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Illustration by Chloe Effron
Illustration by Chloe Effron

9 Mermaid Legends From Around the World

Illustration by Chloe Effron
Illustration by Chloe Effron

Not all mermaids are the shimmering versions of femininity often seen in pop culture. In fact, those mermaids—which seem to be a combination of the Melusine and Greek mythology—barely skim the surface of this fish-human legend. Many countries and culture have their own versions of mermaids, from a snake water goddess to a fish with a monkey mouth. Some are benevolent, some ambivalent, and many are openly hostile to the poor humans who cross their paths.

1. JAPAN // NINGYO

Vastly different than the Western version of a beautiful mermaid, this monster found in Japanese folklore is described as a giant fish with a human face and a monkey's mouth, and sometimes even horns and fangs. In a serious conflict of interest, anyone who eats the Ningyo will have eternal youth and beauty—but catching one often brings terrible storms and misfortune to entire villages.

2. SCOTLAND AND ORKNEY ISLANDS // SELKIE

Selkies are gentle creatures who live their lives as seals while in the water and shed their skin to become human on land, but they're frequently equated with mermaids because in Gaelic stories they are associated with maighdeann-mhara, or "maid of the sea." Selkie legends usually end in tragedy; the folktales almost inevitably feature a selkie's sealskin getting stolen and the selkie getting married and having children with a human, only to later find its old sealskin and get called back to the sea.

3. AFRICA // MAMI WATA

The "water spirit" Mami Wata is sometimes described as a mermaid, sometimes as a snake charmer, and occasionally as a combination of both. Found in many African folk stories, the legend of Mami Wata made its way to the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade. Although she can sometimes take human form, she is never fully human. She is closely associated with healing, fertility, and sex.

4. BRAZIL // IARA

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The idea of mermaids in Brazil comes from the tale of Iara, the "Lady of the Waters." Iara was originally known as a water snake, but through folklore became an immortal woman with green eyes and brown skin who was known lure sailors to her underwater palace, where they became her lovers. Iara is blamed for many accidents in the Amazon, especially those where men disappear.

5. NEW ZEALAND // MARAKIHAU

Most tales of mermaids are passed down through spoken tales and pictures—and in New Zealand's Maori folklore, they are also seen in carvings. A little more intense than a mermaid, the Marakihau is a taniwha (guardian) of the sea. It has a human head and the body of a very long fish, as well as a long, tubular tongue that is often blamed for destroying canoes and swallowing large quantities of fish.

6. FRANCE // MELUSINE

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A feminine spirit found in many medieval European folk stories, the Melusine has a serpentine tail and occasionally sports wings. France, Germany, Luxembourg and Albania all have varying tales of Melusine, but the general legend describes her as a willful maiden who attempts revenge on her father on behalf of her mother, only to be punished by her mother with a serpent's tail. Melusine is especially connected with France as the royal French house of Lusignan claimed to be decedents of her. Images of this sea fairy can be seen over the world—especially on the coffee cups of Starbucks, which has a Melusine-like mermaid as its logo.

7. IRELAND // MERROW

A magical cap called a cohuleen druith enables merrows to live under the water. Female merrows, with their long green hair, are similar to traditional sirens—the beautiful, half-human fish of mythology. Male merrows, however, are considered hideous and frightening, more fish than man. And they're cruel—so cruel that merrow women were said to often have relationships with human men. Their offspring might have scales and webbing between their fingers. Merrows frequently become tired of the land and try to find a way to return to the sea—with or without their human family.

8. RUSSIA // RUSALKA

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Often translated as “mermaid,” these water nymphs of Slavic myth were originally considered benevolent because they came out of the water in the spring to water crops. But the mythology also has a darker side: Rusalka are thought to be the spirits of girls who died violently, and thus they frequently lure men and children to their own watery deaths. Their translucent skin gives them a ghost-like appearance, and they'll sometimes use their long hair to trap and entangle their victims.

9. NORWAY AND ORKNEY ISLANDS // FINFOLK

Probably the least like a traditional version of a mermaid, finfolk are shape-shifters of the sea. Considered nomads who can alternate between living on land and at their ancestral home—Finfolkaheem—finfolk tend to have an antagonistic relationship with humans. They often abduct humans for their spouses, making them more servant than partner. Finfolk also have an affinity for silver, and one might be able to escape their grasp by throwing a silver coin their way.

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7 Proposed Explanations for the Loch Ness Monster
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It was 85 years ago, on May 2, 1933, that Scotland's Inverness Courier published a report about a local couple swearing they saw “an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface” of Loch Ness. It didn't take long for word to spread. Does a mysterious beast really patrol one of Scotland’s deepest lakes? Or do any of these less fanciful explanations hold water? Is the Loch Ness Monster real? You be the judge.

1. LAKE STURGEONS

Photo of a lake sturgeon
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Many Nessie witnesses have mentioned large, crocodile-like scutes (hardened plates) sitting atop the spine of the creature in question. At least one native fish matches that description perfectly: Sturgeons can weigh several hundred pounds and have ridged backs, which make them look almost reptilian.

2. SURFACING TREES

A photo of a tree emerging from a body of water
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When a mighty Scottish pine dies and flops into the loch, it quickly becomes water-logged and sinks. While submerged, botanical chemicals start trapping tiny bubbles. Eventually, enough of these are gathered to propel the log upward as deep pressures begin altering its shape. These bubbles finally start dissipating after a while, but their momentum allows the deformed wood to briefly surface before returning downwards to its watery grave. Such sudden bursts of arboreal buoyancy could easily be misinterpreted as huge animals coming up for air.

