In Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale of “The Little Mermaid,” the titular mermaid’s father is simply known as the Sea King, and is a widower with six daughters and a mother who tends his house. In Disney’s adaptation, they removed the mother, added another daughter, and apparently kept his widower status. While I haven’t seen the direct-to-video prequel, I understand that his late wife’s name was Athena, on which I’ll have more information later in the post. Most importantly for this post, however, Disney tied the Sea King into Greek mythology by naming him Triton, after the half-fish sea deity.
Triton is the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, and serves as their herald.
He is sometimes shown bearing a trident like his father’s, but his main magical accessory is a shell that he can blow to stir up or calm the waves of the sea.
While never all that major, Triton does show up in several myths, most prominently when he helps the Argonauts reach the Mediterranean. He also participated in the war against the Gigantes. Triton is said to have had many children, but most of them didn’t have identified mothers. His most famous offspring was the Nymph Pallas, childhood friend of Athena, whom the goddess accidentally killed. The fish-tailed god is sometimes said to have raised Athena, which could be why Disney decided to name his wife after the goddess.
In addition to the god named Triton, there were the Tritons, most likely children or descendants of Triton himself. They were sort of like satyrs of the sea, and formed Poseidon’s retinue when he traveled. While often described as also having fish tails, the geographer Pausanias claimed that they had the tails of dolphins, but also gills, scales, and seaweed-green hair.
In addition to the humanoid Tritons, the term sometimes included sea horses and icthyocentaurs, the latter of which I mistakenly claimed were an invention of Rick Riordan.
Finally, there are sea snails called tritons, given that name because their shells are similar to the one the god uses. They were commonly converted into trumpets. It’s probably these tritons to which Frank Black refers in the line I used in my subject, from his song “The Swimmer.”
Ballyhoos, by the way, are halfbeak fish often used as bait. Their name apparently comes from a South American Tupi-Guarani language, and literally means “penis fish.”