Mermaids in Greece and Rome?

My wife has a job at a remote island hospital on the weekends and we often travel with her by ferry. During the busier part of the summer it is too busy to get a vehicle on the ferry, so we took a taxi to the hospital apartment this morning. The driver had a pile of books next to the gear shaft and one was Claude Levi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind. I asked the driver what he thought of Levi-Strauss, and he said “Not much. But I do like what he says about mermaids. I have been thinking about mermaids since I lived in Montreal in 1969.”

The driver proceeded to tell me that there was a global conspiracy to hide the truth about mermaids from the rest of us: not only do they exist—and many have recently been captured alive and dead—but they leave coral spears in sharks all over the world, they can dive over 100 feet, and they are actually our ancestors. And, just in case I was interested, they don’t wear shells on their breasts.

Now, I had not ever really given much thoughts to mermaids. Sea-nymphs and the like seem like obvious analogs in Greek myth occupying a positive angle—as in Thetis and the daughters of Nereus—or a negative one as in Skylla or the Sirens. And there are transformations like those of Ino the Cadmeid into Leukothea the ‘sea-nymph’ who rescues Odysseus in Odyssey 5. But there’s more! (thanks to Wikipedia and googling the truth about mermaids).

Picture Of The Goddess Atargatis As A Fish With Human Head On Ancient Greek Coin
Demetrios III Eukairos, Late 2nd, early 1st Century BCE (Derketo on back of coin)

Pliny, Nat. Hist. 5

“The following is about the interior lands. Hollow Syria contains Apamea which is divided from the tetrarchy of the Nosairis by the river Marsyas; Bambyx, which is also called Hierapolis and Mabog by the Syrians. This is where the fearsome goddess Atargatis, whom the Greeks call Dercetô, is worshipped.”

XIX. Nunc interiora dicantur. Coele habet Apameam Marsya amne divisam a Nazerinorum tetrarchia, Bambycen quae alio nomine Hierapolis vocatur, Syris vero Mabog—ibi prodigiosa Atargatis, Graecis autem Derceto dicta, colitur


In the following example we find a typical motif of a figure turned into an animal because of an illicit love affair. The resulting blend imagined in this account is like the image on the coin above: fish-body with human head.

Diodorus Siculus, 2.82

“In Syria, there is a city called Askalôn and close to it is a large lake full of fish. Next to it, there is the precinct of the well-known goddess the Syrians call Dercetô. She has the head of a woman, but her body is completely fish for the following reasons. The most well-versed of the region tell the story that because Aphrodite was angry at this goddess, she filled her with love for a certain pretty youth among those sacrificing to her. After she had sex with the Syrian man, she gave birth to a daughter. Because she was ashamed for her actions, she killed the youth and exposed the child in a a deserted, rocky place. Beset by shame and grief, she threw herself into the lake and the shape of her body reformed into a fish. For this reason Syrians still abstain from the animal to this day and honor fish as gods.”

Κατὰ τὴν Συρίαν τοίνυν ἔστι πόλις Ἀσκάλων, καὶ ταύτης οὐκ ἄπωθεν λίμνη μεγάλη καὶ βαθεῖα πλήρης ἰχθύων. παρὰ δὲ ταύτην ὑπάρχει τέμενος θεᾶς ἐπιφανοῦς, ἣν ὀνομάζουσιν οἱ Σύροι Δερκετοῦν· αὕτη δὲ τὸ μὲν πρόσωπον ἔχει γυναικός, τὸ δ᾿ ἄλλο σῶμα πᾶν ἰχθύος διά τινας τοιαύτας αἰτίας. μυθολογοῦσιν οἱ λογιώτατοι τῶν ἐγχωρίων τὴν Ἀφροδίτην προσκόψασαν τῇ προειρημένῃ θεᾷ δεινὸν ἐμβαλεῖν ἔρωτα νεανίσκου τινὸς τῶν θυόντων οὐκ ἀειδοῦς· τὴν δὲ Δερκετοῦν μιγεῖσαν τῷ Σύρῳ γεννῆσαι μὲν θυγατέρα, καταισχυνθεῖσαν δ᾿ ἐπὶ τοῖς ἡμαρτημένοις τὸν μὲν νεανίσκον ἀφανίσαι, τὸ δὲ παιδίον εἴς τινας ἐρήμους καὶ πετρώδεις τόπους ἐκθεῖναι·ἑαυτὴν δὲ διὰ τὴν αἰσχύνην καὶ λύπην ῥίψασαν εἰς τὴν λίμνην μετασχηματισθῆναι τὸν τοῦ σώματος τύπον εἰς ἰχθῦν· διὸ καὶ τοὺς Σύρους μέχρι τοῦ νῦν ἀπέχεσθαι τούτου τοῦ ζῴου καὶ τιμᾶν τοὺς ἰχθῦς ὡς θεούς.

