The Evolution of Mermaid and Siren Folklore Across Cultures

  • Handed-down Greek and Roman sirens vs mermaids beliefs and tales across the ages
  • Are sirens and mermaids the same emblem across diverse traditions on a global historical scale
  • John William Waterhouse’s art piece adds a twist to the mermaid’s golden comb and pearls metaphor
  • Modern world haunting and empathic mermaid impressions in favored movies and video games

Mermaids and sirens have been a part of folklore and mythology for centuries, captivating people with their beauty and enchanting songs. But how has the depiction of these creatures changed over time and across different cultures? In this blog post, we’ll explore the evolution of mermaid and siren folklore, from their earliest origins to their modern-day depictions in popular culture.

baby mermaid conceptualizing mermaid's origin

Origins of Mermaid and Siren Folklore

These mythological characters, often sketched as half-human and half-fish, have captured the imagination of people worldwide for centuries. The origins of mermaid and siren folklore are concealed in mystery, with various cultures and civilizations having their own unique interpretations and stories. Some believe that the tales of mermaids and sirens can be traced back to ancient mythology, while others credit their creation to the imagination of sailors and seamen.

Regardless of their origins, the legends of these enchanted beings have continued to evolve and be passed down through generations, leaving an indelible mark on human culture and fascination. Let’s further analyze the earliest ancient Greek and Roman origins of mermaid and siren myths that left a lasting humankind impression.

Ancient Mermaid vs Siren Folk-Tales

In Greek mythology, sirens were described as hybrids built with the body of a bird and the face of a woman who lived on an island and used their enchanting songs to lure sailors into their deaths.

Homer’s grand poem “The Odyssey” records the earliest mention of sirens. Here he outlines them as very dangerous creatures whose magical songs could lead sailors to crash their ships on rough shores. The real-life sirens were often presented as stunning but very dangerous creatures, portraying the dangers of temptation and the outcome of submitting to desire.

Meanwhile, Roman mythology admits the mermaid siren as the “Goddess of the Sea.” Mermaids were often illustrated as half-woman, half-fish creatures located in the sea with the ability to control the weather. They were considered capable of calming the waves and protecting sailors from storms, marking them as symbols of safety and protection for those at sea.

In addition, mermaids were also marked as an evident sign of beauty and femininity. This is due to their smooth hair and graceful movements, embodying the optimal feminine beauty in the ancient Roman civilization.

old painting of a mermaid sitting on a rock

Other Presentations of Sirens and Mermaids

Stories about sirens and mermaids are passed down through centuries in various forms, from oral legends to illustrating art, literature, and modern culture. Art, like sculptures, pottery, and mosaics, plays a major role in unfolding stories about sirens and mermaids. In Roman folklore, mosaics showcasing a mermaid holding a rudder portray the earliest siren mermaid found.

Numerous works of literature and modern culture feature these magnificent creatures in today’s society. They are present in movies, TV shows, video games, and music like “The Little Mermaid.”

The presentation of these stories may have changed over the years, but the eternal passion for these historical creatures continues to expand people’s imaginations.

Depictions of Mermaids and Sirens in Different Cultures

We can find representations of these enigmatic creatures in various cultures, each with its own unique interpretation and symbolism. Their cultural significance differs widely from the beautiful and magical mermaids of European folklore to the water spirits of African culture and dragon-like beings of Chinese mythology.

We examine the legends and myths of each culture, inspecting the ways how these creatures have been characterized, as well as the key themes they portray.

Diverse Cultural Embodiment

What’s the difference between sirens and mermaids? Mermaids are mesmerizing aquatic fish-women who were overall believed to be good-natured by heart. They are more acknowledged for lingering around rocks and beaches, performing captivating songs while combing their heavenly hair.

On the other hand, the species known for their hypnotizing and irresistible songs, as well as their extraordinary looks, causing sailors to daydream and not remember what they were doing, are the evil sirens. This seductive musical entertainer is ready to kill anyone who will fall victim to her songs.

Moreover, are mermaids and sirens the same throughout history and various cultures worldwide? While mermaids are often perceived with good luck, fertility, and protection, sirens are understood as dangerous and charming creatures that lure sailors to their deaths.

The meanings and symbolism associated with siren vs mermaid beings vary greatly across different cultures and beliefs, so let’s have a closer look at how they are reflected in them.

Celtic Mythology

In Celtic culture, mermaids were known as merrows or morrigna. They were often described as gorgeous women with long aquamarine hair and fishtails and were believed to have the power to control the weather and predict the future.

The merrow was seen as a benevolent creature and was trusted to help fishermen with their catch and bring them good luck, protection, and healing.

Nordic Mythology

In Nordic mythology, merrows had the power to control the sea and protect sailors from danger. The sea siren was projected as a kind being and was said to help fishermen with their catch or assist them if they were drowning.

In some Nordic tales though, mermaids were also painted as dangerous creatures who could lure sailors to their deaths.

Middle Eastern Mythology

The mermaid sirens were known as Jamalaat, which means beauty of the sea. They were described as fishtail women who were unique and charming, controlled the sea, and protected people from harm.

East Asian Mythology

Ningyo, or Merfolk, is a beautiful woman with a fishtail who controls the tides and carries good luck to fishermen. The Ningyo was accepted as a symbol of good fortune and prosperity, even though in some stories, they were also vicious and brought misfortune to those who caught or harmed them.

Native American Mythology

In some Native American cultures, mermaids are believed to carry the spirits of drowned women. The “Water Spirit” creature is seen as a symbol of life, renewal, and transformation and is usually associated with water. This is considered a sacred element in many Native American cultures.

