Mermaids may be fictional, or they may not, but you can find them just about everywhere in Norfolk, Virginia. This seaside port town adopted the mermaid as their town mascot over two decades ago, and this timeless symbol of the sea is still going strong.
The symbol of the mermaid pays honor to the town’s maritime history. Artists have created multiple mermaids in different styles and techniques, but all following the same basic shape They now adorn buildings all over town, from parks, fountains, walls, in front yards, to schools. You can even find them on Ikea flagpoles. The idea to adopt the mermaid as their town mascot came when a local philanthropist drew inspiration from Chicago’s popular “Cows on Parade” campaign and suggested they adopt the mermaid. It is fun to wander around Norfolk and see how many you can find!
The mermaid is a long-lived folklore image that has appeared in many cultures around the world, including Europe, Asia, and Africa. A mermaid is half human, half fish. The male counterpart would be a Mer-man. Together they are grouped as Mer-folk. It is probably no coincidence that “mer” is the French word for “sea.” Images of mermaids have been around for centuries. They can be found in England’s Durham castle, built in 1078. Merfolk are mentioned in Chinese mythology as early as the 4th century BC. The origins of the myth of mermaids are unclear and hard to pinpoint to one specific story or culture.
The associations with mermaids have improved over time. Many original mermaid stories came from a darker place, of mermaids luring people to their death, or sad stories of women drowned and their ghostly figures haunting the oceans. Even Christopher Columbus reputedly spied a mermaid in 1493 off the coast of Hispaniola. He claimed it was an unattractive face of a man though, which may be why many believe it more likely he just saw a manatee. They have been a popular source of storytelling in art and literature for hundreds of years. In more recent centuries, Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Little Mermaid” written in 1836 improved the reputation of the mermaid, turning it into one of a happy, beautiful creatures living out their days swimming the waters and playing in the surf. Once Disney turned the story into an animated movie and added a singable soundtrack, the mermaid image was transformed completely into the happy, colorful folktale we enjoy today.
Today you can find them throughout the city, and “Mermaid Spotting” is a fun pastime. Wander the beautiful streets of this artistically inclined seaside town and when you find a mermaid, take a photo and post it online with a hashtag #NorfolkVA or #NorfolkMermaid. They are loved by young and old, visitors and residents of Norfolk alike. It is an ongoing art show, with new mermaids being added, and old ones retired. You’ll find mermaids made of wood, stone, metal, and any number of materials. You’ll find them decorated in as many styles as there are artists – from pastel watercolor to grunge metal fusion to humorous cow prints and everything in between. The creativity of artists who design the mermaids is inspiring! It may be time to go mermaid spotting!
See how many mermaids you can find when visiting Norfolk aboard the following cruises: