Images of mermaids pervade my living space, most of them greeting card-sized. There's a Waterhouse, a Howard Pyle, an old
cartoon in playful watercolor, other assorted art images tacked up in the bathroom, jewelry, books, even some original artwork. This fascination, attraction, call it what you will, began in childhood, but I really have no idea why it has persisted so long. I have never been inordinately fond of water, the ocean, or swimming. I am, however, fond of the cooler, aqueous colors of the spectrum, and of Pre-Raphaelite hair styles. I also like fantasizing about mermaid treasure: salt-encrusted gems in nacreous jewel boxes that once held living sea creatures. Something about mermaid lore is as devastatingly romantic as the image of sunken Spanish galleons, laden with gold, heaped at the bottom of the sea. That is, after all, where she takes us, isn't it?
The appeal of the mermaid mythos is complex, as its various components appeal to different minds, for different reasons. What draws us to it? Darryl Hannah's lovely, lithe, naive and gentle portrayal in
notwithstanding, mermaids are, by and large, an unsavory lot. Throughout their many legends, they've done some things that, well, aren't very nice. Yet we are captivated by them, we are undone by the tales of their watery prowess. There is the luring of drunken sailors, to death by drowning or devouring; the all-important comb and magic mirror (Why is simple female vanity so central to this mythic figure? More later.); the Circean songs that ride the dark waves; the siren's conjuring that draws the lonely and confused, who listen, spellbound, on the hostile shore, at the edge of a forgiving, entreating sea.
Like Otter Zell, another lover of mermaids, I too tell of an epiphanic event involving a can of tuna fish. My best friend in childhood, also my next-door neighbor, ensnared me in these amazingly intricate games of dress-up with dolls. Barbie's more diminutive, cinnamon-haired teenage nemesis, known as Dawn, was the heroine of our summer afternoons. But after making her into a struggling actress in New York City, an alcoholic millionairess in a Hollywood penthouse, a boy-crazy teenager like my friend (she was four years older than me, and I wasn't digging this French-kissing thing), and various other
dramatis personae, we started to get a bit silly, and decided to make mermaid costumes. On the fateful day, our dolls were ready, and we asked one of our moms to make us tuna sandwiches for lunch. Alas! The only brand of tuna in the house was not
Chicken of the Sea,®
so our little joke fizzled (placing the half-nude doll with the shimmery green tail on the counter amid the sandwich fixings when Mom's back was turned -- just like on the TV commercial!). Just as well -- the doll looked better tied onto a rock in Cheryl's goldfish bowl, spice-colored hair floating like rusty seaweed -- and no risk of mayonnaise staining her tail of chintz.
Some time before that must have been when I saw
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, a film from the 1950s starring Ann Blyth. In it, a mild-mannered gentleman finds a mermaid on the beach and attempts to keep her in his home. She is less a house guest than a pet, it seemed to me. She cannot speak, yet sings beautifully. Ann Blyth is stunningly beautiful in her shimmery tail and tight fishscale bra. Peabody is obviously attracted to her, yet bumbles about, embarrassed by her potent sexuality. Now, I'm sure I'd be mildly nauseated by this film were I to watch it today, but at the time I was entranced.
Hans Christian Andersen
was another movie I loved, with its ballet version of
The Little Mermaid. And I remember being quite interested in the famous "Fiji Mermaid" hoax perpetuated by P.T. Barnum. The famous circus owner sewed a decaying fish onto a monkey torso and tried to pass it off as a miraculous example of a mermaid corpse. People weren't convinced for very long, but they were hoppin' mad when they found out they'd been duped. There is a recent episode of "The X Files" that deals with the Fiji Mermaid, along with other assorted sideshow freaks -- quite the best episode I've seen all year.
But more significant in what would become, perhaps, a lifelong relationship with this half-woman, half-fish archetype was a book of stories I found at the local library. That's right, the other kids went swimming when school let out -- I went to the library. I checked this book out repeatedly -- it was titled simply
Mermaids. Several years ago, aged 26 or thereabouts, I went looking for it again, and found it. Happily, the book had become no less magical to me. The stories were illustrated with delicate ink drawings, and the tales themselves were quite eerie and rather sophisticated, considering they were shelved in the juvenile section.
The one story from this collection which still haunts me was about a mermaid captured by a fisherman, who imprisons her in his barn, and won't give her any water. He takes away her comb and mirror, so her lovely golden hair gets tangled and dirty. He steals her magical harp, so she cannot charm mortals with her singing. She lies in the straw, filthy, dehydrated and pathetic. She eventually returns to the sea, but only after much hardship and brutal treatment.
