Different names for mermaids are so often used synonymously that sometimes it becomes difficult to distinguish between the individual mythical creatures. What is the difference between mermaids and sirens and how do they differ from nymphs and nixies? I did some research to find out.
The difference between mermaids, nymphs, sirens and nixies is that mermaids and nymphs are friendly water creatures while sirens and nixies are described as mischievous or cunning. They also differ in their shape, where they live, and their mythological origins.
Whether they are benign or malevolent is the biggest difference between these aquatic creatures, but not the only one. Mermaids, nymphs, sirens and nixies all have their idiosyncrasies, which I will discuss in a bit more detail below.
The difference between mermaids and nymphs, sirens and nixies
All four have different characteristics, but they are often confused with each other. For example, mermaids are often mistakenly described as mermaids or sirens as mermaids.
As stated, the biggest difference between the water creatures is that mermaids and nymphs are benign and mermaids and sirens are malevolent according to the myths. Other differences are in their shape, the place where they each live, and their mythological origin.
Thus, mermaids and sirens always have a human upper body and a fish tail. However, mermaids have a human body on land, and nymphs even always have a human form.
Moreover, they live in different places. Mermaids and sirens live in the sea, mermaids live in bodies of water such as lakes and rivers, and nymphs have subspecies that live in the sea or in bodies of water respectively.
All four creatures come from different myths and legends. The nymphs and sirens come from Greek mythology, the mermaids mainly from German sagas and the mermaid became famous mainly through the fairy tale of the Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen.
In the following table you will find an overview of the differences between the four water creatures:
|Good or evil?||Good|
|Good||Mixing human and fish; sometimes human form on land|
|Mythology||Various European myths. Best known from the fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen.|
|Good or evil?||Good|
|Habitat||Water nymphs: in bodies of water; sea nymphs: in the sea|
|Good or evil?||Mostly evil|
|Shape||In water, mixed creatures of human and fish; on land, human form|
|Habitat||Waters such as rivers and lakes|
|Mythology||Mainly Germanic mythology|
|Good or evil?||Evil|
|Shape||Mixed creatures of man and fish; formerly also man and bird|
|Water creature||Good or evil?||shape||Life||mythology|
|Mermaid||Good||Mixed creatures of man and fish; sometimes human form on land||Sea||Various European myths. Best known from the fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen.|
|Nymph||Good||Human figure||Water nymphs: in waters; sea nymphs: in the sea||Greek mythology|
|Nixie||Mostly evil||In water, mixed creature of man and fish; on land, human form||Waters such as rivers and lakes||Mainly Germanic mythology|
|Siren||Evil||Mixed creature of man and fish; formerly also man and bird||Sea||Greek mythology|
Another difference that can be considered is the fact that the nixies and nymphs are rather considered water spirits, and the mermaids and sirens are considered water creatures. I wrote more about which water spirits there are here.
The mermaid is certainly the best known of the four water creatures. This is mainly thanks to the fairy tale of the Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, which was already very popular in 1837 and, thanks to Disney’s 1989 film adaptation, has very much shaped our image of mermaids today. When we imagine a mermaid today, she usually looks like Arielle.
What the mermaids have in common, as in the fairy tale of the Little Mermaid, is that they seek redemption and love. For example, the Little Mermaid has been deprived of her soul and she can only get it back if a human man loves her.
However, the image of the mermaid and her meaning have changed somewhat nowadays. We no longer see them as in need of redemption, but primarily as friendly, confident and strong female aquatic beings.
Since the nymphs, sirens and nixies are often confused with the mermaids, I explain in the following a little more detail how they differ in terms of their mythological origin and their meaning to mermaids.
What is the difference between mermaids and nymphs?
Mermaids and nymphs, especially water nymphs are also often confused. However, there are a few distinct differences between the two. Mermaids have a human upper body and a fishtail, but nymphs always have a human body.
Like mermaids, however, they are well-meaning and some of them also live in the sea.
From the point of view of mythology, nymphs were also very different from mermaids. Nymphs in Greek mythology are young, female nature spirits descended from the Greek gods.
There are very many different nymphs, all guarding different places in nature and often helping people when they need help. So there are water and sea nymphs, but also tree nymphs, mountain cave nymphs, cave nymphs, and meadow nymphs. However, if the river or tree they live in dies, then they too must die.
The water nymphs are also called Oceanids and Naiads. They were often worshipped at individual bodies of water by the Greeks as fertility goddesses, or their waters were considered magical and healing. There are quite a few Oceanids and Naiads, all of which have their own names.
The sea nymphs are also called Nereids and they are the 50 daughters of Nereus and Doris, protecting castaways and entertaining sailors. They were also depicted riding on the backs of dolphins or hippocamps in many ancient Greek depictions. Hippocamps are hybrid creatures that are horse in the front and fish in the back. However, only a few of the Nereids as well as water nymphs had fishtails too.
What is the difference between mermaids and sirens?
Lastly, sirens are also very often confused with mermaids or mistakenly used synonymously. However, between the mermaids and the sirens, the biggest difference is that the sirens are clearly evil.
Like the mermaids, they live in the sea and also have a fishtail. However, they were not always described as having fishtails. For originally they were known as mixed creatures of man and bird. On the first representations of circa 650 B.C., they were fish creatures with human heads or upper bodies. With fishtails, they were represented only since the time of the Middle Ages.
In contrast to the friendly mermaids, the sirens played a very different role in Greek mythology. According to the myths, the sirens lured passing sailors with their beautiful song, then dragged them from their boats into the depths of the sea, so that they died.
They are best known from the myth of Odysseus by the poet Homer, who was the first to write down the legend. He described that two sirens lived on an island and attracted sailors with their voices and the promise to tell them the future.
Out of curiosity, Odysseus wanted to hear the sirens’ song. To avoid being bewitched, he had his sailors plug their ears with wax and tie themselves to the mast of the ship so he could hear the sirens. Since he was tied down, he could hear their voices and promises, but he could not jump to them. Thus, they could sail past the sirens without dying.
[Related: 17 reasons why sirens are not mermaids]
What is the difference between mermaids and nixies?
Mermaids and nixies are particularly often confused. This is perhaps also due to the fact that partly older legends about nixies from the German-speaking area can not always be clearly separated from the legends about the mermaids.
Basically, it can be said that mermaids are friendly-minded, while nixies were often described as malicious. In addition, nixies always have legs outside the water and do not live in the sea like mermaids, but in waters.
The nixie also has different mythological roots than the mermaid. Nixes are female water spirits from the Germanic language area and are found primarily in German folk tales. The word Nixie comes from the Old High German nihhus/nicchus and dates back to the Middle Ages, but could be even older.
Besides the Nixie, there is also the male form of the water spirit called Nix. Together they live as a family at the bottom of bodies of water, that is, at the bottom of lakes or rivers.
However, the Nixies daughters go ashore and mingle with people to dance at parties or go shopping. When they enter the land, they look like people with two legs. Only the hem of their long clothes remains wet and dripping.
In some legends, the nixies drown fishermen or kidnap children, but it was not until later in the Romantic period that they were sometimes depicted as friendly.