The Greeks and Romans had stories about mermaids and various other half man half fish beings. What creatures are they referring to? If it isn't a creature but more of a "fishing tale" then when was the first recordings of one?

  • 4
    "The Greeks and Romans had stories about mermaids and various other half man half fish beings." Could you name those stories? It would make this question much more answerable. – user62 May 2 '15 at 18:53

I believe it may be the Tritons, but there are probably other part-fish, part-humans. Plus, there was a fish-headed god in antiquity (not greco-roman).

A side note is that there were some mistranslations and some of the "sirens" in Greek tales were half-birds and not half-fish (i.e., harpies and not mermaids).

"In Greek mythology, the Sirens were three dangerous bird-women, portrayed as seductresses who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. Roman poets placed them on an island called Sirenum scopuli. In some later, rationalized traditions, the literal geography of the "flowery" island of Anthemoessa, or Anthemusa, is fixed: sometimes on Cape Pelorum and at others in the islands known as the Sirenuse, near Paestum, or in Capreae. All such locations were surrounded by cliffs and rocks.

When the Sirens were given a parentage they were considered the daughters of the river god Achelous, fathered upon Terpsichore, Melpomene, Sterope, or Chthon (the Earth; in Euripides' Helen 167, Helen in her anguish calls upon "Winged maidens, daughters of the Earth"). Although they lured mariners, for the Greeks the Sirens in their "meadow starred with flowers" were not sea deities. Roman writers linked the Sirens more closely to the sea, as daughters of Phorcys.

Their number is variously reported as between two and five. In the Odyssey, Homer says nothing of their origin or names, but gives the number of the Sirens as two. Later writers mention both their names and number: some state that there were three, Peisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepeia.

The Sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as fully aquatic and mermaid-like; the facts that in Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Romanian and Portuguese the word for mermaid is respectively Sirena, Sirene, Sirena, Syrena, Sirena and Sereia, and that in biology the Sirenia comprise an order of fully aquatic mammals that includes the dugong and manatee, add to the visual confusion, so that Sirens are even represented as mermaids. However, "the sirens, though they sing to mariners, are not sea-maidens," Harrison had cautioned; "they dwell on an island in a flowery meadow." - Sirens (Crystalinks)

EDIT from comments

Plus, there was a fish-headed god in antiquity (not greco-roman) could you name him/her? From which mythology is he/she from? – plannapus May 11 at 9:46 1

There are several, the most famous is Dagon:

"Dagon was originally an East Semitic Mesopotamian (Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian) fertility god who evolved into a major Northwest Semitic god, reportedly of grain (as symbol of fertility) and fish and/or fishing (as symbol of multiplying)."

There are also fish-headed fertility figures, like:

"The anthropomorphic female sculpture (known as Praroditeljka / Ancestress) found in the front of the sanctuary in house No. XLIV at Lepenski Vir has a large "fish-like" head, collar-bones and clawed hands that appear to be opening up her vulva, in a very similar way to that of European Sheela-Na-Gigs figures." - Lepenski Vir "Fish-Head" Ancestress

The original Question asked

What creatures are they referring to?

If it is a non-mythological creature, it may be based on real anthropomorphic fishes like the monk/clerc fish or the "cardinal" fish, the poisson évèque which was described by 16th century French naturalists, as in this site in French.

  • Plus, there was a fish-headed god in antiquity (not greco-roman) could you name him/her? From which mythology is he/she from? – plannapus May 11 '15 at 9:46
  • 2
    There are several, the most famous is Dagon: >"Dagon was originally an East Semitic Mesopotamian (Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian) fertility god who evolved into a major Northwest Semitic god, reportedly of grain (as symbol of fertility) and fish and/or fishing (as symbol of multiplying)." – Reed Jun 7 '15 at 0:25
  • 2
    PLus fish-headed fertility figures, like: "The anthropomorphic female sculpture (known as Praroditeljka / Ancestress) found in the front of the sanctuary in house No. XLIV at Lepenski Vir has a large "fish-like" head, collar-bones and clawed hands that appear to be opening up her vulva, in a very similar way to that of European Sheela-Na-Gigs figures." ancientcraft.co.uk/reenactment/pa_lepenski_vir.html – Reed Jun 7 '15 at 0:31

Nereus was a fish-tailed deity.

