The Magical Allure of Mermaids & Sirens...
Why we should still believe mermaids or even that Homo Aquaticus exist? Because it gives us pleasure, simple, primal, and soothing.
We seem, from childhood to recognize the motif of the mermaid as a kindred, a relative, or perhaps have caught a glimpse of her from the corner of your eye whilst swimming in the sea, or perhaps she visited us in our dreams.
IMAGE: The hypnotic water graphic image was created by: Chris Hong & Garrett Smith, at Stanford University.
I used to have a recurring dream as a child, my Deep Blue Dream - it was simple, comforting, primal, and pure...merely me swimming at the bottom of the ocean through kelp and caves, over corals, and through brightly-coloured schools of fish, sometimes I even got to swim loops with mantas and dolphins. It was the most incredible sensation, during that lucid moment, when my brain is aware that although I am not a fish and cannot breathe underwater, for a magical time, only during my dreams, I am able to "breathe water" like the thinnest of air, and just enjoy the sensation impossible in waking life. I think this is the reason we all want mermaids to be real, when we hold our breath at the bottom of the pool to see how long we can do it, we are merely tapping into our primal, evolutionary heritage.
Just as some believe in fairies, bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster...I like to think that in some underground cave, far out of humankind's reach unable to ba scanned by sonar, submarine, nor recorded by Remove Operated Vehihicle they remain hidden too deep for scientific specimen. In a lost underwater kingdom they dwell live, make little waterbabies, and love happily, the mermaids and mermen exist as they have for thousands of years.
If you are a speculative scientist, you may believe that science is close to proving there is a lost link to us, since our two species split, Homo Aquaticus and Homo Sapiens. The philosopher, Anaximander in 546 BC, believed humans were a branch of the mermaid species.
Even if you don't believe, I am sure that the literature, art, and film they have inspired will fill you with awe, nonetheless.
She is older than recorded history, mosaics, pottery vessels, and fresco depit the siren, mermaid form, ageless and timeless like the eternal Mother Waters called "Mami wati" from which we all evolved, and after 9 months gestation in her watery womb - emerge from.
Our mythology and folklore abounds with mermaids. In Old English, the root words "mer" and "maid" combine to translate to woman of the sea, also merewif was used interchangeably. Refering to the more monstrous water woman merewif is Grendel's Mother from the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf written at the end of the Dark Ages between 700-1000 AD.
As far back as 1000 BC with the Assyrian goddess Atargatis, she fell in love with a land dweller, a shepherd, and accidentally kills him, horrified and ashamed she takes to the water in the form of a fish, it cannot conceal her divine beauty and she would become the mermaid ideal, showing up later as the Greek goddess Derketo. Babylon had the god Ea, but Syrian (Babylon) and Phoenician temples honoring Derketo. Even Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike of Macedon in upon her death is immortalized in early Greek lore becomes the Mermaid of the Aegean.
IMAGE: The ancient relief of Nagini, part reptile part human.
Call her what you wish, take your pick for every country on earth has their own lore and name for the half human, half sea creature seductress of the sea: Melusine, Lorelei, Merman, Merrow, Nix, Nereids, Apsaras, Aurai, Harpy, Meliae, Eleionomae, Naiads, Rusalka, Sirin, Syrenka, Suvannamaccha, Maneli, Ondine, you catch my watery drift...
According to THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MYTHOLOGY by Arthur Cotterell:
"SIRENS were beautiful sea nymphs who charmed sailors by their alluring songs. Although initially depicted as bird-maids, they later became fair temptresses."
The siren is cousin to Naiads are NEIERIDS and OCEANIDS of the Oceans, (Oreads of the hills, and Dryads of the forests and trees). Naiads, mermaids, and sirens are usually sweet, benign spirits and Naiads specifically, are thought to be especially helpful and healing, nurturing fruits and flowers and even mortals.
Below, is a red clay jar from ancient Greece, the Stamnos vase (480-460 BCE) at the British Museum, showing Odyssius' harrowing escape from the siren's call:
Although, the Bible warns of the temptation of the sirens, and Homer's Odyssey, Odyssius binds himself to the mast so he will not be lured to his death, having instructed his crew to fill their ears with beeswax to prevent hearing the siren's perilous yet beautiful song. Ovid's Metamorphosis has sirens are handmaidens to Persephone, and Circe leaves little to the imagination describing the rotting corpses that scattered neary the sirens they are also cannibals. Mermaids, and sirens are the embodiment of desire, danger, seduction, and temptation, and yet, she is myth perfected simply for its primal, calming, comforting, and soothing ability. Like the siren song itself, a watery lullaby, the mermaid, a comforting mother.
