Tag Archives: Mermaid

The Mermaids of Maningrida

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of being part of a discussion about mermaids on Australia’s ABC Radio Network. Joining me on the programme was storyteller Kate Forsyth and Burarra woman Jess Phillips. The broadcast can be heard below and is also available to download here.

The station also wrote an article based on our experiences and research, with a special focus on the unique mermaids of Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory. It is available here.

9850582-3x2-940x627

A painting by Sonya Namarnyilk, depicting Arnhem Land’s fresh water mermaids known as Yawk Yawks.
Supplied: Ingrid Johanson, Babbarra Womens Centre

Why Do We Love Mermaids?

Image (c) Chiara Salomoni 2

Image © Chiara Salomoni for Project Mermaids

A couple of weeks ago Neil Morrison of Podcraft Productions invited me to record a podcast that tackled the enduring appeal of mermaids. It was a fun afternoon and we chatted for so long that I think we could have produced two or three podcasts from the material! I’m sure some of the sections that didn’t make the final edit will appear on here or Mermaids of the British Isles at some point, but for the time being here’s the final product: a walk through our long, complex and profound relationship with the beguiling messengers from the deep.

 

Why We Can’t Resist the Lure of Mermaids

Mermaids are everywhere. In the past month alone they have surfaced in New Brighton, caused controversy in Asda, reinvigorated toast, partied with the Kardashians, transformed maternity and wedding photography, been a focal point for vandalism and protest in Copenhagen, and helped a child overcome trauma when she learned to liken her badly burned skin to a mermaid’s scales.

Daily hashtags on social media such as #MermaidLife and #MermaidMonday also bolster the burgeoning “mermaid economy”, as mermaid schools, mer-fashion, mermaid parades, and “mermaiding” – where people put on fabric or silicone tails to swim as mermaids – become more mainstream. Most incredibly, being a “professional mermaid” is now a viable career choice. Those able to hold their breath and keep their eyes open underwater for long periods of time can make a living entertaining children and adults, starring in films and music videos and raising awareness of ocean conservation.

The film industry has similarly grasped the lucrative potential of merfolk. Last year, China’s highest grossing film of all time, Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid (美人鱼/美人魚), used the creatures to foreground mankind’s destructive effect on the environment. With four new Hollywood mer-movies currently in the pipeline – three inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and a remake of the 1984 comedy Splash featuring Channing Tatum as a merman – merfolk are poised to dominate the media for the foreseeable future.

Beautiful beasts

All of this might give the impression that the world has suddenly gone mer-crazy – but the pre-eminence of mermaids as cultural icons has long been apparent. Merfolk have been with mankind since the dawn of civilisation, inspiring stories, art and religious iconography, featuring in our politics, and helping us to navigate complex emotions and questions about the human condition.

In ancient Mesopotamia, half-human, half-fish creatures were believed to inhabit the primordial waters from which all life sprang. Their presence on amulets and buildings from this region suggests they had a protective function, warding off evil and bringing good luck to people and places. Atargatis, a Syrian goddess who appears to have had a fish-tail in one of her iconographical forms, similarly afforded protection to her followers, safeguarding fertility, order and justice. And let’s not forget the pantheon of marine deities that the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans honoured. The latter influenced medieval portrayals of mermaids and their deadly cousins the sirens, who had started to transform from seaside dwelling bird-women to fishtailed maidens by the seventh century.

In the Middle Ages, the medieval church used mermaids and sirens to teach Christians about sin and salvation. Twelfth-century Bestiaries, or Book of Beasts, provided allegorical readings of the sirens as emblems of worldly pleasures and sin, while the 14th-century Cornish plays known as the Ordinalia employed the hybrid body of the mermaid (part woman, part fish) to explain the dual nature of Christ incarnate (part man, part God).

