13. Jan, 2018

Mermaids and their Mysteries

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow    

And nobody has to think too much

About Desolation Row

Bob Dylan (1965)


Stories of legendary sea creatures such as mermaids have existed since ancient times. Mermaids share much with  the sea and river nymphs, with one exception that nymphs don’t have fish-like tails but legs. Both mythical creatures have always fascinated writers and pictorial artists. Not only physically –they are almost always young, beautiful, long-haired and enchanting- but also for their mysterious and contradictory characters. In some legends mermaids appear as  dangerous, fatally  attractive, or even as agents of evil. In other, they are loveable and sweet but tragic because of their unfulfilled, often doomed romantic ideals.

Left: William Waterhouse, Mermaid

Perhaps even more important is the mermaids two-sidedness, fluctuating between two extremes: sweetness, purity, and love on the one hand and monstrous cruelty, when offended. Their unpredictability perhaps also contributed in creating their image of autonomous  ‘free spirits’: independent and untouchable  creatures of the sea.

Why is mankind  so fascinated by mermaids? Is it because we  once lived in the sea in a distant evolutionary past, when our feet and hands had not yet evolved from primitive caudal and pectoral fins? Looking at mermaids we perhaps recognize traces of our own ancient past and the essence of our own existence.  Some might say  that mermaids and nymphs are ‘nothing but’ male projections of  dreamlike female creatures. Symbols perhaps of both men's idealization and fear of women.  Mermaid tales  often circulated among sailors deprived of contact with women for long periods while they traveled across the big oceans, sometimes even mistaking manatees for mermaids. The two sides of mermaids, loveable and frightful,  also  fit  with the two faces of  the sea: sometimes peaceful and then cruel and dangerous. 

Even in modern times  the mythical mermaids have a strong appeal to the world of commerce and advertisement.  Mermaids have even have become a role model for transgender girls and women. Just like like ’mermaiding’ is now a form of modern escapism, with monotails scoring high as ‘must haves’ for  owners of private swimming pools Women can now even join mermaid schools where they are trained in breath-holding, free-diving and swimming with the awkward and potentially dangerous tails. Professional mermaid models are often capable to hold their breath for three minutes, allowing underwater photographers to shoot along  while the  model changes pose, occasionally interrupted for short gulps of air form a hookah regulator. Hannah  Frasar (alias  Hannah Mermaid) is such a professional mermaid star that combines mermaiding with ocean ecology activism. Sadly, some of the less fortunate and probably also less experienced models have paid for mermaiding with their lives and drowned. Possibly trapped by the clumsy tail, resulting in panic and inability to reach the surface.  

Transformations of the mermaids image. The earliest  classical visions of mermaids  were negative, and very different from the modern more positive and romantic vision of the mermaid as a tragic heroine. Just remember how Odysseus the hero from Homers epic poem the Odyssey escaped the Sirenes, notorious for their enchanting but fatal singing that lured sailors  to jump in the deadly currents. On the advice of the sea-witch Circe, Odysseus instructs  his sailors to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast while approaching the island of the Sirenes. This is how he and his crew survived the deadly birdlike sea nymphs living on a nearby island on the rotten remnants and bones  of the male victims of their deadly songs.  

Only recently, in the 19th century, romanticism transformed the negative image of the mermaid, when her unstable and capricious character became a virtue rather than a dangerous trait. Most of the mermaid ballads had their roots in Ireland,  Danmark, and Germany. Not only romantic writers and poets but also painters like Arthur Rackham, John William Waterhouse, and Gustav Klimt found their inspiration in the tragic and mystical side of mermaids and sea nymphs. Here follows a selection of the most famous tales from that romantic period.

Irish mermaids The beautiful songs of the Merrow-maidens, sea-fairies from Irish folkore, were meant to lure men to them – just like the Sirens of Greek mythology.  The Irish were suspicious of these sea fairies, who could be violent or friendly by turns. Tales of violence (such as pulling the arms and legs off of their victims) were not uncommon. Interestingly,  merrows were only able to live in the sea with a special magic cap  called a cohuleen druith. Sometimes the merrows became married with men from the land.

The little mermaid  (Den lille havfrue) is perhaps one of the most famous and saddest  Danish fairytales (written by Hans Christian Andersen) about a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to marry her human lover,  a prince she had once observed while swimming along the coast. The story is full of tragic episodes. The price the little mermaid has to pay for having legs (by drinking a magic potion)  is  the constant pain as if she is walking on sharp knives  when she walks or dances with her prince. The little mermaid will die with a broken heart when her lover marries the princess, and dissolve into sea foam upon the waves.

Disney’s famous  Hollywood movie version of the little mermaid named Ariel had a happy end but met mixed criticisms.  Some  felt that ‘Ariel is a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny.’ But others described her as ‘a .. denatured Barbie doll, despite her hourglass figure and skimpy seashell brassiere’. Ariel even seems to have become a role model for transgender girls.This raises the question why? It cant be the wish to change her sexual identity because the mermaid remains a female even with legs, but now better equipped to please her male idol. It was her love for the Prince that made her wish to change from  humanoid to human. 

Ondine  Even more dramatic is the mermaid ballad of the beautiful water-nymph Ondine, a  folk-tale written by the French poet Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. His story must have also inspired Andersen in his little mermaid writing.  It starts with the prophecy:   if a nymph ever falls in love with a man and bears his child, she will begin to age like a mortal woman, losing her eternal youthfulness and everlasting life.   The sea nymph Ondine (=little wave) has no soul. Only by marrying a man and bearing a child she can obtain a soul. After falling in love with a  handsome man,  Ondine gets married and gives birth to their son. From that moment on her beauty began to fade,  a reason for her husband to return to his first love Princess Bertha. On meeting her former lover again on the day of his wedding to Bertha,  Ondine speaks her curse: ‘You pledged faithfulness to me with your every waking breath and I accepted that pledge. So be it. For as long as you are awake, you shall breathe. But should you ever fall into sleep, that breath will desert you.’ So her lover was doomed to stay awake forever, or sleep and die by suffocation. A respiratory disorder that results in respiratory arrest during sleep is also known as  Ondine's curse

Loreley and the Rhine maidens The ballad of Loreley was composed in 1801 by  German author Clemens Brentano.  It tells the story of the beautiful Lore Lay who, betrayed by her sweetheart, is accused of bewitching men and drowning her lover in the Rhine. But rather than sentencing her to death, the bishop consigns her to a nunnery. On the way to her destination, she comes to the Lorelei rock. She asks permission to climb it and view the Rhine once again. When she is up the rock, she thinks that she sees her love in the Rhine and falls to her death; the rock still retained a murmuring echo of her name afterward. Lore Lay then becomes the legendary of a siren who, sitting on the cliff above the Rhine and combing her golden hair, unwittingly distracts shipmen with her beauty and song, causing them to crash on the rocks. The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote the poem „The Lore-Ley“,  in 1824. The Lorelei ballad was set to music in 1837 by Friedrich Silcher and is today one of the most famous  German Rhine songs.

The  Rhinemaidens are the three water-nymphs  who appear in Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagner probably was inspired by the Loreley saga in creating the  Rhine nymphs. They are the guardians of the Rhine gold and act essentially as a unity, with a composite yet elusive personality. Their initial attributes are charm and playfulness, combined with a natural innocence; their joy in the gold they guard derives from its beauty alone, even though they know its latent power. However, this veneer of childlike simplicity is misleading; aside from proving themselves irresponsible as guardians, they are also provocative, sarcastic and cruel.


Sources and links:

De zeemeemin. Vincent Kouters. NRC 12 Januari 2018.