The Unnerving Origins Of The Earliest Mermaid Legends Are Giving Us The Creeps

These days, the popular image of a mermaid is something straight out of a Disney movie: doe-eyed, cute-as-a-button, and friendly with all manner of anthropomorphic sea creatures. But these denizens of the deep once had a far darker reputation. Hundreds of years ago, they were both feared and admired in equal measure — and it’s easy to see why.

The legend of the mermaid

Ever since Hans Christian Andersen wrote his bittersweet tale of a mermaid who falls in love with a human prince, these sea-dwelling beauties have been part of popular culture. But their roots stretch much further back, to the legends of Babylon and beyond. And even today, their distinctive, fish-tailed silhouette appears in countless movies, books, and art.

A shifting archetype

But where did this archetype come from? And why does it take so many different guises across different cultures and times? From the half-woman, half-fish creatures apocryphally encountered by early explorers to the selkies and merrows of Celtic myth, the world is seemingly full of mermaids — and not all of them want to make friends.

The Little Mermaid

As it turns out, we don’t have to go far to uncover the dark underbelly of the mermaid myth. Take, for example, Disney’s 1989 movie The Little Mermaid, in which flame-haired protagonist Ariel exchanges her voice for legs in an attempt to woo her love. And despite numerous misadventures, the ending of her story is ultimately a happy one.

Hans Christian Andersen

But the fairy tale on which this movie is based, written by Andersen some 150 years earlier, isn’t nearly as cheery. In the original version, the mermaid actually loses her tongue to an evil witch — in a manner far more graphic than anything that made it into the Disney movie.