Sorry to break it to you, but Ariel of The Little Mermaid is a lie. Ariel and her fishtailed brethren under the sea are a peaceful breed, letting ships carrying humans pass by without harm. And they bear little resemblance to the mermaid legends that originated in civilizations from Ancient Assyria to Japan. Essentially, Ariel has been defanged, Disney-fied, and estranged from tales of creatures whose sole purpose was luring humans into watery deaths.
The mermaids in Siren, Freeform’s gripping and original new drama that airs tonight at 8 p.m., on the other hand, are a closer approximation to the mysterious creatures that sailors once swore they saw beneath Atlantic ocean waves. They’re fanged and highly intelligent creatures with a predatory streak, and they’re swimming under your boogie board. Be careful.
Siren is set in a coastal town in Washington called Bristol Cove, a place that has mermaids (or the rumor of mermaids) embedded in its very formation. According to lore, the town’s founder fell in love with a mermaid. For most inhabitants of Bristol Cove, mermaids are just a folk tale. But in the first episode, a fishing expedition accidentally drags up a mermaid — and the fishermen becoming involved in conspiracy to cover-up the creatures' existence. Meanwhile, the mermaid Ryn, played by the magnificent Eline Powell (who was born to play a itinerant mermaid), goes on land to search for her missing mer-sister.
So, how many aspects of the mysterious, seductive, and extremely dangerous creatures of Siren are actually culled from legend? Far more than Disney's mermaids, that’s for sure. The creatures of Siren capture what makes mermaids such captivating figures: They are equal parts alluring and equal parts dangerous. They are, for the most part, not on our side.
The earliest known mermaid figure is the ancient Syrian fertility goddess Atargatis, whose legend dates back to 1000 BC. Atargatis was a beautiful goddess who fell in love with a mortal, who died after being unable to sustain her divine love-making (seriously). So great was her grief that she threw herself into a lake, and grew a fish tail instead of legs.
Mermaids had an even more significant presence in Greek mythology. The 50 nereids, daughters of a powerful Titan, swam around the Aegean and occasionally came on land to breed with humans or help sailors' ships pass through storms. You might be familiar with some Nereids already — Triton, the King of the Sea and father of Ariel in The Little Mermaid, was the son of Nereid, as was the warrior Achilles.
Then, there were the Sirens, who make their famous appearance in Homer’s Odyssey. Even if the show's name claims otherwise, the mermaids in Siren physically resemble nereids more than they do actual Sirens of Greek mythology. Unlike the Nereids, who only occasionally got involved with human life, the Sirens were entirely consumed with luring humans to their deaths. Yet the Sirens had the legs and wings of a bird — not the tail of the fish. Sirens perched on rocks waited for ships to sail by, so they could sing their legendary song. Sailors would become entranced by their voices, and drown in the rough waters near the sirens’ rocks. Only Odysseus’ ship was able sail safely past the Sirens. Odysseus plugged his sailors’ ears, and strapped himself to the mast so he could hear their song without leaping into the water to his death.
Mermaid legends weren’t limited to the Mediterranean region, of course. Where there was water, there were mermaid legends. Maps created during the Middle Ages, for example, were riddled with warnings about where mermaids were lurking. Olaus Magnus, a prolific 16th century cartographer, expressly warned that if sailors of Scandinavia reel in a mermaid or merman and “do not presently let them go,” then “such a cruel tempest will arise, and such a horrid lamentation of that sort of men comes with it, and of some other monsters joining with them, that you would think the sky should fall.”
During their Atlantic crossings, Christopher Columbus, Henry Hudson, and John Smith all reported seeing mermaids. In a journal from 1608, Hudson described the figure matter-of-factly: “From the navel upward, her back and breasts were like a woman's, her body as big as one of us; her skin very white, with long black hair hanging down her back. When the mermaid finally went down under the waves, her tail was observed, which was like that of a porpoise and speckled like a mackerel.” Columbus was not as entranced by his own mermaid sighting. Apparently, the three mermaids he saw weren’t as pretty as he’d expected. And of course they weren’t. Columbus was looking at manatees, not mermaids — a common mix-up in that time.
Then, there are mermaids whose legends are entirely different than Greek nereids and Sirens, or the mistaken manatees of the Age of Discovery. Like the Selkies, found off the coast of Scotland, who took the form as seals in the water and were known to abandon their human husbands after years on land. Or Iara, the green-eyed, brown-skinned Brazilian goddess responsible for downing many ships in the Amazon river. The female merrows of Ireland were peaceful creatures, but their green-haired male counterparts were extremely cruel — so cruel that female merrows often took to marrying human men instead, and having babies with webbed feet. The Rusalka of Russia have the most tragic origin story of all — Rusalka were all human girls who became mermaids after dying violent deaths, usually by drowning.
The Ningyo of Japan are something else entirely. Typically, the Ningyo had reptilian or ape-like heads, attached to the body of a fish. Their mouths were full of fangs – just like the mermaids of Siren. And they possessed magical abilities, from shape-shifting to crying actual pearls. As legend goes, if a person consumed the flesh of a Ningyo, he or she would have eternal life and youth. But doing so would bring plague and pestilence upon his community.
What these disparate legends have in common is that the real action begins once humans collide with mermaids, creatures who use their alluring familiarity to mask what makes them utterly foreign. Siren is sure to introduce its own spin on the mermaid legend, and we can't wait to find out more.
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