The Real Difference Between Sirens And Mermaids

The origins of mythical monsters can be hard to pin down, but it becomes even harder when people start describing different beings in interchangeable terms. Consider the case of the siren and the mermaid. Most people think they're the same, but honestly? They couldn't be more different.

Sure, sirens and mermaids do have similarities. Both are generally described as beautiful half-women, half-animals, who lure men to their deaths. Both have fascinated poets for centuries. However, that's pretty much where the resemblances end, because as Audobon points out, while mermaids strictly live in the water, sirens are bird-women who soar across the air, land, and only sometimes the sea. These flying creatures, mentioned as far back as The Odyssey, have otherworldly voices that tempt men with whatever they desire: Odysseus, for instance, defied warnings and asked to be strapped to his ship's hull so he could hear the siren's song.  Though sirens have been depicted in many ways — at one point, there were even male sirens in art, but as the University of Colorado explains, this trend largely died off — they tend to look like birds with human faces. 

Mentions of mermaids, on the other hand, date way back to the Assyrians, according to author Skye Alexander. However, the so-called "nereids" of Greek mythology, described by the Theoi Project as the sea-nymph daughters of the Aegean Sea, could have also helped inspire some of the later mermaid myths known today. 

Fish and birds aren't quite alike

So why is it that mermaids and sirens are treated so interchangeably, these days? 

Well, it seems time and translation confusion may have played a part, writes Vice. Poets in later years began referring to sirens as half-women, half-fish, even though mermaids remained extremely popular, which only further muddied the waters. As time went on, artists used the idea of a siren to symbolize lust, and the supposed dangers of female sexuality. Mermaids, meanwhile, remained creatures that sailors would often report seeing in their travels. Christopher Colombus reportedly saw three mermaids during his voyages, for instance. Spoiler alert: it was probably some manatees.

Today, mermaids remain extremely popular, not just because there will be a new Little Mermaid movie, but as an enduring symbol of female beauty. Meanwhile, popular media — when it depicts sirens as actual sirens — tends to portray them as rather monstrous. But honestly, the two mythical creatures shouldn't be confused: One is a bird and the other is a fish.