The Mermaid Problem
Almost everybody knows what a mermaid is, right? Human above the waist, fish on the bottom, oftentimes beautiful and seductive, sometimes terrifying and murderous: these creatures have appeared in a standardized form in Western art for hundreds of years. However, a deeper look at mer-lore shows a bounty of ancient and modern ways of thinking about beings who bridge the gap between earth and water.
Stories about merfolk and other hybrid or shape-changing water beings can be divided into two broad categories:
I really want to have sex!
This is where you find your beautiful and seductive beings—mermaids, sirens, selkies, and undines, as well as the modern lore of shifter romance and erotica. A common subset of this category is: I wanted to have sex and now I’m dead! Which is where we place sirens, mermaids, and others who sing sailors to their deaths after presenting an attractive initial appearance and/or voice.
Kids, I’m telling you for the last time, don’t play by the river/pond/bog/ocean!
Here we have terrifying beings—kelpies, finfolk, and many variations on monsters with a semi-human form that drag the unwary into the water, such as Jenny Greenteeth and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Within these categories there is almost infinite variation and interpretation. Mermaid and related stories are about sexual exploration, love of the other, forbidden love, and curiosity. They can also be about body positivity, ancestral memory, and liberation. They can be about the unpredictable and horrifying dangers of the water, a medium we can’t survive in, don’t fully understand, and can’t live without. They can be terrifying, adorable, seductive, and silly, sometimes within the same story.
Mermaids have a long history, but the most iconic mermaid in Western literature is the unnamed “mermaid” from the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Mermaid” (1837). Andersen’s story features a mermaid who is beautiful in accordance with White Victorian ideal: that is to say, pale, somewhat slender, and graceful, with large, expressive eyes and long, flowing hair. This image of the mermaid can be seen in the original illustrations for Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” by Vilhelm Pedersen, as well as the original illustrations for J. M. Barrie’s classic, Peter and Wendy (1911), by Francis Donkin Bedford and countless examples of visual art dating from the era of the Andersen story through today. This is also the way mermaids look in most movies, including Splash (1984) and The Little Mermaid (1989).
Many modern characters have challenged our image of the mermaid by introducing mermaids that do not fit the stereotypical mold (distinct from the many water-based spirits and deities of non-Western cultures) and fat or curvy mermaids. In Julia Ember’s novel The Seafarer’s Kiss, mermaids in the north carry a substantial amount of blubber that helps them survive the cold. In their society, fat is considered an attractive and necessary adaptative attribute. The pod of mermaids in Thirsty Mermaids (a comic by Kat Leyh) consists of two fat mermaids and one skinny mermaid, all three of whom express nothing but positivity about their bodies. In real life, the Society of Fat Mermaids exists as a place of support for plus-size mermaid cosplayers and performers.
Meanwhile, mermaids of color are increasingly found in Western literature and other media. The Chinese movie, The Mermaid (2016), is about mermaids who live off the coast of China and who are Chinese in appearance and language. The novel A Song Below Water, by Bethany C. Morrow, explores coming of age issues and racial justice through the lens of two teenage Black girls, one of whom is a siren and one of whom performs as a mermaid. The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, features Black mermaids in a searing yet joyful story of ancestral memory, liberation, and romance. The Saudi Arabian movie, Scales (2021), uses mermaids to explore gender roles in a dystopian Middle Eastern village.
The mermaids’ close relatives, sirens, are often depicted today looking like mermaids, but they did not start out that way. Sirens first appeared in Greek mythology. They had the upper bodies of women and the tails, wings, and feet of birds, with considerable variation regarding the woman/bird ratio. They sang and played instruments, luring sailors to dangerous shoals, and causing their deaths. Homer includes them as a menace in the Odyssey. Over time, sirens were pictured as looking less and less like birds and more and more like people. At some point in the Middle Ages, they began being described with the tails of dragons or fish and wings of a bird. Eventually the story solidified until sirens and mermaids became virtually synonymous.
