Sarah Peverley is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool and a regular broadcaster on television and radio. She is also a Leverhulme Research Fellow, working on a project entitled ‘Mermaids of the British Isles, c. 450-1500’.
In this episode of the University of Liverpool Podcast Sarah discusses society’s longstanding fascination with mermaids and their representation throughout the ages.
6 ways mermaids have influenced society throughout history
- Protective guardians in ancient Mesopotamia
“Mermaids have been with us forever,” says Sarah. “They’ve never really gone out of fashion.”
However, their form has certainly changed. Literature and statues from ancient Mesopotamia include frequent representations of merfolk. “Largely it’s mermen to start with, although there are merwomen as well,” says Sarah. “They’re associated with creation itself. In these legends… the merfolk are there in the primordial oceans, the soup that creates all living things, and they act as protective guardians.”
- Sirens in Greek and Roman mythology
The earliest sirens in Greek mythology were depicted as part-bird, part-woman. But by the seventh century, the half-woman, half-fish mermaid begins to appear.
Sarah says: “The song they sing promises knowledge beyond the past, present and future. It’s knowledge of everything.” When Ulysses is warned not to listen to the song because it can cause shipwrecks, he takes drastic action. “He circumvents the destruction by having himself tied to a mast so that he can listen to the siren song, but not be destroyed by it.”
- Vampirical attackers in Hollywood blockbusters
In 2011, mermaids featured in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. While they have elements of a traditional siren, singing to sailors and luring one for a kiss, things take a dark turn thereafter.
Sarah says: “It's only when she pulls him down to have this kiss, and descends beneath the waterline, that we see the destructive side of mermaids. She turns into this horrific creature with sharp teeth, quite vampirical in her appearance, who is going to cause the destruction and death of the sailor, before the rest of the mermaids all come to attack.”
- Sinful creatures in the medieval church
In medieval society, Sarah says mermaids were depicted as hideous creatures with “bird feet and a fishtail”. They were also given features that did not “conform to the medieval standard of beauty, which was blonde hair, blue or grey eyes, very slim body”.
The medieval church, however, often depicted mermaids in a more attractive manner – in order to deliberately illustrate the ideas of sin and salvation. “The idea,” says Sarah, “is that she's beautiful and attractive but she has this bestial part hidden beneath the waves that’s the dangerous side of her.”
- Homewrecking prostitutes in 7th century Seville
Saint Isidore of Seville, who as Archbishop of Seville for more than 30 years was one of the city’s most prominent figures in the 7th century, argued mermaids were not real – but instead a metaphor for the city’s prostitutes.
According to Sarah, he argued that they “lured men to their financial shipwreck by luring them in for their services.” She adds: “This idea of the mermaid being a woman to be avoided, this problematic body that typifies all kinds of negative concepts about female sexuality in the medieval period, runs right through.”
- A question poser in 20th-century art
René Magritte's The Collective Invention presents a reverse mermaid, with the head of a fish and the legs of a woman.
Sarah says: “It plays with this idea of what’s appealing, not just to men but also to humans, in terms of the mermaid. Would you rather have, if you were stranded on a desert island, the mermaid with the fishy tail and the human body so that you can talk and engage with her? Or, would you rather have a mermaid with the lower half as a human woman and the top half as the fish?”
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