For today’s post I would like to look at different ways that mermaids have been represented. The way mermaids have been portrayed throughout time has been varied from positive water faeries who sometimes help rescue sailors to negative sirens who are thirsty for blood.
Many of the earliest types of mermaid-like creatures featured in ancient myth are dangerous. We get Greek sirens (who incidentally did not start out as half fish women at all, but half bird, but they still inhabited islands, and stayed near water). There were also the Russian rusalky, who were water based faerie women who were seen as naked by a male who they would lure into the depths of their watery abodes to drown them. These faerie women were not necessarily all bad, as certain tellings of both the siren story and the rusalky story had them targeting men who were violent against women, or nature. In this way they killed those who deserved to be killed, like avenging angels.
The story of Melusine in a medieval legend that can be seen as a darker mermaid tale, or as an empowering tale. After all, Melusine both was cursed with a serpent or fish tale (sometimes because of killing or trying to kill her father), but she does rescue her future husband, and bare him children. She builds many buildings, and only asked that he not see her on Saturdays (as this is the day she had to bath in a pool and let her tail be free). He spied on her and saw the truth but never told Melusine he knew (for years), until one of their sons who destroyed an Abbey. At that point he called her a monster and she left him forever, only visiting the home to check on the children (and in some versions her cry was heard when one in the family was to perish, such as a banshee’s scream).
The more positive portrayals of mermaids include them being seen as beings of positive sexuality, symbols of freedom, and having hearts as deep as the ocean. These are what we often get by modern cinematic interpretations (from the 1940s onward). We have mermaids who are on searches for love, like in Miranda and Mad About Men. This would continue in films like Splash and Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid (which as I have discussed before gave the titular mermaid a happy ending unlike Andersen’s original). In Alice Hoffman’s delightful juvenile/young adult novel Aquamarine we meet a mermaid who is rebellious and looking for proof love existed. This novel was adapted into a sweet movie that changed the mermaid abilities around a little to give her legs on land (during the day) instead of her having to hide her tail whenever around humans (other than the two girls helping her in her quest).
Even television has embraced mermaids as positive water faeries. The Australian teen show H2O: Just Add Water introduced a group of girls who get turned into mermaids, and the show eventually spun off sequels (a live action one and an animated one). All three shows are available on Netflix, the second two being Netflix Originals. Finally I would like to mention in Charmed, during the season five premiere we see the sisters helping a mermaid battling a sea hag, she no longer wanted to be a mermaid because her heart had warmed and she wanted love. A spell gone awry has Phoebe being the one ending up with a tail! It played perfectly into the romantic turmoil Phoebe was going through as she tried to settle her divorce to Cole (who she still referred to as “the love of her life”).
There are modern examples of cinematic dangerous mermaids, such as in the Polish musical film Lure. Which tells a beautifully dark tale of mermaid sisters going on a rampage in the human world. This is a dark comedy horror film that beautifully captured the older dark nature of mermaids.
I personally like to see mermaids as both light and dark water faeries. Like any other being there are good and bad in them. This time of year we often think of mermaids since it is so hot out. After all, who wouldn’t love to grow a fin and escape to an underwater paradise! I hope you have enjoyed my analysis of mermaid representations through history. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is The Siren by John William Waterhouse. I found the image on sothebys.com.
- Mermaids: The Myths, Legends, and Lore by Skye Alexander
- The Mermaid Handbook by Carolyn Turgeon
- Aquamarine by Alice Hoffman
- The Fairy Handbook by Teresa Moorey
- Aquamarine (2006)
- Charmed (1998-2006)
- H20:Just Add Water (2006-2010)
- The Little Mermaid (1989)
- Splash (1984)
- Miranda (1948)
- Mad About Men (1954)