African Mythology

In African cultures, mermaids are referred to as Mami Wata, which translates to “Mother of Water“. These guardians of the sea are linked with fertility, good fortune, and wealth and are entitled to bring rain and good harvests.

Brazilian Mythology

Mermaids in Brazilian mythology are called “Lara“, meaning “Lady of the water”. Lara is a powerful and dangerous figure, who lures men into the siren’s ocean and drowns them, often connected with the mysteries and dangers of the Amazon River.

Chinese Mythology

In Chinese mythology, “Jiaoren” or “dragon girl” are creatures with the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a dragon or fish. It is a powerful and mysterious creature that has the ability to control water. The Jiaoren is generally presented holding a pearl, symbolizing good fortune, abundance, and fertility.

Korea Mythology

The Koreans named the mermaids “Hae-nyeo,” translating to “sea women“. Sketched as young women with fishtails, they were admired as strong and independent figures representing the power of women and the power of the sea.

Caribbean Mythology

La Sirene” and “Yemaya” present the symbols of fertility, motherhood, and the divine feminine and are allied with the power of the sea and its mysteries. The appealing fishtail women brought extra luck to the fishermen, granting wishes and bearing good fortune.

a shadow of a mermaid

The Evolution of Mermaids and Sirens in Art and Literature

The symbolic nature of mermaids and sirens has been an appealing subject of art and literature for generations. It inspired countless artists and writers to create works and pieces that explore their tempting and mysterious nature.

Notable works, including Waterhouse’s and Munch’s styles, demonstrate the enduring appeal of these creatures as artistic subjects. Some artists focused more on their beauty and allure, while others depicted them as dangerous and deadly creatures.

Literature paints sirens and mermaids as symbols, often presenting emotions such as desire, temptation and the dangers of the unknown. One particularly famous example is captured by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” inspiring aspects of adaptation and individual sacrifice for happiness.

From the romantic depictions of mermaids by John William Waterhouse to the haunting paintings of Edward Munch and the enduring story of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” the portrayal of these fairytale beings has evolved and transformed over time.

Sirens and Mermaids in Art

In the 19th and 20th centuries, sirens and mermaids became popular as subjects in illustrations, paintings and sculptures. John William Waterhouse’s use of colors and symbolism in “A Mermaid“, invites every viewer to consume themselves in the ethereal world of the mermaid.

The 1900s painting showcases a melancholy redhead beauty seated on a seashore rock, sweetly combing her long hair with a golden comb. Perhaps a further modern inspiration emerged for today’s Disney legendary red-haired little mermaid.

The rough waves and dark blue colors of the painting’s water create a sense of mystery and danger, while in mythology, mermaids were believed to use golden combs for their hair while singing to lure sailors to their doom. The shell beside her contained pearls, assumed to be formed from the dead sailors’ tears.

In addition, Edvard Munch’s painting can represent longing and desire. The graceful mermaid reflects the human desire to escape the constraints of everyday life and reach for something beyond. He presents a mermaid lying on a rock by the sea, with her tail wrapped around her body.

The painting has a sorrowful quality, with muted colors and soft, blurred lines. As a hybrid creature, the mermaid exists between two worlds, embracing the sense of yearning and longing. Overall, it’s a gorgeous and evocative painting that captures the gloomy beauty and allure of the mermaid as a symbol of transformation, desire, and the unknown.

Turning the Pages in Literature

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is a significant example of mermaid symbolism in literature, demonstrating sacrifice, transformation, beauty, and love.

In this classic fairytale, the long-flowing red-haired mermaid is willing to give up her soft voice and, ultimately, her life to be with the human-form prince she loves. With that, the novel displays the power of love and its ability to transform and inspire us. By transforming from a sea creature to a human form, she is able to embody the challenges of adapting to new environments and the struggles of fitting in.

In general, today’s modern-day novels continue to use mermaids and sirens as symbols to explore romantic and captivating creatures who are searching for love and acceptance, personal identity, empowerment, and social justice.

Mermaids and Sirens in Pop Culture

One of the most iconic and influential modern-day portrayals of mermaids is Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” The 1989 film follows the story of Ariel, a delightful young mermaid, who longs to explore the world above the ocean’s surface and falls in love with a human prince.

The magical undersea world and movie script give a romantic and whimsical take on the mermaid mythology and our modern-time perception of these creatures. Blue is mainly noticeable and present throughout, emphasizing the mermaid’s connection to the ocean. Her ability to sing is also important, as Ariel uses her voice to win the heart of Prince Eric, highlighting the idea of mermaids as charming and mystical beings.

In “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” a group of sailors seeks the Fountain of Youth as they encounter mermaids along the way. The mermaids in this film are reproduced as predatory and violent, and their beauty is a facade for their true nature as fierce hunters.

Unlike the more human-like mermaids pictured in “The Little Mermaid,” the mermaids in this story have a more feral appearance, with sharp teeth, webbed fingers, and fishtails. The film’s portrayal of mermaids as threatening and predatory has contributed to a perception of them as deceitful and untrustworthy.

Unlike the more traditional portrayals of mermaids as sympathetic creatures, the mermaids in the video game “Bioshock” are sketched as haunting and twisted. The game’s portrayal of mermaids as eerie and frightening creatures, points out their connection to the dark and daring depths of the underwater world of Rapture.


Mermaids and sirens have captured our imagination for centuries, and their stories have been passed down through the ages. By exploring the evolution of mermaid and siren folklore across cultures, we can gain a deeper understanding of these creatures and their place in our cultural history. Capable of both beauty and danger, mermaids and sirens will continue to captivate us for generations to come.

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