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Mermaids are water-based creatures traditionally imagined as having a top half indistinguisable from humans and a fish-like lower half, usually in the form of one tail with caudal fin at the end. There are many variations, though, which are largely of recent nature, and there is anride amount of overlap with other aquatic creatures, such as water monsters and sirens. Mermaids are predominantly thought of as female and male ones tend to be given the designation of "mermen", or the creatures are degendered with terms like "merfolk" or "merperson". The nature attributed to mermaids ranges from murderous, for either entertainment or food, to saviorhood of children and sailors.
The modern word "mermaid" has its roots in the first half of the 14th century as "mermayde", prior to which the creature was known as a merewif or meremenn. The recurring "mer" portion means "sea" or more generally "large body of water", and words like it can be found in many European countries. The suggested Proto-Indo-European word is therefore "móri".
Mermaids are regularly conflated with sirens, such that some European languages do not differentiate between the two and call both a variation of "siren". Modern day Greek does differentiate, using "σειρήνα" ("seirína") for sirens and "γοργόνα" ("gorgóna") for mermaids. Meanwhile, "γοργόνα" is the word used both for mermaids and gorgons.
Stories featuring seafolk have started playing with mermaid variations as to the shape and qualities of the tail since the second half of the 20th century. Of these, the only one with a name of its own are the octopus-based seafolk, which are named "cecaelias" or "cilophytes". These names originate from a story featuring such a creature named "Cilia" in issue #16 of the Vampirella comic magazine, released in March of 1972. The creature is named Cilia and introduces herself as a cilophyte. "Cecealia" is presumed to be a corruption of "Cilia". Arguably this makes it a "meaningless" word, but "cilia" itself seems to be a name picked in reference to microscopic hairlike structures within or on mobile lifeforms. It is unclear what "cilophyte" is supposed to mean. "-Phyte" comes from Ancient Greek "φύειν" ("phuein", "to grow"/"to generate") through "φυτόν" ("phuton", "plant"/"growth"/"descendent") and probably means "growth" in context. The "cilo-" bit is a mystery, though it is possible to be a typo for "cilio-", which is the same word as "cilia". Another theory is that it's an adaption of "Scylla". The Scylla is an Ancient Greek monster who both is associated with tentacles and likely inspired the two-tailed mermaid; Cilia's tentacles are divided in two tails too. As such, it's possible the author aimed for a name essentially meaning "growth like Scylla's".
Before the history of mermaids can be explored, it is well to understand that there are two meanings to the word, one indicating a creature — with or without fish tail — and the other a shape. Mermaids as half fish and half human creatures are part of a global network of predominantly female water entities, such as morgens, nixies, sirens, selkies, kelpies, ceasgs, rusalkas, xanas, and a huge collection of water spirits in Ancient Greek mythology among which the naiads — and that's keeping it to European variants only. Most of them are generally imagined as indistinguishable from a human, or at least when they interact with them. As such, artists sometimes take conscious liberties to emphasize the water aspect by giving these creatures fish parts. Even sirens, who are defined by bird parts, have been regularly given fish parts instead for well over a millennium now. Possibly coincidence but equally as intriguing, fish~bird fluidity occurred earlier with the Apkallū too. Whether the half-fish shape makes water spirits that aren't mermaids in those instances mermaids is a matter of perspective. To complicate the situation, there's also some overlap between mermaids and snake-human hybrid creatures: lamias and nāgas, who have a snake-like lower body, as well as gorgons, who have snake hair. The overlap is best seen in the figures of Melusine, who depending on the version of the story is either a lamia or a mermaid, and Euryale, whose name could mean both "wide-stepping" and "she of the wide briny sea". Additionally, mermaids are the creatures most affected by the development of elementals in European creature lore. Many stories assign water elemental traits to mermaids, such as the lack of age and soul and the birth from and death to water.
European mermaids and European-inspired mermaids trace their origin through a complex network of events to the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East and, in short, have in the spotlight Enki, also known as Ea, a Fish God, Dagon, also a Fish God, the aforementioned Apkallū, seven sages that brought civilization, crafts, and art to humanity, and Adapa or Uanna, the first of the Apkallū and first creation of Enki. As far as written evidence goes, Enki goes back at least to the third millennium BCE, showing up in legal codes created by Urukagina, a 24th century BCE king of Lagash, which is located in what now is Iraq, and in the 2500-2250 BCE Ebla tablets found in Ebla, which is situated in modern-day Syria. Enki is a god of all forms and functions of water, fertility, civilization, and the creation of humankind is attributed to him in several myths, though often in cooperation with his mother Nammu. His symbols include reeds, the turtle, the goat, and fishes, and the latter two were fused during his worship into the capricorn that would later be adopted into the mythology of Ancient Greece. Dagon is similar to Enki, being a fertility god associated with fish and grain, and also originates in the third millennium BCE. Early written material on this god have been found in Mari, these days located in Syria, and have been dated to about the 24th century BCE. The Apkallū, who are associated with Eridu, located in current times in Iraq, are first mentioned in tablet I of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The epic is thought to be from around 2100 BCE, but the oldest surviving text featuring the Apkallū or their scene was written down at some point between the 13th to the 10th centuries BCE. As messengers of Enki, they stayed with humankind to each advise a king and have children, generations passing until the "intent" of the Apkallū had become part of humankind. Adapa, while one of the Apkallū, probably has origins outside their context and may be a separate entity fused in with Uanna at some point. All nine of these entities were originally depicted as humans, but time gave them more flavored appearances. Mainly, they were depicted as men wearing fish suits or, presumably and more specifically, carp suits, with the head of the fish as hat and the body as cloak of which the tail reaches to the ground. The earliest depiction of any of them in mermaid format is a relief found in Tell Halaf in Syria and dated to the 10th-9th century BCE. Given the For the Apkallū goes that they were also occasionally depicted as winged men or winged men with bird heads.
