Having three little granddaughters, I’m familiar with the favourite topics that little girls are into these days – rainbows, unicorns and mermaids. In fact it’s hard to buy a T-shirt for a toddler that doesn’t have one of these three depicted on the front – or dinosaurs, superheroes and trucks for boys (I have two grandsons too).
My oldest granddaughter, familiar with Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, wants to know more. “Grandma, what do mermaids eat?” Not being an expert on the ways of mermaid life, I said I’d find out.
Mermaids were once said to lure sailors to destruction by singing to them, so that they crashed onto the rocks. (Maybe another example of women getting the blame when things go wrong?) The word mermaid comes from mere Middle English ‘sea, lake’ and ‘maid’. The idea of a woman with a fish’s tail instead of legs has existed in seafaring cultures at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Creatures such as the manatee or the dugong have probably been mistaken for a ‘human fish’. They both have flat, mermaid-like tails and two flippers that resemble stubby arms. They are certainly not beautiful, but they swim gracefully and perhaps when seen by a sailor who has been at sea for too long, they looked more attractive.
Dugong means ‘lady of the sea’ in Malay language, and manatee may come from Latin manatus ‘having hands’ because the flippers resemble hands. Manatees are slowmoving mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails.
On his first voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, caught a glimpse of three ‘mermaids’ off the prow of his ship. He recorded in his journal that they rose well out of the sea, but are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits. Meanwhile, the beautiful mermaid with long flowing hair and fishy body will continue to fascinate little girls. I still have to find out what they eat – fish, maybe? Or seaweed.