Queen Mary Psalter Royal 2 B VII , 97, sirens

Sirens attack sailors in the 14th-century Queen Mary Psalter (London, British Library Royal B VII). The British Library

Though the use of mermaids in a religious context ended with the Reformation, their presence in other media – in drama and poetry, on maps, decorative architecture, jewellery, tableware, tavern signs and inns – increased exponentially, prompting English author and scientist Thomas Browne to declare in 1646 that: “Few eyes have escaped the picture of mermaids.”

Mer-politics

By the 16th century, mermaids were also being used in political contexts. Mary, Queen of Scots, was depicted as a mermaid on a placard posted in Edinburgh following the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley.

Implicating Mary and her future husband, James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell, in the (still unsolved) murder, the placard drew public attention to a longstanding tradition that equated mermaids with prostitutes by presenting Mary as a mermaid beguiling Bothwell in the form of a hare, one of his heraldic badges. Just a few years later, the mermaid was recycled as a positive sign of English mastery over the sea, as Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth I, was painted next to an elaborate mermaid chair in a portrait celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Merfolk and money

Though the Age of Enlightenment saw the phenomena of merfolk subjected to greater scientific scrutiny, some individuals exploited people’s natural curiosity about the sea and its inhabitants by exhibiting fake mermaids. At least five mermaids were on show in fairs and exhibitions in London between 1775 and 1795.

The contorted specimen that was displayed between September 1822 and January 1823 in the Turf Coffeehouse on St James Street provides a good example of the money such specimens could generate. Hundreds of spectators paid one shilling to see it – as various publications reported on its authenticity, condemned it as a forgery, or charted the incredible story of its acquisition (the owner, Captain Samuel Barrett Eades, had sold a ship that didn’t belong to him to fund the purchase). Two decades later, the same mermaid crossed the Atlantic and become P.T. Barnum’s most notorious attraction.

BM

A fake mermaid in The British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

From the 19th century to the present day, artists have harnessed the erotic aesthetic of the mermaid’s form to navigate female sexuality and human desire, producing works as diverse as John William Waterhouse’s A Mermaid (1900) and René Magritte’s The Collective Invention (1934). Meanwhile, writers such as Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot and Oscar Wilde have woven their imaginative power into literary explorations of love and loss, old age and sexual inadequacy, and the isolation of modernity.

It is this flexibility that has allowed the mermaid to endure as an icon across cultures and across time. As a creature of duality, belonging to two worlds, the mermaid embodies contradiction and unity – she is a bendable cipher that absorbs and transforms whatever hopes, ambitions, anxieties and fears we imprint upon her. Though it might seem that the 21st century has the edge on romanticising, ecologising, feminising and politicising the mermaid to better understand ourselves, we are merely following in our ancestors footsteps in succumbing to her ancient charms.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens’ Song (Blog)
Five Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them (BBC Radio 3 website)
Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them (Blog)

SaveSave

Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them

Last week I was asked to write about my Five Favourite Medieval Hybrids for BBC Radio 3. I’ve been pondering the enduring appeal of mythical beings since I started work on a cultural history of the mermaid, but this feature, and the release of the next instalment of the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has got me thinking once again about the powerful place fabulous creatures hold in our imagination and how that maps onto the physical places they are meant to inhabit.

royal-20-b-xx-f76v

Alexander the Great carried by Griffins in London, British Library Royal MS 20 B xx, f. 76v

Hybrid beings like merfolk, centaurs, and sphinxes, reside in a twilight realm. They have a foothold in two worlds – human and animal – yet belong to neither. They often have sentience and speech, yet visually they epitomise chaos, a convergence of opposites, an impossible binding together of body parts that shouldn’t co-exist.

