THE MERMAID ISLES PROJECT
“A thousand fathoms down our home; Daughters we of the pathless deep, sprung from the ever dancing foam.”
–from The Mermaids by Edith M. David (1873).
Mermaids, it would seem, have been shoaling around the sunless depths of the human psyche since the time of the ancient Mesopotamians. From the very beginning, marine humanoids were associated with eroticism, esoteric knowledge, and peril. The most prominent of these beings were Oannes and Derceto, male and female deities respectively of Sumerian and Levantine origin. Oannes was a culture hero who fulfilled a civilising function not unlike other primordial teachers (such as the Grigori) in the pantheons of the Fertile Crescent. In the writings of the Babylonian mythographer Berosus, we are told that this piscine pedagogue educated mankind alongside the shore during the day and returned to the watery abyss at night:
Derceto on the other hand, whose name (as has been noted by Deborah Gera in her book Warrior Women: The Anonymous Tractatus De Mulieribus) signifies the “ruler of the Sea”, appears to have been a fertility goddess and the mother of the infamous Assyrian queen Semiramis. Arguably, both Derceto and Oannes passed on their primeval traits which, through the epochs of time, helped to influence the characteristics of the merpeople of posterity.
Somewhere amidst the ever-heaving tides and whirlpools of history, legends of mermen and mermaids in the West surged into confluent currents. In the Middle Ages, tales of the mystical Siren songstresses who seduced Odysseus and his shipmates helped to solidify the image of the mermaid as a treacherous yet enchanting femme fatale. As a temptress and lover, she took on a demonstrably Venusian role, and like the Biblical Eve, she became a trumped up caricature of the caprices of femininity.
In a similar fashion, mermen became priapic, hypermasculine rakes, satyrs of the ocean. Medieval and Renaissance writers often described them as sexual deviants who kidnapped unsuspecting women venturing too close to the coast. These copulations usually resulted in the birth of supernaturally-gifted persons who became the progenitors of royal houses.
In addition to displaying sexually transgressive behaviours, merpeople, also exhibited an intimate knowledge of mystic secrets. Cornish mermaids, for example were said to have the ability to not only practise but also teach magic. This forbidden art, perhaps as old and pristine as the ocean itself, they bestowed discerningly to the kind-hearted. The following excerpt, from a tale called The Old Man of Cury (in which a mermaid initiates a daydreaming Cornishman) gives evidence of this folkloric trope:
In Central Africa and in the Caribbean mermaids are also thought to be mystagogues who can connect devotees to spiritual intelligences. These water goddesses, whose artistic renditions specifically incorporate European and South Asian visual motifs have many names such as Mami Wata, Mamadjo, and La Sirène.
As previously mentioned elsewhere, mermaids therefore have had and continue to have a global territoriality. Although they once peopled the Seven Seas of the ancients and the New World of the moderns (who, en route to the Americas, recorded their infrequent sightings), mermaids now mostly abide in the more pelagic regions of the human imagination’s mare incognitum.
A new project however, seeks to fish out these scaly creatures and, figuratively, trigger their resurgence in the British Isles. Put more precisely, its chief researcher Professor Sarah Peverley seeks to chart and illustrate the unique role that mermaids have played in Britain’s iconographic and literary history from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century. The purpose and scope of this new project are among the few topics addressed in the following interview.
The Custodian: How long have you been interested in mermaids?
Sarah Peverley: I’ve been enchanted by mermaids for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid dubbed in English. It was released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, and it broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published 1837) in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning. I recall fleeing to the bathroom in floods of tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. I wanted a happy ending for her and nothing could console me. From that moment I was in love with mermaids and The Little Mermaid became my favourite fairy tale. It taught me that life isn’t always fair, that happy endings aren’t always possible, but that love is the purest and noblest thing that we are capable of. My older self still has that childlike fascination and feeling of injustice at the Little Mermaid’s story, but mermaids also appeal to me more broadly because they absorb and transform whatever ideas we imprint upon them. As hybrid creatures they thrive on contradiction and difference, and over the centuries mermaids in oral, written and visual cultures have helped us navigate what it means to be human.
C: How did you initially determine the scope of the Isles project? Was Britain always going to be the main region of focus?
S: As a medievalist, I always wanted to do a detailed study of mermaids in the medieval imagination. The watery geography of our island nations has impacted on how mermaids and the ocean feature in our cultural outputs, so telling the story of merfolk in our archipelago allows me to highlight our interconnectedness with European traditions, while interrogating what makes our mermaids unique. That said, I’ve discovered too many wonderful things to abandon the mermaids that lie beyond the project’s immediate focus, so alongside the main project I’m also preparing a more general book,provisionally entitled The Mermaid’s Tale: A Cultural History of the Mermaid. This will cover mermaids more broadly, looking at their development across the globe and across time, from ancient Mesopotamia to the present day.