Every county has their own name for a mermaid or siren, undine, or water spirit, but there remains something so hypnotic and sublime about them, we are drawn to them, we cannot resist them, nor their siren song. In Scottish mythology a mermaid is called a "ceasg" meaning maid of the waves. In Ireland she is called a merrow, in the Isle of Man they call her a ben-varrey. In parts of Europe, a melusine. In Russia a rusalka. Haitian loa (spirits) have a mermaid called La Sirene who represents wealth, beauty and is a handmaid to their main diety Yemaya. Java has their own mermaid queen Nyi Roro Kidul.
In North America, Micmac have water spirits called the Halfway People, called Sabawaelnu, part human and part fish, they have power over storms, thoer songs if interpreted correctly can warn of bad weather. The Maliseet and Passamaquoddy have the Lampeguin. Ojibwe, Algonquin, Menominee, and Potawatomi have Nibiinaabe (Source: Native-Languages.org/mermaids).
IMAGE: Church of the Angels siren in St. Peter, Lenton (Linconshire), UK. from the ParadoxPlace web site.
Famous people in history have believed in mermaids: Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebooks about how mermaids lull mariners to sleep, Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaid creatures on his voyage of 1493, and even the pirate Blackbeard, in his logbooks talks of mermaid sightings. Perhaps sunstroke, scurvy or too much rum induced seeing women where there were only Manatees, seals, and sea cows, but that is less romantic, less spectacular, less wondrous.
Ships have long used the mermaid as the emblem of protection on their mastheads, hoping to channel the spirits of the sea into protective flattery by their idealistic depictions.
IMAGE: Carved ship's mastead, hundreds of years old
Literary origins of course come from local forklore. One Thousand and One Nights has people of the sea and "Djullanar the Sea-girl", there is also "Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman", and the "Adventure of Bulukiya." In the 1400s in China, literature tells of a mermaid who wept tears that became pearls. Hindu golden mermaid called Suvannamaccha, Cambodia, Brazil, Cameroon, and Thailand have their own folk tales of memaids. Early British folklore ballad "Sire Patrick Spens" is about a mermaid with a nose for smelling disasters. Another early ballad is of the "Laird of Lorntie." There are many local legends of mermaids from Cornwall around Pendour Cove.
IMAGE: Assyrian merman.
A kindred Scottish poetess, who was born on All Hallow's Eve in 1765, Anne's poems embody the archaic chivalric ballad, complete with the Gothic perils of seduction and the sonic rhythm of the waves in the words, The Mermaid swirls with sexual fury.
IMAGE: Illustration from the Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson.
The poem below is from her book "Poems" from the 1800s, by Anne Bannerman (1765-1829), from the point of view of the siren:
Blow on, ye death fraught whirlwinds! blow, Around the rocks, and rifted caves; Ye demons of the gulf below! I hear you, in the troubled waves. High on this cliff, which darkness shrouds In night's impenetrable clouds, My solitary watch I keep, And listen, while the turbid deep Groans to the raging tempests, as they roll Their desolating force, to thunder at the pole. Eternal world of waters, hail! Within thy caves my Lover lies; And day and night alike shall fail Ere slumber lock my streaming eyes. Along this wild untrodden coast, Heap'd by the gelid' hand of frost; Thro' this unbounded waste of seas, Where never sigh'd the vernal breeze; Mine was the choice, in this terrific form, To brave the icy surge, to shiver in the storm. Yes! I am chang'd - My heart, my soul, Retain no more their former glow. Hence, ere the black'ning tempests roll, I watch the bark, in murmurs low, (While darker low'rs the thick'ning' gloom) To lure the sailor to his doom; Soft from some pile of frozen snow I pour the syren-song of woe; Like the sad mariner's expiring cry, As, faint and worn with toil, he lays him down to die. Then, while the dark and angry deep Hangs his huge billows high in air ; And the wild wind with awful sweep, Howls in each fitful swell - beware! Firm on the rent and crashing mast, I lend new fury to the blast; I mark each hardy cheek grow pale, And the proud sons of courage fail; Till the torn vessel drinks the surging waves, Yawns the disparted main, and opes its shelving graves. When Vengeance bears along the wave The spell, which heav'n and earth appals; Alone, by night, in darksome cave, On me the gifted wizard calls. Above the ocean's boiling flood Thro' vapour glares the moon in blood: Low sounds along the waters die, And shrieks of anguish fill the' sky; Convulsive powers the solid rocks divide, While, o'er the heaving surge, the embodied spirits glide. Thrice welcome to my weary sight, Avenging ministers of Wrath! Ye heard, amid the realms of night, The spell that wakes the sleep of death. Where Hecla's flames the snows dissolve, Or storms, the polar skies involve; Where, o'er the tempest-beaten wreck, The raging winds and billows break; On the sad earth, and in the stormy sea, All, all shall shudd'ring own your potent agency. To aid your toils, to scatter death, Swift, as the sheeted lightning's force, When the keen north-wind's freezing breath Spreads desolation in its course, My soul within this icy sea, Fulfils her fearful destiny. Thro' Time's long ages I shall wait To lead the victims to their fate; With callous heart, to hidden rocks decoy, And lure, in seraph-strains, unpitying, to destroy.
