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Mermaids in Myth and Art

Mermaids and their fishy kin have been with us for a long time, but where did these alluring hybrids come from? We trace the mermaid's lineage, from Mesopotamian carvings to Disney films and Barbie dolls.

Mermaids

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Like angels, mermaids belong to that category of beings we might just hope to see, though almost certainly we haven’t and won’t. Still, we recognise them at once, a familiar image in our culture if not our experience. Unlike angels, however, mermaids don’t exist within a theological framework that “explains” them. There’s no mermaid dogma, nor even a central text setting out quite what they are. Appropriate to their ambiguous nature, mermaids are slippery creatures, at home in a surprising range of contexts, from the oral traditions of folklore to the most officially approved manifestations of high art. It’s impossible to track a consistent path down which our idea of the mermaid has developed – her natural element is, after all, far more fluid than any graph or wall-chart.

Fish-people are probably an imagin­ative inevitability. We have populated the sea, as the sky, with creatures recognisably like ourselves yet also different because of the element they swim in. And we can add to this a trait that, as mythologies across the world attest, seems basic to the human imagination – we create the unknown from the familiar, envisaging hybrid creatures whose morphology offers a potent combination of recognisable parts. Sphinxes, centaurs, satyrs and soul-birds are the cousins of the mermaid – we mix and match. We can’t hope to know when humanity first thought of sea-people, or whether this imaginative colonisation of the waters reflected some buried memory of our own evolutionary development, but there’s no need to think that the idea only developed in one form, one place or one time.

GODS AND DEMONS
The carvings of Ancient Mesopotamia already offer alternatives, showing fish-tailed mermen (and occasionally merwomen) of the type with which we’re familiar, but also fish-garbed figures, standing men who seem to have a fish-body (or skin) hanging down their backs, the fish head worn like a hood (pictured left). The first type doesn’t seem to have any individual identity – probably they were protective dæmons rather than specific gods (the Mesopotamians were big on hybridisation – goat-fish, scorpion-men, lion-men, snake-dragons). The unquestioning Internet identification of such figures with Dagon, actually a god of corn, is part of a long-standing but highly dubious tradition based on the misinterpretation of a passage in the Old Testament. [1]  The standing figures, however, might represent Oannes, a sage-like creature described as having the whole body of a fish yet also a human head and feet, who emerged from the sea to teach humanity everything from architecture to agriculture. Surviving texts are too fragmentary to clarify this mysterious imagery, but Mesopotamian fish-men, like bird-men, seem generally to be a (positive) part of the dæmonic universe existing alongside the merely human one – and possibly priests donned the fish-cloaks of the standing figure-type to access some of their power and demonstrate their living reality.

Any religion which includes a sea deity will probably find itself flirting with fishy attributes, though quite how these get incorporated will vary. The Syrian goddess Atargatis (also called Derceto and Dea Syria) is described as having a mermaid-like shape, though on existing coins her human head simply sits atop a full-length upright fish. [2] As she is a godd­ess of fertility, links have been sugg­ested with foam-born Aphrodite/Venus, the Greek/Roman goddess of love; but Aphro­dite does nothing fishier than occas­ionally posing beside a dolphin. The class­ical trad­ition of Greek and Roman art really ought to be the cradle for our familiar mermaid, reaching back as it does to the myst­erious imagery of older mythologies and spreading its influence forward to colour the whole development of western icon­ography. Trouble is, the Greeks and Romans simply weren’t big on fish-girls. Classical religion tends towards humanised deities – the ones with big beards and muscles who behave just as badly as mere humanity but have better drap­ery and more thunderbolts. They are usually shown simply as idealised people, with artistic hybridisation reserved for the lesser creatures of their world, such as satyrs and sphinxes. Rulers of the sea Poseidon/Neptune and Amphitrite don’t have fishtails, though their son Triton usually does (often two, as though they might function as the equivalent of legs). As well as being a great motif for fountain design, Triton became the prototype for a whole tribe of anonymous Tritons, providing a merman chorus to enliven any marine scene. Occasionally they are Tritonesses, simply a decorative female equivalent, not associated with any particular myth. These are unusual, though – the main feminine presence in the waters of Ancient Greece was the Oceanids, Naiads and Nereids, all shown just as lovely nymphs with variable drapery and the occasional dolphin mount. Where fishy (or indistinguishably snaky) lower halves appear, it’s usually on male figures such as the mighty serpent-tailed Typhon, Oceanus or the river god Achelous – the last of whom does have a family conn­ection to the development of the mermaid myth.