C: Modern mermaids tend to be depicted with certain accessories, such as mirrors and combs. Can the origin of these motifs be traced to a particular point in iconographic history?
S: Yes, many of the items and qualities attributed to merfolk today draw on earlier artistic representations from the classical and medieval periods. The comb and mirror combination first arises in medieval iconography, but it’s a fairly late development in the British Isles. I’ve only found a few examples prior to the fifteenth century, which is when the combination becomes a prominent feature on church misericords and bench ends, like that depicting the famous Mermaid of Zennor. Before that mermaids appear with either a mirror or a comb, but generally not both. The association of mirrors with mermaids seems to derive from Classical depictions of Venus, who is often shown with a mirror and accompanied by water deities like Nereides and Tritons.
C: What were some of the common perceptions about mermaids and their powers in the early Middle Ages and how did they change over time?
S: Medieval mermaids were, for the most part, aligned with the Homeric sirens. Drawing inspiration from Classical writings, they were dangerous, sexual predators with enchanting voices that lured men to their doom. The early church fathers used the story of Odysseus and the Sirens as an allegory of man’s struggle to avoid worldly temptations. While sinful men succumbed to the sirens’sweet songs and suffered spiritual shipwreck, good Christians rejected their charms and escaped unscathed. The notion that sirens and mermaids are seductive women seeking to ruin men remains a popular cultural motif to this day, but now they also represent love, female empowerment, gender fluidity, personal freedom, escapism, and ecological crisis.
Of course, many of these concepts have precedents across the ages too. My favourite historical precedent divesting medieval mermaids of their sexual allure and casting them in a positive light occurs in the fourteenth-century Cornish plays known as The Ordinalia. Here the mermaid’s hybrid body is used to explain the complex theological idea of Christ’s dual nature. Just as the mermaid is part woman, part fish, Christ is part man, part god. I love the simplicity of this idea. The anonymous playwright has made a difficult part of Christian doctrine very accessible. Another common medieval perception about mermaids was that they had power over the weather.
In the classical period, the sirens and other water deities were frequently associated with calm seas and fair winds, but in the Middle Ages this reversed and mermaids were blamed for bad weather. Many accounts of mermaid sightings from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries embrace this shift, projecting the cause of shipwreck and storm onto mermaids. Imagining powerful supernatural forces at work was a way of coping with the inevitable loss of life that came with increased shipping and global sea trade. Many other medieval ideas that have come down to us more or less unchanged throughout the ages – the magical properties of mermaids’ hair and their ability to transform fortunes are good examples that crop up time and again– but ultimately mermaids are flexible ciphers, able to take on and help us navigate whatever troubles, frustrates, inspires, or moves us.
C: Was the term “mermaid” always used to refer to mythical sea-creatures or did it take on other meanings in English parlance?
S: From the Middle Ages onwards, “mermaid” is used in English alongside “siren”. While “mermaid” always denotes a fish-tailed woman, “siren” can be a fish-tailed woman or a part woman, part bird creature like the sirens in Classical art. In the past “mermaid” has been used figuratively to denote a prostitute, somebody who is good at swimming, and somebody with an enchanting voice. There was also an eighteenth-century dance called “The Mermaid”.
C: On that note, how regularly did mermaids appear in non-fantastical literature (i.e. sermons, political tracts, etc.)?
Mermaids occur in a variety of literature, from histories and romance to religious texts, natural histories, and political poetry. They are also popular subjects in art, appearing in church fabric, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, wall paintings, heraldry, and personal items, such as seals and jewellery. It never ceases to surprise me that they occur in the most obvious and unexpected places.
C: What’s the best way for readers to keep up with the Isles project? Also, do you have plans to attend or chair any conferences on mermaid lore and art?
S: We have active Twitter (@MermaidIsles) and Instagram (@mermaidisles) feeds that share images of medieval mermaids and project updates. A project website is also in development (www.mermaidisles.com) and a few things up already, such as my new podcast “Why Do We Love Mermaids”. As we add more content readers will be able to access information about British and Irish mermaids, view resources such as our forthcoming “Mermaid Map” access media interviews and events, and submit details of new creations inspired by the project.
Readers might also like the new adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid that I produced with The Liverpool Players for last year’s Being Human Festival. It has an original music score by Alex Cottrell and is available as an audiobook at: https://theliverpoolplayers.wordpress.com/past-productions/audio-books-and-music/
Going forward, I’ll be speaking about the imagery of mermaids in bathtubs at a conference in Copenhagen this October. There are lots of other exciting events in the pipeline, but details of those will be released on the website once plans have been finalised.