Most sea-faring cultures have tall tales of beautiful women, singing and sunning themselves on rocks while combing their long, glorious hair.
For nearly 500 years, actual sailors logs (including those from both Columbus and Blackbeard!) have included bizarre sightings of people who lived in the sea. It was thought there was an entire race of mermaids and mermen living under the waves, causing storms or floods with their power over water and wind. Or drawing sailors to their doom with their alluring songs.
But like the famous game of broken telephone, at some point we mixed up two mythical beings: mermaids and sirens. The first were beautiful creatures, either male or female, with the head and torso of a human and the lower body of a fish, who didn’t sing; the latter a trio of half-woman, half-bird beasts, who did. No one knows why, but their stories have been intertwined for hundreds of years.
The most famous mermaid, ignoring the one in the Starbucks logo, is probably from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Littlest Mermaid. It’s been adapted nearly a trillion times since it’s first publication in 1837. While the well-known animated version ends with happy ever after, in the original tale the prince marries some other girl. The mermaid, mute, and with each step more painful than her last, ultimately refuses to murder her one true love to save herself. Depending on who you ask, she either dissolves into foam or gains an immortal soul. Sadly, it really is the stuff of fairy tales.
Unlike merpeople, the Sirens were exclusively female—but their tale isn’t any happier. After Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, Demeter quickly turned 3 women to half-birds to help her find her daughter. When the women gave up the chase, Demeter cursed them to remain in their half-bird form. They eventually retreated to an island where they sang songs so haunting that passing sailors would forget what they were doing and their ships would crash onto the nearby rocks. The Sirens were cursed with this existence until someone could resist their songs, which didn’t happen until Odysseus (aka Ulysses) came along. As he approached the island, he had his men not only tie him to the mast of his ship, but also block their own ears with wax. Thus, he was forced to listen to the Sirens’ song, but because his crew could hear neither him nor the song, the shipped passed safely.
Stories of mermaids are even older, going back as far as Ancient Syria where the cult of the fertility goddess Atargatis, who was maybe the very first mermaid, eventually spread to Greece and Rome.
It’s no wonder that dream dictionaries abound with meanings for spotting mermaids while we slumber. Their appearance is heavily linked to the feminine aspects of one’s persona and may indicate important insights from one’s subconscious. So what could they represent when woven into advertising and design?
Because of their carefree lives in the water, mermaids signify freedom, especially from traditional lifestyles. They are the ultimate sex symbols: immensely alluring, but unattainable. They can represent knowledge, as they were considered both wise and prescient. Supposedly descended from Aphrodite and Venus, they are strong symbols of love, beauty and sometimes vanity. Mysterious and possibly dangerous creatures, they can also represent unpredictability and a strong rebellious streak.
Event today, we’re still finding mermaids alluring in our own way. Apart from the aforementioned coffee company, mermaids have been used in advertising to sell everything from tuna to shampoo.
And they are only gaining in popularity. After years of vampires and zombies, mermaids may be swimming into their own. The movie Splash in the 1980s was only a taste: since then, numerous books, movies, TV shows and YouTube series have been feeding our appetite for these mysterious creatures. A darker, live-action version of the Little Mermaid has been in the works since 2011, although it's been plagued with "creative differences".
There are even people who “mermaid” for fun or as an extreme sport. That is, they put on a tale with a fin before they go swimming so they can experience for themselves what it means to swim with the fishes. In a good way.