"A Mermaid" by John William Waterhouse, 1900
The Mermaid
 
by Heinz Insu Fenkl

 
 
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. Eliot, "The Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock"
 
. . . an Eve figure overlaid with the cult of the Virgin, a sealed vessel enclosing either sexual temptation or sexual virtue, or some paradoxical and potent mixture of the two.
— Carol Shields, The Republic of Love
 
1.   Recently, as I was waiting in line at the local Starbucks®, I overheard two customers arguing about the Starbucks' logo. Is it a siren or a mermaid? The current logo doesn't give enough visual information, as one customer pointed out, but the original logo was a creature with the upper half of a woman and a split fish tail—a mermaid by his reckoning. The other customer pointed out that Starbucks refers to the image as a siren. Could they be wrong about their own corporate logo? The argument was lively enough to perk the interest of other customers, and soon various bits of interesting information came up, including reference to an online debate about the nature of mermaid sexuality and, specifically, regarding the reproductive organs of Disney's Ariel. I, myself, did not join in this debate but merely kept within earshot, considering the price of a latte well worth this synchronistic field research.
 
As some readers may know, Starbucks had to change their corporate logo because some consumers found the suggestive split tail of their topless siren too lurid and sexually suggestive. A simplified logo was introduced, hiding the siren's breasts under waves of hair, and that in turn was cropped and enlarged so the split in the siren's tail would no longer show. The only indication now that the female icon is a sea creature is in the wavy lines, which originally were part of the representation of the two tails. And yes, although the image is that of a split-tailed sea creature, it is a siren. More specifically, it is a double-tailed siren, a baubo siren, which The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects points out, is "a cross between a mermaid and a sheila-na-gig" and is found as a decorative motif in many European churches and cathedrals. "Her suggestive pose, like that of the sheila-na-gig, referred to female sexual mysteries in particular."
 
Starbucks® logo 1
Starbucks logo 2
Starbucks logo 3
Sheila-na-gig
 
 
 
ICHTHYS: Christian fish symbol
 Sheila-na-gig is a general reference to female figures that prominently display their genitalia to signify the power of female sexuality and fertility. These images are also quite prominent in the decoration of sacred sites in general and are thought to be a legacy of the older Goddess religions whose holy sites were usually taken over by later religions. The shape of the genitalia in these squatting figures is also symbolic of the vesica piscis, the "vessel of the fish," which is also associated with Christ. The well-known Christian "fish" symbol (seen prominently on the backs of many cars these days) is the ICHTHYS, referring to the Greek acronym for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."
 
We tend to associate the equation of Christ and fish with the miracle of the loaves and fishes, or the fact that some of the disciples were fishermen (Christ as the fisherman of souls), but the symbol has an older origin connected with a more ancient myth. The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects notes that "Ichthys was the name of a son of the ancient Sea-goddess, Atargatis, also known as Tirgata, Aphrodite, Derceto, Salacia, Pelagia, or Delphine, whose name meant both 'womb' and 'dolphin'; all appeared in mermaid form. In a way, however, Jesus could be called the same Ichthys as the son of Sea-mother Mari, whose blue robe, pearle necklace, and much-varied name referred to the world's oceans: Maria, Marina, Marian, Mariamne, Myrrhine, Myrrha, Mari-Yamm, Mari-El, and Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea."
 
Now that I've laid out this complex set of connections, let me return to the figure of the mermaid, which is at the center of these associations. There are two excellent and encyclopedic essays available online regarding the mermaid—"Mermaids—Spirits or Goddesses?" by Patience Gent, and "Shadows of the Goddess: The Mermaid" by Scarlett deMason—and so I shall begin by centering my discussion on current representations.
 