Anything needed to be said about Nereus is nicely expressed in this link, but I'll sum up some things.

That Nereus is a sea-god of some antiquity is noted by the familiarity in which he appears in Hesiod, though that particular name might be later. In Homer, he is named instead something like "The Old Man of the Sea."

He wasn't always depicted half-fish, though. The earliest depiction we have of him does (a cup made ca. 520), but contemporary pottery (late 500s/early 400s) also portrays him human-like.

Romero Recio and B. Kowalzig connect him to archaic maritime divinities that sprang up following Greek overseas expansion.


Virtually all the ichthyanthropomorphic [part fish, part humanoid] characters featured in Greco-Roman mythology are water deities, usually sea-gods. Even Aigipan, the one aegichthyomorphic [part goat, part fish] character of these myths, is a god (who was made into one of the twelve signs of the zodiac, the Sea-Goat Capricorn). And as a matter of fact all the top-shelf water-gods in this mythology are at least partly ichthyomorphous [fish-shaped], with the glaring exception of their king Poseidon. (I suggest why this is the case in the last section below.)

Okeanos and Eurynome

The only explicit description (that I've been able to find) of a creature which fits the description of a mermaid, i.e. a woman with the lower half of a fish in place of legs, in ancient Greco-Roman myth, is from Pausanias' travelogue called the Description of Greece. On his tour of Arkadia [Arcadia] the writer came across a river called "Afterbirth." At the point at which it met with another river there was a shrine to Eurynome which even in Pausanias' time was supposed to be ancient. Says the writer, the Phigalians believed that Eurynome was a surname of the goddess Artemis.

Those of them, however, to whom have descended ancient traditions, declare that Eurynome was a daughter of [the Titan] Okeanos, whom Homer mentions in the Iliad, saying that along with Thetis she received Hephaistos [when he was cast out of heaven at birth by his own mother Hera]. On the same day in each year they open the sanctuary of Eurynome, but at any other time it is a transgression for them to open it. On this occasion sacrifices also are offered by the state and by individuals. I did not arrive at the season of the festival, and I did not see the image of Eurynome; but the Phigalians told me that golden chains bind the wooden image, which represents a woman as far as the hips, but below this a fish. If she is a daughter of Okeanos, and lives with Thetis in the depth of the sea, the fish may be regarded as a kind of emblem of her. But there could be no probable connection between such a shape and Artemis.

Contrary to Pausanias I can think of a few reasons why Artemis would be thus represented, including the fact that Artemis was closely connected to at least sixty daughters of Okeanos [Oceanus].

According to Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautika, before Poseidon's parents (and Artemis' grandparents) the Titans Kronos and Rhea ruled the universe, atop Mt Olympos [Olympus] there sat enthroned an ancient Titan couple, namely Ophion ("Snake") and Eurynome. While Kronos wrestled Ophion for his throne, Rhea wrestled Eurynome for hers. The younger Titans won the matches and cast their defeated opponents into Tartaros, the deepest part of the Underworld.

In an alternate ending, Kronos and Rhea hurled Ophion and Eurynome into the Okeanos River. Perhaps the meaning here is that Ophion fell to Earth and became the world-encircling stream of Okeanos in which waters Eurynome dwelt thenceforward. It is here that she is later found in the company of her niece, the Nereid Thetis, and where they receive the fallen Hephaistos. It may be at the point of her own fall that Eurynome acquired her ichthyoid features.

If this is so, it should be easy to see her affinity for Hephaistos, who was rejected by his mother because he was born deformed, and either he was also born crippled or the fall from heaven took from him the use of his legs. In Hesiod's Theogony, around the time of the cataclysmic conflict between Kronos and his son Zeus, Eurynome became the third in Zeus' series of seven wives. She bore him three goddesses called the Kharites [Charites, "Graces"], one of whom would become the wife of her own half-brother Hephaistos.

