If you only considered Disney's Ariel and the glamorous mermaids of Instagram, you might think that mermaids are cool — and given what most people know about mermaids, they are. A whimsical, watery world where legs aren't required and your hair is always perfect sounds awesome. But here's the thing: The actual mermaids of myth and legend were not cool. A lot of the time, they were kind of evil.
According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the first half-fish and half-human creature to appear in recorded history was the Babylonian god Oannes, but it wasn't until the sirens in The Odyssey that mermaids were solidified as their own mythical creature. In Homer's epic poem, the sirens are actually described as half-female, half-bird, but for whatever reason, ancient and contemporary illustrations depict them as fish-female hybrids. Since these sirens have served as the inspiration for many subsequent mermaids, we're going to go ahead and call them mermaids. And like we said, they were mean: The sirens lured Odysseus and his fellow sailors toward their island (and rocky shores) with their melodious singing in the hopes that they would crash and end up stranded.
Aside from ancient Greece, mermaids have appeared in maritime folklore around the world. The havfine of Norway and ceasg of Scotland, to name two regional variations of these ill-intentioned creatures, were considered dangerous to sailors. Seeing a mermaid while on a voyage was said to be a terrible omen — she could create a storm out of thin air or even ensnare the ship's men in a web of riddles.
To be fair, the mermaids in many of these stories sought revenge, not total chaos. Take the Russian legend of Rusalka: She only became a mermaid once she was drowned to death — after that, the only comfort she found was in luring other men to their own demise. Again, she wasn't exactly nice, but her backstory earns her a little sympathy. As far as contemporary popular culture goes, we'd say the most accurate depictions (in terms of staying true to the ancient folklore) are the mermaids in Peter Pan (they were pretty mean) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (they were terrifying).
That said, there are some mermaid-like creatures who are considered kind, like the selkies of Celtic lore. These sympathetic humanoids were believed to be seals that could transform into (usually very attractive) people. And if you ask us, selkies are far more deserving of a commemorative Frappucino than mermaids are.
So, don't believe the sugar-coated stories about mermaids you heard when you were a kid. And maybe question those seemingly benign pictures of ombré "mermaid" toast, too.