It should be said that these early depictions of mermen feature the creatures as having a 90° angle between human part and fish part rather than the 180° angle that is the modern depiction. The 90° angle depiction would be the dominant one for European mermaids and pre-mermaids until well into the Middle Ages. Of equal importance is that, while the form of merfolk goes back millennia, its recurrence does not correspond to a species for a long time. Mermaids as species aren't a thing until around 700 CE when "sea maidens" are mentioned in the Liber Monstrorum.
Atargatis is a Syrian chief goddess of protection and fertility who is associated with lions, doves, and fish. She is also, and perhaps more accurately, known as Ataratheh, and by the Greeks is also given the name Derketo. The earliest mentions of her in writing are the Lydiaca by Xanthus and the Persica by Ctesias. Both men are from the 5th century BCE and both their works only survive in fragments; it is through references to their works by later writers that the larger parts of their texts remain somewhat preserved. Mnaseas claims to cite Xanthus on a story that Atargatis, as a human, had a son named Ichthys ("ἰχθύς", "fish") and that the both of them were caught by Mopsus and placed in the lake by Ashkelon to be eaten alive by the fish there as punishment for Atargatis's hybris. Ctesias is the source of Diodorus Siculus's story that Atargatis angered Astarte and out of revenge she made her fall in love with Caystrus, a priest of Astarte. A daughter, Semiramis is born from this. Ashamed, Atargatis leaves her child, kills Caystrus, and plunges herself in the lake by Ashkelon to become a fish, though the transformation does not affect either her head or her entire upper body, depending on interpretation. Note that Astarte, in several other situations, is the same goddess as Atargatis. Unlike the stories, the earliest known depictions of Atargatis as having a fishtail are not older than the 1st century BCE and most of the surviving material depicts her with legs.
Middle Eastern mythology had the necessary influence on Ancient Greek culture, and some of the most easily connected given the earlier paragraphs are the capricorn of Enki and the fish of Atargatis. The capricorn found its way into Greek mythology prior to the first century CE as Aegipan, a minor deity with a different identification every time he is mentioned, although he always is a savior of the chief god Zeus. When Typhon, the last son of Gaia, born to avenge the Titans, fought Zeus the first time, Typhon won and stole Zeus's sinews. Aegipan got them back for Zeus and was rewarded by being made a constellation. Depending on the version of the story, Aegipan is the son of Zeus, the adopted son of Pan, or the father of Pan. Sometimes, he and Pan are the same person, in which case his role during the terror of Typhon is slightly different. As described by Gaius Julius Hyginus around the year 0, instead of helping Zeus, he advises the other gods, who have fled to Egypt, to take on animal forms so Typhon won't recognize them. Pan gives himself a fish tail to escape, and either Zeus kills him by mistake prompting the other gods to demand he be honored with a constellation or Zeus finds his disguise clever and makes him a constellation as a compliment. Typhon is also related to the mythological translation of Atargatis's fish. Atargatis was said to be born from an egg that fell into the Euphrates and was pushed ashore by fish, which is either the exact same situation as for Aphrodite/Venus, possibly switched up with a shell instead of an egg, or alike insofar as that she is born from the foam created when Uranus's genitals fell down into the sea. Doves are Aphrodite's symbol too. Aphrodite's connection to fish post-birth comes in Hyginus's Astronomica, in which Venus and her son Cupid go to the Euphrates. They encounter Typhon there and quickly jump into the river, where they change into fish to escape him. This story evidently is related to the aforementioned story of Atargatis and Ichthys. Ovid mentions other versions in his Metamorphoses and Fasti, both published in 8 CE. In Book V of Metamorphoses, when all the gods become animals to escape Typhon, Venus takes the form of a fish, while in Fasti Book II, Venus and Cupid came to the Euphrates while fleeing Typhon and were carried to safety by twin fishes. Whether as gods themselves or as their saviors, the twin fishes became a constellation, Pisces. Later, during the Middle Ages, the twin fishes became associated with the twin-tailed mermaid.
