This week we veer away from the undead and the angelic and look into a race with that generates more of a splash. Ah, mermaids, temptresses of the sea. Sometimes they frolick through the waves, sometimes they lead sailors to their deaths. Here to tell us all about the children of the sea is Anne Marie, who is a lovely person and provided her own media to go with this post. This is a woman who knows what she’s talking about.
“Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass. But it is very deep too. It goes down deeper than any anchor rope will go, and many, many steeples would have to be stacked one on top of another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea. It is down there that the sea folk live.”
~ Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid, 1836
And so begins the first story about mermaids that I ever read, but certainly not the first time I’d heard of such mythical beasts. The truth is, I can’t remember how old I was when I learned how to swim. The truth is, since that day — whenever it was — I’ve wanted to be a mermaid, so when Kit asked me to write a post about mermaids I thought it would write itself. But how do you extricate yourself from something you’ve wanted to turn into? (I’m a grown ass woman, and to this day the first thing I do when I jump into the water is hold my breath, dolphin kick, and pretend. And every time I take a bath I imagine the scene from Splash with Daryl Hannah and that gorgeous orange fishtail.)
The first written account of a mermaid comes from Assyria more than three thousand years ago. The goddess Atargatis (she’s like if Stargate and Atlantis had a baby — ha) fell in love with a lowly mortal and killed her lover by accident. She fled to the water and turned herself into a fish. This transformative property is part of why I fell for the myth, and I’ll discuss this in more depth.
It’s interesting to note that almost every culture has mermaid lore. The Irish have merrows. In Slavic mythology, she’s known as a rusalka (terrifying and undead!). The Chinese have a golden mermaid. The list goes on and on. This doesn’t even touch on the mermaid lore in comics. He doesn’t have a tale, but Aquaman was always a favorite of mine as a kid. Telepathy with dolphins? Yes, please!
Mermaids in YA literature are popular, but I wouldn’t say they’re really trending. Their appeal is supported by programs on Animal Planet like Mermaids. The idea might be hokey for some viewers, but it’s possible that a simian gave up on land and returned to the ocean. After all, there is strong scientific evidence that leads us to believe that’s how whales, dolphins, etc. evolved.
As a side note: A mermaid is not a siren. A siren is a half-bird, half-human woman that lured sailors to their deaths in Greek mythos. A number of popular “mermaid” YA books are actually about sirens. In fact, the word for mermaid in French is “la sirène” and in Spanish it’s “la sirena”, which appear to be interchangeable terms, but don’t confuse the two types of creatures. They’re not the same thing at all, well, except for the fact that they’re always depicted as beautiful half-women.
Why do millions of viewers and readers find themselves inexplicably drawn to these creatures? For me, it’s the otherness. It’s the idea of transforming from something as sea clumsy as a human into something sleek and able to breath underwater. In Han Christian Andersen’s pinnacle fairy tale about mermaids, the littlest one longed to be human. I believe the reverse to be true, especially in our teenage years. We want to be in control. To be free. What a better way to be free than the transformative properties of gills and fins?
No matter the creature, so many YA fantasy books are filled with “ordinary” teens who discover they’re supernatural creatures, or fall in love with supernatural creatures, or have to hunt supernatural creatures. Who wouldn’t want to learn on their sixteenth birthday that they’re special? I hoped I’d grow up and have powers like an X-Man. Or a mermaid. Or be able to fly. I’m still hoping flight is a latent power I’ll tap into someday.
The popular trend of turning mermaids from beautiful half-fish-women into ugly monsters that bite and drown pleases me. Films like “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” depict these darker creatures with aplomb. The horror fan in me responds to anything with teeth and claws. In fact, my only mermaid story to date, La Belle Dame sans Merci, has a taste of just such mermaids. Also, Nazis and Keats.
Kit asked me to include some mermaid books, but the problem is that I haven’t read that many. I’ve been avoiding them so I can work on my own spin on this popular “tail”. However, everyone needs to read Han Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”! You might also enjoy The Mermaid’s Mirror by L. K. Madigan. It’s a lower-YA with a nice twist.
What are your favorite tales about mermaids from myths?
Anne Marie was born in Denver, Colorado and grew up in Aurora. She attended the University of Colorado for a BA in English Literature, where she fell in love with folklore and myths from around the world. She adores languages, great white sharks, and the impossible. Her work usually includes two of those three things. She currently lives in Aurora with Brody (her beloved and mischievous beagle). She posts themed short stories at Cimmerian Tales. Follow her on Twitter @annemariewrites.
Mermaid picture above is “A Mermaid” by John William Waterhouse, 1901.