The symbology of this story is intriguing. The mermaid's hair was her source of power (uncombed, it was useless); the comb, its conduit; the sea, her magical element; the harp, her magical personality (containing as it did her power to persuade and seduce). There are, of course, echoes of many mythic figures here: of Circe, of Delilah, of Aphrodite, of a myriad sirens, harpies, furies and muses. But most arresting is the image of the tangled hair. This theme is echoed in dozens of tales about mermaids from different cultures. In order to subjugate a mermaid, you must take away some repository of her power, and most often, it is her hair.
Maureen Duffy, in
The Erotic World of Faery, calls "The Little Mermaid" a "castration story" which works on many levels, with many objects being "cut off." These include the Little Mermaid's tongue, or the loss of her voice (remember Ariel as a mute, ditsy blonde, in Disney's version?); the hair of her sisters sold for a knife to murder the Prince (his throat cut, in some versions, while in others his heart is cut out); and finally, the Little Mermaid's tail is symbolically cut off, replaced with legs which allow her to walk, if painfully. Traditionally, hair cutting induces impotence. Samson's strength was in his hair, as Delilah found out, but for the mermaid, it seems more the source of her beauty. In a story by Valerie Martin (author of
Mary Reilly) called "Sea Lovers," it is the mermaid that does the castrating -- of a fisherman who catches her in his net.
The way in which the mythic elements of the mermaid's existence have developed over the centuries has always fascinated me. I believe that the legendary beauty attributed to mermaids, as well as the importance of their
(the comb and mirror), results from wishful thinking or, if you like, embarrassment, on the parts of sailors and seamen who perpetuate these myths. If a sailor, long at sea and lonely as salt, succumbed to the charms of a dugong or manatee, of a seal or other sloe-eyed creature of the sea,
shouldn't he naturally want to, uh, romanticize the experience? If there truly exists a sea creature with breasts, expressive facial features, etc., then it's not too far-fetched to assume that humans would attempt to justify their sexual trespassings by mythologizing the creature into something beautiful and mysterious. This might also help explain the legendary seductive prowess of the mermaid's beauty, and the often deadly lure (isn't that what fishermen call their bait?) of her singing. The taboos surrounding sex between humans and animals are just too deeply ingrained for the mermaid to remain a mere mammal in the eyes (and hearts) of those men compelled to make love to her.
It may also be true that the elusivity of these human-like sea creatures also added to the myth. There are numerous accounts from sailors about mermaid sightings, if no concrete proof. Other mythical sea creatures related to the mermaid also suffer seeming invisibility. Many cultures tell of beings that are half human, half sea creature, most notably the selkies (or sealchies) of Ireland and Scotland. The selkie is a seal and a woman, though not at the same time; she becomes a woman after coming on land and shedding her seal skin. Legend has it that any mortal man who manages to steal the selkie's skin will have power over her; indeed, she has been known to marry and bear children to mortal men who manage the theft. Once she finds her skin, however, nothing, not even marital devotion, will keep the selkie from the sea. This tale bears a resemblance to the many tales of mermaids who may be controlled through the theft of their combs, their mirrors, their musical instruments, or their cloaks or caps (which, in some tales, permit them to travel from island to island). The Irish name for a mermaid is
murduchu, meaning "song of the sea," or "sea chant." If their caps are stolen, they can no longer sing. The implication is that these creatures, for all of their seductive powers, have rather simplistic weaknesses that allow humans to control them.
Not all mythical sea beings possess such weaknesses, however. In Welsh legend, the
were "lake maidens" who married mortal men whom they chose. The
is a Scottish undine, or water elemental, half woman and half goat, who could be seen on land but who was nevertheless associated with water (sounds like Capricorn to me). There are also other mythical water creatures who did not necessarily possess "fishy" qualities, like the
Each Uisge, a water horse of the Highlands. In the Shetland Islands, this water horse was called a kelpie. Most of these beings were rather neutral, if not benevolent, towards humans, except when threatened or abducted. But perhaps the most frightening mermaid-type beings were the water demons, who were said to snatch children off the banks of rivers or streams, and suck them into the water to devour them. One of the most famous of these was Peg Powler (a dubious namesake, to say the least), a close relative of Jenny Greenteeth, known as a "Lorelei with green tresses." No doubt tales of these vicious water nymphs were meant to scare young children away from the precarious banks of rivers and streams -- for it is said they only snatched children who were alone. How many fairy tales, I wonder, are created with these pragmatic applications in mind?
