Do you know the story of The Little Mermaid? Ariel may be one of the most well known residents of the deep when it comes to fiction, but the idea of mermaids did not start with this fairytale. The origin of half humans, half fish is way older than the Hans Christian Anderson tale, and the mystery and intrigue surrounding this mythology has resulted in incredible mermaid tattoos.
First of all, where did the idea of mermaids begin?
The Origin Of Mermaids
Fables of these mythical sea creatures have been told since human history started being recorded. And no, the mythology is not all tales of red haired young half women falling in love with princes and aching to walk on land. Quite the contrary in fact.
Cultures ranging from the ancient Greeks to the coastal inhabitants of Ireland and down to the people of South Africa all have their own definition of what a mermaid is and what this creature symbolizes.
“With such a rich and varied history, the symbol of the mermaid is as changeable as the sea itself. In some cultures, the mermaid signifies life and fertility within the ocean. In others, she embodies the destructive nature of the water, luring sailors to their deaths – serving as an omen for storms, unruly seas and disaster,”Royal Museums Greenwich
Different Types Of Mermaids
Africa’s Mami Wata
Mami Wata is a water spirit that is celebrated in much of Africa.
While her name means “Mother of the Waters”, she is not exclusively female – there are notations of this being showing up as a man.
Her duality is an interesting one, with her taking up a role as a healer, fortune giver, and lover as well as destroyer.
Mami Wata is depicted as a half woman and half fish in some instances, and in others she is a woman with snakes coiling around her. Snakes can represent divination, divinity, and fertility – all apt accompaniments for this powerful goddess.
Sirens In Ancient Greece
The first mer-person might have actually been a merman.
The Mesopotain god, Ea, was seen to be the bearer of culture thousands of years ago.
“Ea, the Akkadian counterpart of Enki, was the god of ritual purification: ritual cleansing waters were called ‘Ea’s water’. Ea governed the arts of sorcery and incantation. In some stories he was also the form-giving god, and thus the patron of craftsmen and artists; he was known as the bearer of culture,”Britannica
As he was closely associated with water, this could be the reason why he was portrayed as half fish.
This god was later adapted into Poseidon, the god of the sea in Ancient Greece.
But, what about the beautiful half women with the long flowing hair that were seen perched on rocks?
Well, these weren’t exactly the friendliest of beings according to ancient mythological texts. Sirens, as they were known, had beautiful voices that they used to lure sailors to their deaths.
However, these sirens of ancient times were half bird, half woman – there were no fish tails when this story began.
“While the ancient Greek Sirens do not exactly resemble mermaids – as they are half-bird, not half-fish – the creatures began to shift forms in antiquity. By the Hellenistic period, Greek depictions of Sirens more clearly resembled the current image of mermaids, as beautiful, fish-tailed women,”Greek Reporter
The Greek sirens weren’t the only half women to attempt to lure men to watery graves. This story also took root in Eastern European folklore.
Rusalki In Eastern Europe
These versions of mermaids were said to be spirits of young women who drowned, either by suicide or murder, and remained in the lake or river. When the opportunity presented itself, these mermaids would crawl out of the water to ambush humans (usually men) and take them back to the watery depths with them.
This violent story of Rusalki is only one part of this Slavic mythology. These creatures are also involved in fertility and agriculture.
“The concept of Rusalki originated from a Slavic pagan tradition where the young women were symbols of fertility. These nymphs did not interfere too much with human life and mainly served to provide life-giving moisture to the fields and forests every spring when they came ashore to dance in the spring moonlight,”Ancient Origins
Suvannamaccha In Southeast Asia
Suvannamaccha (meaning golden fish) is a mermaid princess depicted with a golden fish tail.
In her attempt to stop the Hindu god, Hanuman, from building a bridge, she instead fell in love with him and helped him complete his mission. They even had a child together.
This princess is still seen as a sign of good luck, and her figure is often depicted in charms, streamers, and icons throughout Cambodia, Thailand, and Lao.
Ariel In Western European Folklore
The Little Mermaid is a well loved Disney adaptation of a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen.
However, Disney did go a bit off script when it came to adapting the story for young moviegoers.
In the film, Ariel the mermaid falls in love with a human man and longs to have two legs herself so that she can be with him.
Things take a turn when she signs a contract with an evil sea witch to trade her voice for a pair of legs, and subsequently almost dies. Her love, Prince Eric, saves her and they live happily ever after.
This wasn’t the ending of the original story.
The little mermaid gets her legs from the sea witch, but every time she takes a step it feels like knives are stabbing her.
Even though every step was painful and she had no voice, the prince does fall in love with her. But, their love isn’t meant to be as he is betrothed to a princess from another kingdom.
Ariel doesn’t end up living happily ever after with her love – she dies.
While this original story can seem very gloomy and a bit of a cautionary tale for young women who are thinking about giving up their lives to run after a man they just met, there is a courageous theme to the fairytale.