SIREN SONGS
Achelous was father to the Sirens, deadly temptresses of the ocean who are often presented as synonymous with mermaids. In several European languages, including French, Italian and Spanish, the word for “mermaid” is actually a derivative of “siren”, while manatees and dugongs, those sea-mammals so often presented as the reality behind mermaid sightings, belong to the order Sirenia. However, the classical Sirens (whose number, names and maternal parent vary in different accounts) weren’t really fish-women. Their best-known appearance is in the Odyssey, where Odysseus is warned that once heard, their seductive song will cause his sailors to leap overboard and drown. The sailors manage to row on unharmed because they stop their ears with wax while Odysseus (Roman Ulysses) has himself bound to the mast and so hears the music without risking a watery grave. Homer’s description of the Sirens only says that they inhabit a flowery meadow surrounded by the remains of their victims, but the setting and the beautiful voices don’t immediately suggest fishy qualities. On Greek vases or Roman murals they appear as bird-women, sometimes just with human heads, sometimes human to the waist so that they have arms with which to play musical instruments. [3]  They are sometimes described as the companions of Persephone, daughter of the earth goddess Demeter, who was carried off by Hades to be queen of the underworld. The Sirens either asked for wings so as to search for her or were cursed with them for not searching hard enough. They have another, more mysterious role, though, as mourning figures on Greek tombs. The so-called Harpy tomb from Xanthos, now in the British Museum, shows bird-bodied Sirens carrying off what appear to be little soul-figures, poss­ibly fulfilling a role that popular Christ­ian tradition later assigned to angels.

Unlike the mermaid’s undiscoverable roots in unwritten folklore, the Siren can boast an official identity via classical mythology – but in the post-classical Christ­ian era, the Sirens came increasingly to be shown in fish-tailed form. There is no cent­ral mermaid legend, just a belief that they are out there, so the Siren story gives mermaids a consolidating raison d’être while the mermaid gives the Siren a more graceful and decorative form. The Siren connection does illuminate our cultural conceptualis­ation of the mermaid. If (as was once the case) the mermaid is simply accepted as an exotic but entirely natural creature, you’d expect the merman to be as prominent as his female counterpart in lore and art. Identification with the (all female) Sirens, though, explains why the maid rather than the man represents the species, as well as giving her dangerous powers of seduction and a tendency to sing – not essentially a piscine activity. When mermaids carry instruments, it’s because at some level they’re Sirens. Their more usual comb and mirror presumably relate to ideas of seduct­ive beauty and feminine wiles.

In medieval bestiaries, the Sirens get listed as per their classical origins, but they’re increasingly likely to be shown as mermaids. Sometimes, there’s an attempt at compromise, which leaves them with a fishtail and wings, or bird feet worn in awkward conjunction with a scaly lower half. But it’s the familiar mermaid-type which wins the struggle for visual identity (perhaps because Christian art likes its feathery wings attached to unambiguous angels.) Rarely the central subject of any large-scale artwork, still the mermaid-Siren becomes ubiquitous in the margins of manuscripts and the decorative carvings of church interiors. In this context the bare-breasted, scaly-tailed temptress may seem inappropriate to modern concepts of eccles­iastical iconography, but the mediæval mind revelled in grotesquery and obscure symbolism. [4] She might be carved on a misericord or corbel as any other creature or plant would be, simply to show the bounty of God’s creation. Symbolically, she could personify the deadly temptations of the flesh or (with her mirror and comb) the sin of vanity; and when she holds a fish, that might be the soul entrapped by some fishy heresy. It’s possible that she might suggest more positive theological concepts, with the mystery of Christ’s god/man duality echoed in her more homely combination of flesh and fish, while her mirror could also symbolise the virtue of Prudence, or even the immaculate nature of the Virgin Mary, whose complex iconography suggest the absorption of some sea-goddess traits along the way. [5]

