A mermaid is a mythological aquatic creature
with a female human head, arms, and torso and the
tail of a fish. A male version of a mermaid is known
as a "merman" and in general both males and females
are known as "merfolk".
Mermaids are represented in the folklore,
literature and popular culture of
many countries worldwide.
Art by Josephine Wall
The first known mermaid stories appeared
in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. The goddess Atargatis,
mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis, loved a mortal
shepherd and unintentionally killed him. Ashamed,
she jumped into a lake to take the form of a fish,
but the waters would not conceal her divine beauty.
Thereafter, she took the form of a mermaid—human
above the waist, fish below—though the earliest
representations of Atargatis showed her as a fish
with a human head and legs, similar to the Babylonian Ea.
The Greeks recognized Atargatis under the name Derketo.
Prior to 546 BC, the Milesian philosopher Anaximander
proposed that mankind had sprung from an aquatic
species of animal. He thought that humans, with their
extended infancy, could not have survived otherwise.
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art by John William Waterhouse