A mermaid is a mythical creature that is often described as having the upper body of a human and the lower body of a fish. In many mythologies, mermaids are associated with the sea and are thought to live in underwater kingdoms. They are often depicted as being beautiful and seductive, and they are known for their ability to sing and lure sailors to their deaths. In some myths, mermaids are benevolent beings who help sailors in distress, while in others they are malevolent creatures who seek to harm humans. The idea of the mermaid is found in many different cultures and mythologies around the world, and it continues to be a popular subject in modern storytelling.
In the waters, but also in the air, the mythological figure of the mermaid has taken many different forms according to cultures and traditions. What do we remember today about this fascinating creature that has marked our imagination?
The mermaid is one of the mythical figures that we take for granted, so much so that it has been present for centuries in the popular imagination.
When we talk about “mermaid”, the first images that come to mind are usually those of Odysseus’ mermaid, the temptress bordering on the sea monster, who contrasts with the disturbing paintings of bird-women on Greek vases… Or the famous redhead from the world of Disney who dreamed of “going there” – a bit like the little undine in the Andersen fairy tale that inspired her.
And yet, this is only the surface layer of the myth: the image of the mermaid, the impression that the myth relayed by many artists, scholars and mythographers, has left on our minds, is much stronger than it seems.
The centuries have torn her into a thousand facets, not always very shiny, but one general idea – her aura – has remained the same. The mermaid is the attraction, the irresistible charm, this fascination that cannot be explained. The mysterious universe of the waves.
It is this in-between situation that has perhaps contributed to give her two faces in popular culture: from the sweet innocent virgin to the femme fatale who will literally eat you alive. A woman, in any case, attractive and free, which strangely made her something dangerous…
But we might as well try to start from the beginning. What is a mermaid?
The siren of the South and the siren of the North
It’s crazy how we always come back to a kind of North/South rivalry. Indeed, it is worth mentioning that the two most famous types of mermaids today come respectively from two mythological traditions: the Greco-Latin mythology, and the equally rich, although unknown, Nordic mythology.
British People’s have a word for each: siren would be the Greco-Latin mermaid, while mermaid would be the mermaid of Scandinavian myths. The etymology is, as you can imagine, more than uncertain for both words. Otherwise it’s not funny.
They both refer to a hybrid creature. But even here, it is not clear: the mermaid is sometimes described as half woman and half bird, sometimes half woman and half fish.
The first, the feathered one, is assimilated to Greek mythology, even if the descriptions of the mermaid are still vague, and the feathered creature looks a bit too much like another mythical woman, the Harpy. We’ll come back to that.
The second, the scaly one, is the one found in medieval manuscripts, and which populates the myths of the North under different faces.
But since we are trying to see things more clearly, let’s try to take things one by one, and start with the Greek mermaid, probably the most deeply rooted in our customs because of Homer’s Odyssey, and the importance that Greek and Latin myths have in our Western society.
Feathered or scaly? The blurred contours of the mermaid
In fact, some researchers go so far as to say that the mermaid is typically Greek, while admitting that the origins of these are more than unclear, since the first known mention today appears in the episode that you certainly know from Odyssey of Odysseus. A little reminder should not hurt anyone.
As Circe agrees to let Odysseus go (or as he was getting tired of the booty call, depending on the situation), she warns him about the sirens:
We agree, it doesn’t sound very appealing. When he arrives at what would be the mermaids’ rock (in some writings, because it is not specified by Homer), Ulysses follows Circe’s instructions: he plugs the ears of his sailors with soft wax and is tied to the mast with the order not to detach it until he has passed the mermaids, even if he begs them, screams, pees on them, etc. Thus, Odysseus obtains the privilege of listening to the sirens’ song while avoiding the somewhat fatal aspect of the thing.
The rest of the ancient tradition made mermaids creatures with a bird’s body and a woman’s head, and musicians of divine talent whose song seduced sailors who lost their minds and went ashore to be devoured by these deceitful creatures.
Let’s remember two things: first, they try to make us believe that birds play the lyre. (No, but BIRDS, we tell you.) And second, if Homer doesn’t describe them as choirboys, since he speaks of men’s bones and other revels as eloquent as the skull and crossbones on a pirate’s flag, he doesn’t emphasize either instruments or feather stories.
One finds in ancient art scenes of bird-women directly attacking boats (and without instruments, note). From Homer’s writings, however, we retain the impression of having to deal with the archetype of the “femme fatale”, who is moreover lying – lasciviously, no doubt – in a “flowery meadow”, which can make us a little perplexed as to their nature and marine affiliation. In any case, here, neither feathers, nor scales.
So how to explain the feathers? Later, Ovid, particularly keen on this, explains in his Metamorphoses the feathered appearance of the mermaids by making them the companions of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter. When Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, Demeter gave them wings (or a nice metaphor for a kick in the…) to enable them to find her.
The myth expands, divides, branches, gets lost and found again… And the mermaids become river deities, cursed by Demeter for their negligence.
So: birds, birds with fingers, women of the sea… If the appearance of the mermaid remains more than unclear, she remains a hybrid creature on one point: the bird and the creature of the sea, the woman on her rock, between the aquatic world and the aerial world, an “in-between worlds” situation that could be much more relevant than it seems.
In the North, a little known mythical figure
Today, we retain fewer Scandinavian epics or stories which, like the writings of the Greek poets, would have left us indications as to the general beliefs and customs of these civilizations. The fact is that many writings have been lost.
The best known of these is the Edda of Snorri Sturlusson, a thirteenth century Icelandic mythographer who once set out to compose scaldic verse on the theme of Norse mythology. It is called the Prose Edda to differentiate it from the Poetic Edda, another huge but anonymous manuscript.