AMBIGUOUS BEINGS
The mermaid also developed a role in secular imagery, appearing on maps (an early example being the 13th-century Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral) to signify the ocean or what one might expect to find in it. She (and occasionally her male partner) joins the unicorns, dragons and griffins of heraldry, turning up on armorial bearings and corporate arms. For obvious (though perhaps rather tactless) reasons, the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers displayed a particular fondness for mermaids in their regalia and pageantry. She also followed the Red Lions and White Harts in finding her way from mediæval heraldry onto inn signs. In seaside towns one might expect Mermaid pubs and hotels to reflect maritime themes, but her most memorable manifestation must be London’s Mermaid tavern, famed in the early 16th century for a literary clientele that included Raleigh, Jonson and Shakespeare. The latter’s plays include the odd reference to mermaids without needing to explain what they are, though the most memor­able of these sounds more like a Siren – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon, king of the fairies, remembers a mermaid who rides a dolphin’s back and sings so sweetly that stars shoot from their spheres to hear her. This might possibly be a reference to Mary Queen of Scots, once married to the Dauphin (dolphin) of France. Less kindly, a crudely drawn propaganda cartoon published in 1567 in Edinburgh shows Mary as a mermaid, which at this time had connotations of prostitution – women slippery below the waist, with siren-like tendencies towards the destruction of men.

Alongside her multi-faceted symbolic nature, the mermaid also provided the focus for narratives without literary pretensions, local legends and ballads interested in her interaction with humanity. Like most mythic beings, she helped, cursed and prophesied according to how she was approached; but two story-patterns in particular reveal her as a creature uneasily located between the worlds of nature and society, the sea and the land, the animal and the human. In one, a mermaid reluctantly marries a man who has captured her, lives with him on land and bears his children, but secretly waits for an opportunity to desert them all and escape back to the sea. This comes when she finds again a magic token that her husband has hidden – often a red cap. This echoes the myth of the Selkie or sealwife who finds her sealskin and can return to pinniped form, or the Greek legend of water nymphs trapped into marriage when their scarves are stolen by human wooers. Matthew Arnold’s Victorian poem The Forsaken Merman posits an unusual reversal of this as the merman and his children mourn a human mother who has returned to her life on shore, drawn back to Christian worship and afraid of losing her soul in the sea.

Whether merfolk, as beings of such ambiguous status, had souls and could hope for Christian salvation was a matter for genuine debate. The Irish legend of Liban (set in the 6th century, but written down in the 17th) has a human girl surviving a flood by becoming a mermaid (specifically, half a salmon), living for 300 years in the sea, then willingly being caught, choosing Christian baptism and an immediate entry into paradise over a further 300 years on Earth and being revered as a holy virgin under the name of Murgelt (mermaid). [6] But Liban had been born human, so presumably had a soul anyway. This debate forms part of the second story-type, where it is a mermaid who falls in love with a human, either dragging him down to her underwater world or bargaining for the chance to live as a woman.