2.   The most well-known mermaid in contemporary American culture is, of course, Ariel, the sanitized and disempowered representation who serves a heterosexual marriage plot typical of Disney films. Ariel is not only nice, she is, in many ways, an inversion of the mythic mermaid. She sacrifices her beautiful voice to gain the temporary legs that will allow her to woo her terrestrial love, Eric. While the traditional mermaids are said to seduce sailors with the sound of their beautiful singing, luring them into shipwreck and death in order to consume their souls (because they, themselves lack a soul), Ariel does exactly the reverse. She saves Eric from a shipwreck, and when she marries him to become a terrestrial princess, she figuratively becomes his soulmate. It's as if Disney set out systematically to obliterate the traditional mermaid mythos. There is nothing inherently attractive about Eric (except his appearance, in contrast to the purposely distorted images of his fellow sailors). For Ariel, he represents the epitome of things human, to which she has an irrational attraction. (There are symbolic elements in their affinity for each other, but that requires deconstruction too detailed to engage in here. For an excellent discussion of Disney's Ariel as a denigrated Mary Magdalene figure, see the online essay, "The 'Little Mermaid' and the Archetype of the Lost 'Bride'" by Margaret Starbird, which also explains why mermaids are so frequently seen with books.)  Ariel © Walt Disney
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen, by Edvard Eriksen
 
Oannes as merman, from palace of Sargon II, Khorsabad  In the wake of Ariel's romantic happy ending, we are left with the image of King Triton—a Neptune/Poseidon/Oannes figure—exchanging himself as hostage for his daughter (in an interesting reversal of what happens between father and daughter in "Beauty and the Beast"); and an inverted image of the great, nurturing Sea-mother as represented in Ursula, the Sea-witch. Oannes, the primal godlike fish-man is disempowered; the Great Goddess, associated with the sea, is turned into an evil witch. These inversions and disempowerments are actually parallel to how religions build on top of earlier ones—Christianity did precisely the same thing to earlier mythic traditions.
 
In contrast to Ariel, and yet reflective of the same underlying ideology, is the siren/mermaid featured in the recent horror film, She Creature. This mermaid, who can periodically become a legged woman, turns out to be the great Queen Mother of all mermaids. She seduces men and literally eats them, and her sexual power also influences the sexuality of other women. (The film does an excellent job of establishing "traditional" mermaid lore, but disintegrates into an imitation of Aliens by its conclusion, making an interesting connection even with its narrative shortcomings.)
 
The mercreature has appeared prominently in popular films (like Splash, which gives us another sanitized mermaid who saves a drowning man and leaves the sea for him), in television shows (Alyssa Milano recently turned into a mermaid in an episode of Charmed), commercials (most notably a European Levis commercial, too racy to show in the U.S.), and in music videos (including one by Madonna). In its siren form, it also appears in the film Dagon, a mediocre and yet interesting interpretation of H.P. Lovecraft's mythos. Dagon is a bit tedious in its depiction of the weird fishing village literally devolving back into the sea, but its mermaid presents a prime example of how the old mythos can be reconstituted even without systematically intending to do so.
 
The mermaid in Dagon appears in the dreams of the hapless protagonist, a young man destined to become her husband. She "calls" to him through a psychic connection, using her siren-like power; and when they finally meet, we discover that she is both the daughter of the Cthuluvian fish god and a sort of high priestess in the ancient religion that has destroyed and replaced the local Catholicism. She tries to seduce the protagonist, but as their passionate embrace begins, he discovers her split fish tail and runs away in disgust and horror.
 "The Mermaid" by Howard Pyle
 
bench-end carving at Crowcombe church, Somerset, 1500s  The mermaid's ultimate purpose is to mate with the protagonist and spawn a new race. When he realizes he cannot resist her, upon learning that she is his own sister, the protagonist tries to kill himself with purifying fire. But that, too, fails, and in the final scene, we see the two of them swimming deep in the ocean, approaching a black pit at the center of a symbol that is both the Eye of God and the vesica piscis. The mermaid's split tail swishes gracefully behind her as they approach the Abyss.
 
Dagon and She Creature both emphasize the mermaid's irresistibility, her perverse sexuality, and her danger to both the man's body and soul. The major symbolic difference between the two films is that while She Creature concludes by privileging and demonizing female sexuality, linking that theme to men's doom, Dagon also uses the mermaid's sexuality to finally bring the man back to his "true" nature. Unfortunately, neither film is truly in control of its underlying theme; both of them construct their mermaid symbols without thinking through their ultimate meanings. (Dagon's mermaid is uncannily similar to the Starbucks siren, but that is probably just coincidence.)
 
