The Mermaid is the Monster of the Week. Check back Wednesday and Friday for two more installments. Enjoy!
Untraceably ancient, mermaid legends date back to the first desperate twitchings of humanity’s awed, fearful love of the sea. Early polytheistic cultures worshipped various ocean deities and water gods that appeared as miraculous, eerie combinations of human and piscine anatomy.
Likewise, early Arabian cultures told stories about sea-dwelling humans that would occasionally venture onto land, but these beings were described as physiologically identical to terrestrial people. The familiar image of the buxom, long-haired girl a la poisson seems to have originated in European folktales and, as extensive sea exploration and empire building became increasingly viable enterprises, gradually seeped into the cultural vernacular.
Given the relative inefficiency and myriad dangers associated with early explorative expeditions, it’s easy to understand sailors’ fascination with mermaids; seafarers were trapped by water and wood, living in cramped, often squalid, conditions, with a gang of hard-living men, their anemic hearts powered by loneliness and lust. It’s only natural that the impossible prospect of finding a woman at sea became a tantalizing exercise in unfettered, horny creativity. Interestingly, due to this lascivious raison d’être, some early depictions of classic mermaids show the creatures with two tails (see original Starbucks logo), such that the female genitalia could be more easily, and comfortably, imagined and located.
Despite these raunchy confabulations, sailors also believed that mermaids, like sirens, used their feminine wiles to lure men into a watery grave. At the time, female sexuality was often construed as a terrifying, malevolent force. In some legends, mermaids are malicious, murder-happy fiends, while in other decidedly more fanciful (and pornographic) variations, they are so sexually excited that they forget humans can’t breathe underwater and accidentally drown their unwitting paramours. Regardless of these women’s motives, the stories, by portraying sailors’ desire for women and the attempted exploitation of that lust by deadly mermaids, reveals a vision of masculinity that understands carnal instinct as an inherent flaw in the otherwise perfect architecture of a manhood which is better employed in service of adventure and the empire (hunger was also portrayed this way, as exemplified in Homer’s Odyssey when Circe turns Odysseus’ gluttonous men into actual pigs). It’s sort of the ultimate “bros before hos,” in which the bros are the overarching patriarchal ideology and the hos are women, fishy or non, who, either consciously or ignorantly, attempt to overturn that ideology via sexual manipulation.
Wednesday: Taxonomy, taxidermy and mermaids