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Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Symbolism of Mermaids

Various myths and histories from around the world have featured mermaids and mermen for thousands of years. They were first recorded in about 1200 BC in Assyria and have featured in many ancient and modern stories since then. There were half-human sculptures of Babylonian fish-gods even hundreds of year prior to that. The ancient Assyrian goddess Atargatis was supposedly in love with a human shepherd-boy but accidentally killed him and, filled with remorse, she flung herself into the water hoping to become a fish. However, her great beauty prevented this happening but she became half goddess-half fish.
Famously, Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids on his transatlantic voyage; they are now thought to have been manatees which belong to group of animals known as Sirenia. 'Sirens' was the name given to the mythical creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with their songs which clearly has influenced later legends.
Frederic Leighton               
In 1614 Captain John Smith saw a mermaid from his ship she was 'swimming about with all possible grace'. In fact, Smith was so taken by this lovely vision that he began "to experience the first effects of love" (take that as you will) as he gazed at her before his sudden (and surely profoundly disappointing) realization that she was a fish from the waist down. This dilemma is reflected in a popular song titled "The Mermaid,
"Cause her hair was green as seaweed

Her skin was blue and pale
I loved that girl with all my heart
I only liked the upper part
I did not like the tail'"

Mermaids represent many things symbolically in art: seduction, flirtation, beauty, divine feminine essence, the ocean, danger, provocation, treachery but possibly most of all unattainable love.
They have long been a popular subject in art and fiction. Hans Christian Anderson wrote The Little Mermaid in 1836 (there is a famous statue in Copenhagen harbour of the mermaid); the film Splash was a big hit in 1984. Although there is no actual real evidence of their existence, reports of sightings continue with 21st century reports from Zimbabwe and Israel. In 2009 Shlomo Cohen reported seeing a mermaid performing tricks off the coast of the town of Kiryat Yam. We have no knowledge of what kind of cigarettes Shlomo had been smoking......

         John Reinhard Weguelin
Greek mythology contains stories of the god Triton, the merman messenger of the sea, and several modern religions, including Hinduism and Candombl√© (an Afro-Brazilian belief), worship mermaid goddesses to this day.  Homer's Odyssey, written around 800 B.C., tells the story of Ulysses, whose ears were tortured by the sweet sounds of the sirens. In other legends, for example from Scotland and Wales, mermaids befriended and even married humans. 
By the 1800s, hoaxers churned out faked mermaids by the dozen to satisfy the public's interest in the creatures. The great showman P.T. Barnum was well aware of the public's interest in mermaids and, in the 1840s, displayed the "Feejee Mermaid," which became one of his most popular attractions. People paying 50 cents hoping to see a long-limbed, fish-tailed beauty comb her hair were surely disappointed; instead, they saw a grotesque fake corpse a few feet long. It had the torso, head and limbs of a monkey and the bottom part of a fish. To modern eyes, it was an obvious fake,but it fooled and intrigued many people at the time.

Legends of mermaids may be ancient, but they are still present in many forms; their images can be found in films, books, movies and even Starbucks.
Starbucks Trademark featuring a Mermaid with a bifurcated tail.
I'm listening to Nina Simone today. At this moment it's Don't You Pay Them No Mind. Listen Here. It's a great reminder of her artistry.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - I hadn't seen the Rembrandt piece before, nor the Leighton .. I didn't know the little rhyme either ... Hans Christian Anderson - yes! How mermaids came to be in Zimbabwe - I'll never know ... Fascinating run down on Mermaids - thanks ... cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hi Hilary. Yes, Zimbabwe is a mystery - especially as it's land-locked!

John said...

Hi Bazza! Fascinating! That's all I can say. Oh, and Daryl Hannah in 'Splash' is definitely what a mermaid should look like!

bazza said...

Hi John....yes I remember Daryl Hannah making an impression! We should have more mermaids around us!

David said...

Hi bazza,
I agree that we should have more mermaids around us, especially ones that look like Daryl Hannah in "Splash"!
I recall seeing a black-and-white film about a mermaid once, but can't for the life of me remember its title. It was a bit of a fishy tale (haha) and at the end one word came up on the screen - "Fin"!
Anyway, you don't get many mermaids in Stoke. Indeed, is there such a thing as a working-class mermaid?
Great post, bazza. I particularly enjoyed the Rembrandt painting, which I hadn't seen before.
Best Fishes,

bazza said...

Hello David. On IMDB someone has compiled a list of 159 films that feature, to a greater or lesser extent, mermaids. I just took another look at it and there was a 1948 monochrome movie called Mr Peabody and the Mermaid.
If Stoke was 'Sur-la-Mer' instead of 'on-Trent' you might have better chance of seeing one!

Sherry Ellis said...

I saw a "documentary" about mermaids that were discovered. One supposedly washed up on the beach. These creatures were hideous. More like monsters than fair maidens.

bazza said...

Hi Sherry. Maybe they were mermen washed up on the beach?

klahanie said...

Hey Bazza,

Your fascinating, in-depth, well, below sea level, post, reminds me of the mermaid that lives near me in The Roaches, near Leek.

Cheers and your post went swimmingly.


bazza said...

Hi Gary. Making waves again I see! Do tell about your local mermaid......

Snowbrush said...

I had never really looked at that Starbucks sign.

bazza said...

Hi Snowbrush. I was familiar with that sign but never really knew what it was about until I researched 'mermaids'! Thanks for visiting.
PS: Sorry for delay in replying the automatic email went into the junk folder.

Snowbrush said...

Signs are often things that I recognize, but without REALLY seeing them.