"The sight of Megan playing with her tresses recalled the poses in several of Titian's most famous paintings, which similarly depict goddesses holding their masses of hair in generous handfulls, looking for all the world like land-bound mermaids, still inclined to tempt mortal men to their peril."
The comparison of Megan's pose to the Titian painting, and to a mermaid, is apt. While "The Little Mermaid" fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen and the Disney animated film provide most audiences with their first encounter with the sea goddess, the mermaid has a rich history as a symbol of sensual, womanly femininity; a symbol that dates back to antiquity.
Whether she is known as a mermaid, siren, selkie, nixie, naiad, nereid, meerfrau,
Melusine, merrow, havfrue,
the mythological woman-of-the-water sings a compelling story about our cultural past. From our modern state of estrangement from the natural world, the mermaid can guide us back towards an essential connection with nature and instinct.
The mythological and folkloric attributes of the mermaid variously include a fish tail (sometimes singular, sometimes doubled
) that can transform into human legs; long, flowing hair
; a magical singing voice; and a small mirror with which she gazes at herself while combing her hair -- attributes similar to the Greco-Roman goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite/Venus.
One of the first mermaids in mythology was the Assyrian/Babylonian goddess Atargatis, who plunged into the sea after the death of her lover and assumed the form of half-woman, half-fish. When Greek sailors encountered this deity, they related her to their goddess Aphrodite, whose own myth identified the sea as her birthplace. The Romans added these attributes to their own love goddess, Venus.
Botticelli's 15th-century painting "The Birth of Venus" illustrates Venus/Aphrodite's dual role as deity of beauty, and deity of the sea:
This work refers to a lost painting by the Greek artist Apelles (4th century B.C.) entitled the "Venus Anadyomene" (or "Venus rising from the sea"), which established an art tradition of associating the sea and its symbolism with the goddess of love. The Renaissance artist Titian continued this tradition of depicting Venus emerging from the sea, wringing out her hair, in his own take on the "Venus Anadyomene":
It is understandable that seafaring nations sought a beneficial relationship with the waters that sustained their cultures. Note for example this serene, winged siren which once graced a ship's prow, perhaps situated there as a symbolic method of calming the waters ahead:
Or consider the Naiads who guide the queen’s ship safely to port in Rubens's famous painting, "The Landing of Marie de Médicis at Marseilles":
Yet mermaids and water goddesses had a dangerous side, too. As part of the unpredictable forces of nature, they lured men into peril, were harbingers of storms and shipwrecks, and collected the souls of the drowned, so to encounter one was a serious matter.
Circe, the sorceress in Homer's Odyssey
who enchants Odysseus and turns his men into swine, was originally a water nymph. The poet also narrates a memorable passage in which Odysseus commands his men to stuff their ears with wax, so as not to be entranced by the beguiling song of the mermaid-like Sirens, while he ties himself to the mast of the ship in order to experience the wonder of their voices.
Fascination with the mermaid as a nature spirit and love goddess continued into the medieval era, during which time she endured as a remnant of the pagan past. This image of a mermaid and merman swimming in the floodwaters around Noah's Ark, from a 15th-century Bible (archived at the University of Salzburg), depicts them excluded from the ark because of their dangerous nature. Yet despite her exile in the deluge, the mermaid remains self-possessed and continues to primp in a Venus-like pose, again demonstrating her connection with the goddess:
In French and German folk tales, a water sprite called the Melusine marries mortal men while in her human form, but is discovered in her mermaid state by her husband during a full moon, or on a certain day of the week:
In Russian folklore, the rusalka seeks young men to pull them down into the water. The Romantic poet Alexander Pushkin describes how a rusalka tempts a hermit who lives in a forest:
She eyes the monk and brushes gently
Her hair and water off her arms.
He shakes with fear and looks intently
At her and at her lovely charms.
With eager hands she waves and beckons,
Nods quickly, smiling from afar,
Then -- shoots within two flashing seconds
Into still water like a star.
But discussion of the relationship between mortal men and women of the waters is incomplete without mention of the Lorelei, who combines aspects of the siren, the mermaid, and Venus.
Near the town of St. Goarshausen, Germany, the Rhine River takes a bend around a high rock.
Because of the narrow passage and strong water currents, the bend poses difficulties to navigation. The currents, combined with a small waterfall, create rushing sounds amplified by the echo effect of the rock (lureln,
meaning "murmur"), disorienting sailors and fishermen and causing shipwrecks.
Due to the distinctive nature of this rock, local lore abounds. One tale tells of a woman who drowned herself in despair over a love affair (reminiscent of the Babylonian Atargatis), and then became a long-haired water spirit named Lorelei, who sat on this high rock:
Poet Heinrich Heine immortalized the Lorelei in his well-known poem
about the legend, which begins:
The loveliest of maidens,
She's wonderful, sits there,
Her golden jewels glisten,
She combs her golden hair.
She combs it with a comb of gold,
And sings a song as well:
Its strangeness too is old
And casts a powerful spell.
The nascent travel business in 19th-century Europe spawned a cottage industry of illustrated postcards. The Lorelei was a regular celebrity in German postcards, always painted at the moment when she ensnares a sailor with her music, much like Odysseus's Sirens:
Due to local industrialization, the murmuring sounds can no longer be heard in St. Goarshausen. But the legend and the name Lorelei endure as a symbol of the seductive mermaid-woman, appearing frequently in popular culture as a name for fictional characters, song titles, and even restaurants.
In the 21st century, the mermaid even re-appeared on the logo of one the most successful companies in North America, Starbucks. (Perhaps the mermaid is invoked to lure us into temptation once again, as she has done for centuries.)
But in whatever form of art she appears, in whatever guise she takes, as calm water or storm, the mermaid as sea goddess guides us through the watery realm of emotions beyond logic into a meeting with the natural, beautiful self, and the truth found in deepest feeling -- a process the goddess Venus would encourage.
Image and information sources:
Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend
Full text of Pushkin poem