Problem: if the Eddas do represent 95% of what we know of Norse mythology today, the concern about the border between myth and literature is stronger than ever in this case. Are these really compilations of Nordic customs and beliefs? Or have the authors drawn from everywhere for the sole purpose of poetry, literature… Art?
You will tell me that Ovid and many of his colleagues are more poets than mythographers. That is the problem. But the Scandinavian sources are so rare that we lack elements of comparison. And to add a layer, what we know today about this small but rich ancient world is mostly anchored in the current popular culture, because the first fantasy authors – at a guess, William Morris, J.R.R. Tolkien – drew from it at about the same time as the “Celtic Revival” phenomenon. Imagine the melting pot, a little.
So, the Nordic mermaid is a bit like the Scandinavian mermaid, Irish mermaid, Celtic mermaid… Legends are everywhere, but we agree on the name in English: mermaid.
For the etymology, well, I’m not going to lie to you, there are several schools (which are banging on each other), but the most credible remains the old English mother for the sea and maid for the young girl.
Young girl of the sea… which, once again, does not specify anything about her possible hybrid appearance.
However, the image of the fish-woman is common in Norse mythology. Fish tails on the bottom, and women’s bodies on the top, mermaids have a busy agenda, between sea monsters causing shipwrecks, women of the sea falling in love with sailors, or even prophetesses, predicting storms.
The mermaid, a myth declined in the whole world
As seas and oceans penetrate the land in rivers and small streams, the image of the mermaid has invaded even the smallest regions. Thus, we find its trace in Germany under the name Nixie, it is Neck or Näcken in the Scandinavian countries, we speak about Rusalkas in Russia, Nagas in India, and we are on the Vouivre in France and the Dragas in Occitania.
I don’t know if we can really talk about mermaids here, but the similarities are so disturbing that the myth must have circulated: elusive aquatic enchantresses who lure men to them, often under the guise of beautiful young women who have a fish/snake tail or the ability to change shape.
And let’s not forget the undines, those water nymphs with a slightly more innocent aura, whom Andersen immortalized as romantics when he wrote his tale The Little Undine. This little depressive tale is nevertheless very interesting, in the sense that it incorporates many mythological motifs, and above all, that it makes the mermaid the kindly, non-evilized heroine of its own story, probably for the first time.
A mermaid, who is however only a “creature” without a soul, and who ends up sacrificing herself to save the man she loves, thus elevating herself to the rank of daughter of the air – thus completing her own initiatory path, from the waters to the sky.
If the spiritual elevation in the world of the air resembles an end in itself that we do not find in the myths where the mermaid is only an obstacle to the hero, this constant link between two territories makes us think that, obviously, it is the tradition of a hybridity that we retain.
As if this woman of the waters was a mediator between our palpable world that is the earth and the dark kingdom of the waters, a transition.
This aquatic being which makes the link with the Other World
And in many folklores that are still somewhat current, the song of the mermaid is a bad omen: she predicts disasters at sea… as well as provoking them. This characteristic may well be what remains of the very definition of the mermaid at the “origin” of the myth, since in ancient times it was already said that the mermaids of Ulysses were not so much physical as spiritual predators.
In De Finibus, Cicero said: “It was not the sweetness of their voice, nor their songs that kept the sailors back, but the assurance that they knew a lot.” Thus, the danger they represent is none other than their great knowledge, most likely of both worlds: the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Remember Ceres who punished the mermaids by turning them into birds. By banishing them in this way from the divine sphere, she makes them pass from the aquatic world to the aerial world.
It is necessary to understand, in order to accept this interpretation, that water is considered in most cosmogonies (if not all) as a place of passage, not only in the Greco-Roman world, but already, for example, among the Sumerians.
The aquatic world is assimilated to the other world, and the mermaid living between two worlds, she is the best placed to sing to the living the truths of the afterlife. And what greater secret could there be than the secret of death, or whatever the Other World represents?
The mermaid takes on a mantic function; the songs that seduce sailors would actually be fatal in the sense that they deliver a truth too great to be accepted by the common man without driving him mad. And when you blow a fuse in the middle of the sea, I would say that you easily jump overboard.
The famous siren song is dangerous, but for the mind and not for the body. And Ulysses, who thinks of a stratagem to resist it, could well have left wiser from the initiatory test par excellence.
The mermaid, this woman in the heart of the occult
Around the Middle Ages, this woman with a vast knowledge saw her possible scales make her find herself at the side of the biblical snake, a.k.a the Devil. Once you’re listed among the biblical monsters, and you start to get lost in the translations and different assimilations of pagan myths, both Greco-Latin and Nordic, into the Christian tradition, you can say that you’re done for positive characterization.
You will notice that the mermaid always appears in “bestiaries”… Without wishing to be caustic, a fascinating and learned woman who becomes an animal in some way is perhaps a little easy.
“Fascinating” also took on an erotic dimension. It was not really specified before that the mermaid was a woman of great beauty; it was her song or her words that made her irresistible. Mermaids were used as metaphors for carnal desire and lust, and, being an evil creature, for deception.
Another easy shortcut? Just for fun: fascination = temptation = Devil = EVIL. Their medieval representations often show them with the attributes of the prostitute: the comb, the mirror, and the long waving hair, free and uncapped.
So, the mermaid, diabolical sea monster, or femme fatale demonized in the same way as the witch for her knowledge? Or maybe a bit of both…
After all, to reason in this way for such an old myth is to try to apprehend a perception of the ancient world from the sole perspective, in this case too Manichean, of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But the mermaid, a mythical figure with multiple facets, is at least not one thing: a simple evil beast who is after the Sacred Penis.