The English word mermaid corresponds to the Latin sirena, maintained in modern Romance languages (e.g., French sirène), but does not translate it exactly. Different etymologies have been proposed; for instance, sirens are those "who bind with a cord" or "those who wither" (Graves 1974, vol. 2, pp.154.3).
Since early Greek antiquity tales of sirens as enchantresses who bring seafarers to an untimely death have merged with an icon of temptation exercised by female wiles on powerless males. These images navigated into medieval bestiaries and eventually into the romantic and modern imagination. However, goddesses with fish bodies have been recorded as early as Egyptian and Sumerian times (Márquez-Huitzil 1991).
In several world folklores, the mermaid-siren is a form of the water lady, or water goddess, with strong death powers, as in the Germanic Nixes or Undines (Bulteau 1982), nineteenth-century Russian bird-sirens, and the Mexican pre-Conquest half-fish divine women among the Huichols of the Northern Sierra in Puebla and the Námatl goddess Chalchihuitlicue, who are both life- and death-giving (Márquez-Huitzil 1991).
THE ANCIENT WORLD
Originally, the classical mermaid was a winged bird creature entirely or completely covered with feathers except for the head. She was distinctly feminized through facial features or sexualized through the prominence of naked breasts, although later forms included male and childlike sirens. It was through the carmen, song and sorcery at once, that the mermaid lured navigators to their death. The Argonauts led by Jason, on their return to Greece with the golden fleece, passed the Islands of the Sirens safely because their singing was countered by the strains of Orpheus's lyre (Graves 1974) Sirens have also been linked to the story of the rape of Proserpine and would have been transformed into birds with female faces by Ceres as punishment for not having prevented her daughter's abduction or, on the contrary, as symbolic of their frantic flight in search of her (Ovid, Metamorphoses V, 551). According to some, the term is metaphoric and they were actually Sicilian prostitutes who debauched and "wrecked" men (Lempriere 1984). They were also said to have lost their wings when bested in a musical contest by the Muses who then plucked their feathers (Lempriere 1984, Graves 1974).
In all these stories a recurrent gendered element is that the sirens, as the ancient, pre-Olympian untamed destructive feminine, are punished or vanquished by the male order in art (Orpheus, the Olympian-identified Muses) or are unable to prevent violent male assault (Proserpine).
THE MIDDLE AGES
Medieval allegory reinforced the mermaid's destructive charge, especially with her entrance into Christian texts through a mistranslation of a passage of Isaiah 13:22 in Jerome's Vulgate, from forms of "wild dogs" in Hebrew into "sirens" in Latin (de Donder 1992). The influence of Honorius of Autun in 1150 was decisive in having the mermaid signify the temptations of the world, a sea of travails on which sinners float and to which they succumb (de Donder 1992). In medieval iconography wings, claws, and a fish tail vied and sometimes combined, but the fish tail became the dominant segment, especially unequivocally sexualized as female as a double and forked tail hinged at the front of the body by a sort of apron over the womb and vagina. This "apron" has been interpreted also as being linked to the building and prosperity function of mermaids, allowing the transport of stones (Bulteau 1982). Such images proliferated in architectural programs as well as in objects of daily use and manuscript illustration.
The mermaid's comb and mirror, also gendered as feminine, were linked both to Christian moral and didactic messages (vanity as a mortal sin, a dangerous temptation for the soul) and to a broader mythical content (the mirror as soul-gazing instrument, the connection to death through looking behind). In Western European folklore the comb evoked the treatment of plant fibers to produce textiles and the Sebastean cult of Saint Blasius, one of the major thaumaturgical saints of the Middle Ages (Gaignebet and Lajoux 1985).
In medieval France the mermaid also merged with the symbolism of motherhood, foundation myths, aristocratic genealogies, sexual transgression, and sexual prohibition in the fictional story of the fairy Melusina, whose demonic tail appears when she takes her secret bath, presumably to cleanse herself during menstruation (Gaignebet and Lajoux 1985) and is claimed as an ancestress by the powerful Lusignan family (Spiegel 1996).
THE MODERN ERA
In Victorian times the seductive mermaid evolved into a debased, grotesque form with the exhibition of monsters and morphological oddities in side shows, tavern backrooms, and curiosity museums that made the anthropomorphic mermaid into a hybrid with a zoomorphic misshapen and mismatched body exhibited in skeletal form, often wired together from parts of orangutans and salmons (Bondeson 1999, Ritvo 1997).
