Fishermen’s tails

Through history, Mermaids have been treated as more real than legendary, even by those who have had a reputation to uphold

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In 1638, the English travel writer and explorer John Josselyn heard that a merman had been sighted off New England. “There are many stranger things in the world,” he declared, “than there are to be seen between London and the Stanes [Staines].” Josselyn need only have ventured a little further to learn that the Maine merman was far from extraordinary.

Merpeople: A Human History by Vaughn Scribner Reaktion Books, £20

According to Gervase of Tilbury, writing in the age of King John, the English coast was home to a myriad of merpeople. Bewildered fishermen captured one in 1187 resembling “in shape a wild or savage man” and interred him in Orford Castle in Suffolk. Despairing of being fed only raw meat and fish, the miserable hybrid eventually eluded his captors and escaped back to the water.

If there was one thing merpeople despised, at least in the early chronicles, it was having morsels dangled before them as if they were mere fish or cannibals. In his history of the species, Vaughn Scribner, an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas, cites an early seventeenth century source in which members of the court of Denmark are described as encountering a merman between Norway and Sweden and luring him to their ship with a rasher of bacon. He, too, made his excuses and left.

Like unicorns, mermaids have enjoyed a centuries-old cult following, with “Mermaid University” courses — in which students learn to live as if they were amphibious — just the latest craze to emerge in the US.

The origins of our fascination are difficult to trace, but Scribner looks to the ancient world and the worship of the half-fish god Ea by the Akkadians (confusingly misspelt in the book as “Acadians” who belong rather in Canada), the wise fish-god Oannes by the Babylonians, and the fertility goddess Atargatis by the Assyrians, Israelites and Philistines. Homer’s sweet-voiced Sirens, who threaten to divert Odysseus from his homecoming, were also important forerunners. While traditionally more bird-like than fish-like, they were frequently imagined as mermaids intent on deceiving sailors with their song. The Romans conversely wrote of mermaid-like Nereids protecting seafarers from danger.

The idea of the mermaid as temptress was certainly more interesting to the church than was the scaly rescuer or the merman. Scribner counts 55 mermaid sculptures in British churches and identifies several more in Europe, including an intriguing bench carving in a medieval chapel in Switzerland featuring a maid spreading her fins to copulate with a Christian fish. Mermaids were frequently sexualised in Christian art to emphasise the dan-
gerous allure of women. Mermen, where they appear, tend to be pious and respectable. Hence the Merman Monk — among my favourites of the many exquisite illustrations in this book — from a thirteenth-century bestiary.

Scribner is keen to show how the ambiguous and contradictory nature of merpeople has permeated our times. These bi-formed beings, he argues, “have emerged as important representations of body positivity, feminism, LBGTQ+ rights and the disruption of binary understandings of humans”. This is not a recent development. New Yorkers have been hosting a “Mermaid Parade” since 1983 as a “celebration of difference, self-esteem, sexuality and ‘freakishness’’’. It is astonishing to think, even against this background, that the word “mermaid” is now deemed so “problematic” that when Apple introduced a new emoji in 2017 it felt compelled to classify it as a “merperson”.

Such topics can be tricky to write about in such a febrile climate, and Scribner is occasionally rather cautious in his approach. He seems highly conscious, for example, of writing as a man about female forms that have long been objectified. He is certainly anxious to avoid perpetuating prejudices. His desire to right others’ wrongs gives rise to some surprisingly impassioned arguments — Disney’s Little Mermaid comes in for heavy criticism for its portrayal of Ariel giving up her voice to live happily ever after with her prince — and, frustratingly, repetitive academese.

There is a particularly distracting accumulation of “to denigrate the feminine”; “to depreciate the feminine”; “the defamation of the feminine”; “decentring the feminine”; “denigrating the feminine”; “feminine denigration”. Such phrases are an irritating blight on an otherwise often illuminating book.

Scribner is never mocking or condescending about the fanaticism and wonder merpeople have inspired. This is important, for through history they have been treated as more real than legendary, even by those who have had a reputation to uphold. Christopher Columbus claimed to have seen three mermaids in the West Indies. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Pennsylvania Gazette of a creature with black hair, tail and a boy’s torso.

Scribner’s pages on the quests driven by merpeople are equally fascinating. We read of the eighteenth-century botanist Carl Linnaeus urging the Swedish Academy of Science to initiate a hunt to capture a mermaid “alive or preserved in spirits”. And of the doctor Thomas Bartholin dissecting a creature with webbed hands and buttocks on the front of her body. Several passages detail the grim collection of “mermaid” body parts in cabinets of curiosity.

Those who lacked the stomach for such pursuits found alternative ways of presenting their finds. You will have seen pictures of hideous maids fashioned covertly by hand after the example of sea captain Samuel Barrett Eades’s headline-stealing creation of the nineteenth century.

As the hysteria grew, so too did people’s cynicism. Some made a point of defining mermaids explicitly as products of the ancient imagination. Others endeavoured to explain the phenomena away as seals, manatees or dugongs and the deceit of vision. It says something, however, that after reading so many historic descriptions of merpeople by those who claimed to have seen them, I came away from this book half-wondering whether there might indeed have been something more enticing out there in the deep.

Like all great myths, tales of mermaids and mermen are self-perpetuating, becoming only more convincing in concert with one another. The more sources accumulate, the more weight they acquire, until there is nothing for it but to give in to the romance of the idea or else feel hard-nosed and disappointed. The greatest power of the scaly temptress, it would seem, is to tempt us into believing in her existence.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover