Tuesday 22 May 2018

A Short History of Mermaids by Catherine Hokin

I've been pondering on mythical creatures lately (too many publisher/audience/bookseller witticisms here to indulge in so I'll resist) and in particular mermaids, largely because I've just lost the best part of a weekend to the very wonderful The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower.

 Mermaid from The Medieval Bestiary, British Library
Given how much water there is on the planet, it's hard not to wonder what might be down in the depths and it's equally hard not to hope that its mermaids rather than some of the more terrifying creatures that stop me watching nature programmes. From the little one to the mischief makers who lived in Peter Pan's lagoon, the mermaid of Zennor and all the others who flitted through Andrew Lang's fairy books, mermaids were a big part of my childhood, as Ariel was in my daughter's. Perhaps because I was brought up in the Lake District and loved to swim, a mostly human creature who could live underwater, had great hair and wore a lot of pearls always struck me as an ideal playmate.

Our curiosity about these creatures, and belief/hope that they exist, goes back thousands of years, although they have always had a sinister side outside children's tales, particularly among sailors who viewed them as both beautiful and dangerous. The earliest known depiction of a mermaid dates back to the 18th century BC on a Babylonian sealstone and there are mermaid paintings still visible at Pompeii. One of the earliest stories is about Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike. After her death, a legend sprang up that she had turned into a mermaid who would ask the sailors on any ship she would encounter the question: “Is King Alexander alive?”. If the sailors answered “He lives and reigns and conquers the world” then she would leave the sea calm. If there was any other answer, she would stir up a terrible storm, destroying the ship and all its crew.

 Medieval carved mermaid with mirror & comb
This dual and conflicting aspect, beautiful and seductive or siren-esque beast, is a key part of mermaid mythology. Who needs to blame God for a storm or a mysterious wrecking that sinks a ship, when you can blame a malicious beautiful woman out to kill human men in the full knowledge that the Church would happily support your view? Unsurprisingly, as the Christian Church sought to crush pagan beliefs, mermaids were increasingly depicted as vain and lustful, tempting men to risk not only their lives but also their souls. Their iconography of comb and mirror stems from this idea of vanity and mermaids were regularly used as pictorial shorthand for the deadly sin of lust. The image of a mermaid continued to have dark sexual connotations down the centuries and was employed as a euphemism for a prostitute with even Mary Queen of Scots falling foul of it: the people of Edinburgh depicting her as a mermaid when she married Bothwell in May 1567, a few weeks after Lord Darnley's murder.

The reality of mermaids existing was assumed during medieval times, when a belief endured that anything that moved on land had a counterpart in the sea. In 1430 in the Netherlands, it was said that, after the dikes near the town of Edam gave way during a storm, some girls rowing around in a boat found a mermaid floundering in shallow, muddy waters. According to the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, They got her into the bat, took her home, [and] dressed her in women’s cloths. She remained, however, totally mute. Interestingly, by the 1600s the story had evolved somewhat. This time the injured mermaid was taken to a nearby lake and soon nursed back to health. She eventually became a productive citizen, learning to speak Dutch, perform household chores, and eventually converting to Catholicism. Little miss lusty turned into a proper woman then.

 John William Waterhouse: Sketch for a Mermaid
Other sightings include John Smith, of Pocahontas fame in 1614, who saw a mermaid swimming about with all possible grace. He noted that she had large eyes, a finely shaped nose that was somewhat short, and well-formed ears that were rather too long and that her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive. Christopher Columbus in 1493, however, was less impressed,  writing in his diary: The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men. Perhaps his lack of enchantment would have made him better placed to listen to Olaus Magnus, a 16th century writer and cartographer whose map Carta Marina catalogued the many monsters of the seas around Scandinavia. He warned that fishermen maintain that if you reel in a mermaid and do not presently let them go, such a cruel tempest will arise, and such a horrid lamentation of that sort of men comes with it, and of some other monsters joining with them, that you would think the sky should fall. 

What had they seen? Probably manatees or dugongs which have a flat, mermaid-like tail and two flippers that resemble stubby arms. Not a beautiful maiden by any stretch but many 'sightings' were from quite a distance away, possibly in poor light or during storms when fear was high and, being mostly submerged in water and waves, only parts of the 'mermaid's' body would be visible. A glimpse of a head, arm, or tail just before a creature dives under the waves in those circumstances might be just enough to spawn a legend.

 The Fiji Mermaid, Mead Art Museum
By the 1800s, the fake mermaid trade was big business with hoaxers churning them out by the dozen. One of the best known was the Feejee Mermaid displayed by P.T. Barnum in the 1840s. However, your 50 cents bought not a svelte, fish-tailed lovely combing her hair but a small and rather more grotesque fake corpse made (probably in Japan) of monkey bones, papier-mache, painted wood and the bottom part of a fish. 

Since then, mermaid encounters tend to be of the oddly-coloured hair/Starbucks cup/Disney type although news reports in 2009 claimed that a mermaid had been sighted off the coast of Israel in the town of town of Kiryat Yam, performing tricks for onlookers before just before sunset, then disappearing. One of the first people to see the mermaid, Shlomo Cohen, said, I was with friends when suddenly we saw a woman laying on the sand in a weird way. At first I thought she was just another sunbather, but when we approached she jumped into the water and disappeared. We were all in shock because we saw she had a tail. The town's tourism board offered a $1 million reward for the first person to photograph the creature but no one came forward and the mermaid has disappeared. I'm betting she's run off with Nessie.


Susan Price said...

Love the idea that mermaids are still being sighted -- and that she's joined forced with Nessie! Or maybe with Morag, the lesser known beastie of Loch Morar. Girls together then...

Unknown said...

This is fascinating, Catherine. I hope I see one soon.

Exile on Peachtree Street said...

Another fun & intriguing post, Cat. Thanks for sharing it with us!

Anonymous said...

i think that we shuod have mermaids