Ooh, it’s been a while since we had a Storybook post, hasn’t it? About time, I thought.
So, the last Storybook post was Jack and the Beanstalk, back in 2016. (I think it’s time for another Cauldron, too, don’t you?) I’ve done so much coaching and showcasing writing that I’ve strayed too far from storytelling. So, this month, we’re doing mermaids.
I’m doing mermaids for this post because it’s MerMay on Tumblr and Instagram and other places where people post art. Is Deviantart still a thing? Basically, artistically talented folks draw mermaid-related art every day during the month of May, like NaNoWriMo, but drawing mermaids.
It’s also to tie in to the story I’m working on, the third book of the Beanseller Saga, Siren Song. I’m cooking along, getting the edits in order, combing out the snags, patching the plotholes, and polishing up the words. It’s slow going, but it’s going.
So, let’s dive in, shall we?
The first thing I want to address I’m only going to address halfway because I want to come back to it again at the end: fish-women. FISH. WOMEN. Both are equally important. That may seem obvious now (I mean, what else are they? That’s literally what they are), but it’s so layered and complicated, and messed up but inspirational. It starts off, like, ‘Of course, they are,’ and then, when you study them more, it becomes, ‘OF COURSE, THEY ARE!‘
I’m speaking here of the modern version of mermaids, specifically. In the mailing list going out later this month, I’ll discuss the sirens of Greek mythology and a couple other things; but today, we’ll only speak of those lovely ladies with the long graceful fish tails.
So, first thing, obviously, they’re gorgeous, right? What’s the sense in being a Plain Jane mermaid? You’re not going to catch the obsessive eye of hard-up sailors that way. They’re all hot, they’re all perfect. They have long, flowing hair which they comb constantly (yet, it’s never stiff and sticky like human hair gets when exposed to saltwater, nor does it ever seem to get greasy, despite the lack of shampoo in the ocean). Sometimes, they’re nude up top (obviously adhering to the human beauty ideals of the day, regarding breast size and shape), sometimes they have some sort of ocean life or human detritus to cover their modesty, especially when they’re being marketed toward children.
Often, they’re depicted as being greenish, bluish, purplish, or other watery complexions with hair ranging from white to black, and everything in between. Sometimes, they have webbed hands, sometimes they have gills.
Now, I’m not a big fan of call-out culture, but one thing I will call out every damn time I see it, is bad research and bad scholarship. One source I used in the organising of notes for this post was a book called, Mermaids: The Myths, Legends, and Lore, by Skye Alexander. This is a beautifully formatted and illustrated book clearly aimed at a New Age audience, and so cannot be considered an academic source, YET, as it is largely non-fiction (I do consider books studying folklore to be non-fiction), and includes a bibliography, I hold it to a higher standard than other such ‘light reading’ books. At one point, Alexander references a writer called Water Mage Ge Wonderwed of Carmalad. If you can’t quite place where on the map Carmalad is or may have been in the past, the reason is because Carmalad is a city in the Enthronia region of Santharia, a large kingdom in the southern Sarvonian Continent. If you’re still stumped, it’s because Sarvonia belongs to a world called Caelereth, the setting of a collaborative online RPG called The Santharian Dream. So uhh, it’s not real. Whether or not mermaids are real (some of the first hand accounts are interesting, if not convincing), this source is literally fantasy, and yet Alexander is not the only person copy-pasting (literally whole phrases, sometimes) Water Mage Wonderwed’s work as earthly scholarship. And what’s arguably worse, she didn’t even credit them in the bibliography. Tsk tsk.
Anyway, back to the real science, mermaid physique varies wildly in ancient sources, even if we’re just talking about half-fish-half-women versions. Some of them have long smooth tails like dolphins, whales, and other aquatic mammals. Some have long, graceful scaly tails like the most common depictions in popular culture today. Some are savage and brutish-looking, some depictions have a tail and two legs (which solves the problem of how human men can mate with them), and some depictions give them features of other undersea creatures.
Many of them have the ability to change their bodies, or shapeshift, which I’ll get back to in a moment. Also, they are very often depicted with combs and mirrors. There are a few theories for this. One is that they’re exceptionally vain creatures. And, I mean… maybe? That, of course, comes from the almost universally pervasive notion that a woman’s beauty is only useful for ensnaring, and ultimately, destroying a man. I mean, we can’t just look like this coincidentally!! And for a woman to actually think herself attractive? Then, obviously she knows what danger her beauty is and knows how to weaponise it. There is no other explanation.
A lot of these details are interwoven. Shapeshifting, while literally involving physical appearance, can still be classified as a behaviour. They seem to be just as fascinated by us as we are by them, though the reasons differ. This gives rise to the stories of mermaids taking human lovers (or, more often, get tricked and held captive by humans). One variety of merfolk, the Ondine, can only gain a soul by bearing a child by a human male (which, yikes)–or, alternatively, can lose her soul by bearing a child by a human male (double yikes).
