You might want to stay out of the water.
It’s common knowledge that the real The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen is super messed up. There’s pedophilia, slavery, and casual talk of bathing in warm blood, to name a few examples. But Denmark has nothing compared to other scary stories of merfolk and sea creatures from around the world. There are some seriously terrifying myths and folklore out there with oddly specific details like storing your soul in a teapot. And if I ever go swimming in Japan, I’ll always keep one hand covering my butt. Here are the weirdest, most horrifying tales from the water.
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This Japanese toad monster is all about that, ehem, butt—and that’s not a euphemism! The yellowish, greenish folklore creature is after special magic that’s inside a mythical organ called the shirikodama that’s supposedly in every human’s anal cavity. But wait, there’s more. You can placate a kappa by throwing a cucumber in the water (which is also not a euphemism) because they love cucumbers, and in the kappa’s hierarchy of needs, a snack is more important than gaining more magical ass powers.
The Tupi, an Indigenous people of Brazil who lived on the coast until the 1600s when systematic colonization ravaged the country, believed in a myth about the evil Ipupiara. This man-monster with hair plugs (Yes, really. It’s described as “sewn on”) hugs you to death and then sometimes snacks on your cold, dead genitals. But only sometimes.
These Eastern European creatures are slimy old naked men with fish heads. Bearded fish heads. And this portrait perfectly illustrates and solidifies in my mind why it’s so important to donate to Wikipedia. But it gets weirder: They store human souls in teapots. If the lid comes off, the soul can escape in the form of a bubble in the water. And, just looking at the facts here, this Slovak and Czech fairy tale sounds like the most elaborate excuse for covering up a fart in the water.
Not all mermaids are evil. Or at least they don’t start that way. In Russia, the rusalka came from a pagan myth about these really sweet ladies who watered your plants. But by the 1800s, the stories had evolved into a super depressing version where any woman who dies a tragic death in the water comes back as a mermaid ghost to haunt the water and pull more people under.
These Norse shape-shifting sea creatures will catch you and force you to basically clean their whole underwater house. But they really, really like silver. So, make sure you have some pocket change if you ever visit the Orkney Islands. It’s believed that if you throw a coin into the water, it might save you from becoming a mer-maid.
So far, this list has been pretty brutal and horrifying, so let’s take a break with something cute. In China, there are medieval stories about the jiaoren, beautiful half-shark, half-girls that are generally pretty nice, highly skilled in artisan crafts, and make a lot of cool baskets. Also cool: When they get sad and cry, their tears turn into pearls.
I will never look at a seal the same again. Never. Never ever. Back in the Orkney Islands–yep, the same place with the Molly (Mer)maids–there’s also the selkie. It’s a seal that can shed its skin and come on land as a super hot person. But if their seal skin is lost, they get stuck on land as a human.
If you thought the Japanese kappa was interesting and oddly specific, buckle up for the Nure-Onna. This Japanese snake lady sits by the water and tries to trick people into thinking a fake bundle is a baby and that she’s ignoring it. So, as the stories go, most good-natured people care about babies and try to save the fake baby. But if you try to pick up the faby (fake baby), Nure-Onna will drain your blood. Oh, yeah. That escalated quickly because she’s a snake vampire.
The Blue Men of Minch
Scotland’s Blue Men of Minch is basically like the Blue Man Group if the Blue Man Group hid in the water from the torso down and murdered sailors. As the story goes, if a sailor gets too close, the blue men will attack and feast on their flesh. So zombies. They’re fish zombies.
Next time you order Starbucks, look closely at the logo on the cup. The mermaid is likely a French melusine because she has twin tails. Some versions of the Melusine also have fancy golden dragon wings; in Luxemburg, it’s believed that she holds a golden key in her mouth. If you can claim the key, you can claim her as your bride. Though, proceed with caution and give her privacy. In many retellings of the Melusine, from texts in the Middle Ages to Proust lines, the Melusine has a very strict rule about not peeping on them when they’re bathing (Which is kind of disturbing that a rule is necessary and tells me a lot about the lack of consent historically.) as their lower fish form will appear when they touch the water.
In this Irish folklore, merrow can travel to and from water and land with a red magic hat called a cohuleen druith. And like the selkie’s seal skin, you can trap a merrow on land if you steal and hide their cap. In a country with so many fantastical tales, from leprechauns to banshees to fairies and changelings, it’s hard to stand out. However, the merrow is said to be absolutely mesmerizing with emerald scales and long silky hair that is so beautiful it distracts and almost hypnotizes sailors who watch merrow comb their hair.
The OG Mermaid
There are hundreds of different versions of sea creatures and mermaids from around the world. But where did it all start? Most credit the first mermaid as Atargatis, a goddess from Assyria around 1,000 B.C. And I’m happy to tell you she wasn’t a monster and didn’t want to get powers from your butt, eat your skin, or anything like that. No, her story is just super sad and will bum you out. She fell in love with a mortal man and accidentally killed him with her immortal goddess powers. Oops. So she jumped into the water to die herself, but she’s a goddess, so the water transformed her into a mermaid forever so she’ll never be with her love. Maybe that’s why mermaids and sea creatures evolved into something scarier and more fantastical over the centuries and continents and languages. Though a lost love is pretty frightening.