In interpreting the writings of Pherekydes of Syros, from whom Apollonius seems to have acquired his wrestling-match episode, Eusebius of Caesarea posits that Ophion is essentially an original Phoenician version of Okeanos. Whatever the case may be with that, there is iconographic material which might provide a conceptual connection between them.

Procession of Deities at Wedding of Peleus & Thetis In the centre of this image we have Okeanos attending the wedding of his granddaughter Thetis among the other deities. In his right hand he holds a fish and his left a snake. (If Israel was Hellenised enough by the 1st century AD perhaps there's a connection to be found between this and the question asked in Luke 11.11: "What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of ikhthyos [a fish] give him ophin [a serpent]?") Okeanos' lower half is itself more serpentine or eel-like than it is especially ichthyoid, although I suppose it might represent something such as an oarfish, which, apart from being a genuine ikhthys, is no small creature. Oarfish

Nereus, Phorkys, Triton and the Ikhthyokentauroi

Okeanos, the firstborn Titan, was older than the Sea-King Poseidon, but there were other water deities who may have been yet older than Okeanos, and these are his half-brothers Nereus, Phorkys [Phorcys] and Thaümas, the sons of Pontos (the Sea) and Gaia (the Earth). Of these, Hesiod says that Nereus was the eldest, who got married to Okeanos' daughter Doris. There do not seem to be any surviving ancient depictions of Thaümas but Phorkys is featured in Antiochene Roman mosaic while Nereus is a lot more popular, appearing on Greek pottery hundreds of years earlier.

Unlike her sister Eurynome, Doris was not a mermaid, and both she and her husband are depicted as completely humanoid, although there are quite a few instances of Nereus appearing as almost indistinguishable from his half-brother/father-in-law Okeanos, complete with the giant serpentine fish-tail in place of legs. Nereus and Doris had fifty daughters and one son, none of whom is described as ichthyomorphous at all (except for the fact that the son was eventually transformed into a shellfish). One of the daughters, Amphitrite, married Poseidon and thus became the Queen of the Sea. Together they had a number of children, all completely humanoid except for the huge merman Triton, who became an important sea-god. Lake Tritonis in Libya, where he lived, was named after him.

Nereus possessed arcane knowledge and was also fond of shape-shifting. He was willing to part with his hidden knowledge if the seeker thereof was able to wrestle him without losing his grasp upon him while the god transformed himself into all sorts of things like various animals, plants, water and fire. His daughter Thetis and grandson Triton seem to have inherited this trait from him. Thus among the adventures of Herakles is included a wrestling-match first against Triton, who barred the way to his grandfather, and then again against Nereus to acquire from him the information that he wished to obtain. Thetis agreed to marry the mortal king Peleus only if he managed a similar feat against herself, which he did.

Herakles vs Triton, Flanked by Nereus & Poseidon
This art-piece would appear to be preserving a tradition in which not only Nereus (left, completely humanoid) was present when Herakles wrestled with Triton (centre) but so was Triton's father Poseidon (right, wielding his Trident).

According to the Byzantine lexicographer Suidas, Carthaginians were originally called the Aphroi. They derived their name from their ancestor Aphros, the first king of Libya. Africa had previously been referred to as Libya but from the seafaring Aphroi it received its current designation. King Aphros, says Suidas, was a son of Kronos by Okeanos' daughter Philyra, which would thus make him the brother of the Centaur Kheiron [Chiron] and a half-brother of Poseidon and Zeus. From Roman mosaics in Carthage, Cyprus and Antioch, we know that Aphros was an Ikhthyokentauros [Ichthyocentaur, "Fish-Centaur," as distinct from the Hippokentauroi, "Horse-Centaurs," such as Kheiron]. Essentially, Ikhthyokentauroi were part god, part horse and part lobster (or—in place of the lobster parts—crab, or, as usual, serpentine fish), sometimes portrayed as red all over.

