The britannica encyclopedia states that a mermaid is a, “fabled marine creature with the head and upper body of a human being and the tail of a fish.” It also goes on to say that they loved music, lived long lives, were mortal and had no souls.
Everyone seems to have a popular image of a mermaid, one containing a female with golden hair, bare-breasted, with a green scaly like tail starting at the waist. But not every description matches this popular idea. Some accounts describe mermaids as pale, almost pure white with long green hair mixed with seaweed, webbed fingers to aid their swimming, and gills on their necks. Their tails descriptions vary from green to silver and from scaled to smooth. An Irish mermaid, Liban, was described with a tail like that of a salmon. Yet, Henry Hudson’s logbook described the tail as that of a porpoise.
Mermaids are said to carry a “magic talisman” that appears in the form of a belt, comb, mirror or even a cap that is the source of their power. Their vain nature is shown by the long hours they spend staring at their reflection in these objects. Occasionally, humans were bestowed one of these talisman in order to pay for a debt, or summon the mermaid to which it originally belonged. However, if a human stole this object rather than have it given to them freely, the mermaid would be powerless to return to the sea.
One problem I have with these stories, is they keep talking about mermaids not returning to the sea. Where are the accounts with their human lives then?
The belt of a mermaid are often described as precious jewels or garlands of pearls, that if stolen by a human would turn to seaweed. Though some mermaids are depicted as sirens, who’s intentions are to lure sailors to their death, some friendships were able to be formed between mortals and mermaids. These friendships however were based on the exchange of favors for one another. For example, if a man helped a mermaid stranded on a beach, she might repay him by giving him her belt, gold, or a prophesy. Bargains were also struck between mortals and mermaids. If a man caught a mermaid she could promise to lead the man to a school of fish, or warn them of danger ahead in return for her freedom. [The tale of a mermaid by Ellen Lee Griffith]