In the modern United States the mermaid's origins are less classical, derived primarily from the highly personal world of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" (1837) and migrating into Disneyan normative codes with a 1989 full-length cartoon animation feature.
Feminist theory has addressed gender roles and models for girls implicit in Disney's work (Ross 2004). For Laura Sells (1995) the Little Mermaid is a parable of bourgeois feminism destabilized by its own messages. She sees an opposition between "reformist demands for access" that leave existing gender identities intact and radical revisions that refigure gender as the symbolic change that is necessary for and preliminary to social change. Others have pointed to the highly sexualized and erotic charge of the mermaid's body since its earliest representations, posing an irresolvable task for the prudish gender conformist Disney and leading to cartoon interpretations of the figure, its garb, and lack thereof, all of which are, according to Elizabeth Bell (1995), a form of burlesque. Laurie Essig, in a study of the annual Coney Island, New York, Mermaid Parade, has suggested that the mermaid constitutes a riddle, centered around the existence and accessibility of the vagina "at the edge of the heterosexual imaginary as potential lover and potential monster" (Essig 2005, pp. 151-152).
Analyst Joyce McDougall (1995) interpreted the original myths of the siren in Freudian and Lacanian modes, as a siren-mother figure that threatens to envelop or "devour" the child, who is protected through verbal communication. The mother's voice "rekindles fantasies of fusion, with the consequent loss of both subjective—and sexual—identity" (McDougall 1995, p. 82). Thus, the original voice is at once attraction and danger, the siren's song that draws the child back into nonindividuation. The intervention of the father (the law), as the Lacanian voix du pere, becomes necessary to prevent reabsorption into the "voice" of the mother (Greenberg 1998, p. 50).
Bell, Elizabeth. 1995. "Somatexts at the Disney Shop." In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, ed. Elizabeth Sells, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Bondeson, Jan. 1999. The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Bulteau, Michel. 1982. Mythologie des filles des eaux. Monaco: Editions du Rocher.
de Donder, Vic. 1992. Le chant de la sirène. Paris: Gallimard.
Essig, Laurie. 2005. "The Mermaid and the Heterosexual Imagination." In Thinking Straight: The Power, the Promise, and the Paradox of Heterosexuality, ed. Chrys Ingraham. New York: Routledge.
Gaignebet, Claude, and Jean Dominique Lajoux. 1985. Art profane et religion populaire au Moyen Age. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Graves, Robert. 1974. The Greek Myths. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. (Orig. pub. 1955.)
Greenberg, Mitchell. 1998. "Racine, Oedipus, and Absolute Fantasies." Diacritics 28(3): 40-61.
Lempriere, J. 1984. Lempriere's Classical Dictionary. Proper Names Cited by the Ancient Authors. London: Bracken Books. (Orig. pub. 1788.)
Márquez-Huitzil, Ofelia. 1991. Iconografía de la sirena mexicana. Mexico: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Dirección General de Culturas Populares.
McDougall, Joyce. 1995. Many Faces of Eros: A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Human Sexuality. New York: Norton.
Mustard, Wilfred P. 1908 "Siren-Mermaid." Modern Language Notes 23(1): 21-24.
Ritvo, Harriet. 1997. The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ross, Deborah. 2004. "Escape from Wonderland: Disney and the Female Imagination." Marvels and Tales 18(1): 53-66.
Sells, Laura. 1995. "Where Do the Mermaids Stand?" In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture, ed. Elizabeth Sells, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Spiegel, Gabrielle M. 1996. "Maternity and Monstrosity: Reproductive Biology in the Roman de Mélusine." In Melusine of Lusignan: Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France, ed. Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Francesca Canadé Sautman
Where do the myths of mermaids come from? Somewhere in the later Middle Ages, the fish-woman mermaid supplanted the bird-woman siren as the creature believed to lure sailors astray, although in many languages words based on ‘siren’ continued to be used for the fish-woman. The shift to fish-women as the danger facing mariners may be related to an increasing ability to travel to the open sea, where mermaids live, out of sight of the coastal rocks where sirens had been thought to perch. Both sirens and mermaids have musical talents; bird-sirens sing and play the pipes and the lyre, whereas mermaids rely on their voices to entice sailors to their death. Mermaids can raise and calm storms at will and, like the Sphinx, they can trap men with questions and riddles. In nineteenth-century Greek folklore, sailors in the Black Sea may meet the fish-woman Gorgona, who asks, ‘Does Alexander live?’ If they do not give the correct answer, ‘He lives and rules the world’, Gorgona will raise a storm and kill all aboard.