IMAGES: Illustration by Helen Stratton from Tales of Hans Andresen.
Sirens and mermaids became the emblem of the need to escape into fantasy, mythology, and beauty in the choking pollution of the Industrial Revolution more and more romantic art, literature, poetry, would be produced to satisfy the artistic synergy and our human longings for her. French illustrator and Victorian artists Edmund Dulac captures the soul of the Little mermaid in the iconic story of forbidden love and duality.
2 incredible and sublime illustrations by Warick Goble:
It was the Romantics, the Victorians and the Pre-Raphaelites who perfected the sensual seductress and soothing lithographs.
Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, John William Waterhouse's awe inspiring painting from circa 1900, located at the Royal Academy.
IMAGE: Howard Pyle's 1910 painting "The Mermaid" always reminds me of the sensation of swimming, you can almost feel the waves cooling your feet.
IMAGE: Illustration by Edmund Dulac for Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid are imprinted on us all from childhood.
The Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Little Mermaid, first published in 1837. I fell in love with the underwater world all over again, upon seeing the incredible but haunting illustration by French artist Edmund Dulac. With its soothing, dreamy watercolours and spectacularly detailed octopus tentacles, bones, and undulating sea kelp that you swear it is all moving with the ocean current like giant strands of the sea goddess's hair.
Even before the Victorians perfected the beautiful ideal of the mermaid, siren, or water nymph, there were the Romantics and 18th century etchings. In every country as far back as recorded history has a folk tale, myth, or lore of a part human, part fish creature that dwells in the sea and eludes capture but haunts us as we peer into their mysterious watery realm. How can one not be hypnotized by the illistrations and paintings by: John William Waterhouse, Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, Courbet, Giovanni Segantini, Eugene Delacroix, Delville, and Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Herbert Cole, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, so many others, everyone likely has their own favorite.
IMAGE: The Depths of the Sea by Edward Burne-Jones, 1886.
The basis for the myth and the sightings reported throughout history stem from several real things: SIRENOMELIA, SIRENIA (sea cows or dugongs), and AMA PEARL DIVERS.
IMAGE: Specimen of Sirenomelia from the National Museum of Health & Medicine.
The oldest bone mound discovered here in Akab. Skeletal ramains of sea cows or dugongs, officially named Sirenia from the Arabian sea. In his archaeological report, Mermaids of the Arabian Gulf, Mark J. Beech discusses the ritual use of dugongs as an econimical resource, the oil for lanterns, the bones for tools, and the hunters themselves given shamanic burial status.
The use of their image, or the bones mounds represent the ritual reverence present from prehistoric times to the modern era, although the Sirenia is a sea cow, not a mythical mermaid, or part human hybrid, it symbolises the cultural significance that sirens hold from the dawn of civilization.
Reported sightings throughout history perpetuated the lore, and the strange birth defect called Mermaid Syndrome, a rare birth defect that appears in 1 out of every 100,000 births, that I believe inspired the FeeJee Mermaid hoax.
IMAGE: "The Feejee Mermaid" early ad from an 1842 flyer for the side show curiosity claiming it was a real mermaid captures and preserved in Fiji.
Early sigthing of mermaids in British Columbia begin in Vancouver, describing her as a golden haired siren with the lower body like a porpoise, sighted at Point Grey, of course dubbed the Mermaid of Point Grey, and continued in In 1967, Canada local newspapers The Times Colomnist reported sightings in Active Pass near Victoria, and Ladysmith. In Cape Breton in 1886, there is a reported sighting from August, in the Brooklyn Eagle:
“The fishermen of Gabarus, Cape Breton [an island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada], have been excited over the appearances of a mermaid, seen in the waters by some fishermen a few days ago. While Mr. Bagnall, accompanied by several fishermen, was out in a boat, they observed floating on the surface of the water a few yards from the boat what they supposed to be a corpse. Approaching it for the purpose of taking it ashore, they observed it to move, when to their great surprise, it turned around in a sitting position and looked at them and disappeared. A few moments after[,] it appeared on the surface and again looked toward them, after which it disappeared altogether. The face, head, shoulders and arms resembled those of a human being, but the lower extremities had the appearance of a fish. The back of its head was covered with long, dark hair resembling a horse’s mane. The arms were shaped like a human being’s, except that the fingers of one hand were very long. The color of the skin was not unlike that of a human being. There is no doubt, that the mysterious stranger is what is known as a mermaid, and the first one ever seen in Cape Breton waters.” SOURCE: Zoologist Dr. Karl Shuker found this report, on his mermaid body found site."