Sirens are more ornithogunaikes (bird-women) than ikhthuogunaikes (“fish-women”)

In other accounts we find an association with pigeons as well–perhaps a symbolic bleed from the association of women with birds (e.g. Sirens, Harpies etc.) and women with fish. The important thing for myth and genealogy is that this goddess becomes the mother of the famous Semiramis, a wife of King Nimrod and eventually ruler herself of Assyria). Here we get a description of mermaids closer to our own…

Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 14

“There is an ancient story among them about the shrine of this sort. There are some who say that Semiramis the Babylonian, many of whose deeds are in Asia, built this temple but erected it for her mother, named Derketô rather than Hera. I saw an image of Derketô in Phoenicia, a wonderful sight. She is half woman—but as much of her as extends from thighs to the end of her feet was made up with a fish tail! But the statue at Hierapols is just a woman.

The explanations for this story are not really mysterious. For they believe that fish are sacred creatures—they don’t touch them—and they use the rest of the birds for food except they refrain from eating pigeons, which are also sacred. They think that Derketô and pigeons are holy for the following reasons. They think that Derketô takes the shape of a fish; and Semiramos turned into a pigeon. But I will accept that the temple in question belongs to Semiramos. I cannot believe that it is Derketô’s since even some of the Egyptians do not eat fish, and they don’t do it to please Derketô!”

     ῾Ο μὲν ὦν ἀρχαῖος αὐτοῖσι λόγος ἀμφὶ τοῦ ἱροῦ τοιόσδε ἐστίν. ἄλλοι δὲ Σεμίραμιν τὴν Βαβυλωνίην, τῆς δὴ πολλὰ ἔργα ἐν τῇ ᾿Ασίῃ ἐστίν, ταύτην καὶ τόδε τὸ ἕδος εἵσασθαι νομίζουσιν, οὐκ ῞Ηρῃ δὲ εἵσασθαι ἀλλὰ μητρὶ ἑωυτῆς, τῆς Δερκετὼ οὔνομα. Δερκετοῦς δὲ εἶδος ἐν Φοινίκῃ ἐθεησάμην, θέημα ξένον· ἡμισέη μὲν γυνή, τὸ δὲ ὁκόσον ἐκ μηρῶν ἐς ἄκρους πόδας ἰχθύος οὐρὴ ἀποτείνεται. ἡ δὲ ἐν τῇ ἱρῇ πόλει πᾶσα γυνή ἐστιν, πίστιες δὲ τοῦ λόγου αὐτοῖσιν οὐ κάρτα ἐμφανέες. ἰχθύας χρῆμα ἱρὸν νομίζουσιν καὶ οὔκοτε ἰχθύων ψαύουσι· καὶ ὄρνιθας  τοὺς μὲν ἄλλους σιτέονται, περιστερὴν δὲ μούνην οὐ σιτέονται, ἀλλὰ σφίσιν ἥδε ἱρή. τὰ δὲ γιγνόμενα δοκέει αὐτοῖς ποιέεσθαι Δερκετοῦς καὶ Σεμιράμιος εἵνεκα, τὸ μὲν ὅτι Δερκετὼ μορφὴν ἰχθύος ἔχει, τὸ δὲ ὅτι τὸ Σεμιράμιος τέλος ἐς περιστερὴν ἀπίκετο. ἀλλ’ ἐγὼ τὸν μὲν νηὸν ὅτι Σεμιράμιος ἔργον ἐστὶν τάχα κου δέξομαι· Δερκετοῦς δὲ τὸ ἱρὸν ἔμμεναι οὐδαμὰ πείθομαι, ἐπεὶ καὶ παρ’ Αἰγυπτίων ἐνίοισιν ἰχθύας οὐ σιτέονται, καὶ τάδε οὐ Δερκετοῖ χαρίζονται.

I can connect this to Homer too!

“Around the waters of the Kaustrios on the Asian plain…”

᾿Ασίω ἐν λειμῶνι Καϋστρίου ἀμφὶ ῥέεθρα , Il. 2.461

Schol. A  ad Il. 2.461d

“Kaüstros was the son of Penthesileia, the Amazon, who married Derketô and had Semiramis from her. Among the Syrians, Derketô is called Atargatis.”

(Porph. ?) Κάϋστρος υἱὸς Πενθεσιλείας τῆς ᾿Αμαζόνος, ὃς ἐν ᾿Ασκάλωνι ἔγημεν τὴν Δερκετὼ καὶ ἐξ αὐτῆς ἔσχεν τὴν Σεμίραμιν. | ἡ δὲ Δερκετὼ παρὰ Σύροις καλεῖται ᾿Αταργατῖς. A


Some addenda from our friends on Twitter:

3 thoughts on “Mermaids in Greece and Rome?

  1. “What does the mermaid look like?”
    -“οὔπω δέρκομαι Δερκετοῦν”

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