Top photo: Famous Little Mermaid, Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Peter O’Toole / Shutterstock
Above: Mermaid swimming with the fish
Growing up, “The Little Mermaid” was a lot of people’s favorite movie. However, the fairy tale it’s based on is way darker than the Disney version, and the even older myths surrounding mermaids are darker still. Where did the concept of mermaids come from? And could mermaids even exist?
Stories about half-fish, half-human creatures have existed for thousands of years across the world. The oldest example is Ea, the Babylonian god of the sea, who has the upper body of a man and lower body of a fish. He was later adopted by the Greeks and Romans as Poseidon and Neptune, respectively. In Syria, Atargatis, a fertility goddess, has the lower body of a fish. Not to be outdone, West Africa has a rich mythology of various water spirits, many of whom are half-snake, half-crocodile, and half-fish. Their personalities varied from benevolent to malicious, often luring men with their beauty, and then killing them.
As human civilization became more widespread and “sophisticated,” the mermaid/ merman legends did not die out. Various written accounts exist from explorers and historians who came in contact with mermaids, including important figures such as John Smith, Christopher Columbus, and Henry Hudson. When photography and eventually video appeared, just written accounts weren’t enough. One of the most famous hoaxes is the Feejee mermaid, which was shown by the infamous P.T. Barnum. It was created by sewing the tail of a fish to the torso and head of a monkey. The most recent hoax is probably the Animal Planet’s “documentary” called “Mermaids: The Body Found.” Aired in 2013, the fake documentary was so convincing that the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) released a statement saying that there is zero proof that mermaids are real.
There are lots of reasons why mermaids (at least in the human upper body, fish lower body sense) can’t exist. For one, the human/fish evolutionary branches are so far apart, it’s impossible to imagine where in time a human and fish crossed. In that same line of thinking, how would mer-people reproduce? They’re a mix of a live-birth mammal and external fertilization fish. That match doesn’t exist anywhere else in biology. The last reason why mermaids most likely don’t exist is there’s simply no evidence. No fossils, no washed-up bodies. Nothing. That’s probably a good thing, considering if Ariel was real, she’d most likely look like this (Source Buzzfeed):