Typhon himself also is part of pre-mermaid history. Technically, Typhon is two beings in one: Typhoeus, son of Gaia, and Typhon, son of Typhoeus. Hesiod wrote it so in his Theogony between 750 and 650 BCE. However, virtually all other writers treat the two as the same being, or at least don't contradict the conflation. Hesiod does not describe Typhon's appearance, but he does Typhoeus's, which is roughly a monster with many snake heads that breathe fire. This was adopted for Typhon too by other writers, but art remaining only shows him as a man with one, two or multiple snakes as legs and usually wings on his back, such as on a Chalcidian vase from around 540 BCE. This description of Typhon does not show up in writing until Bibliotheca of unknown source but dated to 0-200 CE. Typhon is married to his sister Echidna, who belongs to the drakaina class. Drakainas are a type of dragon; large snakes or woman with the lower half of a snake. The latter is Echidna's general form. One of her titles, though, is Myraena Tartesia — Eel of Tartarus. The two of them are the parents of many monsters with aquatic and storm traits as well as snake bits. Among the many of them are, according to Hesiod, the multi-headed dogs Orthros and Kerberos, the multi-headed serpent Lernaean Hydra, and the snake-tailed Chimera, while Hyginus adds, also among others, the snake-haired Gorgon and the dog-formed Scylla.
An alternative lineage given for several of these monsters is that they are children of Phorcys and Keto, respectively the gods of the dangers of the sea and the large and dangerous creatures of the sea. "Ketos", and various small variations on it, means "sea monster". They too are children of Gaia, but from a different father than Typhon and Echidna. There are no descriptions of Phorcys's appearance and his earliest depictions are Roman and from the 4th century, which feature him as a man with a fishtail and lobster-like front paws. Keto is human in form. Hesiod assigns them the Gorgons and Echidna as children, among many others, while the Bibliotheca adds Scylla. Keto herself is part of multi-faceted identity attached to the name Lamia, which means "large solitary shark". There are about three figures named Lamia that can be considered distinct, but their identities have mixed. One is the connection between Keto and Lamia, as Lamia is alternatively the mother of Scylla, which goes back to the writer Stesichorus, who lived from 640 to 555 BCE. Ptolemy Hephaestion's New History Book 6, written between 0 and 200 CE and only preserved as a summary by Photios I, also assigns her a son, Achilles, who challenged Aphrodite to a beauty contest and was changed into a shark monster for his arrogance. Another Lamia was the alternative name for Sybaris, a drakaina, as recorded by Antoninus Liberalis, who lived around 200 CE, in his Metamorphoses. And the third Lamia, mentioned in the 10th century Suda, is an Ancient Libyan queen who drew the attention of Zeus and had several children with him. Hera took them away from her and in distress Lamia began killing other children, turning her ugly and restless. This Lamia is not associated with snakes per se, but Ancient Libya was the most common home assigned to the gorgons and was said to owe its snakes to the blood of Medusa. "Lamia" also functions as a term for a class of monsters on one hand used as boogeyman to keep young children in line and on the other was considered a genuine threat as a lovely woman who would seduce men and then eat them.
The semi-fusion between lamias and mermaids that would follow during the Middle Ages, while not a completed puzzle, is visible in several comparisons that could lead to association. The female creatures that finish the group are sirens. They are first mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey from the 8th century BCE. Homer does not describe their appearance or numbers and only establishes them as female creatures that lure men with their singing. Their motives aren't given, only the fact that they sit amidst flowers and rotting corpses. From the 6th century BCE at latest, depictions of them on vases and the like paint them as birds with human heads and sometimes human arms, the latter to use instruments Homer does not mention either. For the next few centuries, sirens would be described and drawn as birdwomen of various constructions, but generally more human than the early descriptions. For instance, they can be women up to their hips and birds below that or be humans with wings on their back and the legs of birds. The bird portion, possibly taking inspiration from various Middle Eastern deities, is connected to the singing portions, because birds are known to sing. However, they are also marine beings what with sitting on an island and waiting for ships all day. As mermaids became established as a class of creatures in their own right during the Middle Ages, the singing traits of sirens were transposed onto them, though in a way that left many artists decidedly confused for centuries, resulting in more than one mermaid-siren hybrid.