In the Middle Ages, hybrid creatures were frequently used to explain our existence and teach Christians how to live good (or bad) lives. Inherited from the Classical tradition, the sirens and their enchanting song, for example, became an emblem of the devil, ever ready to lure sinners to their destruction with the sweetness of worldly pleasures. The mermaid, on the other hand, might encapsulate vanity. Commonly depicted with a mirror and comb, the accoutrements of pride, she would often appear in manuscripts and churches as a warning against sin. Yet her hybrid body could also be used to represent positive dualities, as the fourteenth-century religious plays known as the Cornish Ordinalia show. Here the mermaid is employed to explain the concept of Christ’s dual nature (part-man, part-god).

Queen Mary Psalter 96v Sirens

Sirens planning an attack on sleeping sailors in ‘The Queen Mary Psalter’, British Library MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 96v

While the bodies of these fantastic creatures could be used to ponder or explain what it meant to live in a fallen world, where corporeal forms could deceive or influence those who gazed upon them, the landscapes inhabited by liminal creatures such as the mermaid, the werewolf, or the centaur, were equally useful for reflecting on the dichotomies of our existence. Typified by duality, the mermaid’s element – the sea and watery regions of the land – could nurture mankind by providing food and connecting cultures, or it could destroy life and civilisation. It was fierce and impenetrable, it was temperamental and unpredictable. It could give and it could take away.

In religious literature and art, the sea often figures as a transitional space: a place of change and transformation for those adrift upon it. Once an individual embarks on a sea voyage, planned or otherwise, they are never the same. A good example is the Middle English poem Patience, which tells the story of Jonah, who must patiently suffer the trails God sends. Another is the breathtaking Anglo-Saxon poem known as “The Seafarer“, which uses the vastness of the winter sea to focus on the isolation of the individual. Even the story of the first founding of Britain, which prefaces the Middle English Prose Brut, begins with a sea voyage. After murdering their husbands to gain independence, 33 Syrian princess are cast adrift on the ocean, only to wash up on the shores of ancient Britain and found a race of giants by copulating with spirits of the air.

The wilderness or dark forests of Western Europe, were equally dangerous environments for medieval folk. Unsafe, uncharted, and unknown, the medieval imagination populated them with sharp-toothed beasts like werewolves, inscrutable fairies, or wildmen known as wodwoses. The creatures in these spaces are always used to test the humans that venture into them and challenge their way of life. The knights of Arthurian romance, like Sir Gawain, are repeatedly  confronted with such trials, as is the eponymous hero of the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.74v

A knight killing a wodwose in London, British Library Royal MS 10 E iv, f. 74v

In thinking about how fantastic creatures and their environments work together to isolate humans and take them beyond the known, the mappable, and the ‘safe’, the literature and art of the Middle Ages can offer us new insights into the medieval mind and how it tried to make sense of the world. In the same way, our own enduring fascination with mythical creatures, such as dragons, unicorns, and griffins, allows us to exercise the power of our own imaginations and ponder what a world filled with fabulous, and often uncontrollable, beasts might mean for the human condition.

The quest to find fantastic creatures in the wild and secret places they inhabit is also the search for ourselves.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

Five Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them (BBC Radio 3 website)

The Beauty of the Bestiaries (also featured on Being Human Festival Blog)

Beauty of the Bestiaries

As David Attenborough once observed, ‘Animals were the first thing that human beings drew. Not plants. Not landscapes. Not even themselves. But Animals’ (Amazing Rare Things, p. 9). They are there in the earliest cave paintings, they are there in the cultures of antiquity, and in every subsequent age through to the present day, but no period in history has portrayed them so frequently in its art and literature, or attached such a diverse range of meanings to them, as the Middle Ages.

Book of Nature BNF MS Français 22971 f 15v

The Book of Nature: Bibliothèque National de France, Français 22971, f. 15v.

The medieval interest in animals extended from the real relationships that man had with them in day to day life – the ox that pulled the plough, the cat that kept the mice away – to the view that they were allegorical pieces in a divine jigsaw that helped define what it meant to be human in a fallen world.