Elsewhere in the Celtic lands, some mermaid legends are closely related to tales of actual sea creatures, like seals (or roane, as they're known in the Islands and Highlands of Scotland). One only need witness a seal's grace (well, in the water at least) and its unbelievably expressive face to grant it human qualities. The legend of the selkie (the Orkney and Shetland version of the roane) is so ancient and so pervasive, however, that one must scratch one's chin in wonder at its origins. We come to expect these sorts of legends from the British Isles, though; the entire landscape, whether forest or fen or highland or moor, is crawling with mythic denizens, winged, scaly, furry, cloven-hooved, and almost always mischievous.
There are, of course, the more psychologically complex manifestations of the mermaid figure; namely Melusine and Morgan le Fay. First, Melusine: a very odd and touching story of a woman who is only able to marry if she retains a terrible secret. Because of a curse placed upon her mother, Melusine is born to be half woman, half fish, but only on Saturday. She manages to find a husband who swears not to gaze upon her when she is locked in her bathing chamber. Eventually, he does sneak a peek, and sees her, as she steps into her bath, transformed into a hideous creature with a huge fish's tail. This tale puts an interesting spin on the conceit of mermaid vanity, and the importance of beauty rituals. The Booker Prize-winning novel
by A.S. Byatt contains a beautiful and haunting metaphorical (and actual) version of this story, as imagined by a Victorian poet.
As for the Matter of Britain, it seems to begin and end with water. The Breton and Welsh names for water spirits are
morgan, respectively. The Lady of the Lake receives her divine power from her water element; Excalibur rises from the waves, forged of unearthly metal. Morgan le Fay accompanies Arthur on his final voyage, upon a great barge.
The Mists of Avalon
portrays the magical island as shrouded in mist, accessible only across a formidable lake. Crossing the waters, parting the mist: both are possible only for the trained witch. Nimue, a young acolyte priestess, drowns herself when a love spell she creates rebounds back upon her. There is an inescapable connection to water that is simply not true of other elements, like fire or air, where the Arthurian sorceresses are concerned. Is this because of some vestigial mermaid lore that has permeated the legends?
One thing that confounds my love of the English painter Waterhouse is that he uses the same model for so many of his paintings, from his famous The Mermaid, to La Belle Dame Sans Merci, to Circe, to Ophelia. Several of these have connections to Arthurian legend, but it is his portrayal of the mermaid which is somehow more magical than any other heroine he has painted from the annals of myth. Is it a cruel joke that a man named "Waterhouse" should create so many paintings whose primary element is water? Think of his two most famous works:
The Lady of Shalott
in her lonely boat.
The Mermaid, endlessly perched at the ocean's edge.
She sits upon ancient, sea-hewn rock, combing her long hair, a shell dripping with pearl necklaces and other aquatic treasure beside her. She gazes with intensity at something we cannot see, her eyes (the blue of frozen oceans) fastened, perhaps, upon the waves, awaiting a ship, awaiting a sailor... will she fall in love? Will he? Shall he be dragged, salt-drunk, down and down into her kingdom of coral, her bed of vermilion anemones? Shall he swim at her side, willingly, down and down until his lungs burst, his last thought that he has never seen anything so beautiful as her golden hair? Or will she be the one tempted, to leave the sea, her sisters, her mirrors, her combs, to relinquish her melodious voice, to split her tail in searing agony, so that she may walk beside him on dry, dry earth? What, precisely, is the nature of seduction? What is its price?
PEG ALOI is a freelance writer, teacher, and performer living in Boston. She is allergic to chlorine, terrified of deep water, and will not eat mollusks. She was born on the solar cusp of Libra and Scorpio, with a Venus/Neptune conjunction in Scorpio, and her Eighth House in Libra. Ouch.
The Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies & Other Supernatural Creatures, (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1978).
Mythic Ireland, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992).
The Erotic World of Faery, (Australia: Cardinal Books, 1972; Sphere Reprint, 1989).
William Butler Yeats,
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, (New York, NY: MacMillan, 1989)
Magic of the Ocean Series, (New York, NY: Warner Books Inc., 1995).
Possession: A Romance, (New York, NY: Vintage Books (Random House), 1991).
Charles de Lint, "Our Lady of the Harbor,"
Dreams Underfoot, (New York, NY: Tom Doherty Assoc. Inc., 1993).
Rosalie K. Fry,
Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry
Valerie Martin, "Sea Lovers,"
The Consolation of Nature & Other Stories, (New York, NY: Vintage Contemporaries Ser. (Random House), 1989).
Barbara Jane Zitwer,