Mermaids combine the beauty of a young girl with a repulsive, fishy lower body. Physically, the problem this poses is how the men whom they target are supposed to have sexual intercourse with them. Some medieval representations get around this problem by showing the mermaid with a forked tail, but perhaps the whole point about the mermaid is that she is sexually unattainable except through death. As popular songs of the nineteenth century remind us, a man who marries a mermaid can never leave her, as there is no divorce court ‘at the bottom of the deep blue sea’. An unusual solution to the problem of the sexual availability of mermaids is found in Magritte's Collective Invention (1935), which shows a beached mermaid with the upper half of a fish and the lower half of a woman. A related problem is how mermaids themselves reproduce; male mer-people, or tritons, are shown in art, particularly in the Renaissance, but again they may miss the point. Matthew Arnold's poem The Forsaken Merman (1849) is a rare example of the treatment of mermen in literature; it reverses the common pattern of a mortal man loving a mermaid but being deserted by her, to imagine a mortal woman being called back from the mer-world by the distant sound of church bells.
Modern literary representations of the mermaid are dominated by the influential Little Mermaid of Hans Christian Anderson. Here the mer-world is a systematic inversion of our own, in which not birds, but fish, fly in through open windows. Rather than causing shipwrecks, the little mermaid saves the life of a shipwrecked prince, then makes a bargain with the sea-witch, exchanging her tongue for a pair of human legs. Every step she takes causes her terrible pain, and her feet bleed. Unable to win the love of the prince without her voice, she rejects the chance to kill him and thus return to her life as a mermaid, but instead dies when he marries someone else. Feminist interpretations of this story suggest that the little mermaid's surrender of the power to speak in order to enter the prince's world is an image of women giving up their own voices if they are to be accepted within patriarchy. Anderson's own message was that, by her love for the prince, the mermaid gained the chance of winning the immortal soul she most craved.
See also chimera.
Various myths of the sea
Mermaids and mermen are imaginary beings with the upper bodies of humans and the lower bodies of fish. Often mentioned in European legends, they also occur in the folklore of seagoing peoples from other regions of the world. The idea of a deity (god) or creature in which human features are combined with the body of a fish is very ancient. Babylonian (pronounced bab-uh-LOH-nee-uhn) texts mentioned a god named Oannes, who was part man and part fish and lived among humans. The Near Eastern god Dagon (pronounced DAH-gon) may have been portrayed as a merman, and the Syrian goddess Atargatis (pronounced ay-tar-GAY-tis) had the form of a mermaid. Ancient Greek and Roman sea gods and their attendants often appeared as human torsos rising from the waves with curved fish tails below. The Greeks called these beings Nereids (pronounced NEER-ee-idz) if they were female and tritons (pronounced TRY-tunz) if they were male. Japanese folklore features a mermaid called Ningyo (pronounced NEEN-gyoh), and Polynesian mythology includes a half-human and half-porpoise creator god called Vatea.
In European folklore, mermaids were associated with sirens, beautiful creatures whose singing lures sailors to their doom. Mermaids were commonly pictured as floating on top of the waves, singing, or combing their long hair while gazing into mirrors. Seeing a mermaid was considered bad luck, as mermaids often appeared before storms or other disasters and were believed to carry drowned men away to their kingdom at the bottom of the sea. Although encounters with mermaids and mermen often ended badly for humans, in some legends these sea creatures married human partners and took completely human form to live on land.
Mermaids in Context
Many sailors over the centuries believed mermaids to be real and have reported spotting mermaids while at sea. Christopher Columbus even reported sighting three mermaids near the Dominican Republic in 1493, though he was disappointed that they were not as pretty as popular depictions suggested. In truth, what Columbus and other sailors most likely saw were sea mammals known as manatees and dugongs. In fact, the name “dugong” is taken from a Malaysian term meaning “lady of the sea.” Unlike most sea animals, these creatures have soft, rounded bodies; younger calves also have pale skin and are about the same length as a person. That these creatures were generally viewed as female is likely due to their pale skin, soft curves, and the fact that most sailors were men who did not have contact with women for weeks or months at a time.
Key Themes and Symbols
Although mermaids are usually portrayed as being lovely, they are also associated with danger. This reflects humankind's relationship with the sea, which can be either a beautiful and bountiful place or a realm of fear and disaster. Living in the ocean—a vast expanse barely explored by humans—mermaids also represented to sailors a whole unknown world that existed under the water. Mermaids may also represent the mysterious nature of women as viewed by men.