Man was God’s favourite creation, but he had to work hard to redeem his sinful state. For many this meant pondering the wonders of creation and looking at nature for insights into how to live and die well. To the medieval mind, animals had been there from the start, even before Adam was created, so for the wise men and women who studied their appearance, their characteristics, and their activities, these little pockets of wisdom running across the face of the earth, swimming in the depths of the ocean, and soaring in the heavens, were constantly revealing God’s secrets.

holkham creation

Creation in the Holkham Picture Bible: British Library MS Add. 47682.

Of all the medieval artists and writers that took delight in drawing, writing about, and contemplating the secrets that animals could expose, the authors and illuminators of the Bestiaries, or Books of Beasts, were the most influential. Imbued with Christian symbolism, and blending biblical exegesis, natural science, fantasy, and humour, these encyclopaedic books were packed with descriptions of real and fantastic creatures. Each entry outlined an animal’s supposed appearance and characteristics, then provided a moral interpretation of what the beast represented. In this way, the Bestiaries functioned as schoolbooks, homiletic source material, and devotional aids in monasteries and noble households to help man unlock the secrets of creation.

Here’s an example of an entry for the (rather grumpy looking) elephant below.

elephant Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 54r

Grumpy elephant in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, f. 54r.

‘Elephants have no knee joints, so if they fall down they cannot get up again. To avoid falling, the elephant leans against a tree while it sleeps. To capture an elephant, a hunter can cut part way through a tree; when the elephant leans against it, the tree breaks and the elephant falls. Unable to rise, the beast cries out, and a large elephant tries to lift it up, but fails… Finally a small elephant comes and succeeds in raising the fallen one… Male elephants are reluctant to mate, so when the female wants children, she and the male travel to the East, near Paradise, where the mandrake grows. The female elephant eats some mandrake, and then gives some to the male; they mate and the female immediately conceives. When it is time to give birth, the female wades into a pool up to her belly and gives birth there. If she gave birth on land, the elephant’s enemy the dragon would devour the baby. To make sure the dragon cannot attack, the male elephant stands guard and tramples the dragon if it approaches the pool. The elephant’s life span is three hundred years. They travel in herds, are afraid of mice, and courteously salute men in whatever way they can.’

elephant Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 114v

Elephant giving birth in Bibliothèque Nationale deFrance MS Lat. 14429, f. 114v.

‘The elephant and its mate provide an allegory of Adam and Eve. When they were still without sin in the Garden of Eden, they did not mate, but when the dragon seduced them and Eve ate the fruit of the tree and gave some to Adam, they were forced to leave Paradise and enter the world, which was like a turbulent lake. She conceived, and ‘gave birth on the waters of guilt.’ The big elephant represents the law, which could not raise up mankind from sin… Christ is the small elephant who succeeded to raising the fallen’. Source of description here.

That’s a lot of hidden meaning in one grumpy elephant!

Here’s another for the wolf.

wolf British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 29r

Man and Wolves in British Library Royal MS 12 F xiii, f. 29r.

‘If a wolf sees a man before the man sees the wolf, the man will lose his voice. If the man sees the wolf first, the wolf can no longer be fierce. If a man loses his voice because the wolf saw him first, he should take off all his clothes and bang two rocks together, which will keep the wolf from attacking.

The wolf lives from prey, from the earth, and sometimes from the wind. When the wolf sneaks into a sheep fold, it approaches like a tame dog and is careful to approach from upwind so that the farm dogs do not smell its evil breath… If a wolf is caught in a trap, it will mutilate itself to escape rather than allow itself to be captured.

Wolves have strength in their feet, and anything they trample dies… Their eyes shine in the dark like lamps. At the tip of a wolf’s tail is a tuft of hair that can be used for love potions; if the wolf is about to be captured, it bites off the tuft so that no man can get it… Wolves mate only twelve days in the year. The female gives birth at the beginning of spring, in the month of May, when it first thunders.’

wolf Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 62r

Wolf in Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS KB, KA 16, f. 62r.