Right after the sirens, Odysseus encounters the Scylla, and unlike on theirs Homer spends a lot of words on the appearance and purpose of Scylla. Scylla yelps like a puppy, has twelve feet, and has six long necks with well-toothed heads at the end to fish for large catches around her cave. Odysseus is forced to sail closeby her lair and sacrifice six men as the better option compared to losing his entire ship to Charybdis. That said, Scylla is never depicted as such a monstrosity in art and back to the 5th century CE illustrations of her show a mermaid with dogs protruding from her tail at crotch level. That same century, her figure was adopted by cultures in South Italy as a protector deity and made its way shortly after to the Etruscans of Central Italy. With them, Scylla largely lost the dogs and transformed into a mermaid sometimes with one tail but more often with two tails, usually depicted from the front with leaves around her waist and an oar in her hands ready to strike. Sometimes, she was given wings, resulting in a look not unlike the one assigned to Typhon. She is common as decoration on sarcophagi, implying her to have acquired a death-related status, possibly as a protector. Post-Homer works, in particular those of the Italian civilizations, tend to match the art in portraying Scylla more favorably and a counterpart to Medusa in relation to the virgin goddesses. For instance, in Book XIII and Book XIV of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Scylla started out as a beautiful woman who was close with the sea nymphs and had many unwanted suitors. One of them was Glaucus. Glaucus was fish-tailed sea god either due to being born the son of Nereus, another sea god regularly depicted with a fish tail, or being a fisherman transformed after eating magical herbs. In Metamorphoses, he is a former human. Scylla flees from him, so he asks Circe for help, but Circe loves him and tells him to pick her. Glaucus denies her and Circe poisons the waters in which Scylla bathes, turning her bottom half in a bundle of dogs. Scylla's attack on Odysseus's ship is explained as her revenge on Circe, whom Odysseus is on good terms with.
The Etruscan-Greek maritime disagreement recurs in the myth of Dionysus and the Tyrrhenian Pirates; the Tyrrhenians being commonly identified as the Etruscans. The myth is one of the Homeric Hymns, and probably from the 7th or 6th century BCE. In it, Dionysus is captured while asleep by pirates who intend to ask ransom for him, because he is clearly from a well-to-do family. The only one who recognizes him as a god is the helmsman Acoetes, but his colleagues don't listen to him. Dionysus awakens and chases the pirates off the ship, turning them into dolphins as they hit the water. Only Acoetes is spared and made a favored follower of Dionysus. While the story does not contain mermaids per se, depictions of the myth tend to catch the pirates mid-transformation, which often results in illustrations that without the knowledge a process is occuring seem to contain mermen.
While there are many figures that can have inspired the formation of mermaids, the strongest lines lie with the sirens and Scylla. There are two aspects to the sirens as per Homer's description: a sexual one and an educational one. In the last few centuries BCE, sirens lost the educational element, to the point that Heraclitus in his De Incredibilibus (50-200 CE) refers to them as hetairai, a type of sex worker. The Septuagint (3rd century BCE), a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, was written against this background. For unclear reasons, it six times chooses "sirens" as translation for a few words more conventionally translated as "ostrich"/"unclean bird" and "jackal", or in general animal infestations. The Septuagint formed the basis for bibles that were used by the early Christians until the arrival of the Latin Vulgate by Saint Jerome in the 380s CE. The association of sirens with inhumane evil had settled by then, though, and while the Vulgate reduces the mentions of sirens to one, it turns a mere notion of them living among the ruins into "sirens in the temples of pleasure", establishing a sexual tone not present in the original text of Isaiah 13:21–2. Jerome further comments on his choice of "siren" as translation, stating that sirens are to be seen as demons or winged dragons. This, in turn, will have inspired Isidore of Seville in the early 7th century, who writes far less respectfully of the sirens in Book XI of his Etymologiae than Heraclitus even did. He also mentions an alternative meaning to "siren" as winged serpents living in India in Book XII, which appears to be based on the commentary in the Vulgate.
The Liber Monstrorum, a creature encyclopedia, follows around 700 and is the first time a siren is described as having a fish tail, possibly in response to the snake association conjured up in earlier works along with the marine history of the sirens of Greek mythology and its fish-snake fluidity. The Liber Monstrorum also offers an alternative term for "siren": "marina puella" - "sea maiden". The first image of a siren with fish tail, then, follows in a French version of the Physiologus produced around 830 CE. The original text of the Physiologus was written in the 2nd century CE and consists of symbolism-heavy descriptions of animals, plants, and natural structures. It has been copied and adapted many times and eventually formed the basis for the larger family of bestiaries popular until the early Renaissance. Sirens have been described in it from the start, as women who are birds, sometimes specifically geese, below the waist. Curiously, this same bird-based description appears along with the image of a fish-based siren in the 830 CE version. From that moment on, uncertainty whether the siren was part-bird or part-fish hit the bestiaries. One solution sometimes used was to depict them as a group with both variations present. Another, introduced in a 12th century bestiary by Philippe de Thaon, was to combine all traits into one, creating a look consisting of a woman's upper body, a fish tail, and falcon feet at the front. It also was the one to assign weather aspects to the siren's voice, claiming that she sings when a storm comes and weeps during fine weather.
What may have helped mermaids to split from sirens is confusion between the siren and the serra. "Serra" is Latin for "sawfish", although the creature of the bestiary is more a fusion between sawfish and flying fish. Both the siren and the serra are used in sea-and-ship-based symbolism, have fish traits and flight traits, and the names ("sirena" vs "serra") are similar. A Belgian bestiary from the 11th century (Bibl. Roy 10074) is the first in which this confusion manifests. Its entry for the serra depicts a mermaid with wings on her lower arms in front of a ship of which the crew is asleep. The image is heavy in siren symbolism, but the text describes the serra and the siren has her own entry later in the book. This occurs in several later manuscripts, with "serra" coming to mean "mermaid" too as a result.
