Monday, April 4, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Mermaid

Elements of folklore, myth and legend for your game

Flipping through the early editions of D&D and AD&D, I see that merfolk are an actual race of creatures - there are mermen and mer-women, with their merbabies and merkids.  They cultivate seaweed and raise fish in pens like happy sea farmers, and it makes me want to cry - a monster, an honest to goodness horrible creature from folklore, turned into a pastoral sea farmer.  (The monster naturalism gone too far...)

My hope is that anyone using a mermaid would already take a more folkloric approach anyway than the "sea farmers", but here's a brief survey of the mermaid in British folklore to provide an alternate view.  Note - one could conflate the mermaid with the Greek sirens, or the German nixies or Undine - I'm focusing on the British folklore (and definitely no Hans Christian Anderson!)

The first thing to understand is the mermaid is an omen of doom - every sailor that sees a mermaid knows that he's going for a swim and dying.  They'll be crashed against the rocks, sunken by a storm, or sucked down by a whirlpool.

Take for instance, these verses from the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens (I'm sure all the english majors out there remember this from grade school - this should be a nice remembrance):

The king sits in Dumferling toune,
Drinking the blude-reid wine:
‘O whar will I get guid sailor,
To sail this schip of mine?’

In different versions, the king goes on to commission Sir Patrick Spens to sail in the winter, everyone is sad about the danger this represents, and of course they sink and drown.  There are lots of variants - some have them going to Norway, most feature bad omens of the moon and tides, and they often see a mermaid:

Out and starts the mermaiden,
wi a fan into her hand:
‘Keep up your hearts, my merry men a’,
For ye’re near the dry land.’

Out and spak Earl Patrick Graham,
Wi the saut tear in his ee:
‘Now sin we’ve seen the mermaiden,
Dry land we’ll never see.’

And of course, the various ballads usually end with the familiar quatrain:

Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
It's fiftie fadom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spens,
Wi the Scots lords at his feit.

Another ballad, called The Mermaid, actually features the mermaid circling the ship to sink it (as opposed to watching the carnage from a distance):

Twas Friday morn when we set sail 
And we were not far from the land 
When the captain, he spied a lovely mermaid 
With a comb and a glass in her hand 
Then three times around went our gallant ship 
And three times around went she 
Three times around went our gallant ship 
And she sank to the bottom of the sea

But I think one of my favorite lines is in the story of the Laird of Lorntie, who is pulled out of the water from the mermaid's grasp by his manservant, and the mermaid mocks how she was going to be eating his blood:

"Lorntie, Lorntie,
Were it na your man,
I had gart your heart’s bluid
Skirling in my pan."

That's what I'm talking about!  The mermaid is a hateful water spirit that sinks ships and drinks the blood of drowned sailors - for fun!  Forget the pastoral sea farmers with the cultivated rows of sea kelp and herding the fishes and toting along the merbabies.

Fish boobies!
There's a spiritual dimension to the mermaid that get can get worked into the picture, if so inclined.  The medieval mermaid was thought to represent pride and vanity - notice how they're usually described with mirror and comb; carvings of the mermaid would appear in medieval churches as a warning against lust (a quick google search of mermaid church carvings will show a few).

The Mermaid for Gothic Greyhawk
Mermaids are creatures originating from the fairy realm that delight in sinking ships and drowning sailors - they are drawn to lair near dangerous shoals, clashing rocks, and hazardous seas where many sailors meet their ends.  The sight of a mermaid is an omen of impending doom.

The mermaid appears from the waist up as a beautiful topless woman with luxurious golden curls, and will often be seen sunning on rocks, combing her hair and regarding herself in the mirror.  Her body from the waist down is a fish.  Her sunken lair will be the site of numerous ship wrecks and the bleached bones of dead sailors.

The Mermaid (remade for Labyrinth Lord)
No. Enc.: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 120' (40') swimming
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 8
Attacks: 1 (dagger) + gaze
Damage: 1d4 / Special
Save: M8
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: XV, X
XP: 2050

The mermaid can call on the following powers:

Weather Control:
Once per day, as per the 7th level cleric spell, the mermaid can use this power to generate storms and maelstroms to destroy ships.  It takes just as long to generate the effect as the spell, which may give a ship time to outrun the storm.

Command Sea creatures:
The mermaid will have a number of sea creatures guarding it's undersea lair, such as giant fish and giant crabs.

Charming Gaze:
The mermaid has an innate charm ability, like the charm person spell, 3 times per day.

The mermaid has the standard fey creature vulnerabilities:  double damage from cold iron; can be turned by a cleric using the "special" line on the turn chart (in this way, you'll note that most fey creatures share similar traits with demons, the other creatures of chaos).


  1. A similar folkloric creature is the Rusalka from Slavic myth, an undead spirit (usually the undead corpse of a girl who drowned herself to avoid forced marriage or out of broken heart) who seduces men to come with them into rivers and lakes and drown.

  2. Folklore is such a great resource for any DM (or writer). So many stories and monsters to choose from :)

  3. It is typical, dnd use mythic creatures, but the its name is the same, other attributes are different.
    Dnd Vampire is maybe is nearest of the original source. As I know it came from the Dracula myth. As hungarian it is very important for me.