‘Like the wolf, the devil always sees mankind as prey and circles the sheepfold of the faithful, that is the Church. As the wolf gives birth when thunder first sounds, so the devil fell from heaven at the first display of his pride. The shining of the wolf’s eyes in the night is like the works of the devil, which seem beautiful to foolish men… Like the man who, because of the wolf has lost his voice, can save himself by removing his clothes and banging two rocks together, so can the man who is lost in sin be saved by stripping off, through baptism, his worldly self and then appealing to the saints, who are called “stones of adamant”.’ Source of description here.

Gorgeously illuminated, the Bestiaries shaped subsequent depictions of animals in literature, sermons, art, tapestries, church architecture, sculpture, furniture, wall paintings, stained glass, and heraldry. Though some of the real bestiary animals bear little resemblance to their living counterparts (many of the artists had never seen the beast they were drawing!), they continue to captivate and delight audiences today.

Take the crocodile for instance. If the beauty tip in the bestiary’s account of the crocodile isn’t enough to make a reader want to delve further into its secrets – to enhance your beauty, smear its excrement (or intestinal contents) on your face and leave it there until sweat washes it off – then perhaps the strange image of its bird-like beak, upside-down head, or lizard-like spikes might do the trick.

croc Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 110v

Crocodile in Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 14429, f. 110v.

croc Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 76 E 4, Folio 64r

Crocodile in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 76 E 4, f. 64r.

croc Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764, Folio 24r

Crocodile in Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764, f. 24.

croc Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 12v

Crocodile in Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, f. 12v.

In Genesis the privilege of naming the animals is reserved for the first man, who is given the task of assigning them identities. This special gift to Adam, his sovereignty over all living creatures, is reflected in the opening pages of the Aberdeen Bestiary, whereby the parallelism between the three images depicting God’s creation of the animals and Adam’s naming of them, underlines the closeness of God to animals, man to animals, and man to God. Together, they form a perfect trinity: divine, human, and animal.

Animals then, were seen as being imbued with certain characteristics because God intended them to provide examples of proper or improper conduct to reinforce his laws. At first, man and animals were created to live in harmony, but after the Fall, new creatures, such as lice and fleas, were believed to have appeared to trouble man and make his life on earth uncomfortable. Animals became something to be feared if they could not be tamed. Two divisions appear with regards to the medieval view of animals, they could either serve man or hurt man: be tame or untame. This is similar to medieval perceptions of the landscape, whereby civilised, controlled spaces were (for the most part) considered to be safer places, while untamed landscapes, wildernesses, forests, and wastelands were perceived to be marginal, liminal places were wild, bad things dwelt. Living in a world full of threat and danger (physical and spiritual) became part of what it meant to be human.

There will inevitably be aspects of our ancestors’ use and love of animals in stories and artwork that we will perhaps never be able to fully understand, but we can be certain that they were used exhaustively in medieval culture to offer another view of the world. In attempting to elucidate aspects of the human condition through animals, the bestiaries express our fears and desires; they speak to man’s insatiable quest for knowledge and comprehension of the world he lives in. Perhaps this is why their influence is still widely felt today in the accepted ‘wisdom’ that lions are the king of beasts, elephants are scared of mice, dogs are loyal, or foxes are cunning, and, more spectacularly, in the creatures that inhabit the imaginary realms of popular series like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter.

Read more about Bestiaries and their animals here.

View the Aberdeen Bestiary here.

View English Bestiaries in The British Library here.

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens' Song

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. [J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan]

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enchanted by mermaids. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, the anime film broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published in 1837), in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

As a little girl who demanded a happy ending for the brave, faithful and selfless mermaid, I recall fleeing to the bathroom in tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. Even the hope of her gaining an immortal soul as she transformed into a Daughter of the Air failed to console me. From that moment I fell in love with mermaids and wanted to be part of their world as much as Andersen’s Little Mermaid wanted to be part of ours.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

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 embody mystery and duality: as hybrid creatures, they help to define what makes us human.