The voice of the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, Jodi Benson, told Teen Vogue,
“Her desire is actually to go outside of the box so to speak; her desire to actually become part of the human world. That’s her primary focus. When she’s singing ‘Part of Your World,’ this is a fascination she’s had her whole life, to see what’s up above the surface, something outside.”
Selkies In Celtic Mythology
The selkie is Ireland and Scotland’s version of a mermaid. These sea people were thought to be seals in the water, but were able to shed their skin and become people on land.
These mermaids were irresistible to people, as Thady Rua O’Dowd found out in a popular Irish fairytale.
Upon spying a selkie in human form on land without her seal coat, he took her coat without her seeing and professed his love. As she couldn’t return to the sea in her human form, she married him and they had seven children.
“Legend has it that though the selkie cloak was well hidden, one of their children spotted Thady checking on it, and told his mother of the ‘bag of gold’. When Thady was away from home, Eve checked the spot her child told her about – and lo and behold, her fishtail. With the return of fishtail, Eve could not resist the temptation of the sea,”Wilderness Ireland
She donned her seal coat and returned to the ocean.
The Meaning Of Mermaid Tattoos
As mermaids have swam through countless cultures and mythologies throughout the ages, when it comes to the meaning of mermaid tattoos, a lot depends on which mermaid story the tattooee is taking inspiration from.
A tattoo of Mami Wata can be a dedication to ancient African culture and roots. A siren tattoo can be a sign of your love of Greek mythology and the ancient tales of gods and goddesses. A tattoo of a Rusalka could be a symbol of feminism. The mermaid princess Suvannamaccha can serve as a constant inked reminder to be open to love and good luck.
Mermaid tattoos can also be a representation of duality. From a beautiful woman combing her hair on a rock, she can replace this docile attitude with a murderous one with a siren song.
As we see from the story of the selkie, a mermaid tattoo can be seen as a deep longing for freedom.
“Mermaids can signify this particular sweet freedom of life, helping us pay tribute to our primordial home [the ocean]. By singing her song, the mermaid beckons us to return to the calm (and at times turbulent) water, and seems to promise our protection if we follow. How enticing.”Byrdie
An Ariel tattoo can be a reminder to stay true to yourself instead of changing yourself beyond repair, while at the same time encouraging you to dream big (this depends on which version you’re aspiring to).
Of course, tattoos are extremely personal, so what has significant meaning to you won’t necessarily mean much to someone else. What matters is that you choose a design you love and that you want to see for years to come.
Click here for 10 things you should know before getting a tattoo.
Mermaid Tattoo Ideas
Traditional Mermaid Tattoo
Mermaids are a popular subject in traditional American, or sailor, tattoos. These tattoos have defined black lines and the style is cartoonish in appearance. Often the design is filled in with saturated colors, and the mermaid can be shown sitting on an anchor or with the words, “Hold Fast”. This represents bearing down and riding out a storm.
Small Mermaid Tattoo
Mini designs are a tattoo trend that isn’t going anywhere. Taking a design and scaling it down to much smaller proportions can mean a tattoo that is easier to cover up and place in a smaller area of your body.
A small mermaid tattoo can be a simple silhouette or more detailed in design.
Click here for what you should know before getting a mini, delicate tattoo.
Mermaid And Moon Tattoo
To dive deeper into the feminine symbolism of mermaids, you could accompany your mermaid tattoo with the moon. The moon is often seen as feminine, and has further connotations with goddesses such as Selene and Hecate.
“Mermaid tattoos may portray a mermaid watching the moon or sitting on a rock in the moonlight or in the dark, whether it be the darkness of dawn or the darkness of the deep waters,”Tat Ring
Click here for more on moon tattoos.
Mermaid Tattoo Sleeve
A mermaid tattoo can be an amazing starting off point for a full sleeve tattoo. Sea shells, an anchor, a ship, and other sea creatures could be incorporated into the design for a full sea theme.
Often, the larger and more detailed your tattoo design is, the longer your tattoo appointment will be. Chat to your tattoo artist to discuss the best way to tackle your design. For a sleeve tattoo, you may have to have multiple tattoo sessions.
Click here for more sea creature tattoo ideas.
Colorful Mermaid Tattoo
A mermaid tattoo can be a good opportunity to go for a colorful tattoo design. Their long flowing locks, fish scales, and shells can be different shades. However, colorful tattoos can fade quicker compared to black and grey tattoos, so it’s important to go to an experienced tattoo artist and to follow aftercare instructions so that the colors won’t fade.
Click here for more on watercolor tattoos.
Mermaids have captured the imaginations of people for hundreds of years, resulting in incredible works of fiction and art. This has evolved to include mermaid tattoos. If you are looking for a tattoo that reminds you of freedom and ancient feminine folklore, a tattoo of a mermaid might be the perfect choice for you.