The aforementioned fish version of the siren has long come in two versions, one with a single tail and one with two tails. The two-tailed version is virtually always drawn from the front and often holds the end of her tails in her hands. The pose is highly reminiscent of the one that Scylla usually holds in Etruscan depictions and not surprisingly the earliest works of two-tailed mermaids are found in Italy or just past the borders, like the ones in the ceiling decor (~1100) of St Martin's Church in Zillis, Switzerland. Much like Scylla, the two-tailed siren has a skirt of sorts, but where it's leaves for Scylla, it is either that or skin for the two-tailed siren. The tail-holding pose also occasionally shows up in bird-fish siren depictions. Richard de Fournival's Italian bestiary from around 1290 is a particular interesting work in that it contains four pictures of highly similar sirens, but of which two two-tailed, one single-tailed, and the last one is a bird siren.
The Song of Anno is an 11th-century poem in Early Middle High German, written as an encomium to the Archbishop Anno II of Cologne, presumably by a monk at the monastery at Siegburg, which Anno founded
Another early mermaid concerns a fictionalization of a historical figure: Thessalonike, a half-sister of Alexander the Great. Historically, she was born either in 352 or 345 BCE, survived her brother when he died in 323 BCE, started a family and was eventually killed by one of her sons in 295 BCE. In the legend, she turned into a mermaid some time before Alexander's death. The earliest version of the Alexander Romance dates to the 3rd century CE, and among others tells of Alexander's search for the Fountain of Youth. The original version says only his companion found it, but later the story got adapted to specify that Alexander himself did get his hands on a flask filled with the water and brought it home. Depending on the version, Thessalonike drinks it or spills it by accident. Alexander subsequently curses her to become half woman and half fish, which she does not hold against him. Alternatively, he knowingly washes her hair with the water and when he later dies, she tries to commit suicide by jumping in the sea but is instead transformed into a mermaid. In any of the three scenarios, Thessalonike goes on to accost ships at sea with the question "Is Alexander the king alive?". If the answer is "He lives and reigns and conquers the world," she leaves the ship unharmed and in calm waters. Otherwise, she destroys ship and crew. A popular edition of this legend was penned down by Andreas Karkavitsas in 1899 in Words from the Prow. Sea Stories, in which the wrong answer can be negated by providing the correct answer before Thessalonike attacks.
The book Liber de Nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus by Paracelsus was posthumously published in 1566. In it, Paracelsus introduces elementals, a system of classification that ties all creatures from mythology and folklore to one of the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Christian attitudes towards these creatures prior was that they were demonic, but Paracelsus argued that they were only different from humans in that they didn't have God's favor, or in other words, had no soul. They had come forth from the element they represent, essentially being that element alive, and upon death would become that unliving element again, with no "self" remaining preserved. The only way elementals could get a soul was to marry a human. In 1670, the marriage portion was satirized by Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars in his Comte de Gabalis, but backfired. That publication increased the audience for elementals and brought them into popular culture. For the most part, the aspect of marriage with a human played little role in follow up works but for water elementals, which are also known as undines. In 1811, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote Undine, which reworks the legend of Melusine and the story of Sir Peter Dimringer von Staufenberg to incorporate aspects of water elementals. In short, Undine is an ill-behaved water spirit and adopted daughter of a fisherman and his wife. A knight, Sir Huldbrand von Ringstetten, marries her and by doing that gives her a soul that transforms her into a being with moral understanding. He has to promise her two things, though. The first is never to reproach her on or near water and the second is to never marry another. As it happens, there is another woman in Huldbrand's life, Bertalda, the adopted daughter of a duke who turns out to be the fisherman's biological daughter switched for Undine by the latter's trickster uncle. The three end up in a complex relationship with one another until Undine's family provokes Huldbrand's into breaking his first promise. Undine leaves him and for a time Huldbrand and Bertalda miss her. Then they decide to marry each other, ignoring the second promise, for which Undine eventually comes back and kills Huldbrand because she must, not because she wants to.
Undine was a highly popular fairytale in its time, spawning numerous adaptions across all available media during the 19th century. After that, adaptions continued to be made, but at a much slower rate. Within the story, Undine is twice called a mermaid, but more often a water spirit and her formula follows the outlines of Paracelsus's elementals rather than those of mermaids prior. The fusion of mermaid and water elemental that occurs in Undine would be of huge influence on mermaid fiction to come. That this happened to mermaids is not surprising in light of the sexist temptress role ascribed to mermaids for centuries. By making mermaids soulless and dependent on human men to be saved from eventual oblivion, the temptress goes from a creature to be feared to a creature to be caught without losing the exotic traits that make her tempting. There is the metaphor of the uninhibited girl becoming a dutiful and obedient women through attachment to a man, which is strongly present in Undine, and also the implication that marriage makes the mermaid forever in debt of her husband for making her immortal. That said, while the femme-fatale-in-distress is alluded to in 19th and 20th century fiction, it never takes its full form, which is possibly the result of the rise of feminism in the 19th century.
