Are mermaids real? Creatures that are half human and half fish cannot exist, because fish can only breathe underwater, and humans can only breathe air. Therefore, no real mermaids exist. However, imaginary mermaids and mermen appear in countless stories.
The Little Mermaid
Mermaids can symbolize a girl's innocence and faith, as in the poignant children's story by Hans Christian Anderson. The Little Mermaid he created dies for love and goes to heaven, saved at last by her innocent faith.
The Disney movie The Little Mermaid is quite different. The story is told through animation and song and points to a different moral. Ariel is a strong and independent little girl who is willing to struggle to win her prince. Most modern children prefer the film to the original fairy tale, enjoying the happy ending and straightforward plot.
The Forsaken Merman
In The Forsaken Merman by Matthew Arnold, a merman has lost his wife. He and his brothers rule a domain with a ceiling of amber and a pavement of pearl, one that's wreathed with swaying seaweed. Within it sits a throne of red gold where Margaret used to sit with one of her children. Now he lives alone with his children, who lost their mortal mother when the church bells called her back to life ashore.
Adults might understand the poem as a depiction of the chasm between the pagan world of emotion "where the sea snakes coil and twine" and the cool world of faith with "the little grey church on the windy hill." Children are likely to understand the loneliness of the merman king and the longing of the children for their mother.
Before The Little Mermaid and The Forsaken Merman came many legends. Sailors in tropic seas told of encounters with mermaids that scientists would later explain as glimpses of dugongs or manatees, strangely shaped sea mammals. Legends about selkies from Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands may have begun with sightings of drowned foreigners dressed in fur or seals.
In legends, selkies live as seals in the ocean but as humans on land. They can be captured by anyone who finds their sealskin, which they hide when they come ashore. Without their magic skins, they cannot return to the sea.
A man might take a selkie bride this way, but she will grow homesick for the ocean and search incessantly for her lost sealskin. Sometimes one of her children will find it and bring it to her. She will leave her children behind, as a rule, but in some legends she will sometimes play with them in the waves that break on the northern beaches.
Male selkies, on the other hand, can take advantage of the lonely wives of fishermen, keeping them company while their men are away at sea.
In other legends, beautiful mermaids lured unwary sailors to their doom or perhaps to a fantastical life beneath the sea. Mermaids might lure a sailor to jump overboard or bewitch a helmsman to drive a ship onto the rocks. In some legends, the merking's palaces are furnished with plunder.
Though mermaids do not exist, they delight us. Mermaids can be sirens, innocents, fiends or captive brides. They prove the power of the human imagination.