She’s a symbol of good luck, life, and fertility to some. To others, she’s the embodiment of disaster on the open water, luring sailors to a shipwrecked watery grave with her enchanting song. She’s beguiling in beauty with an utterly tragic backstory of her own. With each legend, throughout time and no matter where in the world, the story of the mermaid is never truly a happy one. Disney may have given the mermaid a HEA we can all aww at, but the truth is it’s easy to see how tragedy begets horror for these mysterious half-human, half-fish creatures. So, let’s dive in.
Goddess Atargatis and the Beginning of Tragic Mermaid Love Stories
Before we get into the horror, let’s get into the myths!
First up, we have the All-Mother of fertility and a friend to all fish, Atargatis. A powerful Assyrian goddess whose abilities cost her the love of her life. Dating back to around 1000 BC, she was the first mermaid of legend to be discovered. And with the unearthing of this myth emerged a heartbreaking story so tragic it became one of the main elements of mermaid lore. Love, along with its partner, death. For it was the goddess’ powers that unintentionally took the life of a mere shepherd man whom she loved so fiercely that utter grief and guilt drove her into the watery depths. But the water, affecting her beauty none, transformed her only halfway, leaving her half-human, half-fish. With that, we’re off to a heart wrenching start!
Lore’d Across the Continents!
Atargatis may have been the first mermaid, but she certainly isn’t the last. Across the world, mermaids exist in various depictions, all of them rather tragic to some degree. Some of them are unimaginably terrifying. From half-bird, half-women creatures with ethereally killer voices to alluring legged water spirits who wash ashore to frolic and entice men. The idea of these sea maidens may differ in some ways, but the main impressions of them remain the same.
To the Western world, mermaids were unfathomable signs of doom if ever you happened upon them. A feature in Homer’s Odyssey, written in the 7th–8th century BCE and first translated into English in 1614, these human-bird-like creatures dwelt on rocks and lured unsuspecting sailors to their deaths with their enchantingly melodic voices that carried over the waves. As sirens go, they were synonymous with mermaids but eviler, depicted with either fish scales or feathers and razor-sharp teeth. To the Greeks, mermaids were dangerous. To the English, they were temptations of the soul. The earliest renderings of these mermaid temptresses alongside two leopards in a series of hunting scenes can be found in carvings in Durham Chapel, built in 1078. And according to Swedish writer and cartographer Olaus Magnus, if you do manage to catch a mermaid,
“and do not presently let them go, such a cruel tempest will arise, and such a horrid lamentation of that sort of men comes with it, and of some other monsters joining with them, that you would think the sky should fall.”Carta Marina, Olaus Magnus, map of Scandinavia, 1527-39
A spine-chilling warning that even medieval people heeded. To them, mermaids spelled out unfavorable fishing days and brutal seas if ever you set eyes upon these creatures. Even more frightening and tragic was Danish author Hans Christian Anderson’s take. One of the most iconic depictions to date, Den Lille Havfrue, or The Little Mermaid in English, published in 1837, portrays a much gloomier and gruesome tale than the one named for the sweet, redhead princess we all know and love. While I can’t say this was meant to be a horror story, the details are quite horrifying. For one thing, the little mermaid loses her tongue to gain legs and walk on land, which is wincingly compared to walking on knives. The ending, too, does not bode well for our little maiden of the sea, as she dies by turning into seafoam.
At least Disney’s version sees to it Ariel has a happy ending!
Wading over to the African continent, as well as dipping in and around the African diasporas, we descend into the popular mythos of the water spirit, Mami Wata. This goddess of the sea is usually depicted as a long, raven-coiled beauty with a half-human, half-fish body, though in differing portrayals, she can also take the shape of other forms. She carries with her a comb and a small mirror as a sign of her beauty and vanity and is seen with a snake twined around her torso. A good luck charm to those who know of her, she’s said to be quite the healer. But don’t cross her, lest she drown you for not heeding her commands. She may also cause confusion and illness in you, as well as set visions in those she’s drowned and brought back to life, calling them to be her mediums. Maybe not the best way to gain power from a mermaid goddess!
In Slavic lore, mermaids don’t simply exist. They’re made in death by the spirits of young maidens who’ve either claimed their own lives or have died at the hands of another by drowning. Only to return as vengeful mermaids who punish men and children for their fates. In some stories, they are young women who drown themselves due to unwanted pregnancies. In other stories, they drown themselves due to the betrayal of their husbands or lovers. In all cases, the water takes them. Depending on the location, such as around the Danube River, Rusalki (Rusalka, singular) can be charming and playful or wicked and malevolent, dragging men back with them beneath the water. Some depictions of the Rusalki do deviate from other mermaids — they have legs instead of tails, and they enjoy coming on land to dance and climb trees. How whimsical!
