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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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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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Mythical Yetis are Actually Bears, According to DNA Analysis
Walkabout Films via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Walkabout Films via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1959, the U.S. government advised hunters that they were permitted to kill a Yeti only in self-defense. The decree was prompted by findings from earlier expeditions—huge footprints, hides, and bones from a large, unidentified creature native to the Himalayas—which explorers thought could be from the mythical hominid that local Sherpas called the Yeti, or "wild man."

But now, researchers at the State University of New York in Buffalo and their colleagues have concluded that folklore about abominable snowmen in the Himalayas was just that. After testing evidence collected from the Tibetan Plateau and from museum collections, they found the biological root of the Yeti legends to be local bears.

In the new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers analyzed 24 hair, bone, tooth, skin, and scat samples. Nine of the samples were purported to be from Yetis, while the rest were gathered recently from the Tibetan brown bear, Himalayan brown bear, and Himalayan black bear. The team assembled complete mitochondrial genomes for the Himalayan brown bear and black bear for the first time, then analyzed and compared all of the samples. Of the nine allegedly from Yetis, eight were actually from Asian bears. One was from a dog.

While these particular findings suggest that the Yeti stories probably emerged from humans' encounters with bears, the study provides valuable genetic data that could shed light on how the bears evolved. The mitochondrial genomes—which are based on the genetic information passed down only through females—could reveal when the rare subspecies and more common bear species last shared a maternal ancestor, and how genetically dissimilar they are today, Science notes.

The genomic analysis showed that Tibetan brown bears share a close ancestry with North American and Eurasian brown bears. But the Himalayan brown bears branched off from their common ancestral tree about 650,000 years ago, when glaciers expanded over the Tibetan Plateau—which may have separated those bears from the larger gene pool. Understanding how the subspecies evolved could illuminate the environmental history of the region, said Charlotte Lindqvist, an associate professor of biological sciences at SUNY Buffalo and the study's lead scientist, in a statement. The genetic data may assist conservation of these vulnerable and endangered animals.

Lindqvist said that their technique could also be a useful tool for exploring the roots of folklore about large cryptids—as well as real beasts.

"Our findings strongly suggest that the biological underpinnings of the Yeti legend can be found in local bears," she said. "Our study demonstrates that genetics should be able to unravel other, similar mysteries."

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7 Myths About Bats
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iStock

Though in China bats are said to bring good luck, and ancient Egyptians believed they could cure an array of diseases, our feelings about bats are often negative. Perhaps these rumors started because bats are so mysterious—with their nocturnal flying and dank, dark habitats, they’re hard to study! But the world’s only flying mammal isn’t nearly as bad as our fears make it out to be. Keep reading for seven misconceptions, as well as explanations of what really goes on in the batcave.

1. BATS ARE TOTALLY BLIND.

Though we love to talk about things being "blind as a bat," bigger bats can see up to three times better than humans, according to Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation. Bat vision varies across species, but none are actually blind. In addition to working peepers, bats also use echolocation (emitting sound to navigate)—which means they probably have a better idea of where they’re going than many of us.

2. BATS ARE FLYING RATS.

Bats belong to the order Chiroptera, not Rodentia; they’re actually more closely related to primates than they are to rodents. They also don’t share behavior with rodents. For example, bats don’t chew on wood, metal, or plastic, and usually aren’t nuisances. In fact, bats eat pests, which brings us to ...

3. BATS ARE ANNOYING PESTS.

Bat flying in a forest at night
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Quite the opposite! According to National Geographic, bats can eat up to a thousand insects in an evening. Their bug-eating prowess is so notable it carries economic importance. A recent study showed that bats provide “nontoxic pest-control services totalling $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year”! Bats also pollinate plants and distribute seeds, and their droppings—called guano—are used as fertilizer.

4. BATS WANT TO DRINK YOUR BLOOD.

Only three of the roughly 1200 existing bat species are vampire bats, and none of them live in the United States or Canada. Vampire bats don’t even really drink blood—Mies says the feeding process is more like that of a mosquito. While mosquitos will take blood from humans, though, vampire bats primarily feed on cattle. Fun fact: a medication called draculin is currently being developed from bats’ saliva, which has unique anti-blood-clotting properties.

5. BATS WILL FLY INTO YOUR HAIR AND BUILD A NEST.

An old myth claims that bats fly into hair, get stuck, and build nests. While it’s possible this rumor started to deter young women from going out at night, bats do sometimes swoop around people’s heads. The reason isn’t because they’re shopping for a new home, however: our bodies attract insects, and bats are after their next snack. So don’t worry—your spectacular updo is safe.

6. IN FACT, BATS DON'T NEST AT ALL.

Unlike birds or rodents, bats don’t build nests. Instead, they find shelter inside existing structures. Caves, trees, walls, and ceilings are favorites, as are rafters of buildings. They don’t always hang upside down, either. According to Dr. Thomas Kunz from Boston University, bats are frequently horizontal when roosting in small crevices, not vertical.

7. BATS WILL ATTACK YOU AND GIVE YOU RABIES.

Three bats hanging upside down on a branch
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Nope. Shari Clark, president of the Florida Bat Conservancy, says that statistically bats contract rabies much less frequently than other mammals. And if they do get rabies, it manifests differently than in raccoons or foxes. Rabies-infected bats become paralyzed and can’t fly or roost. This means that as long as you stay away from bats on the ground that are behaving weirdly, you’re pretty much in the clear. Phew.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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