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
Just as Adam came before Eve, so the merman came before the mermaid. At least, that’s how legend goes. The Babylonian god Oannes predates the first known legend of the mermaids by more than a thousand years. Unlike the mermaids and merman we picture now, Oannes had both a human body and a fish body, allowing him to live both among men and beneath the sea. Convenient, huh?
The Syrian mermaid, Atargatis, came along much later than Oannes. One version of her story says that, when she was a goddess (and not yet a mermaid) she fell in love with a humble shepherd, but killed him by accident. Mortified, she threw herself into the sea intending to take the form of a fish. The waters could not hide her beauty, however, and instead of a fish, a mermaid was born. Ancient depictions of Atargatis showed her as a fish with a human head and legs.
Greek mythology has stories of the god Triton, the merman messenger of the sea. In much of European folklore, of course, mermaids were considered unlucky. They were known to sing enticing songs, luring sailors to their deaths on rocky shoals. However, this representation of mermaids more accurately describes Sirens, who were originally bird-women, or demons of death sent to hunt souls. But years of time combined the characteristics of these two half-human creatures, and mermaids acquired a rather bad reputation as a result. Nereids (sea nymphs), on the other hand – not to be confused with the Sirens – were always quite protective of sailors. They reserved their beautiful voices to sing only for their father’s amusement – not to tempt sailors to a watery grave.
Mermaids do not have souls. Well … this also may be a characteristic they inherited from the demonic Sirens, who themselves were soul-catchers. Stories say that one way a mermaid could gain a soul is to marry a human man. Perhaps one of the best illustrations of this is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Andersen also left the “Siren” angle behind when he caused his own little mermaid to not only NOT kill the human man, but to save his life instead.
Sightings of these mythical creatures? You bet. From thousands of years ago even to modern times there have been “sightings” of mermaids, findings of their bodies, and documentaries made entertaining the idea of their existence. One or two displays were made of a mermaid’s “remains” – although later discovered to be fake, of course.
There are documents and journals from long ago which record sightings. Virginia’s Captain John Smith claimed to have seen one in 1614 while exploring the West Indies, describing her as having long green hair, and even claiming to have felt “the first pangs of love” when looking upon her. Christopher Columbus saw “three sirens” that “came up very high out of the sea,” in 1492.
In 1608 the English navigator Henry Hudson wrote of his own supposed mermaid sighting off the arctic coast of Russia:
“This morning, one of our companie looking over board saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up, and by that time shee was close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly upon the men: a little after, a Sea came and overturned her: From the Navill upward, her backe and breasts were like a woman’s.., her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long haire hanging down behinde, of colour blacke; in her going down they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a Porposse, and speckled like a Macrell.”
Were these men seeing things? Manatees, for example? Dugongs? Seals? Or perhaps they had been too long at sea, too exhausted from exposure to sun or cold or salty sea air. Perhaps they saw from a distance, and filled in the details with their own mythical/imaginative mindsets and subconscious, with the stories they themselves had heard while growing up.
I myself have sighted several mermaids … although always between the pages of a book, I’ll admit J But that, I believe, is where mermaids truly shine. Stories, legends, fantasies and fairytales – these are the places these creatures of the sea were always meant to be. Where they can spark our imaginations and lead us into stories greater than ourselves, stories in which the strength of beauty is enough to lead men willingly into the arms of death, stories where a girl gives up her soul and turns to sea foam in order to save the man she loves.
This intrigue, this excitement, this heart-wrenching pain and love and angst, this bigger-than-me quality – isn’t that what stories are truly about, in the end, after all?
I’m privileged to be writing at a wonderful site this week called Speculative Faith. I’m talking about the deeper meaning of fairytales and fantasies, and why I think they are so effective in our minds and hearts – more so, many times, than any other type of fiction.
Head on over to read my post, here, and then stay a while and check out some of the other great articles and discussions on Spec Faith.
We have all seen the Disney versions. We have all read the middle grade and young adult spin-offs. But what about the original, the darker, versions of the fairytales told by the Brothers Grimm – the ones many of us at least feel are so familiar? Ever wonder how the true, unabridged, original manuscripts read? Ever wonder how these stories were told, before a pen ever wrote them down, around a cozy hearth at night, or in a child’s darkened room before bed? You may find this list of the various little-known twists and turns of these tales quite interesting. And you may just find it a bit disturbing and, well … grim.
