The Difference Between Mermaids And Sirens

“O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note, / To drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears.” —William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors

In A Nutshell

Somewhere along the literary and mythological road, mermaids and sirens got confused into one creature: a half-woman, half-fish creature known for her beautiful singing voice. Originally, it was only the mermaid that was a half-human, half-fish creature, and a singing voice wasn’t mentioned in early myths. Sirens were the singers, and they were actually half-woman, half-bird creatures.

The Whole Bushel

In today’s pop culture world, the mermaid and the siren are often portrayed as the same character. They’re inevitably a beautiful woman from the waist up and a fish from the waist down, and they’re noted for their enchanting singing voices.

Originally, though, these two creatures were two entirely separate myths.

Mermaids have been in myths and folklore since their first appearance in ancient Babylonian stories. Era, the fish god, was half man and half fish; after that, it was the Greek god Triton. In fact, it was the Greeks who gave us the first descriptions of mermaids. Living specimens were said to have been examined by writers such as Pausanias in the second century, and were described as having scales covering their entire bodies, gills, a fish-like mouth, and a scaly tail like a dolphin’s.

It was the nereids of Greek mythology who gave rise to the tales of the mermaids that were so popular among later sailors’ mythology. These sea nymphs were given the features traditionally associated with the mermaid, half beautiful woman, half fish. These enchanting creatures were well known to mingle with humans and to bear children. The Greek hero Achilles was born of a mermaid, and some Greek families today still claim mermaid blood in their lineage. Nereids were found anywhere there was water, including springs and wells. While mermaids have always been enchanting, it’s been more their appearance than their singing voice.

It was the sirens that were known for their singing voices, supposedly of such beauty that sailors would forget what they were doing, and simply stop to listen. Ships would crash on the rocks around the sirens’ island, killing those who fell prey to their song.

But the sirens were never half-woman and half-fish creatures. Originally, there were only three sirens, and they started out as mortal human women who were the handmaidens of Persephone, daughter of the goddess Demeter. When Persephone was abducted by Hades, Demeter gifted the three girls with the bodies of birds so they could help search for the lost girl. When they couldn’t find her they eventually gave up and went to live on the island of Anthemoessa, cursed by Demeter (who was angry at their abandonment of the search) to remain in their half-bird form.

The sirens were further cursed when they entered a singing competition with the Muses and lost the contest as well as their wings and many of their feathers.

Eventually, the sirens died with the fulfillment of a prophecy that should anyone be able to resist their song, the sirens would perish. And they did; when Odysseus had his men block their ears and then tied himself to the mast of his ship so he could listen but not interfere, the sirens hurled themselves into the sea and died as he passed.

Sirens and mermaids have been confused for a long time, well before Piers Anthony and C.S. Lewis assigned mermaids their singing voices. Thomas Hoccleve’s “La Male Regle,” written in the 15th century, clearly refers to mermaids luring sailors to their death with their song. Strangely, it is this melding of the two creatures that has persisted throughout the centuries; according to sailors’ logs and records dating back to the 1600s, mermaids were very, very real. Although obviously debunked, the myth of the mermaid has continued, with some sightings being reported as late as 2009.

Show Me The Proof

Sirens: Bird-Women Monsters
Sea Monsters and Mermaids, Greek Myths and Legends, by Adrienne Mayor
LiveScience: Mermaids & Mermen: Facts & Legends
TV Tropes: Sirens are mermaids

  • Andy West

    Mermaids make a high frequency clicking and whistling sound just like a dolphin or porpoise, while a siren tends to go nee-naw nee-naw nee-naw.

    • Lisa 39

      I heard about a mermaid who has a beautiful singing voice, her name is ariel and her father is king triton!

      • Alun Daniel

        I’ve seen that documentary, too. I had no idea crabs were such jaunty characters

        • Lisa 39

          Or could sing so well and babysit!

        • frank

          Maybe yours are, mine are quite depressed and lethargic.

        • Naomi Swan

          Mine just itch really badly.

      • Blue

        You know what’s faster than a shark?

        A mermaid on her period………………

        • Lisa 39

          That’s funny!

        • Mas Salleh

          Fish do not have periods.

      • anonymous

        Haha lol me to

    • Nathan Forester

      I heard about three sirens who seduced three con-men (one of the con-men is George Clooney) with a song called “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby”.

      • UncleMike Taylor

        Yepper and one of them Siren loved up Pete then turned him into a horny toad!

  • Ryan

    This article really made a “Splash!”

  • Anita

    My best friends name is Persephone and we’re all mermaids. OMG I’m so scared!

  • Marcedez

    Go to youtube and do mermaid of meracals by maya trintt

  • SaltWaterSiren

    is it possible that when the nymphs flung themselves into the sea they were changed yet again into something resembling their mermaid cousins. Then over time the two species interbred and that’s how we got the image of the singing mermaid that we know today.

  • Dragon of the Eastblue

    Actually it was the Babylonians who spoke of mermaids first 7000 years ago.

  • Nathan Forester

    There’s one other thing you should remember about sirens, they loved Pete up so much they turned him into a horny toad.

  • zippydapper

    there actually have been old lores where sirens were depicted as women with a fish tail and bird feet with wings on her back