The Mermaids of Greece | Greek Folklore

greek legend mermaid

Are mermaids the same creatures as sirens? What is the difference to ancient Greek gorgons? Today, we explore the Greek folktales of mermaids in the Greek seas.

Mermaids of Greece: A Story by Helinika

It was a crisp spring morning and a group of Greek sailors had already started their daily works on their ship. One of them was a 19-year-old seaman apprentice named Alexis. It was Alexis’s first ever trip as part of the crew. The deck’s chief mate, Yorgos, had ordered him to be on the lookout on the bridge; a key-position to ensure the safe navigation of the ship.

Alexis stood in an exposed part of the forecastle. He used his binoculars to keep a watch for any possible obstacle on the Thermaic Gulf. It wasn’t long since they had exited the port of Thessaloniki, the second most populated city in Greece. The weather conditions were ideal; the sky was clear and the winds were soft. But it didn’t take long till the young seaman noticed something peculiar on the surface of the sea, just few kilometers away from them.

A thick mist covered the area and the waters started bubbling as if they were boiling. It was a spectacular moment that left Alexis standing there, speechless. He removed the binoculars and focused his attention at a dark shadow on the surface near him that got bigger and bigger.

“Could this be a whale?”, he thought.

To his surprise, what appeared in front of him was the pale face of a woman; a gigantic woman whose wet long black hair covered parts of her face. She wore a diadem made of corals and a heavy set of necklaces that covered her chest.

The woman moved her waist and showed a giant fish tail covered in glowing green scales. She was a mermaid. The creature then proceeded to lightly hit the vessel with that tail, causing it to shake.

Alexis fell on the floor and saw the gigantic mermaid reaching towards him and asking him in a language that resembled koine Greek:

“Is King Alexander alive?”

Alexis was petrified and confused. He stared back at the woman, watching her face turn from desperate to furious. Her eyes were now yellowish-green and resembled the ones of a serpent. And that was when Yorgos, the experienced chief mate, offered him his hand and pulled him up. With a steady voice, Yorgos said the following:

“King Alexander is alive and ruling the world”.

The mermaid’s eyes turned back into normal. Big, brown, and warm. She left a sigh of relief and slowly sunk into the water. The mist disappeared and the seamen turned back to work, as if nothing had happened.

Thessaloniki, the Mermaid | Modern Greek Folklore

The above story is fictitious, but it resembles the spoken testimonies of many Greek sailors over the past centuries. According to Greek folklore, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea are haunted by a giant mermaid that searches for her brother. That is no other than princess Thessaloniki, sister of Alexander the Great.

Thessaloniki is a historical, rather than a mythological person. She was the daughter of King Philip II of Macedon. Her names translates to “Thessalian victory” and it was given to her to commemorate the battle of the Crocus Field in Thessaly. It goes without saying that the city of Thessaloniki is named after her.

The princess had a tragic fate, since she was killed by her own son, Antipater, who felt that his mother favored his brother. But, according to a Greek folktale, Thessaloniki never died; killing her would be an impossible task.

From Maiden to Mermaid | Modern Greek Folktales

It is rumored that the well-known Alexander the Great, brother of Thessaloniki, had been searching for a spring that could restore someone’s youthful appearance or even make them immortal. That was the so-called “Fountain of Youth” that is first described in the writings of the historian Herodotus in the 5th Century BC.

According to the legend, Alexander bathed in its magic waters in an unspecified location in the East. He felt rejuvenated and filled up his flask, which he later offered to his sister. Thessaloniki washed her hair with the magic water and ended up becoming immortal.

Years later, when she heard that her dear brother had died, Thessaloniki tried to end her life by drowning herself in the Thermaic Gulf. But, since she had become immortal, she turned instead into a sea creature – half human, half fish.

Mermaids, Sirens, and Gorgons: Are They Different?

If you translate the term “mermaid” into Greek, the result will be “γοργόνα”; the same result will appear if you translate the term “gorgon”. Moreover, it is very likely that the term “mermaid” and “siren” are used synonymously.

In ancient Greek mythology, the term “mermaid” did not exist. On one hand we had the sirens, giant birds with the face of women that lured sailors with their beautiful voices. On the other hand, we had gorgons; serpentine monsters that were able to turn humans into stone.

However, in modern Greek folklore and in the folklore of other cultures, these gorgons and sirens describe the same creature: a mermaid; a woman with long hair and a fish tail who can breathe under and over the surface of the sea.

Although Hans Christian Andersen’s book “The Little Mermaid” made us feel sympathy for these creatures, in most folktales, mermaids are mischievous sea demons that attack rather than save sailors. And the most popular mermaid is of course Thessaloniki, who asks seafarers whether her brother is still alive. If someone makes the mistake to answer negatively, the mermaid becomes angry and attacks the vessel in an attempt to sink it.

Some Greek sailors narrate such stories over the years. Are their stories true or real? I leave it up to you. Before you leave, don’t forget to like, comment, subscribe, and, perhaps, share this story with a friend who loves myths and legends. Till next time!

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Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.