If this tale sounds familiar, then it’s for good reason. Heralding a new taste for the fantastic in literature and art, the 1811 novella Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouquet was an international runaway succ­ess. A water-nymph rather than a mermaid, Undine faces the problem of marrying a human prince under a set of conditions that will obviously end in tragedy as their two worlds fail to mesh. The story was adapted into opera and ballet, inspiring music and paintings and, pretty obviously, giving a big hint to the Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson when in 1837 he published his own variation on the theme, The Little Mermaid. Andersen knew his folklore, but was also concerned with didactic moralising, so his heroine has to earn an immortal soul through suffering. She can change her fishtail for legs but only at the cost of her beautiful voice (no Siren tricks here) and knowing that every step will be agony. After all this, the prince she loves, marriage with whom would win her a soul, weds someone else. She could kill him and become a mermaid again, but resists the impulse and miraculously becomes an airy spirit who will eventually go to Heaven. (And yes, the Disney cartoon did make a few alterations for the young viewer of 1989, including a more conventional happy ending and a name – Ariel – for the mermaid. The 2000 sequel, The Little Mermaid II – Return to the Sea, reverses the story, introducing Ariel’s human daughter Melody, who longs to be a mermaid.) Andersen had co-opted mermaid-lore for literary purposes, shaping the various traditions into an immensely popular mixture of the fantastic, the winsome and the moral. He also incidentally helped define the modern image of the mermaid, inspiring Edvard Eriksen’s 1913 bronze statue of The Little Mermaid. The siting of the sculpture in Copenhagen harbour contributes to its iconic status as a symbol of Denmark – a connection which must account for this mermaid’s unique role in advertising bacon.

MAKING A SPLASH
Such a connection also helps account for the infantilising of mermaids. Like fairies, they can be dangerous and are best avoided, until the 19th century re-invents them as nursery tales. Cute, friendly mermaids start turning up in children’s books and illustrations (Barrie’s Peter Pan, for example) as denizens of a fantasy world closely interwoven with the natural one which inquisitive Victorian children were invited to explore. They become more familiar in adult culture too, with the latter end of the century a golden age for the incarnation of mermaids, Nereids and Sirens on gallery walls. The eroticism encoded in such images is scarcely subtle. Nubile girls whose fishy tails hide their most disturbing secrets comb abundant hair, or allure with songs that, like those of the Sirens, cannot actually be heard. Victorian “Sirens” tend to be mermaids or simply musical nymphs – the bird lady of the Greek vases rarely reapp­ears, though JW Waterhouse (whose A Mermaid remains a defining image of the familiar type) did produce one startlingly weird painting in which Odysseus and his mariners are beset by real Sirens, swooping like sea-birds around their ship. [7] With European artists such as Bocklin, Munch and Klimt, the painted mermaid assumes a Symbolist strangeness which, along with her hybrid nature, makes her reappearance as a Surrealist icon almost inevitable. Paul Delvaux’s mermaids are almost convent­ional, but René Magritte’s 1935 painting Collective Invention posits the unthinkable alternative – a creature fish above the waist but woman below. Mythology isn’t always biologically rational, and the sexual inter­action between human and mermaid (quite aside from their entirely different fish or mammalian reproductive systems) posits a major logistic problem (lessened if the mermaid is the two-tailed sort, like the one who appeared on the original Starbucks logo but has now become rather more discreet in displaying the scaly appendages she used to twist over her head in the manner of a Sheela na Gig). [8] The “reverse mermaid/man” sometimes appears as a knowing joke in this context, for instance in episodes of Red Dwarf and Family Guy.

Mermaids and their kin are quite at home in the world of entertainment. The Little Mermaid has been acted, danced and sung. The entire action of Wagner’s vast Ring cycle is triggered by the dwarf Alberich’s encounter with the flirtatious Rhine Maidens (who in the first complete production at Bayreuth in 1876 managed, courtesy of some elaborate stage-craft, to look like swimming mermaids.) Possibly the most famous Czech opera remains Dvořák’s 1901 Rusalka, another variation of the doomed love theme, in which a lake spirit sacrifices her voice to marry a prince only to face betrayal and doom (his – she becomes a spirit of death. In Russian mythology, Rusalkas were highly dangerous river spirits whose singing lured men to a watery grave. During “Rusalka week” in early June, they were at their most potent and nobody went swimming.) In films, a flirtation with a mermaid is an altogether more light-hearted affair. In the 1948 British film Miranda, Glynis Johns plays a mischievous mermaid who disguises her nature on land by travell­ing in a wheelchair. In 1984’s Splash, Daryl Hannah’s mermaid assumes human form when dry, which simplifies the mechanics of the thing.