To end our world tour of mermaid mythos, we land in Japan, where the Ningyo dwell. The Japanese name for “human fish” or “mermaid,” they are a different species, able to transform into half-fish and half-other creatures, such as lizards, monkeys, humans, and even full-fledged fish. These mermaid creatures are said to have golden scales and razor-sharp teeth. But contrary to the common depiction of mermaids as ethereal beauties, Ningyo are a hideous sight to behold. All due to a curse put upon it as a result of entering forbidden waters in its previous life as a fisherman. Unfortunately, despite being able to grant eternal life if eaten, people are warned to avoid them at all costs. For if caught, it’s believed they will rain misfortune and terrible storms upon you. If one washes ashore, it’s seen as a harbinger of chaos and war.
Into the Age of Modern Mermaid Horror
From tragedy and misfortune, we enter into the age of fantasy and romance, where mermaids are no longer viewed as evil or made into woeful cases. By the 1930s-40s, grievous stories between mermaids and humans fizzled out into romantic stories between the pairing. During this time, mermaids featured in fantasy literature were also on the rise. In other stories, mermaids avoided humans like the plague and kept to themselves for safety reasons. Not until the late 1980s did these maidens of the sea return to their sinister ways. While most of these mermaids loved humans and even rescued them from certain peril, some of them were up to their old trickery, manipulating men with song and beauty and even leading them to their deaths.
By the early 2000s, mermaids had made a full circle back into the negative spotlight. In movies, they were portrayed as mystical, dark creatures that frightened humans. The depictions of them are slightly altered to show them having webbed fingers, sharp teeth, and shrill screams that could scare you out of your skin! Which brings us into the gory modern age of MERMAID HORROR! With that, let’s check out some amazingly creepy horror novels featuring these enchantingly petrifying creatures.
Deliciously Evil: Mermaid Horror Books You Dare To Read
Mira Grant’s Ravenous Mermaid Twofer!
If you wish to take an ill-fated trip down into the Mariana Trench where sea monsters live, then by all accounts, be my guest! Grant’s sci-fi sea horror, Into the Drowning Deep, takes us down to where the Atargatis, a cruise ship with a team of scientists on board attempting to film otherworldly creatures of legend, has mysteriously disappeared. And all of its members have seemingly perished. The young scientist, Victoria Stewert, joins a new crew who sets off to discover the truth of what happened to her sister and the rest of the members of the Atargatis seven years before.
In Grant’s prequel, Rolling in the Deep, we learn the tragic story of what really happened all those years ago when a team of scientists and film crew decided to go in search of whatever lurked deep down in the darkest part of the ocean. What they didn’t expect were mermaids, especially ones able to rip the flesh from their bodies. What they capture will surely be the death of them. But is it real? Or is it all a hoax? Read, and you shall see in Grant’s ravenous mermaid twofer!
“Do I think they found mermaids? Yes. Of course I do. And I think the mermaids ate them all.”– Into the Drowning Deep, Mira Grant
“‘You’re a miracle,” he breathed.
“You’re a miracle,” the mermaid echoed, before it leaned up and carefully, almost delicately, ripped away his throat.”– Rolling in the Deep, Mira Grant
Briana Morgan’s Teeth-biting Sea Maiden Horror!
An exploration of a military bunker goes horribly awry when a group of teens find mermaids! These mermaids aren’t the song-singing kind. Instead, they are killer mermaids, and all but one of the teens is ripped to shreds. And the only way we learn of their fates is through the single witness account from Liv, the only teen to survive the mermaid massacre. But is Liv’s account the truth, or is there something else fishy going on? Find out in Morgan’s teeth-biting sea maiden horror!
“My stomach rolled. There were marks on the bones. Grooves. Almost like someone had bitten them — or something with knife-edged teeth.”– The Reyes Incident, Briana Morgan
Katrina Monroe’s Gothic Underwater Goddesses!
Meridith Strand’s family has secrets that she must confront in this dark generation-spanning novel spun by Monroe. After Meridith and her daughter return to Meridith’s childhood home, something in the water begins to call out to her daughter. It has called out to all the women in Meridith’s family before. Meridith’s mother, who suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, is convinced the stories about their hometown of Cape Disappointment being haunted are true. Confronting the past is difficult enough, but Meridith must be careful before the three of them are forever lost to the call of the ocean in Monroe’s gothic underwater horror.
“If you can hear the call of the water, it’s already far too late.”– They Drown Our Daughters, Katrina Monroe
Make sure to check for those TWs/CWs prior to reading or purchasing.
Cassandra Khaw’s Terrifying Mermaid Beauties!
In this gory novella retelling of The Little Mermaid narrated by the mermaid, her daughters have quite the hunger and devour the entire kingdom, which Khaw describes in an utterly gruesome fashion. The mermaid then goes on the run with a strange plague doctor and stumbles upon a village of blood-thirsty children and their cult leaders called saints. But these leaders are anything but, and the mermaid and her doctor may have to do some drastically terrible things and embrace who they really are deep down in order to stay alive! In this not-so-fairy fairytale, Khaw’s terrifying mermaid beauties seem to be the least of our worries!
“Bone overlaid with porcelain, seamed with gold and drips of ice-washed ruby, a tasseling of diamonds to accent the sharpness of their jaws.”– The Salt Grows Heavy, Cassandra Khaw
Have You Dove Into These Eerily Enchanting Horrors Yet?
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