Mermaids in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Mermaids have appeared in many stories and other forms of art over the centuries. Perhaps the most popular story featuring a mermaid is the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Mermaid” (1836), which was also the basis for the 1989 Disney animated film of the same name. Mermaids also appear in T. S. Eliot's 1915 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and in J. M. Barrie's 1904 play Peter Pan, later adapted into a novel and numerous films. More modern adaptations of classic mermaid stories include the 1984 film Splash, starring Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks, and the 2006 film Aquamarine. A mermaid even appears prominendy in the logo for the popular Starbucks coffee shop chain.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research the sea mammals known as dugongs and manatees. In what areas of the world are they found? What do they eat? Are they endangered? What risks do these creatures face from humans?
SEE ALSO Sirens
Female mermaids and male mermen are imaginary beings with the upper bodies of humans and the lower bodies of fish. Often mentioned in European legends, they also occur occasionally in the folklore of seagoing peoples from other regions of the world. Although mermaids are usually portrayed as being lovely, they are also associated with danger. Their dual nature reflects humankind's relationship with the sea, which can be either a beautiful and bountiful place or a realm of fear and disaster.
deity god or goddess
The idea of a deity or creature in which human features are combined with the bodies of fish is very ancient. Babylonian* texts mentioned a god named Oannes, who was part man and part fish and lived among humans. The Near Eastern god Dagon may have been portrayed as a merman, and the Syrian goddess Atargatis had the form of a mermaid. Ancient Greek and Roman sea gods and their attendants often appeared as human torsos rising from the waves with curved fish tails below. The Greeks called these beings nereids if they were female and tritons if they were male. Japanese folklore features a mermaid called Ningyo, and Polynesian mythology includes a half-human and half-porpoise creator god called Vatea.
In European folklore, mermaids were associated with sirens, beautiful creatures whose singing lures sailors to their doom. Mermaids were commonly pictured as floating on top of the waves, singing or combing their long hair and gazing into mirrors. Seeing a mermaid was considered bad luck, as mermaids often appeared before storms or other disasters and were believed to carry drowned men away to their kingdom at the bottom of the sea. Although encounters with mermaids and mermen often ended badly for humans, in some legends, these sea creatures married human partners and took completely human form to live on land.
See also Sirens.
Mermaids ★★★ 1990 (PG-13)
Mrs. Flax (Cher) is the flamboyant mother of two who hightails out of town every time a relationship threatens to turn serious. Having moved some 18 times, her daugh ters, Charlotte (Ryder), 15, and Kate (Ric ci), 8, are a little worse for the wear, psy chologically speaking. One aspires to be a nun though not Catholic, and the other holds her breath under water. Now living in Massachusetts, Mrs. Flax starts having those “I got you, babe” feelings for Hoskins, a shoestore owner. Amusing, wellacted multigenerational coming of ager based on a novel by Patty Dann. 110m/C VHS, DVD . Cher, Winona Ryder, Bob Hoskins, Christina Ricci, Michael Schoeffling, Caroline McWilliams, Jan Miner; D: Richard Benjamin; W: June Roberts; C: Howard Atherton; M: Jack Nitzsche. Natl. Bd. of Review ‘90: Support. Actress (Ryder).
mermaid, in folklore, sea-dwelling creature commonly represented as having the head and body of a woman and a fishtail instead of legs. Belief in mermaids, and in their counterpart, mermen, has existed since earliest times. They are often described as having great beauty and charm, which they use to lure sailors to their deaths (see Siren). In some legends they assumed human shape and married mortals (see Mélusine). The origin of the mermaid is thought by some to be the dugong (see sirenian).
Mermaid Tavern a tavern in Bread Street, London, which was frequented by Shakespeare, Donne, and other literary figures.
Mermaid ★★½ 2000
Young Desi is mourning her father's death. She writes a letter to him and ties it to a balloon, hoping that it will fly to heaven so he can read it. Instead, the winds blow the balloon to Canada's St. Edward's Island and the small town of Mermaid. When the letter is found, the islanders decide to respond to Desi's message. 94m/C VHS, DVD . Samantha Mathis, Ellen Burstyn, David Kaye, Jodelle Ferland, Blu Mankuma, Tom Heaton; D: Peter Masterson; W: Todd Robinson; C: Jon Joffin; M: Peter Melnick. CABLE