Mythological Creatures: Merfolk & Sirens

Mosaïque d'Ulysse et les sirènes.jpg

Mermaids and Mermen

Ah, Ariel…what have you done to the history of merfolk?

I hate to break it to you, but mermaids weren’t known to be the kindest of creatures (you know, back when they were real [wink].) Because they were most often spotted by sailors (even Christopher Columbus reported seeing three mermaids on his first voyage to the Americas) they are strongly associated with sailor lore. Mermaids were reported to seduce sailors and drag them down to their underwater dwellings — aka, drowning the poor suckers. (Remember the creepy ones from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides?)

Mermaids were a representation of vanity and lust to the medieval church. As with many mythological creatures, each culture has a different take. Some believe that mermaids can be huge — up to 2,000 feet — in size (British folklore), or that the mermaid would have two fish tails or the tail of a serpent (Western Europe folklore), or that a mermaid’s tears became pearls (Chinese folklore).

You may be wondering why I’m not talking much about mermen. That’s because they’re not as famous or prominent, but they’re still pretty cool. Their hair is like seaweed and they often have beards and a trident. Depending on which culture’s mythology we’re looking at, a merman can be an ugly piggy creature (Irish mythology) or a handsome bearded potion master who cures sickness and lifts curses (Finnish mythology).

Some books with merfolk in them:

  • The Little Mermaid (duh), by Hans Christian Anderson
  • Never to Live, by Just B. Jordan
  • Harry Potter Series, by J. K. Rowling
  • Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie
  • Tears of the Sea, by MaryLy Tyndall
  • Waking Beauty, by Sarah E. Morin



Sirens are tied as firmly to Greek mythology as Odysseus was to the mast when he first discovered them. Oh wait, you don’t know that story? The sirens’ song is known to draw sailors toward the deadly siren island where they’re then shiprecked and the sirens are happy. Odysseus wanted to listen to their song so badly, he had his men tie him firmly to the mast of their ship, stopper his ears with wax, and sail on by.

Sirens don’t always kill by shipwreck. Sometimes their song would draw sailors to them by prompting them to jump overboard and swim to the island…where they would then starve to death because they refused to leave. Sirens are half-bird creatures who know both the past and the future. At first there were only two to four of them, but — as with all fantasies and myths — authors have stretched and molded the old myths to expand the creativity of their stories.

Some books with sirens in them:

  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians, by Rick Riordan
  • Fablehaven Series, by Brandon Mull
  • Fathom, by Merrie Destefano


What books stand out to you with merfolk or sirens in them? 

What would you choose? Mermaid or Siren?



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