The first mermaids in ancient cultures were worshiped as gods and goddesses and appeared in mythology between 700 b.c. to 1000 b.c. The earliest mermaid myth appeared in Assyeria in 1000 b.c. and told the story of how a goddess named Atargatis became a mermaid.
Atargatis was in love with a human shepherd but accidentally killed him. Out of guilt, the goddess flung herself into the ocean hoping to become a fish. But her beauty was so great, that she never could fully become a fish. Instead she became half goddess, half fish, with a tail below the waist and human body above the waist.
The worship of Atargatis began in ancient Assyria and spread as far as Rome and Greece. She is also known as Derketo in Greek mythology and is thought to have been the inspiration for the worship of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Atargatis is considered to be Great Mother and Goddesss of Fertility of the earth and water. The spread of civilization in the ancient East is also attributed to Atargatis as she is said to have taught the people social and religious practices.
Doves and fish were her sacred animals, doves symbolizing love and fish symbolizing that she was the fertility of the waters. Fish were so sacred to her that in the Syrian town of Ascalon, people were forbidden from eating fish from a lake near Atargatis’s temple. These fish were very well kept, had jewels on their head and were as affectionate as pets when they were approached by people from the town. Her close ties to the conservation of fish and water fertility explain why the ancient goddess was depicted as a mermaid.