As part of my ongoing efforts to write A Cultural History of the Mermaid, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted character of the sea-maid and the element in which she dwells. Last year, part of my research manifested itself in a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music, which is being repeated on Sunday 27 July 2014, 6.15pm (GMT). Produced by the brilliant Philippa Richie, my programme is inspired by the different ways in which mermaids have been a well-spring of creativity for composers and writers from diverse cultures across time. All kinds of sea maidens are included, from Dvořák’s tragic water sprite Rusalka, who asks the moon to tell her beloved how she feels in the famous ‘Song to the Moon’, to Gershwin’s ‘trollop’ Lorelei, whose liberty and sexual allure prompts the human singer of her tale to aspire to be a femme fatale of similar calibre. With dramatic readings by Toby Stephens and Amanda Root, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The programme begins with the lively and colourful mermaid lagoon in Barrie’s Peter Pan, and an evocative piece of music inspired by one of the most famous and influential water sprites, Undine, or Ondine, whose name is first recorded in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Originally the name Undine defined the species of elementals inhabiting waterfalls and forest pools, but by the nineteenth century it had become the forename of a water nymph that fell in love with a human and married him to gain an immortal soul. Undine’s story became incredibly popular in the nineteenth century when the German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote a novella, Undine (1811), about her ill-fated marriage to a knight called Huldebrand. Her story is similar to The Little Mermaid, and it inspired the work of several composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Henze.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Alluring and often deadly, we see a darker, predatory and sexual side of mermaids at the forefront of the extract taken from a thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicanus, or Bartholomew of England.

Later, we hear how explorers like Christopher Columbus attempted to make sense of the new creatures and worlds that they encountered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s observation that mermaids ‘are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face’ seems to imply that he saw manatees rather than the arousing, yet sexually unavailable fish-maidens conjured by imaginative sailors.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

By contrast, Haydn’s canzonetta, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ (1794), offers a more playful rendition of the mermaid’s seductive call to ‘follow, follow, follow’ her beneath the waves. One of a small number of technically simple songs composed for performance in a drawing-room setting by a solo voice and keyboard, the expressive flourishes and unrelenting liveliness of the piano’s watery soundscape complements the simplicity of Anne Hunter’s charming lyric.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

In Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sam’, a mermaid is used to contrast the self-doubt and inexperience of youth with the playful confidence and self-awareness that comes with old age, while T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, uses the mysterious and uninhabitable underwater world to reflect the narrator’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and, more generally, the individual’s isolation in the modern world:

I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. [T.S. Elliot, Extract from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’]

Several of the pieces that made the final edit draw upon the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul to explore love and difference. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is the most famous example, Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul (1891) turns the motif on its head to highlight the conflict between physical love and spiritual salvation, and individual happiness versus social expectation. The very form of mermaids – part animal, part female – is ideally suited to negotiating such tensions, a concept that is also brilliantly tackled in Daniel’s ‘Ulysses and the Siren’ (1605), as we find Ulysses (the Latin counterpart of Odysseus) impervious to the siren’s lure. Writing during a new wave of exploration, Daniel’s poem addresses the pursuit of honour and renown achieved through an active life, not averse to war, versus passivity and the pursuit of individual pleasures closer at hand. For Ulysses, the promise of fame is more attractive than the siren’s song.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

As time permits, and my book comes closer to publication, I’ll dive deeper into the legends associated with mermaids and the infinitely complex ways that mankind has used them over time. But for the moment, dear reader, I’ll leave you with an invitation to hear the mermaids singing on Radio 3 this Sunday

You can follow the progress of my work on mermaids on this blog and here.

