Mermaids have existed in the minds of men from the earliest of ancient times. Their appearances in literature and works of art throughout history and around the world are so numerous that only a handful can be mentioned here. (Find further reading below.)
The earliest known depiction of a part-fish part-human creature is Dagon, the sea god of ancient Assyria. His image is found in bas-relief at Khorsabad, he appears wearing a sacred cap topped with a fleur-de-lis and he has the body of a man and the tail of a fish. He also appears on Assyrian cylinders as a fish with the face, arms and legs of a man.
Dagon is believed to be identical to the Babylonian deity Oannes or Ea.
Click images for information and enlargements.
In early Greek and Roman art, Triton is represented as a man with the tail of a dolphin, an idea so loved by poets and artists that an entire race of dolphin-tailed men called Tritons soon appeared in literature and other works of art.
Etruscan funeral urns and sarcophagi are often found decorated with half-human half-fish creatures or sirens.
From ancient to medieval times the sirens were depicted as beautiful but terrible part-bird part-woman monsters that lured men to their watery deaths by enchanting them with their sweet singing. Later the sirens took the form of mermaids but still they were often known as demon-like creatures who tempted sailors with their songs of death.
Yet in other works, mermaids were the image of grace and beauty representing baptism by water and the soul's entrance into heaven, and sirens appeared as gentle figures symbolizing love and mourning.
In Christian art the mermaid represented the dual nature of Christ, but she was also a symbol for vanity, temptation, and evil. When she was shown holding a fish, a symbol for the soul, the image represented a Christian soul bewitched by evil.
As art became less interested in morals and more interested in aesthetic form, the mermaids and sirens became less like monsters and more like beautiful maidens. The modern mermaid appears as a lovely fish-maiden found sunning herself on the rocks, combing her long golden hair.
See also: Aquatic, Dolphins, Fairies, Fantasy, Nautical
Museum Exhibitions and Collections
An online exhibition from the American Museum of Natural History, includes images and information about water spirits such as Mami Wata, Lasiren, Sedna and Yawkyawk, also includes accounts of sightings.
View around 133 objects in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
View images in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, includes a small selection of Japanese netsuke.
Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas
An exhibit from The National Museum of African Art that explores the water spirit, Mami Wata, inlcudes images from the Fowler Museum.
View a small presentation of objects including vessels, netsuke, a lace panel, and other items.
View images in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, includes drawings, paintings, prints, netsuke, and related objects.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Includes decorative objects, sculpture, and Edvard Munch's mermaid painting.
The FeJee Mermaid Archive
Information about P.T. Barnum's FeJee mermaid, from the Lost Museum.
ArtMagick: Thematic albums featuring obscure 19th century images of mermaids, sirens, nymphs, and naiads.
Mer & Waterfolk
Mer & Waterfolk II
Daughters of the Sea
NYPL: Mermaids and Mermen
A collection of images in the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery.
Narrative Identity: Artwork and Representation
Collection of illustrations, cartoons, comics, and book covers from Wellesley College, also includes the Mermaid Myth.
Water in Art: Mermaids and Sirens
An overview of the mystery associated with women and water with a selection of paintings by John William Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones, part of a series that also includes water symbols, baths, bathers and other water related topics.
Medieval Bestiary: Mermaid Gallery
Small collection of medieval paintings and sculptures with descriptions.
The Getty: Sirens
View images related to sirens in the online collections of the Getty Museum. See also: Applique with Scylla
View objects from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, includes tools and equipment, vessels, sculpture, and other items.
Medieval Bestiary : Siren Gallery
A collection of images from the Middle Ages.
A selection of images showing diverse representations including works by John William Waterhouse, Armand Point, Arnold Bocklin, Sir Edward John Poynter and others.
References & Suggested Reading
Bond, Francis. Wood Carvings in English Churches. London: Oxford University Press, 1910.
Gosse, Philip Henry. Assyria, Her Manners and Customs, Arts and Arms. London: Samuel Bently and Co., 1852.
Harrison, Jane Ellen. Myths of the Odyssey in Art and Literature. London: Rivingtons, 1882.
O., Seemann. Bianchi, G. H., ed.The Mythology of Greece and
Rome, With Special Reference to its Use in Art. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1877.
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