William Smith’s 1867 Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology describes the Ikhthyokentauros as “a particular kind of Triton”. The aforementioned mosaics also portray other specimens of this Libyan breed of mermen, who may also be sons of Kronos and Philyra. Courtesy of Aaron Atsma's website The Theoi Project, we have them listed as Bythos, Agreus, Anaresineus and Gaeeus. Most of the "merpeople" of Greco-Roman myth, however, belong to the tribe of sea-sprites descended from Triton himself, and these are thus called the Tritones [Tritons], the females of whom are Tritonides (Anglicised Tritonesses). In his Imagines ["Images"] Philostratus the Elder says that the Tritonides were the handmaidens of Nereus' daughter Galateia (who at some point is beloved of the Cyclops Polyphemos).

In the Roman mosaics, a maroon-coloured Bythos appears carrying Thetis and flanked by Thetis' mother Doris and sister Galateia; Anaresineus is carrying Galateia; Agreus is carrying the Nereid Kymothoe; and Gaaeus is carrying the Nereid Pherusa.

Anaresineus & Galateia
Galateia and Anaresineus: Okeanos and nearly all the sea-gods depicted in these mosaics have crab's forelegs as horns.

enter image description here
Merman Phorkys carrying his niece, the Nereid Dynamene. He is not horned like the Ikhthyokentauroi but he does still have the crab's forelegs, albeit growing from his waist.

The first Triton also had at least four daughters, who presumably were all mermaids, or at least avid shape-shifters like him and his grandfather Nereus: namely Tritonis (according to Apollonius Rhodius & Hyginus), Triteia [or Tritaia] (according to Pausanias), Kalliste (according to Apollonius Rhodius) and Pallas (according to Apollodorus). Their mother was probably Okeanos' daughter Libya, who had given to Africa its previous name. According to Atsma, most of the Tritones were similar in appearance to the first Triton "but others were said to be monstrous creatures with red eyes, sea-green hair, vicious teeth and dolphin-tails." He further describes the Tritones as the attendants of the major sea-gods, which would include their ancestors Nereus and Poseidon.

Spartan Triton
In Greek and Italian mosaic the form that Triton takes is an interesting case which distinguishes him from other mermen in that he actually seems to have a literal pair of legs, except that each leg is a fish-tail. This corresponds surprisingly closely to the description of the Giants against whom the gods went to war. These creatures are also bipedal but their legs are snakes, which could provide an aquatic connection back to Ophion-Okeanos, their half-brother.

Poseidon, Glaükos, Palaimon and Proteus

Curiously, the only time that Poseidon ever seems to take on the form of a sea animal is in an obscure story mentioned by Ovid, who is building on a passing statement of Pausanias. The city of Delphi was reputedly named after a son of Apollon [Apollo] but in this version Poseidon somehow managed to seduce Melantho, daughter of Deukalion and Pyrrha, in the form of a dolphin. The child they have together is called Delphos, "Dolphin," and after him the famous city receives its name.

Barring this, Poseidon is unique among all sea-gods, who each, with their hybrid shapes, seem to represent the changing nature of the sea. Glaükos [Glaücus] and Melikertes-Palaimon [Melicertes-Palaemon], when they became sea-gods, also basically turned into mermen. The snake-like form of the mermen's fish-tails suggests a fluidity of form which Poseidon perhaps counters with Olympian stability, with himself as the bridge between the sea and the rest of the cosmos. However, if the Melanthian Delphos story really is something to go by, perhaps there might have been ancient artistic depictions of Poseidon in mid transformation, with his upper half humanoid and the lower that of a dolphin.

Although he is never described as a merman, Poseidon's herdsman Proteus bears striking resemblance to Nereus, whose son-in-law he also is. Both of them are called the Old Man of the Sea, and Proteus prefers not to share his wisdom unless its seeker can out-wrestle him through an adrenaline-rush series of metamorphoses. It is not unlikely that Proteus looked like all the ichthyoid sea-gods, or at least, in nature and form, was like something in between Poseidon and Nereus.

{A few details passim are sourced from 2 answers I gave to 2 similar questions on Yahoo! Answers.}

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.