Legends of mermaids center around a couple of key features. The first, obviously, is that they are aquatic humans. In some cultures, that means that mermaids have fish tails and humanoid upper bodies. In other cultures, they might have fully human figures but also scales and fins or fish-like mouths.
The second key feature is their magical connection to the sea. They are usually capable of controlling the water in some way (note our article on the use of mermaids as ship figureheads).
These features connect them to a much wider, more diverse type of mythological character: the water spirit. Found in virtually every culture, the water spirits are sometimes kind, sometimes mischievous, sometimes downright evil. They may be descended from gods or be gods themselves. The world of water spirits contains all of this and more, and a brief summary of them will reveal their deep connection to mermaids.
Western, Central, and South African cultures all have stories of Mami Wata, as do members of the African diaspora. This divine being, almost always feminine, has a snake as her familiar.
She is revered, and feared, as a kidnapper of sailors. But once she has captured you, there isn’t much need to fear. Most stories tell of her taking her captives to a paradise under her control. If you should wander away from this place, you will return to your normal life — finding yourself becoming more physically attractive, wealthier, and more successful.
Depictions of Mami Wata sometimes give her the lower body of a fish. Remind you of any other creature you’ve heard about?
To this day, there is a thriving priesthood devoted to Mami Wata in Ghana, Togo, and Benin.
We now turn to ancient Greece. Their stories of water nymphs abound, but we will take a close look at the Nereids, the 50 daughters of Nereus. They spent their time in the Aegean Sea, where their father had a golden underwater palace that they leisured in.
The Nereids were renowned for their beauty and singing voices. Unlike many mermaid tales, the Nereids were not an ominous sign. To the contrary, they embodied the most agreeable parts of the ocean — serene, calm, and awe inspiring.
When they were not luxuriating in their father’s palace, they accompanied the sea god Poseidon as part of his entourage, tasked with carrying his trident.
In contemporary Greek culture, the word Nereid also refers to tales of mermaids — making clear the relationship between these two water spirits.
Their cousins the Naiads were nymphs who lived in fountains, springs, and creeks. And their cousins the Sirens, as we’ve talked about before, also directly led to mermaid tales.
The Adaro haunts the waters around the Solomon Islands. They are the evil parts of our souls that linger after death, going to the ocean where they grow mermaid-like bodies — with webbed feet, a dorsal fin, a spear growing out of the head, and gills behind the ears.
These merman creatures are a great danger to fishermen. Apparently, the Adaro will attack them by throwing poisonous fish. But don’t feel safe just because you stay out of the water. The Adaro can also travel using rainbows and waterspouts.
These water spirits are a strange combination of ghosts and mermen. They help remind us of the dual nature that water has played for humanity: bringer and taker of life. The depths of the ocean hold many wonderful sights, it’s true, but it also serves as humanity’s largest grave.
Moving to Japan, we have the water spirit with some of the most charming and scary details yet. Meet the Kappa, a water spirit with a small, human body made complete with a turtle shell, green skin, webbed hands and feet, and a bowl-like depression in the head that holds water. It is said that if this bowl is emptied, the kappa is defeated.
A warm weather lover, the kappa populates all bodies of water during the summer months. It loves to sumo wrestle and attack humans. Beware if you encounter one, they are said to have a finishing move that rivals anything you’ve seen in Mortal Kombat — they remove human organs through the anus.
But there are a couple ways to protect yourself from the kappa. The first is to offer its favorite meal: cucumber. To this day many Japanese festivals include offerings of the vegetable to placate the water spirit. The other defense tactic includes the bowl of water on their head. While kappa love to terrorize humans, they are sticklers for politeness. If you bow to them, they will never refuse to bow back — which always ends up spilling the water out of their bowl.
Slavic paganism was able to thrive for much longer than most European forms of paganism. Their distance from Rome and fierce defense of the old ways protected their ancient religious practices for centuries longer than most. That survival has led to a rich tradition of folklore, including the rusalki.
The rusalki began their lives in folklore as beloved water spirits, feminine deities who emerged from the waters in springtime to bring the blessings of rain and dew to the crops. Their presence was an important part of survival.
But by the 1800’s, Slavic culture began to change. Old pagan stories were twisted by a rising, Christian dominated literature, and the rusalki became the stuff of horror. In these retellings, the rusalki were ghost-like creatures that arose from the untimely, watery deaths of women. Whether from suicide or murder, these women would have to live out their appointed time on earth as rusalki.
A rusalka would have unmatched beauty and incredible singing voices (I feel like I’ve heard that before), and these traits would lure young men to them. Once in their grasp, a rusalka would drown the man — and in some instances, tickle them to death.
The Mermaid’s Role in Water Spirits
This quick run through of some of the most colorful members of the water spirit world shows us that mermaids have a lot of company. There are also clear similarities that we find along the way.
When we start to think of mermaids in the broader context of water spirits, we see that there are often connections with danger, lust, life-giving, and song. Oh, also male water spirits are always evil. Hopefully this can begin your own fascinating research into the greater world of water spirits.