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A mermaid is a mythological creature with a female human head and upper body and the tail of a fish. Mermaids live mostly in the water, although sometimes they are known to come out and sit on the rocks above the sea
Overview and etymology The word is a compound of mere, the Old English word for "sea", and maid, a woman. The male equivalent is a merman. Much like sirens, mermaids sometimes sing to people and gods and enchant them, distracting them from their work and causing them to walk off the deck or run their ships aground. Other stories depict them squeezing the life out of drowning men while attempting to rescue them. They are also said to carry humans down to their underwater kingdoms. In Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, it is said that they forget that humans cannot breathe underwater, while others say they drown men out of spite. The sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as mermaid-like; in fact, some languages use the same word for both bird and fish creatures, such as the Maltese word 'sirena'. Other related types of mythical or legendary creatures are water fairies (e.g., various water nymphs) and selkies, animals that can transform themselves from seals to humans.
History Ancient Near East The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. The goddess Atargatis loved a shepherd and accidentally killed him. She was so sad she jumped into a lake to become a fish, but the waters would not let her beauty be hidden. Because of this, she took the form of a mermaid.
A popular Greek legend turns Alexander the Great's sister into a mermaid after she died. She lived, it was said, in the Aegean that when she met a ship, she asked its sailors only one question: "Is King Alexander alive?" (Greek: "Ζει ο Βασιλιάς Αλέξανδρος;") The answer was "He lives and reigns and conquers the world" (Greek: "Ζει και βασιλεύει και τον κόσμο κυριεύει"). If they answered her question correctly, she calmed the waters for the ship, but any other answer would make her angry, and raise a storm.
Arabian Nights The One Thousand and One Nights includes several tales have "Sea People", such as Djullanar the Sea-girl. Unlike other mythologies, these are almost the same as humans, except the fact that they can breathe and live underwater. They also breed with land humans, the children of them being able to live underwater.
In "The Adventures of Bulukiya", the protagonist Bulukiya's explore the seas, and meets some mermaids.
British Isles Mermaids were noted in British folklore as unlucky omens. Several parts of the song Sir Patrick Spens is about a mermaid speaking to doomed ships, or telling them they will never see land again. Mermaids can also be a sign of bad weather.
Some mermaids were described as very big, up to 2,000 feet (610 m).
Mermaids could also swim up rivers to freshwater lakes. One day, in a lake near his house, the Laird of Lorntie went to help a woman he thought drowning, and a servant of his pulled him back, warning that it was a mermaid, and the mermaid screamed after him that she would have killed him if it were not for his servant.
Sometimes, though, mermaids could appear as nicer characters, teaching humans how to cure diseases.
Mermen were thought of as more wild and ugly than mermaids, but they also were not interested in humans.