In other countries, it is perhaps the reamains of the dugongs, and manatees, that perpetuated reports by eager believers throughout history.
IMAGE: Japanese wood block print of an Ama Diver, Tamatori.
Ama pearl divers, the Ama of Japan, female skin divers who, originally clad only in a loin cloth, fit the seductive half-nude ideal romanticized in art. For over two thousand years the Ama pearl divers have been searching for pearls in sea snails, abalone and oysters.
IMAGE: Japanese mermaid.
There are beautiful collections of these traditional female divers "Hekura" by Franceso Maraini, and other vintage photos by Iwase Yoshikura.
IMAGE: Photo of an contemporary Ama Diver by Iwase Yoshiuki.
2 PAINTINGS BY TOSHYUKI ENOKI, a contemporary artist who continues the romantic mermaid art tradition.
Our primitive mind, perhaps in dealing with gestation memories, or even universal memory passed down in our DNA during our evolution out of the water is drawn to the human-sea creature lovechild. From his groundbreaking 1953 work explaining primitive archetypes and the collective unconsciousness, Carl Gustav Jung's in archetypal terms, the siren represents the explanation of mysteries in physical manifestations such as anima meaning soul with a female form:
"In mythology it is expressed as a siren, a mermaid, a wood-nymph, or any form which 'infatuates young men and sucks the life out of them'. In ancient times, the anima came represented either as a goddess or a witch – that is, aspects of the female which were out of men's control."
"When a man 'projects' the feminine aspect within his psyche onto an actual woman, that woman takes on magnified importance. The archetype makes itself present in a man's life either by infatuation, idealization or fascination with women. The woman herself does not really justify these reactions, but acts as the target to which his anima is transferred. This is why the loss of a relationship can be so devastating to a man. It is the loss of a side of him that he has kept external.
"Every time there is an extreme love or fantasy or entanglement, the anima is at work in both sexes. She does not care for an orderly life, but wants intensity of experience - life, in whatever form. The anima, like all archetypes, may come upon us like fate. She can enter our life either as something wonderful or as something terrible – either way her aim is to wake us up. To recognize the anima means throwing away our rational ideas of how life should be lived, and instead admitting, as Jung puts it, that “Life is crazy and meaningful at once”.
"The anima is profoundly irrational – and yet she carries great wisdom. When she comes into your life it may seem like chaos, but it is only later that we are able to divine her purpose."
IMAGE: Eternal Sleep contemporary painting, artist Unknown, date unknown.
Motion pictures certainly are a perfect medium to perpetuate the mermaid, siren mythology. Out of the magic lantern tradition, combines with technological advances, soon the Lumiere Brothers and Edison's Kinetoscope comes creation of the motion picture we know today.
The Mermaid (1904) by the masterful Georges Méliès emerges from the murky waters of early cinema about a fisherman and a mermaid. Closer to the Victorian postcard "come to life", clearly presented in the vaudvillian magician's sleight-of-hand than a narrative film, it remains a charming relic of the classic allure of the myth and the romance of early silent films. You can watch it at the Silent Film House's web site.
In 1914, Universal Studios made Neptune's Daughter, directed by Herbert Brenon and starred Annette Kellerman .
Some great obscure films to watch are Night Tide, Miranda (1948) a light hearted British comedy starring Glynis Johns and Griffith Jones, directed by Ken Annakin, and the hilarious film Splash (1984) starring Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks. With much darker elements, the television episodes on that theme are: The Night Gallery from 1969 season 2, episode #16, called Lindeman's Catch. Night Tide (1961) stars Dennis Hopper and Linda Lawson about a sailor who falls for a carnival girl named Mora. In production on Indiegogo as we speak is a unique twist the tale, about a woman in a mental hospital claiming she's a mermaid, it is in the funding phase. Mermaid Down producers are Jeffrey Grellman and Jeri Baker, the special make-up effects will be done by Howard Berger. From Japan, directed by Hideshi Hino starring Go Riju and Shigeru Saiki is for those undergrounders who can stomach extreme gore, From Japan, there is (1991) Guinea Pig 4: Mermaid in a Manhole, an extreme gore horror film based on the fairy tale but turns it inside out, literally!!! A corruption and perversion of a beautiful tale...the stuff of which nightmares are made. Acri (1996) is about a scientist who tries to prove the existence of mermaids, directed by Tatuya Ishii with story by Shunji Iwai (from the Sea Creatures section of the "Icons of Horror & The Supernatural" An Encyclopeda of Our Worst Fears, Volume 2 edited by S.T. Joshi). In the same vein, a recent horror USA/Serbia co-production, called Nymph is about a killer memaid released by Epic Pictures 2014. Starring Kristina Klebe with a cameo by Franco Nero.
Enjoy your Deep Blue Dreams...
IMAGE: The Mermaid, or Siren Song painting by Viktor Nizovstev, 1965.