3.   The word "mermaid" is usually read as "sea maid," but it is more properly glossed as "sea maiden" or "virgin of the sea." This is because of the many connections between the mermaid and the ancient Goddess, whose origin and power are associated with the sea. But if one happens to know French, the first syllable, "mer," takes on another significance, which is not merely an accident of etymology: mer is "sea," and it sounds much like mêre or "mother." Without going into the Indo-European origins for words that sound like "mare" or the prefix "mer" (ranging from the mother horse to the "mer" in "merry"), let it suffice to say that one of the underlying deep meanings of "mermaid" is "virgin mother," directly linking the term and the figure it names with the Virgin Mary.
 
There are three other bits of information worth bringing together here, all mentioned in The Woman's Dictionary, though gleaned from various sources ranging from the Oxford English Dictionary to Joseph Campbell's multivolume The Masks of God series. First, the mermaid and siren were terms and symbols that referred to prostitutes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Second, "The ancients insisted that women's sexual secretions smelled like fish, which is why the sign of the yoni came to be called vesica piscis. One of the Hindu titles of the Great Goddess was 'a virgin named Fishy Smell, whose real name was Truth'" (quoting from Joseph Campbell). And third, "Medieval books of alchemy described the mermaid as the Siren of the Philosophers, crowned and lactating the milk of enlightenment," something also attributed to the Virgin Mary (there are Medieval paintings in which St. Sebastian is suckling from Mary's breast to drink this divine milk).
 
Every culture has its mermaid figures, but those from Western traditions are especially relevant to my discussion here: the Celtic selkie, the morgens of Brittany, the German nixie, the Norwegian havfrau, the veen of Finland, the tritonids and nereids of Greece, the vedava of Eastern Europe. (The mermaids and water spirits of East Asia and Africa follow similar universal themes but play somewhat different roles in their cultures, in part due to differing attitudes toward sexuality.)
 Sea maid from Shakespeare's <i>A Midsummer Night's Dream</i>, Arthur Rackham, 1908
Mermaid suckling a lion, Norwich Cathedral
 
Scarlett deMason notes that the mermaid's "abundant, flowing hair, symbolizing an abundant love potential, was also an attribute of Venus in her role as fertility goddess. Her comb . . . carried sexual connotations for the Greeks, as their words for comb, kteis and pecten, also signified the female vulva. Thus the mermaid is the surviving aspect of the old goddesses . . . ." Regardless of where we begin our interpretation of the mermaid, or which analytic path we take, we are brought back, again and again, to the ancient Great Goddess, the archetype behind the figure of Mary, who in Christian culture is usually split into the virginal Madonna and the holy prostitute. The mermaid ultimately signifies the fundamental mystery of female sexuality, particularly for men who, because they cannot comprehend it, are simultaneously drawn to it and terrified by it. That is why the mermaid becomes so easily conflated with the siren and her irresistible call that leads men to their doom.
 
"The Lady from the Sea" by Edvard Munch, 1896
 
This simultaneous attraction to and fear of female sexuality as the underlying logic behind the mermaid is actually confirmed by other mythological half-humans. The male counterpart to the mermaid, the triton, lacks the mermaid's mystery and seductiveness; he is actually a sort of aquatic satyr (a kind of male nymphomaniac). Other prominent half-man and half-animal figures, including the Minotaur (with a bull's head) and the centaur (with a horse's body and so also its genitalia) all exaggerate masculine phallic power while the mermaid represents and amplifies what men fundamentally lack. It is only the holiest of masculine figures like Christ who are both born of the figurative mermaid and maintain a direct symbolic connection to their aquatic origins. (Even the Buddha shows such a connection, since he is the son of Maya, who is associated with the moon. Many representations of the Buddha include webbed fingers as one of his divine markings.)
 
Roof boss in Sherborne Abbey Church  The truth one learns from the mermaid/siren is that patriarchy, especially the Judeo-Christian variety, is a relative latecomer in human history. The new religions could not, and can not, ever overwrite the undercurrents of the more ancient traditions that preceded them, regardless of how concerted their efforts to do so.
 
