In popular fiction, there are two types of sea-dwelling creatures that we all know and are familiar with: sirens and mermaids. But despite their similarities, the two are actually very different specie of mythological creatures, with one being a gentle, shy denizen of the sea, and the other, a terrifying monster known for devouring unwitting humans.
The first of these two, the mermaid, is best exemplified by the Disney animation The Little Mermaid, based off the Hans Christian Andersen story which, in turn, was based off various mythological sources. In the cartoon, story, and fairy tale, mermaids are beautiful half-fish, half-human sea dwellers who keep to themselves. Meanwhile, sirens are a little trickier: medieval tradition, which most modern depictions are based on, depict sirens as ephemerally beautiful women who loiter around rock formations in the sea and use their enchanting voices to lure sailors to their deaths.
The Similarities Between Sirens and Mermaids
But before we go to their differences, let’s talk about their similarities:
Both mermaids and sirens are depicted to be beautiful, half-human creatures that dwelled in seas and oceans. Often, these creatures are considered to be magical, with many folkloric traditions around the world believing that capturing a mermaid or a siren will result in the creature granting you a wish (or, in some cases, a magical item) in exchange for their freedom. Both are usually depicted as impossibly beautiful women, so beautiful that men often find themselves completely and utterly entranced by them. In most stories, the men will find themselves irresistibly attracted to a siren or a mermaid, either because of their beauty or by their magic.
But beyond their appearance, their beauty, and their dwelling, the similarities stop there.
The Difference Between Sirens and Mermaids
The main difference between sirens and mermaids is that sirens are usually depicted as evil temptress’ that lure sailors to their deaths, while mermaids are usually depicted as peaceful, non-violent creatures that try to live their lives away from human interference.
These depictions are based off of their respective mythological sources, although liberties were taken by various artists over the centuries in their depiction, so much so that the sirens and mermaids of mythology can be quite different from how we perceive them in modern times:
Half-fish, half-human creatures are present in almost every culture’s mythology, from Europe and the Americas, to the Near East and Asia. In these stories, these creatures are usually depicted as magical creatures that live and dwell under the sea, with their own culture and customs. They were called by different names, but the modern name mermaid is derived from the Old English words mere and maid, which literally meant sea maiden.
Mermaids in other cultures, however, are also extremely different from the European version: in China, Korea, and Japan, mermaids were called jiaoren (鮫人), Sinjike (신지끼), and ningyo (人魚), respectively. These creatures were almost often mysterious sea-folk that would either trick humans into their deaths or warn people of impending disasters. Germanic folklore, on the other hand, had a version of the mermaid called Melusine, a water spirit that lived in streams, ponds, lakes, and rivers. Melusine was a woman who is depicted as part human and part serpent and is generally portrayed as being half human and half fay (fairy). In fact, the House of Luxembourg, a royal family in the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, claims to be descendants of Melusine.
Perhaps the most popular mermaid depiction of all is The Little Mermaid, a Disney animated film based off the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the same name. In the film, a mermaid living in an underwater kingdom somewhere off the coast of Denmark (which is where The Little Mermaid takes place) gives up being a mermaid and become human so she can marry the man she loves.
This depiction was based off of the Hans Christian Andersen story, which, in turn, was based off of a romanticization of various mermaid depictions in both medieval art and literature, as well as European myths and folk tales. Both sources, however, relied heavily on a Christianized adaptation of the Greek mythological creature, the Siren.
However, the Greek mythological Siren is an extremely different creature from the beautiful, singing, sea-dwelling Ariel we all know and love…
In Greek mythology, the Sirens were actually winged half-human, half-bird creatures that, while known for luring sailors to their deaths, were not considered sea nymphs or even water deities. The Sirens are often cited as being fathered by the river God Achelous, with the mother usually being cited as being one of the nine muses, usually either Calliope, Terpischore, Melpomene, or Sterope. Incidentally, in the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Little Mermaid’s sisters names are very much different.
According to Classical Greek poets and traditions, there are around seven named Sirens, including:
These muses were originally depicted as having wings and terrifying talons with which they use to carry off unwitting humans. However, beginning with the third-century BC epic poem Argonautica written by Appolonius Rhodius, the Sirens were depicted as beautiful maidens that would sit half-naked on rocky shores. They would then lure sailors to them using their beautiful singing voices, with the sailors following them, not knowing that they are sailing into shallow, rocky waters. This theme is repeated again in Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, where the Goddess Circe advised Odyssey and his sailors to plug their ears with beeswax in order to resist the song of the Sirens.
It is these two depictions in epic Greek poetry that many medieval artists, and therefore medieval interpretation, derived from when depicting sirens and mermaids. Medieval painters, poets, writers, and even historians, soon turned sirens into amoral murderers, often as young, scantily clad, beautiful women. Soon, Christian scholars started using Sirens as a metaphor for temptation, with Sirens representing the sins of the flesh, and the promise of eternal death that awaits those who indulge in it.
Over time, writers and painters started softening their view of the siren, combining them with fantastical elements from other European stories, creating a hybrid creature that took mythological sea creatures and combined it with the Greek chthonic deities and created the mermaid, a benevolent sea-dweller that would grant unwitting fishermen and sailors a magical wish or item in exchange for freedom.