Easily the most known mermaid-centric story in existence is The Little Mermaid (1837) by Hans Christian Andersen. It takes strong cues from Undine, such as the soul-through-marriage, the ever-presence of the mermaid's family, and the love triangle. Unlike Undine, the mermaid of the story has no name but is simply referred to as "the little mermaid", though since Undine herself is named after her species, the difference is small.
In 1989, The Walt Disney Company released The Little Mermaid, an adaption of the Andersen tale. It placed the Ancient Greek Triton, complete with trident and golden palace, in the role of King of the Sea and father of the titular mermaid, who is named Ariel in Disney's work. Many details were altered to make the movie kinder than the fairytale, such as all the parts relating to souls and the bittersweet ending. One choice with lasting influence is the design of the witch, who is a regular mermaid in the original tale but one with an octopus-like lower body. For the movie, she is the only 'alternative mermaid' present and creatures like her are regularly referred to as sea witches since. However, Disney greatly expanded the movie's underwater diversity in additional The Little Mermaid media. The witch was given a sister in 2000 as the sequel to the 1989 movie needed a villain of its own, but prior a small army of octopus-based seafolk appeared in the 1992-1994 TV series, specifically in "Heroes" of Season 3. They are identified as octopans. The series also introduced manta ray-based seafolk in the form of Evil Manta and his son. Their species wasn't given a name, but with four episodes across all three seasons, Evil Manta was a regular presence. Lastly, a series of four The Little Mermaid comics were published in 1992. The first two, brought out in February and March, together hold one story, "Serpent-Teen". This story features eel-based seafolk, known as the moray, named after moray eels despite having the electrogenic abilities of electric eels. All of the alternative mermaids of Disney's The Little Mermaid are designed with full-body non-human skin colors, unlike the mermaids, and they are also all enemies of the mermaids. Nonetheless, Disney's The Little Mermaid is the biggest franchise to feature alternative mermaids.
The protagonist of The Little Mermaid is a mermaid with no more name than "little mermaid", white skin, and sea-blue eyes.. She is the daughter of the king and the household is rounded up by her paternal grandmother and five older sisters. Mermaids can become 300 years of age before dying and becoming sea foam. Because they have no soul, their death is the end of their existence. Humans live much shorter lives, but because they have souls, they are eternal. The mermaids have a rule that anyone below fifteen is not allowed to the surface, marking the 15th birthday as a special occassion many look forward to. As the youngest of six, the little mermaid's patience to go up is tested when her sisters can come and go as they please. One favored activity of her sisters is to go up during a storm and sing about the beauty of underwater life in hopes of having a human as guest one day. The sailors do not register their voices amidst the storm, though, and neither could they ever reach the bottom of the ocean alive. On her 15th birthday, the little mermaid happily goes up and happens upon a ship where a celebration is taking place in honor of the birthday of a prince. The little mermaid falls in love with him on the spot. When a storm break out and the ship splits in two, the mermaid is initially happy the prince will be her guest but then realizes it will mean his death and resolves to save him. She brings him to a beach, where she leaves him to be found by a girl and other people coming out of a nearby church. As she watches them, the little mermaid realizes the prince never saw her and leaves in tears. Through her sisters' aid, she finds where the prince lives and begins keeping an eye on him, becoming fond of humans in general as she does so. Desiring both the prince's love and a soul, the mermaid makes her way to the sea witch, who is willing to help her. She will give the mermaid a potion that will give her beautiful legs that make her the best dancer among humans, but they will hurt as is bleeding with every step she takes. She will also have to win the prince's love on her own and only marriage will earn her a soul. If he marries another, the next dawn the mermaid will become sea foam. And the price the witch asks is for the mermaid's tongue, as she has the loveliest voice of all living creatures. The mermaid accepts the conditions and sets out with the potion. The prince finds her naked but for her hair outside his castle and brings her inside, dressing and feeding her. Because she comes from nowhere, she gets to stay and becomes the favored companion of the prince. However, he loves her as friend and only considers her marriage material insofar as that he knows he'll never have the girl from the church, whom he thinks saved him. His foundling is the only one he'll accept as a substitute. The mermaid is satisfied with that and tells her sisters so, who have found her and visit her every night. However, the prince's parents hope for a better party than the foundling and arrange for their son to visit the princess of a country overseas. The prince brings the mermaid along on the journey as his companion, assuring her his parents' vision is not for him. What neither the prince nor the mermaid expected was for the princess to be the church girl, who had been sent there for a few years as to teach her good morals. The prince and princess embrace and call for wedding arrangements, with the prince sharing his enthusiasm with the mermaid, who is happy for him as her heart breaks. She and the princess get along well and the mermaid even holds her train during the ceremony. That night, she dances more beautiful than ever during the celebration as she waits for the dawn. Unexpectedly, her sisters show up and hand her a dagger, which they got from the sea witch in exchange for their hair. If the mermaid kills the prince before sunrise and coats her feet with his blood, she'll become a mermaid again and live her 300 years. The mermaid goes to royal couple's cabin, but as she sees them sleeping serenely, she throws the dagger away and hurls herself into the waves. Instead of dying, though, she finds herself transforming and is greeted by air spirits. She is one of them now, still without soul, but with the opportunity to earn one with 300 years of good deeds. She looks back to see the prince and princess looking for her and realizing she jumped overboard. Leaving unseen with a kiss for the princess and a smile for the prince, the mermaid embraces her new life.
