Wht Were Mermaids in Greek Mythology? - Historical Investigation

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What were mermaids in Greek mythology?

SLIDE 1 [Modern Mermaids]

In Greek mythology, mermaids have their own name. Going off the typical top-half woman, bottom half fish concept, they do not really exist in Greek mythology. However, the idea of a naked seductress who dwells in the ocean does.

In researching, I found that there were many variations. I was under the impression that nymphs and sirens were the same thing, but after close speculation I found that sirens were sometimes portrayed as half bird rather than fish, as can be seen in this Greek pottery.

SLIDE 2 [Siren’s]
According to the website “Theoi Greek Mythology”, the Sirens were three sea nymphs who lured sailors to their death with a bewitching song. Mention of their song is quite common throughout many sources such as on Encyclopaedia Mythica, greek-gods.info and the book “The Classical world” Pg 73. According to both theoi and Helium, they were formerly handmaidens of the goddess Persephone. When the girl was secretly abducted by Haides, Demeter gave them the bodies of birds, and sent them to assist in the search of Persephone. They eventually gave up and settled on the flowery island of Anthemoessa. After some time, some Argonauts passed by blocking their ears with wax so that they were not seduced by their song. Odysseus wanted to hear it so he had his men tie him to the mast. The Sirens were so distressed to see a man hear their song and yet escape, that they threw themselves into the sea and drowned. This story can be found in Homer’s 7th book. This is also the story depicted on the pottery.

Now, the type of nymph that most resembles the modern-day concept of mermaids is the Haliais, more specifically; Nereids and Oceanids. Haliai comes from the word for "sea" and also means "salt". They are often also referred to as sea nymphs.

SLIDE 3 [Haliais]
According to the website Hellenica this is, Thetis (a Nereid) on a Hippocampus with the armour for Achilles. Like modern-day...
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