Modern culture has effectively domestic­ated the mermaid, who appears without comment on postcards and in cartoons, logos, brand names and advertising. Sometimes this ties in with a watery theme (in bathroom accessories, for example), sometimes no logic can even be guessed at (why do I own a mermaid-brand baking tray, plus a set of mermaid Christmas tree decorat­ions?). She is often sexy and siren-like, though less likely to destroy her man. In a brilliant 1997 TV advert, flickeringly swift mermaids try unsuccessfully to drag the shrink-to-fit Levis jeans off a young sailor, while a 2004 poster/postcard campaign designed by fantasy artist Boris Vallejo has three besotted mermaids captivated by their souvenirs of louche young men who are irresistibly dry thanks to Lynx body spray. Disney’s Ariel has become a role model for the princess generation of little girls who can fancy-dress-up in a shiny vers­ion of her fishtail, and Barbie dolls have offered a mermaid variant, complete with sequinned tail to fit over their standard legs. And like so many mythic beings, the mermaid is all over the Internet, the new home for the folklore of fantasy and romance. Culturally, her role is assured, multiplied but possibly diminished in meaning. One would have to look to Yemaja, the sea-goddess central to several African religions associated with Mami Wata, or Vodou’s LaSiren, to feel the elemental force that a sea-deity can personify – but then the mermaid never was quite a goddess. She’s the human face of the unknown deeps, and we use her to suggest those edges of the human condition that, like the Sirens’ song, we usually feel safer avoiding.

Notes
1 I Samuel, ch5, vv1–4.
2 Gwen Benwell & Arthur Waugh: Sea Enchantress – The Tale of the Mermaid and her Kin, Hutchinson and Co, 1961, pp28–29. This book remains the best overview of the mermaid’s role in folklore.
3 It is sometimes suggested that the bird-headed Siren derives from similar soul-figures depicted in the funerary art of Ancient Egypt. This would tie in with the Siren’s appearance on Greek tombs, but no direct connection has been established.
4 Sirens, though not mermaids, are mentioned in the Old Testament, but as creatures haunting places of desolation. Inventively translated from the Hebrew (which doesn’t have a word corresponding to the Greek Siren), these references have also been interpreted as relating to ostriches, jackals, snakes and even hedgehogs. See Linda Phyllis Austern & Inna Naroditskaya (eds): Music of the Sirens, Indiana University Press, 2006, pp25–27. This volume of academic essays examines the meaning of the Sirens across a wide range of contexts.
5 Perhaps the best-known mermaid from an ecclesiast­ical context is the one carved on a pew-end in the 15th-century church at Zennor, in Cornwall. According to local legend, this representation memorialises a real mermaid who, in a reversal of traditional roles, was attracted to the church by the beautiful voice of a chorister, eventually luring him away into the sea. Used to promote tourism in the area, this story has every sign of having developed retrospect­ively in order to “explain” the carving in the church.
6 Benwell & Arthur Waugh, op.cit., pp61–2.
7 Waterhouse’s A Mermaid (1900) belongs to the Royal Academy. His Ulysses and the Sirens (1891) is in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. In his 1875 painting Sirenen, the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin reinterpreted the classical type by showing two musical women who, in a singularly awkward combination, have chicken-like lower bodies. Russian art also depicts bird-women, the Sirin and the Alkonost (the latter deriving from the Greek myth of Alcyone, who was transformed into a kingfisher). Though classical in origin, these creatures, with their songs of sorrow and joy, have become Christianised and a part of Russian folklore and popular art.
8 Heinz Insu Fenkl: 'The Mermaid', Endicott Studio Journal of Mythic Arts, Summer 2003.