In The Fisherman and his Soul, the mermaid has no name, but goes by "the little mermaid" and is a daughter of the king like the protagonist of The Little Mermaid. She has golden hair, white skin, purple eyes, ears like seashells, and a silver tail with seaweed wrapped around it. She is sleeping one day when a fisherman pulls her into his nets by accident. He refuses to let her go until she promises to come every day when he calls and sing so that his catch will be bountiful. The mermaid agrees and all goes according to promise, but over time the fisherman falls in love with her. He begs her to make him her husband, but she tells him that as long as he has a soul, he can't live with her kind. The fisherman subsequently sets out to lose his soul, first going to a priest, who tells him his soul is his most valuable possession and tells him to leave, then going to the merchants, who say a soul is worth nothing and that he must leave, and finally to a witch, who advises against his wish, but offers to help him in return for a dance, because she's been in love with him for a while. She gives him a special dagger with which he can cut his shadow from him, as that is the body of his soul. His soul pleads to be given the heart along to, but the fisherman needs it for the mermaid, so they agree that once a year they'll meet on the beach to maintain their identity and catch up. The first year the soul returns, he tells of his crimes in the East and that he has the Mirror of Wisdom for the fisherman if he'll come with him, but the fisherman rather stays with his beloved mermaid. The second year it is the same, this time the offer being the Ring of Riches. The third year the soul offers to take the fisherman to a dancing woman with bare feet and the fisherman, aware a mermaid can't dance, follows, essentially letting lust conquer love where wisdom and riches couldn't. The soul never shows him the dancing girl, though, but instead gets the fisherman to commit various crimes. Realizing his soul has turned evil because it has no heart, the fisherman resolves to return to his mermaid and tries to cut the soul away. He can't, because a person can only part with his soul once in their life. Distraught, the fisherman returns to the beach and calls for the mermaid, but gets no answer. For a year the soul tempts the fisherman with other women and evil, but the fisherman keeps waiting for the mermaid on the beach. The second year, the soul tries to tempt him good, telling him of all the ways the world needs his help, but it is also of no use. The third year, the soul admits defeat but begs to be allowed back into the fisherman's heart. The fisherman accepts the wish, but doesn't know how to do that. At that moment, there is a cry from the sea and the fisherman rushes to the water to find his mermaid washed ashore dead. The fisherman takes her in his arms and resolves to watch as the tide drowns him despite his soul's pleas. At the last moment, the love the fisherman feels for the mermaid breaks open his heart, allowing the soul to return. When the priest comes to the beach the next day to bless the water after the storms, he finds the dead couple and orders the heathens buried in an unmarked grave. But when the next year he prepares a sermon about the need to fear God, he finds strange, soothing flowers waiting for him in his church and instead he finds himself speaking of God's love. When he finds the flowers to come from the unmarked grave, he hurriedly blesses the sea the next day. The flowers don't grow back after that and the merfolk move to a different part of the sea.
