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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sirens vs Mermaids

Because I've been thinking a lot about Homeric stuff lately, while I take this Coursera class on Ancient Greece (which of course started with the Bronze Age!) and, tweeting a lot about it, I just wanted to cover this briefly here. What it comes down to is this (totally my pet peeve, not going to lie):


And just to make it as absolutely clear as possible, allow me to include some illustrations!

In Classical Mythology, a Siren looks like this:

Greek - Black-figure Kylix with Sirens - Walters 4837 - Detail B

Or, maybe, like this (winged bird-ladies, my friends. WINGED.):


And this is what a Mermaid looks like:

So, as you can see, Sirens and Mermaids are two very, very different things. Possibly even OPPOSITE things, because what is the opposite of a fish, if not a bird?

And now you know (assuming you didn't already! -- I'm guessing a lot of you already did, but whatever! consider this a PSA.)


  1. I think the modern problem is mainly down to the words.

    Do you know what the Spanish word for "mermaid" is? Sirena.
    French? Sirène.
    Italian? Sirena.
    Polish? Syrena.
    Croatian? Sirena.
    Albanian? Sirenë.
    Esperanto? Sireno.

    Obviously this doesn't work with all languages, but it's probably part of the issue. :D

    1. THAT I did not know.

      But CLEARLY they cannot be the same thing, because they are totally different lady-monsters! I'm thinking this means we have to blame the Romans, because for Siren to become the word for mermaid in that many languages, the conflation must have begun a loonnng time back.

    2. I only found out last week, actually!! (Helping my cousin with her Spanish homework - she had to write a short story, and she's obsessed with mermaids.) When I saw the translation, I wanted to find out how many other languages had similar words.

      I'm guessing it was something around the Romans. Interestingly though, my Classical Latin dictionary lists "Nympha" for 'Mermaid', and nothing at all for 'Siren'. Maybe they were conflated at some point during the Empire?

    3. or Medieval Latin, which is when we start getting that conflation happening in art!

      Nympha for mermaid makes sense, especially if mermaids were associated more with naiads for a while, which is where I would have put them, category-wise, in my head. It makes a lot more sense than bunching them with sirens!

    4. That would also make a lot of sense. (When did Italian become a separate language?)

    5. no idea! but I could see it being adopted in later from the later Latin in the romance languages. I'm pretty sure Italian broke off well before the middle ages, but really, I am no linguist at all, so don't trust me!

  2. THANK YOU! It always bothers me when people automatically equate the two together.

    I also didn't know that about the various languages. So interesting!

    1. Right?! it is totally my pet peeve in life. Because when I see Siren, I think BIRD-LADY-MONSTER!

      I guess my head is just stuck too far in the past!

  3. There's a newish series by Amanda Hocking that features sirens as the paranormal creature. I like her take on them, because it blends the Greek mythology with the contemporary understanding—sometimes they have fish tails, sometimes they're giant birds, and they're always luring men to their doom with their voices. :) The origins are firmly placed in Ancient Greece, too.

  4. My WIP novel, tentatively titled Sirens in Santorini is about Sirens in the Greek sense-Mermaids, water nymph s, although I did start off writing about Selkies. It's paranormal fantasy and I may take liberties with myths and mash up but they definitely have fins! I'm curious about the Amanda Hocking series too.

    1. So strange that even the modern Greek sense of them has shifted toward the fish-women when classical mythology paints them with wings!

  5. They've always been birds to me. Birds sing. Fish don't sing. :p

    1. Totally!! I hadn't thought of it that way, honestly, but so true!


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