Since ancient times the sea has been full to the brim with mythological connotations. The boundless ocean and its tributaries that run clear and lively throughout our realm also nurture the realm of Faerie. Water symbolizes primal beginnings, possibility and deep consciousness. Unfathomable, ever-changing, teeming with creatures both unseen and enormous, the seas of Faerie ripple with life, sweet to the taste and tingling with promises. Pure and chilly, this enchanted water rises into mortal lands through sacred springs and whirlpool tides. In its wake it sometimes drags magical beings into our realm… or takes mortals into Faerie’s depths. But while the currents of enchanted waters often hold many dangers – Krakens, serpents, strong tides and tempests – for all its treacheries the seas of Faerie provides a bounty: unequalled beauty and fertile sustenance. Water – in symbol and in nature – is life. Stories of life beneath the waves have been told for aeons – usually warning tales of merfolk and sirens who lure unsuspecting mortals to a watery death. There are legends of selkies who transform into the shapes of women to take mortal men as their husbands, coral cities and entire kingdoms on the ocean floor. One common thread appears to be that, though alluring, life beneath the sea is often perilous and the Lords – and Ladies – of the deep are not to be trifled with.
In European folklore mermaids and mermen – legendary beings, half human and half fish – inhabited both the sea and inland waters and had magical and prophetic powers.Though very long-lived, they were mortal and had no souls. They loved music and often sang, although the song of a mermaid was often an ill omen, signifying floods, storms, shipwrecks and drownings. Merfolk were not always seen as evil, however, and in some folk traditions they were regarded as benevolent, bestowing gifts upon or falling in love with humans. Numerous tales, such as that of The Mermaid of Zennor, record marriages between mermaids (who might assume human form) and men. In most, the man steals the mermaid’s cap or belt, her comb or mirror. While the objects are hidden, she lives with him; if she finds them she returns at once to the sea. However, though sometimes kindly, merfolk were usually dangerous to humans. Their gifts brought misfortune; and, if offended, they could cause floods or other disasters. To see a mermaid on a voyage was an omen of shipwreck. In the old tales, mermaids sometimes lured mortals to their deaths by drowning, as did Lorelei of the Rhine or the even more fearsome sirens of Greek mythology.
Throughout history, famous seafarers such as Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids on their voyages in locations as diverse as the Caribbean, the Pacific Rim and the Indian Ocean. However, some of these historical sightings by sailors may simply have been misunderstood encounters with aquatic animals – the real sirens from the mammal species known as sirenia. This biological order comprise dugongs and manatees, who can often be spied frolicking off the coast in warm waters. However, the creation of the mythological mermaid may owe a debt to a deeper need – the emergent understanding of the ancients that human beings were both one with and different from animals. The earliest known tales of merfolk date from something like 1,000 BC in the form of the stories from ancient Assyria of the goddess Atargatis, who transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover. A popular Greek legend turned Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike, into a mermaid after her death, living in the Aegean. She would ask the sailors on any ship she would encounter only one question: “Is King Alexander alive?”, to which the correct answer was: “He lives and reigns and conquers the world”. This answer would please her, and she would accordingly calm the waters and bid the ship farewell. Any other answer would enrage her, and she would stir up a terrible storm, dooming the ship and every sailor on board.
In the British Isles, according to legend, a mermaid came to the Cornish village of Zennor where she used to listen to the singing of a chorister, Matthew Trewhella. The two fell in love, and Matthew went with the mermaid to her home at Pendour Cove. On summer nights, the lovers can be heard singing together. At the Church of Saint Senara in Zennor, there is a famous chair decorated by a mermaid carving which is probably six hundred years old. Famous in more recent centuries is the fairy tale The Little Mermaid (1836) by Hans Christian Andersen. The mermaid as conceived by Andersen is similar to an undine, a water nymph in German folklore who could only obtain an immortal soul by marrying a human being. Andersen’s heroine inspired a bronze sculpture in Copenhagen harbour and influenced Western literary works such as Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and His Soul and H G Wells’ The Sea Lady. Musical depictions of mermaids include those by Felix Mendelssohn in his Fair Melusina overture and the three Rhine daughters in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, while film depictions include the Eighties’ hit Splash and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which mixes old and new myths about mermaids: singing to sailors to lure them to their death, growing legs when taken onto dry land, and bestowing kisses with magical healing properties. For whatever reason, merfolk, both perilous and benign, remain as exotic and alluring today as they have done throughout history.