MELUSINE
European folklore and Romance literature boasts a heroine who is often categorised as a mermaid, though hers is a specific story not associated with the sea. Melusine and her two sisters were born from one of those “conditional” mixed marriages so popular in fairy tale and legend. Her mother Pressyne was a fairy who married a mortal king on con­dition that he left her alone when she gave birth or washed her children. Needless to say, he couldn’t manage this, and Pressayne took her three daughters off to Avalon. On learning how their exile came about, the girls imprisoned their hapless father and were then punished by their mother. Melusine was doomed to assume the shape of a serpent below the waist, but only on Saturdays. The story now starts to take on the allure of inevitability. Robert of Poitou fell in love with Melusine, but she would only marry him on condition that she had Saturdays to herself. Of course, one Saturday he peeped into her bathhouse to find his half-serpent wife in a tub of water. It was only when he called her a serpent in public that, understandably, she flew away, never to be seen again by mortal eyes. The tale was written down by Jean d’Arras in the late 14th century, though there are other versions and translations. Having a literary form, it also generated illustrations, in which the visualisation of a snake lady with wings was a main attraction. Melusine often keeps her mediæval headdress on, even while flying out of the window in demi-dragon form. In her tub she can look more like a mermaid, with a coiling, scaly tail. Despite the sad end to her tale, Melusine remained a generally benevolent presence, whose aristocratic connections gave her a certain cachet in European heraldry and symbolism. As an emblem, she usually appears looking more like a two-tailed mermaid than a serpent-fairy, often draping a tail over each arm. Though the story refers to an individual, the plural term of Melusines indicates that she has now become a type.


LORELEI, SUPERMAN AND MARILYN MONROE
One of the most firmly located of seductive water spirits must be the German Lorelei, since the name actually refers to a steep rock, about 130m (430ft) high, situated on the east bank of a bend of the Rhine. A dangerous and mysterious place (espec­ially before the area was urbanised), in local legend it concealed ancient treasure. Its name has been variously interpreted as lurking or murmuring rock, and the latter would be most appropriate to the siren-like spirit who has come to personify it. She, however, is a product of 19th-century romanticism, first appearing as “LoreLay” in a ballad of 1802 by Clemens von Brentano. Here, she is a beautiful girl, betrayed in love and transformed into a sorceress. Follow­ing a run-in with the church, she is being taken under escort to a nunnery when she flings herself into the waters of the Rhine on seeing her lover’s ship. Later, in his collection of Rhinemarchen, Brentano presents her more as a guardian spirit of the rock, a beautiful fairy. A good legend, whatever its origins, soon takes on a life of its own, and Brentano’s creation inspired an impressive body of Lorelei lore, including Heinrich Heine’s 1823 ballad, set to music by Friedrich Silcher. This became so much a part of German national identity that it has been referred to as an alternative national anthem. The Nazis, reluctant to damage so revered a piece of German culture, are rumoured to have permitted its continued publication and performance by changing its authorship to “Anonymous” (Heine was Jewish). The ball­ad’s golden-haired maiden whose distracting beauty lures men to death in the river has become so intrinsic to the area that, rather charmingly, the tourist board now elects a “Miss Lorelei” every two years.

Her allure has spread beyond Germany, however – In Anita Loos’s satirical 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the archetypal not-so-dumb blonde gold-digger is named Lorelei Lee, portrayed in the 1953 musical film version by Marilyn Monroe, a screen siren whose career carries its own mythical reson­ance. And there’s more than an echo of the Lorelei in the name Lori Lemaris, an early girlfriend of Superman. At her first appearance in 1959, the secret nature of the lovely girl in the wheelchair remained hidden from Clark Kent (and the reader) – I wonder how long it took them to guess that beneath her blanket she concealed the tail of a mermaid?

Meanwhile the geographic Lorelei continues to distract. In 2003, a Rhine cruiser managed to collide with the cliff and run ashore on the oppos­ite bank of the river. The boat was called “Loreley”.

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Lynx ad

Advert for Lynx body spray, by Boris Vallejo.

  Starbucks mermaid

Starbucks's mermaid logo.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

  Undine

Undine, by John William Waterhouse.

Miranda

Glynis Johns as Miranda, 1948.
Kurt Hutton/Getty Images

  Melusine

Melusine.

  Lorelei

Angelika Stein, the current 'Miss Lorelei'.

 
Author Biography
Art historian Gail-Nina Anderson is based in Newcastle, and is a freelance arts journalist and lecturer. She is a frequent FT contributor, much admired for her UnCon talks.

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