An example of the siren/mermaid hybrid may be seen in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011). These sirens are beautiful women from the waist up with fish tails from the waist down. They use their physical attractiveness and beautiful voices to seduce pirates. When the pirates reach for them, the sirens grab them, drag them underwater, and devour them with their previously concealed sharp teeth and their superhuman strength. In the movie, they are referred to as mermaids, with only their voices and feeding patterns suggesting that “siren” might be a more accurate term.
Another example of the “mermaids but murderous” type of siren is found in the television series Siren (2018–2020), in which sirens are portrayed as the alpha predators of the sea despite their appearance, which is attractive to humans. In this show, the siren song can be used for healing, but it can also be addictive to humans, causing them to compulsively search for the song and ultimately drown themselves. Another version of the song can cause immediate injury or death.
Most siren fiction plays up the sexual attractiveness of the sirens, but author Mira Grant uses them as an avenue for scientific conjecture and creature-feature horror. In her novel, Into the Drowning Deep, sirens live in the recesses of the Mariana Trench. They use their ability to mimic the voices of people, ships, and marine animals to lure prey. These sirens are fully adapted to deep-sea life. Their faces and curving rib cages bear some resemblance to human women, and they have eerily humanoid lips, but there the resemblance to humans ends. They have internal organs that allow them to feed on the ocean’s surface and then return to the depths without suffering from pressure changes, they have powerful tails, they secrete a protective mucus like hagfish, they have thin, bioluminescent tendrils that resemble hair, and they have “a fishhook forest of teeth” as well as claws. This reimaging of sirens in a more scientifically plausible way allows the menace in the book to seem both otherworldly and completely realistic, the eerie mimicry of human voices and words a true violation of the trust of gullible humans filled with unearned hubris.
Sirens and mermaids usually fall under the “I want to have sex” category, with their stories usually depicting them as sexually alluring at least some of the time, with sirens crossing over into “I wanted to have sex and now I’m dead” territory. Mermaids and sirens share these categories with the lesser-known undines (sometimes spelled “ondine”) and other freshwater cryptids.
In Western literature, the undine legend was immortalized in an 1811 novella, Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. In this novel, a wandering knight meets a young woman named Undine. She has no soul but wins one when she marries the knight. She warns him not to deceive or criticize her near water. When he breaks this promise, she is forced to return to the water. The knight, believing her dead, arranges to marry her rival, but Undine returns on his wedding day, and he dies. Says Undine, “My tears fell on his heart until, for very sorrow, it broke.”
Undine was inspired by two sources. The first was works of Paracelsus, a Renaissance-era alchemist who described four elemental beings (also called nymphs in his system) who occupy a space between fully corporeal and fully spiritual. Gnomes are the elemental beings of Earth, Sylphs of Air, Salamanders of Fire, and Undines of Water. These beings don’t have immortal souls but can gain them if married to a human being. However, should an undine marry a human, and the human mistreat her while they are on the water, she will be forced to leave him, and should he betray her, she will kill him.
The second source was the legend of Mélusine, a being resembling a mermaid said to inhabit streams and holy wells in France. The legend of Mélusine has many variations but usually involves a nobleman who finds a beautiful maiden in the forest. She agrees to marry him on the condition that he never look at her when she is bathing herself or their children. Eventually he breaks the oath and sees her (or in some variations, one of the daughters) with the tail of a serpent, dragon, or fish, causing her to swim or fly away.
“Mélusine” and “Undine” are words that can be used as the name of a specific character or a more general word for that type of character—thus “undine” usually refers to either the character in the novella or to any freshwater beautiful female elemental, and “mélusine” is either a specific character from legend or any freshwater mermaid-like being that has the upper body of a woman and lower body of a mermaid with a double fish tail, a serpent tail, or a dragon tail. For example, the famous Starbucks Company logo is a classic image of a mélusine.
Undine was a popular novel upon its release, and inspired poems, stories, operas, and ballets. Most recently, it inspired the movies Ondine (2009) and Undine (2020). The medical condition central hypoventilation syndrome, a condition in which people lose the ability to regulate their breathing automatically, is also known as Ondine’s curse.