And so the Starbucks logo is a brilliant piece of design, which, oddly enough, resonates with much of what I've discussed above. The original logo made quite explicit that Starbucks was using the lure of female sexuality to draw the customer to their coffee, but now you can see that the coffee is linked to the double lure of ultimate wisdom and the pleasures of the flesh. The name of the company, about which there is relatively little deep inquiry, actually makes the connection even more interesting. Apparently, the owners of Starbucks originally wanted to call their company "Moby's Coffee," referring to Moby Dick, the great white whale in Herman Melville's classic novel (which is read as a Christian allegory, the whale representing Christ). But bringing up the image of a giant whale was deemed potentially unattractive for coffee drinkers. And so a new logo was designed, but the name "Starbucks" maintains the connection to Moby Dick—Starbuck is the name of the coffee-drinking first mate from Nantucket, the only man who challenges the mad Ahab.  Detail from engraving, "Entry of the Sirens" from <i>Le Balet Comique de la Reyne</i> by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, 1581
 
Mermaid alongside Noah's Ark, Nuremberg Bible (Biblia Sacra Germanica) 1483  The name also conveniently brings up the idea of stardom and big bucks—both very appealing to the typical American consumer. On a more cynical note, Starbuck happens to be the name of the charismatic con man in "The Rainmaker"—a connection that makes one wonder, given that Starbucks originated in rainy Seattle. My more sinister reading—a more interesting one that connects the siren logo back to Mary—is to trace the name further back to the story of the Essex, the whaling ship on which Melville's Pequod was based. At the beginning of Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: the Epic True Story that Inspired Moby Dick, one finds these curious facts: "English Nantucketers resisted all attempts to establish a church on the island, partly because a woman by the name of Mary Coffin Starbuck forbade it. It was said that nothing of consequence was done on Nantucket without Mary's approval. Mary Coffin and Nathaniel Starbuck had been the first English couple to be married on the island . . ." That is, Mary was the first to "mate"; her last name is associated with death and also sounds like "coffee"; and her first name associates her directly with the sea and Mary Magdalene. (It's enough to make you think you're hearing the theme from X-Files.)
 
No wonder Starbucks has been so successful, and no wonder they have so many outlets in Barnes and Noble stores, which sell books—a source of wisdom. You may be reading this article while sipping a cup of Starbucks latte. The mermaid/siren may be a vestige of ancient myth and folklore, but its lure is as pervasive and as powerful as ever.
 
"The Depths of the Sea" by Edward Burne-Jones, 1887  Suggested Readings
(in addition to those mentioned in the text)
 
Story collections
  • A Treasury of Mermaids: Mermaid Tales from Around the World by Shirley Climo
  • Mermaid Tales from Around the World by Mary Pope Osborne
  • Mermaids by Elizabeth Ratisseau.
Coffee-table books with essays
  • From the Deep Waters: Maidens of Myth and Mystery edited by Toshiyuki Takamiya
  • Mermaids: Nymphs of the Sea by Theodore Gachot.
A museum book
  • The Tale of the Mermaid: An Essay on the Folklore and Mythology of the Mermaid, Accompanied by Illustrations of Objects from the Exhibition by Lee Ellen Griffith.
You may also want to browse this Web site and its links: The Realm of the Fae: Water Faeries at http://www.thefae.freeservers.com/waterfaeries.html.


 


About the Author:
Heinz Insu Fenkl is the author of Memories of My Ghost Brother and other works. For more information, please visit his Endicott bio page

Copyright © 2003 by Heinz Insu Fenkl. This article first appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2003 . This material may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.

About the Art:
Illustrations used in this article, in order of appearance: Artist: John William Waterhouse, from "A Mermaid," 1900; Three successive versions of the Starbucks logo; Sheila-na-gig; ICHTHYS: Christian fish symbol; Ariel, from The Little Mermaid © Walt Disney; Artist: Edvard Eriksen, "The Little Mermaid" sculpture in Copenhagen; Oannes as merman, from palace of Sargon II, Khorsabad; Artist: Howard Pyle, from "The Mermaid"; bench-end carving at Crowcombe church, Somerset, 1500s; Artist: Arthur Rackham, Sea maid from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1908; Mermaid suckling a lion, Norwich Cathedral; Artist: Edvard Munch, "The Lady from the Sea," 1896; Roof boss in Sherborne Abbey Church; Artist: Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, detail from engraving, "Entry of the Sirens"; from Le Balet Comique de la Reyne, 1581; Mermaid alongside Noah's Ark, Nuremberg Bible (Biblia Sacra Germanica) 1483; Artist: Edward Burne-Jones, "The Depths of the Sea," 1887




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