They are said to build their homes in underwater caves, kelp forests, or…*heavy sigh* Atlantis.
They can be helpful or hurtful, depending on the legend, and the type of mermaid. I always heard that mermaids were the helpful ones and sirens were the ones who crashed ships, but the nuance is much more complicated than that. As I’ll discuss in the newsletter, the original creatures called sirens bore little resemblance to mermaids as we know them now. It seems that sometime between Homer’s Odyssey and The Little Mermaid, the siren began to be absorbed by the mermaid myth.
It is said that mermaids can cause storms, and so wearing an amulet featuring a mermaid could keep you safe at sea. Alternately, a friendly mermaid, treated with respect and kindness, might warn passing sailors of storms coming, giving them time to prepare or alter course. Occasionally, a mermaid may even rescue sailors from shipwrecks.
Which brings us to the mermaid’s most famous ability: the siren song. Mermaids are said to have the most beautiful voices of any creature alive, capable of enthralling all who hear it, even to the point of driving men to willingly go to their deaths. It is claimed that sometimes, a mermaid’s song may mimick the sounds of a drowning woman, and so sailors jump overboard to save her. Either way, the sailors end up drowning and/or being eaten. Hans Christian Andersen, author of the fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, tells us that the mermaid sang to the drowning sailors to calm them as they died, singing songs of the beauty of the ocean and how it isn’t so bad going under the waves. The tv show, Siren, on Freeform and Hulu, uses the siren song two ways: one, to pacify and obsess; one, as a song of love.
I love that show, you guys. They do so many cool things with mermaid lore. They get a little too close to my twists, but I’ll forgive them because Oh My God.
I’m not going to leave the merlads out, don’t worry. However, there is little information out there about them. From what we have been told, they’re more feral and predatory than mermaids, or else they stick closer to the colonies. They can sing, but their voices aren’t as enthralling, and they are reportedly otherwise totally unappealing, with sharp, uneven teeth and long matted beards. Which either explains why mermaids go for humans, or is a human smear campaign. You be the judge.
Where Did They Come From?
So this brings us to the why of mermaids. What are the origin myths surrounding them, and if they’re not real, why are there so many stories about them?
The first is the easiest to answer, as there are many explanations. Ovid says the mermaids come from the ships fleeing Troy that sank. The merrow of Ireland are said to have been pagan women driven into the sea, and the Estonians supposedly say that the children drowned by Pharoah became the nakineiu. Of course, there are those who say that they’re simply aquatic humans who evolved to life in the sea.
In my opinion, while I’d love them to be real, I subscribe to the hypothesis that sailors saw manatees, dugongs, and the now-extinct Steller’s sea cows with their whale-like tails, knobbly knees, and I guess vvaagguueely human faces, and after months at sea, thought they looked enough like human women to want to get a closer look. And then drowned. Christopher Columbus is said to have seen one, and remarked on how ugly they were, noting big eyes and a moustache. Now, of course, these animals are not native to places where these sailors came from, so you can’t expect them to see one and automatically know what it is, but you might think they know what a human woman looks like, especially considering that the superstition of women being bad luck on ships is a myth, and there would have been many women nearby to look at for reference.
So where’s is the mix-up? Well, in my opinion- and this is where the foreshadowed Feminist Agenda comes in- sometimes, dudes can be gross. Almost all stories, songs, records, and myths of mermaids involve some degree of intermingling between them and humans in a way not often seen with other humanoid mythical creatures. Mermaids are the ultimate tease: beautiful and completely unattainable, because of both the treacherous water and her violent, feral nature. And if you manage to get to her and survive, how do you do it? She has the lower half of a fish, one long tail with no obvious…well, you know. The solution is often imprisonment, which more often than not ends in her untimely death. That’s gross, guys.
However, I think the image of the mermaid as a source of inspiration is on the rise among women these days for much the same reasons. The mermaid is often just sitting there, minding her own business. She is unabashedly vain, but her beauty is for herself, she only uses her weapons to defend herself. She can be kind, she can be helpful, if she’s treated with respect. But if you come at her with ill intentions, she will crash your ships and eat you.
So that’s something to think about when considering myths. Who is it telling the stories? How could their cultural baggage affect their perception of phenomena and how they relate it back? What other sides are there to be considered?
Of course, I only really covered what we call mermaids, here. This month’s newlsetter, coming out hopefully in the next few days, will discuss some similar myths from other cultures, and how they relate to mermaids. Sign up for my mailing list here, and grab the first chapter of Magic Beans free, as well!