- The Frog Prince. The princess drops her golden ball into the well. A friendly, albeit “disgusting” (her words, not mine!) frog fetches it for her. How does she discover that this green slimy creature is in fact a prince? What does she do that unlocks his identity at last? A kiss, you say? Think again. In one translation of this classic, our delicate princess throws the poor frog across the room, hoping to kill him, and when his poor little froggy body slams into the wall and falls to the ground … poof! He’s a prince. Romantic stuff, huh?
- Rapunzel. Ah, yes, where should I start with this one? First off, her father is horrible and cowardly enough to promise her to a witch before she has even been born. Yikes. Then Rapunzel herself is forced to live in a tower, alone and seeing no one but the enchantress, the only mother she knows. At this point I would be so depressed and cabin-fevered it’s not even worth thinking about. But best yet is the fact that, when she is at last banished to the desert for meeting with the prince, we find out that their … ahem … “meetings” have been quite productive, as she soon gives birth to twins. “Aaaand, that’s the end of your story for the night, children. Sweet dreams!”
- Hansel and Grethel (yes, it’s “Grethel” in the original). Headline: Father and step-mother can’t provide enough food for entire family, so they lead kids deep into forest and leave them to die. Enough said, yes? (Unless, of course, you want to discuss the fact that a very young girl gets up the nerve to shove an old lady into a fiery oven to her death … talk about disturbing!).
- Cinderella. After her father remarries, he apparently mentally checks out. That’s what got me most about this one. After verbal abuse, an insane amount of chores, lavished gifts on the two step-sisters, and banishment from the ball, you’d have thought her father (who, contrary to Disney’s version, did NOT die) would have been man enough to come to his only legitimate daughter’s rescue. If he was any example to Cinderella, you’d have thought she’d swear off men altogether and just forget the ball. There’s also that fun part about how the step-sisters cut off part of their feet so they can fit them into Cinderella’s slipper and marry the prince. When their treachery is discovered, two birds come and peck out their eyes. Ugh and double-ugh.
- Little Red-Cap. We know her as Little Red Riding Hood, of course. A story of which details my 6-year-old son would be enraptured by, as they concern a huntsmen taking a pair of scissors to a wolf’s gut to release the old lady and girl he had swallowed. Still, though … I’m not sure we’ll be reading that one for another couple years at least. Another not-so-fun fact: in the French version of this tale, neither Red Riding Hood nor her grandmother even make it out alive!
- The Pied Piper. This man – very understandably – wishes to get revenge on the village of Hamelin for not paying up after hiring him to rid them of their rat infestation. To get back at them he leads all their children away. Now, some stories say he leads them through the mountain, never to be seen again. From most points of view, that’s scary enough, really. But one dark, early version of the tale says the piper leads the poor children straight into a river, where they all drown. I would say the punishment here most definitely does NOT fit the crime. This is a guy who has issues with letting things go …
- Snow White. You’d of course expect Snow White to be a bit bitter after all the witch put her through – I mean, the old broad wanted to have her killed, after all. And none of us reading the story actually wish the witch to live happily ever after – right? Least of all Snow White. Her skin may be as white as snow – but her thoughts most certainly are not. After her eventual marriage to the prince, Snow White forced the witch to put on red-hot iron shoes and dance at her wedding celebration until she dropped down dead. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a girl I’d want as an enemy.
- Rumpelstiltskin. I read this one many times growing up, but in each version Rumpelstiltskin basically throws a temper tantrum when his name is discovered, and stomps himself right through the floor. The end. Want to know the grim Grimm version? I knew you did! This little guy throws a fit to rival Henry II, planting one foot deep down into the earth. He then grabs his other foot with both hands and – brace yourself – pulls his leg until he’s ripped himself clean in half. Gross. I did warn you.
The list goes on and on, really. All you have to do is grab the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales and go to town if you want to hear the original tellings. For myself – I love fairy tales, make no mistake, but a little goes a long way when it comes to horrible parenting, cruel and unusual revenge, and just plain mean princesses.
How ‘bout you? What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) details from the Grimm archives?
- How Hollywood destroyed the classical fairytale (sensoria300.wordpress.com)
- Popular Grimm Fairy Tales: Cinderella and Beyond (parenting.answers.com)
- 5 Forgotten Grimm’s Fairy Tales (mentalfloss.com)