The Sea Lady: A Tissue of Moonshine presents two levels of reading, one literal and one metaphorical for depression-induced suicide. The titular Sea Lady is a mermaid, who came to life ages ago near Cyprus. Her eyes are sea-blue, her hair gold-blonde, and her skin white, while her tail that starts below the waist is consistently compared to a mackerel's. Like all of her kin, she has no soul or name (though the Sea Lady's human company names her Doris Thalassia Waters for the time she lives with them) and was formed as an immortal adult upon her spontaneous creation from water. Marrying a human would get a mermaid a soul, but at the cost of their immortality. The Sea Lady is familiar with human life, mostly through reading — human literature is extremely popular among the merfolk, even though they find humans pathetic for their desire to make themselves fit society. Prior to the story, in Tonga, Polynesia, the Sea Lady spots Harry Chatteris, a man from a family with titles but few resources, who is of such talent that the family hands him everything in hopes he'll restore their lost name in society. The Sea Lady senses that he is unhappy with his obligations and sets out to acquire him for herself, not to marry him, but to kill him as her way of giving him "better dreams". Her one mistake is assuming him to be single, but the feelings of Adeline Glendower, a woman who had barely a youth due to her mother's death and her father's abusive and demanding ways, are of no interest to her, as she considers humans in general fake. Following Chatteris to Folkestone, England in 1899, she assumes him to be one of the children of Mrs. Bunting and manipulates herself into the woman's matronly favor. Her arrival is met with shock, but also interest and charity, and she soon has a place within the family as another guest. When Chatteris returns for Glendower, another guest of the Buntings, the Sea Lady latches onto him emotionally and doesn't let go. She only reveals her intents to Melville, another guest, but subtly enough that Melville doesn't dare act out of fear he's wrong. He leaves to London, only to return to Folkestone when Chatteris breaks off his engagement with Glendower, the Sea Lady is kicked out of the Bunting's residence, and Melville is the only one thought to have a chance to fix the matter. He talks to both Glendower and Chatteris, with Chatteris confiding that his love for Glendower cannot be put into words but that his whole life is made for him. He knows choosing the Sea Lady means death and vows to return to Glendower tomorrow morning and step back into the enviable life laid out for him. At the time, it is truth, but hours after Melville has departed, Chatteris franctically goes after the other choice, dressing himself up nicely and visiting the Sea Lady. He carries her off to the sea while she laughs and he shows no emotion. How she drowned him, viciously or gentle, is speculation left to the survivors.
The Mermaid of the Magdalenes takes place around the Magdalen Islands, Canada, where the fish is abundant. It was a popular place for fishing and sardines were a highly sought-after catch. On the brink of extinction, the sardines asked for help from the other fishes and they promised that they would punish anyone fishing or eating sardines if they could get their fins or claws on them. In the month of May, a ship carrying packed fish got wrecked on the stones surrounding the islands and its contents eventually spilled to shore. The next evening, a box of sardines was found by a fish trader's daughter, who tried in vain to get it open to get to the contents. And so she started singing about how she'd love to get to the sardines and eat them. A nearby skate-fish heard her and fled, remembering the oath but being too timid to act against the girl. The next to hear her was a merman, who deemed her a suitable wife because of her beautiful singing. But when he came close and heard the lyrics, he too fled because he was unable to act on the oath. But when the girl moved to break the box on a rock, a lobster sleeping under it awakened and heard her song. He wasn't afraid and grabbed her by the wrist, dragging her into sea. It is unknown what happened to her. The main theory is that the lobster gave her to the merman, whose desire for a wife from the shore was well-known, and that she's still in the process of changing into a mermaid. On nights in May, she comes above the surface to comb her hair and check herself in her mirror to see how her transformation is coming along. She misses her old home and sings still, nowadays to lure other people to her so she can take them to her new home as company.
The Monster High cast of mermaids includes Sirena Von Boo and her mother as well as Finnegan Wake and Finn. There's also a Create-A-Monster set shaped like a mermaid, but marketed as a siren. Similarly, while presented as a siren, Madison Fear has the form of a legged mermaid. And while they aren't characters, Monster High has introduced two cilophyte-like creatures in the webisode "Falling Spirits".
Mermaids in Monster High follow the post-2000 exploration of mermaid designs that assign fish traits to the upper half too. All three mermaids, the CAM siren, and the cilophyte backgrounders have the same skin covering their entire body. They do not possess any part that could be mistaken for a human's. Madison is the exception, although as said before, she is not technically a mermaid. But like traditional mermaids, they have no trouble switching between salt and fresh water, though salt water appears to be their default domain, or even living outside of water other than the matter of transportation on land. Being a half-ghost, Sirena does not have this consideration because she can float. Finnegan gets around in a turbo-wheelchair. Whether his tail is functional in water or if he needs the aid of equipment 24/7 is yet to be seen.
While preceded by the CAM siren, the first mermaid of Monster High is Finnegan. He debuted in the webisodes in 2013, only to disappear until the end of 2014, at which point he was a constestant in and eventual winner of the second doll election. Webisode appearances, a doll, and other elements of the part-of-the-cast package followed in 2015.
Sirena made her full debut during Finnegan's phase of absence, being introduced altogether over the course of 2014. She is part of the first set of hybrids brought into the franchise and she is constructed around the concept of limitlessness. That is, as a ghost-mermaid, there is no place where she does not belong or can't go to. This is reflected in her personality in that she can't keep her thoughts straight and often drifts from one topic to another depending on what input she receives from her environment. This can cause her to drift from place to place with a constantly changing aim and no one can find her if she does that unless by accident or when she chooses to come back herself. Because she has so far always come back, her family and friends don't worry when she is gone.
Finn is mermaid from Rotland and the former boyfriend of Lorna McNessie, a fresh water monster living in Loch Ness. He and Lorna were working on getting their parents to accept their relationship, as there is a long-standing enmity between fresh water monsters and salt water monsters, when Finn broke up with her.
- Well before the introduction of any mermaid in Monster High, a mermaid silhouette was used as the logo on the pool doors. It was first seen in "New Ghoul @ School", which aired in October of 2010.