to do with a fork. As an animated feature, it broke ground in Disney artistic technique and employed more special effects than any project since Fantasia (1940). Special challenges included creating character color palettes for submarine night and day scenes, hand-painting over a million individual bubbles, and depicting the movement of Ariel’s hair underwater, which was allegedly based on footage of astronaut Sally Ride in zero gravity. Actress Jodi Benson, who played the title mermaid, recorded her famous song “Part of Your World” in the dark to simulate the feeling of being underwater.
11. The Weeki Wachee Mermaids
Somewhere in the bowels of South Florida, there is a campground. In this campground there is a pool, and in the pool, mermaids dwell. They are mermaids with day jobs, families, hobbies, and favorite restaurants—one is a bartender, one loves tacos, and one has a cat named Shark Bait. The women who make up the roster of the Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids perform daily synchronized swimming and trick shows for visitors while costumed in 6-foot-long orange tails based on the designs made for Annette Kellerman. They are actually one of several mermaid performance groups that exist from Las Vegas to Cambridge, England, but are recognized as the longest running—and hidden legs aside, the women of Weeki Wachee remind us that the real sirens, while a little less sparkly, may still may be out there.