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens’ Song

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. [J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan]

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enchanted by mermaids. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, the anime film broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published in 1837), in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

As a little girl who demanded a happy ending for the brave, faithful and selfless mermaid, I recall fleeing to the bathroom in tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. Even the hope of her gaining an immortal soul as she transformed into a Daughter of the Air failed to console me. From that moment I fell in love with mermaids and wanted to be part of their world as much as Andersen’s Little Mermaid wanted to be part of ours.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

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 embody mystery and duality: as hybrid creatures, they help to define what makes us human.

As part of my ongoing efforts to write A Cultural History of the Mermaid, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted character of the sea-maid and the element in which she dwells. Last year, part of my research manifested itself in a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music, which is being repeated on Sunday 27 July 2014, 6.15pm (GMT). Produced by the brilliant Philippa Richie, my programme is inspired by the different ways in which mermaids have been a well-spring of creativity for composers and writers from diverse cultures across time. All kinds of sea maidens are included, from Dvořák’s tragic water sprite Rusalka, who asks the moon to tell her beloved how she feels in the famous ‘Song to the Moon’, to Gershwin’s ‘trollop’ Lorelei, whose liberty and sexual allure prompts the human singer of her tale to aspire to be a femme fatale of similar calibre. With dramatic readings by Toby Stephens and Amanda Root, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The programme begins with the lively and colourful mermaid lagoon in Barrie’s Peter Pan, and an evocative piece of music inspired by one of the most famous and influential water sprites, Undine, or Ondine, whose name is first recorded in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Originally the name Undine defined the species of elementals inhabiting waterfalls and forest pools, but by the nineteenth century it had become the forename of a water nymph that fell in love with a human and married him to gain an immortal soul. Undine’s story became incredibly popular in the nineteenth century when the German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote a novella, Undine (1811), about her ill-fated marriage to a knight called Huldebrand. Her story is similar to The Little Mermaid, and it inspired the work of several composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Henze.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Alluring and often deadly, we see a darker, predatory and sexual side of mermaids at the forefront of the extract taken from a thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicanus, or Bartholomew of England.

Later, we hear how explorers like Christopher Columbus attempted to make sense of the new creatures and worlds that they encountered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s observation that mermaids ‘are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face’ seems to imply that he saw manatees rather than the arousing, yet sexually unavailable fish-maidens conjured by imaginative sailors.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

By contrast, Haydn’s canzonetta, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ (1794), offers a more playful rendition of the mermaid’s seductive call to ‘follow, follow, follow’ her beneath the waves. One of a small number of technically simple songs composed for performance in a drawing-room setting by a solo voice and keyboard, the expressive flourishes and unrelenting liveliness of the piano’s watery soundscape complements the simplicity of Anne Hunter’s charming lyric.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

In Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sam’, a mermaid is used to contrast the self-doubt and inexperience of youth with the playful confidence and self-awareness that comes with old age, while T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, uses the mysterious and uninhabitable underwater world to reflect the narrator’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and, more generally, the individual’s isolation in the modern world:

I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. [T.S. Elliot, Extract from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’]

Several of the pieces that made the final edit draw upon the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul to explore love and difference. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is the most famous example, Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul (1891) turns the motif on its head to highlight the conflict between physical love and spiritual salvation, and individual happiness versus social expectation. The very form of mermaids – part animal, part female – is ideally suited to negotiating such tensions, a concept that is also brilliantly tackled in Daniel’s ‘Ulysses and the Siren’ (1605), as we find Ulysses (the Latin counterpart of Odysseus) impervious to the siren’s lure. Writing during a new wave of exploration, Daniel’s poem addresses the pursuit of honour and renown achieved through an active life, not averse to war, versus passivity and the pursuit of individual pleasures closer at hand. For Ulysses, the promise of fame is more attractive than the siren’s song.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

As time permits, and my book comes closer to publication, I’ll dive deeper into the legends associated with mermaids and the infinitely complex ways that mankind has used them over time. But for the moment, dear reader, I’ll leave you with an invitation to hear the mermaids singing on Radio 3 this Sunday

You can follow the progress of my work on mermaids on this blog and here.