By many accounts, the Mermaid made her first mythological appearance in Assyria in 1000 BC. There, the goddess Atargatis—mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis—fell in love with a mortal shepherd and by some unfortunate set of circumstances, killed him.
Ashamed by what she had done, Atargatis thought to hide and jumped into a lake with the intent of turning herself into a fish. An underestimation of her divine beauty, however, made an all-fish transformation out of the question. With a second attempt, she successfully became a half-fish: human on the top and fish on the bottom. Perhaps not optimum, but it would do. The magic trick was impressive enough to secure her place in Syrian mythology where she was thereafter worshiped as The Great Mother Goddess of Fertility, Earth, and Water.
When Syrian merchants and slaves brought the legend of Atargatis to ancient Greece, she became known as Derketo. It was Derketo who was thought to have been the inspiration behind the goddess Aphrodite, who in turn, was the inspiration for the Roman goddess Venus. And though initially described as half-human, half-bird, later depictions of Homer’s seductive Sirens were themselves shown to be ladies of the mermaid variety!
In symbolic terms the Mermaid is an agent of transformation. She calls men to abandon themselves to her undersea world, to be reborn, or to be annihilated; to drink anew, or to drown. She lives in water—a powerful symbol of the unknown—where she at times entices, and at times invokes fear.
She is often depicted holding a comb and mirror, symbols of pride and vanity. And she is a decorative embellishment on many a Medieval church.
In British folklore she is ominous, and foretells disaster.
In Japanese folklore, to eat her flesh would make you immortal.
In Ireland she might simply be a member of your family!
In 1493, Christopher Columbus reported seeing three mermaids (which were most likely manatees) rise out of the sea. He was near enough to them to make the aesthetic observation that they were less attractive in person than they were in pictures. (Really? I guess when you’ve been on a boat for a long time…)
From countless stories and works of art, to ship figureheads and automobile hood ornaments, the mermaid is a timeless symbol of fertility, seduction, and transformation. The embodiment of the conscious and the unconscious—she is WOMAN as the great symbol of life!
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