3. INDIGENOUS EELS

Some amazing eels live in and near the British Isles. For example, there’s the European eel, an endangered species that spawns after migrating all the way to the Caribbean. And while we’re on the subject, here’s one fish you don’t wanna mess with:

Conger eels can exceed 10 feet in length and sometimes take gruesome bites out of unsuspecting divers. Though they’re saltwater critters, two 7-foot specimens were found lying on a Loch Ness beach in 2001. However, these animals may have been deliberately planted there to generate monster-related interest.

4. MOUNTAINOUS REFLECTIONS

Mountains reflect a monster-like image into the water below
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On choppy days, lakes regularly distort the reflections of various objects (hills, trees, etc.) upon their surfaces. Looming over Loch Ness are several mountains which face similar treatment.

5. BIRD WAKES

When you’re looking at a floating object from some distance away, ascertaining its size can be difficult. Treading waterfowl can leave disproportionately large wakes, which seemingly come out of nowhere to onlookers who can’t see the actual avian.

6. SEISMIC ACTIVITY

A photo of a bubble in the water, caused by the tremor produced by a faultline
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A fault line rests directly beneath Loch Ness, producing small tremors that release vast columns of bubbles. Their violent, unexpected emergence might very well have spawned the area’s creature legends.

7. SWIMMING ELEPHANTS

A swimming elephant raises its trunk out of the water
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Could Nessie’s head really be a trunk? Despite their bulk, elephants are talented swimmers who are capable of paddling along for hours on end. When it’s time to take a few laps, their hose noses become top-notch snorkels, periodically jetting above the surface for air. According to paleontologist Neil Clark, this behavior might help explain some of Loch Ness’s early monster sightings during the 1930s. Back then, traveling circuses were a common sight throughout northern Scotland. Between shows, these groups were known to occasionally let their performing elephants play around in nearby lakes. Perhaps, Clark argues, a few peeping locals mistook these bathing behemoths for aquatic monsters.

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History
The Dubious Legend of Virgil's Pet Fly
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock

Here at Mental Floss, we come across a lot of "facts" that, upon further examination, don’t hold up. Like, did Benjamin Franklin invent the concept of Daylight Saving Time? Not really. (Several ancient cultures seasonally adjusted their clocks, and Franklin only jokingly pondered having people wake up earlier. The modern version was proposed in 1895 by George Hudson, an entomologist who wanted extra daylight so he could collect more insects.) Do sea cucumbers eat through their anuses? Some, but not all. (One species, P. californicus, uses its backdoor as a second mouth.)

Other facts have been trickier to debunk because the historical record was being snarky or sarcastic: Was Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is likely named, a measly pickle merchant? (Ralph Waldo Emerson said so, but he was probably being snide.) Did people in 16th century France wipe their butts with geese? (A quotation from François Rabelais's comic series of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel has been confused as evidence, but Rabelais was a bawdy satirist.)

Yet one of our favorite dubious fun facts—a Trojan Horse that has snuck into a handful of trivia books—concerns Virgil, the Roman poet and author of the Aeneid. The story goes that Virgil had a pet housefly, and when the insect died, Virgil spent 800,000 sesterces—nearly all of his net worth—for an extravagant funeral. Celebrities swarmed the poet’s home. Professional mourners wailed. An orchestra performed a lament. Virgil drafted verses to celebrate the fly’s memory. After the service, the bug’s body was ceremoniously deposited in a mausoleum the poet had built on his estate.

Virgil wasn’t losing it: It was all a scheme to keep the government’s fingers off his land. At the time (and this part is true), Rome was seizing private property and awarding it to war veterans. According to legend, Virgil knew the government couldn’t touch his property if his estate contained a tomb, so he quickly built a mausoleum, found an arthropod occupant, and rescued his house.

It’s a great story! It’s also unsubstantiated. None of Virgil’s contemporaries mention the poet throwing a lavish funeral—especially one for a housefly. The story probably has roots in an old poem that’s been (incorrectly) attributed to the poet called "The Culex." In the poem, a fly (or, depending on your translation, a spider or gnat) wakes up a man just as a snake is lurking nearby. The man kills both the insect and serpent, but soon regrets killing his winged protector. He builds the bug a marble headstone with this epitaph:

O Tiny gnat, the keeper of the flocks
Doth pay to thee, deserving such a thing
The duty of a ceremonial tomb
In payment for the gift of life to him.

Most scholars don’t believe that Virgil wrote "The Culex." But as Sara P. Muskat, a research assistant at the University of Pittsburgh during the 1930s, wrote in a short essay, Virgil was regularly the subject of this kind of mythmaking. Shortly after his death, people in his hometown of Naples alleged he was the founder of the city. (He wasn’t.) Others claimed he had been the city’s governor. (He hadn’t.) By the Middle Ages, Virgil was depicted as a magician or dark wizard who could communicate with the dead. (He couldn't.)

“There is then no evidence, ancient or medieval, that I can find to support the story that Vergil had a pet fly and gave it an elaborate funeral,” Muskat writes. “It seems quite inconsistent with Vergil’s usual behavior, and may indicate that the period of myth-making about Vergil has not yet closed.”

Like our friendly imaginary fly, perhaps it’s time for this factoid to bite the dust, too.

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