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On Mermaids

My fascination with mermaids has come and gone over the years. I never went through a unicorn phase as a little girl, but I definitely went through a mermaid phase. My interest in them faded, returned in my teens, faded again, then recently returned. Over the last year or so, I have been reading and writing and reading and writing some more about the aquatic ladies (and gentlemen).

Once I started looking, I was surprised at just how ubiquitous mermaids are -- they're everywhere! In literature, mermaids appear in every genre, aimed at every age group. There are picture books aplenty, but also mysteries, teen adventure tales, romance novels, collections of mythology and folklore, art books, you name it.

 

What is the source of this fascination? What is it about mermaids that we find so compelling? I think it varies by individual person and individual story. The mermaid can be a symbol of freedom and adventure, a seductress, a wholly Other monster, or an elemental spirit. In the tales they populate, they can be lovers, warriors, protectors of the sea, or narcissistic sensualists. Chameleonlike, fluid as the sea, they shift and become what we need them to be: reflections of ourselves as we are, as we fear we are, or as we want to be.  

Perhaps the most famous tale is Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. To be completely honest, I never particularly liked this story -- though I did enjoy the Disney animated adaptation and the illustrations in Sheilah Beckett's tiny picture book. Props to our mergirl for taking a chance, seeking out the witch, and getting herself a pair of legs to venture into unknown territory. But she loses points for risking it all for such a boring Prince and then sacrificing herself at the end.

Far better, in my estimation, are Sukey and the Mermaid by Robert San Souci and David Pinkney; The Desert Mermaid/La Sirena del Desierto by Alberto Blanco and Patricia Revah; and Mary Pope Osborne and Troy Howell's anthology, Mermaid Tales From Around the World. San Souci and Pinkney's book is wonderful (and unusual) in that it features African-American protagonists, while Blanco and Revah's book (sadly out of print) is inspired by an old Mexican legend. Osborne and Howell's collection features a dozen stories from all over the globe, including Persia, Greece, Ireland, and Nigeria.

On a related note, San Souci is also the author of Song of Sedna, a retelling of the origin of the great Inuit sea Goddess. Unfortunately, his book is one of the few written about that Goddess -- actually, books about sea Goddesses are few and far between. While Sedna, Yemaya, Oshun, Amphitrite, and Nyai Loro Kidul make appearances in Kris Waldherr's* The Book of Goddesses and Burleigh Muten and Rebecca Guay's Goddesses: A World of Myth and Magic, I cannot find any children's book dedicated just to them; and I found only a few books geared towards adults, none of which look particularly appealing. (Pagan publishers take note! I see a need to be filled.)  

For slightly older children, there is the Emily Windsnap series by Liz Kessler. When twelve year-old Emily discovers that she is half-mermaid, she goes in search of her missing father. One adventure follows another, with Emily escaping from an undersea prison, battling the Kraken, hunting for a cursed diamond ring, and trying to cure the nightmare-born storms of Neptune himself. Lots of fun to be had here.

Teens with a fascination for mermaids should look into Of Poseidon and Of Triton by Anna Banks; the Lost Voices trilogy by Sarah Porter; Forgive My Fins by Tera Lynn Childs**; the new Watersong series by Amanda Hocking; and Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson. All of these stories feature strong, appealing heroines, magic, mystery, myth, and Important Life Decisions that have Serious Consequences.

For art lovers, I highly recommend From the Deep Waters by Toshiyuki Takamiya. This collection includes beautiful examples of the works of Waterhouse, Burne-Jones, Klimt, Leighton, and many other artists. Here, you will find treacherous sirens, alluring sea nymphs, and Venus herself, born of the sea foam.

Mermaids: The Myths, Legends, and Lore by Skye Alexander one of my newest, favorite acquisitions. Small greenish-blue illustrations highlight a text rich with excerpted novels, poems, and fascinating tidbits of information. Did you know that Thessalonike, sister of Alexander the Great, transformed into a mermaid at her death? Or that Triton is the mascot for UC-San Diego? Or that rusalky live in castles made of sunken ships? Or that Iele (Romanian water spirits) come ashore at night to dance beneath the moon wearing nothing but bells around their ankles? Definitely a good resource, especially for writers. 

Seduction and the Secret Power of Women: The Lure of Sirens and Mermaids by Meri Lao takes a psychological approach to the appeal of water nymphs. Examining three thousand years of primary sources, from Homer to church sculptures to present day artwork, Lao argues that mermaids and their kin represent our deepest desires, the song of the unconscious, even the pleasure of death and oblivion -- and that ignoring such desires only drives us to want them even more.

Water Spirits from the Time-Life Enchanted World series is another great resource filled with artwork and retold tales of old. Here are stories of Aegir, Norse Goddess of the Sea; Cornish mermaids; Gilgamesh and Jason; Poseidon and Odysseus and Leucothea the White Goddess; leviathan and the devil fish and the sea-dog and so much more. (The entire series is actually quite good, and used copies are readily available online or in used book stores.)

There is also a thriving subgenre of mermaid/merman romances, from authors such as Shana Abé, Mary Janice Davidson, Joey W Hill, and Victoria Kantra. I have yet to read any of them, so, if anyone else has, please recommend some good titles. 

Finally, two short stories that you must track down. For a dark, haunting fable, go read Kat Otis' "What Merfolk Must Know" (then sign up for Daily Science Fiction). For a sweetly romantic and humorous take on mermaids, find a copy of Fablewood, which contains Sarah Mensinga's "Fish." In this dialogue-less, beautifully-illustrated short story, a mermaid comes upon a stranded sailor -- and falls immediately in love.

Sometimes mermaids are the hero, sometimes the villain, sometimes a little bit of both. Sometimes they inspire us, sometimes they frighten us, sometimes both. But they always fascinate us. Listen for their song.

 

*Walherr also illustrated The Seal Prince by Sheila Macgill-Callahan, which retells an age-old tale from the Isle of Skye.

** Childs is also the author of Oh. My. Gods., which focuses on a modern-day descendent of the Goddess Nike.

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.

Comments

  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 07 August 2013

    This is great stuff! Thank you.

    By the way, I really enjoyed all those TIME-LIFE mythology/paranormal themed books. I read a lot of them as a teenager in the 1980s at a local library.

    I found some recently at the swap shack of the town dump, and you might be forgiven for thinking I'd found Spanish galleon treasure.

  • Constance Tippett Chandler
    Constance Tippett Chandler Thursday, 08 August 2013

    The Starbucks coffee logo was originally a copy of an ancient statue of a mermaid. It showed more of her body, now it is just her face.

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