One of the legacies of Undine was its impact on Hans Christian Andersen. Many factors went into Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid,” a story which has arguably had the single greatest influence on modern Western mermaid lore. One of those factors was Andersen’s dislike of the use of the immortal soul as a plot device in Undine. Andersen thought that an eternal soul should not be bestowed on a being simply because of love. In his story, a mermaid hopes to win the love of a prince and thus acquire an eternal soul, just as Undine does. However, in Andersen’s story, the prince dooms the mermaid by wedding another. The mermaid is then offered a chance to win a soul through good deeds in a sort of ghostly afterlife. In a letter, Andersen wrote:
I have not, like de la Motte Fouquet in Undine, let the mermaid’s gaining an immortal soul depend on a stranger, on the love of another person. It is definitely the wrong thing to do. It would make it a matter of chance, and I’m not going to accept that in this world. I have let my mermaid take a more natural, divine path.
A final example of freshwater cryptids is the nixie. These beings, from Germanic lore, are freshwater cryptids who bridge the gap between sirens and undines. They sometimes look human and other times look like mermaids. Lorelei, who shares her name with a large rock formation on the Rhine River, is a famous nixie who sings a beautiful song, siren-like. She lures men to their deaths by shipwreck on the rock that bears her name.
Returning to the ocean, we find selkies, the mysterious seal-men and women from the Scottish coast. These beings live their lives in the sea as seals. However, sometimes, they come onto the land, take off their coats, and assume human form. This is most common with selkie women. Should a human man steal the selkie’s seal skin, then she must follow him home and be his wife. But if she ever finds where he has hidden the skin, then she will run back to the sea with it and never be seen again.
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) and the animated Song of the Sea (2014) tell selkie stories in a modern setting (The Secret of Roan Inish is set post-WWII and Song of the Sea is set in the present day). Both movies tell stories of separation, grief, and healing. The 2009 movie Ondine, mentioned above and set in the present day, combines ondine and selkie legends in a modern-day story about a mysterious woman, Ondine, who is believed to be a selkie. This movie uses the selkie myth as a way for Ondine to craft her own story about her origins, her personal power, and the life she wants to have. There is even a story about selkies in space. The Twins of Petaybee series, by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, includes a selkie scientist who transforms into seal form in order to explore an alien planet’s ocean.
Selkies are rarely cruel to humans. However, finfolk from Finnish folklore are a crossover between “Kids, I’m telling you for the last time, don’t play by the water!” and “I want to have sex!” Finfolk, found in the Orkney Islands, live most of their lives in their underwater city, as creatures like mermaids. But when they want to wed, they kidnap a human and take them to a hidden, magical island where the human must live out their days. To do this, finfolk adopt various disguises. Sometimes they adopt the forms of beautiful mermaids to seduce fisherman. Other times they appear as animals or plants, attempting to entice the human into approaching them so that the finfolk can grab the human. Finmen even appear as fishermen in row boats, or as empty boats free for the taking. But the greedy human who comes too close will find him or herself captured and dragged beneath the waves for procreation purposes.
Although we’re focusing on Western mermaids, particularly those from Western European folklore and media, stories of merfolk appear all over the world. The universality of these stories suggests certain universal feelings and impulses. For instance, people want sex and fantasize about it, while also fearing the dangers of following temptation. Yet many mermaids and related stories are less about the drive for sex and more about the drive for companionship and a sense of belonging. For instance, The Little Mermaid of Andersen’s tale doesn’t just want to have a sexual life with her prince—she wants to belong in the human world. She also wants to be part of something even greater, longing for a kind of eternal immortality.
Stories about merfolk and their relatives also represent a universal longing to bridge the great gap of understanding between the earthly world of humans and the aquatic world, a world in which we cannot survive, and yet also cannot live without. These stories are resilient and adaptable, overlapping and blending into one another, transcending genre limitations.
There are mermaids in horror (Mermaid Down, from 2019, and The Lure, from 2015) and mermaids in science fiction (Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters, by Aimee Ogden, 2021). The romance genre abounds with mermaids. Mermaids populate children’s stories, live performance, visual arts, and adult erotica. Transcending artistic and physical mediums, mermaids and undines, sirens, and nixies, and all the other water-beings who challenge and seduce us remind us that the watery world is, and has always been, a place of wonder and mystery.