Reviewed by Harriet
once I sat upon a promontory
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres.
To hear the sea-maid’s music.
(Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.i)
Mermaids are everywhere, aren’t they. From Walt Disney to Hans Christian Anderson, from a statue in Copenhagen to a 15th century wood carving in a church in the Cornish village of Zennor, from the Pirates of the Caribbean to the Nuremburg Bible to Homer, these mysterious creatures pop up all over the place, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Sophia Kingshill’s book starts with a photo of a graffiti mermaid she spotted in Madrid a few years ago. She holds a heart in her hand, next to the feminist symbol of circle and cross, and is accompanied by the words ‘Down with patriarchy!’ and ‘Don’t give up on your life, take centre stage!’. This great find, just as her research was starting out, led to a decision about the structure of the book – instead of delving back into the mists of time and moving forward, it works like a family tree, gradually uncovering earlier and earlier ancestors of that 21st century Spanish feminist mermaid.
One thing that emerges very clearly from this approach is the varying views of a mermaid’s sexuality. Pretty, whimsical representations abound today, undoubtedly influenced by Disney’s cute Little Mermaid, but you don’t have to go far back into the past to find mermaids with a definite erotic charge. This is particularly true of representations in art of the late 19th and early 20th century, in which seductive (or predatory) mermaids tempt mariners to abandon home and family for the dubious pleasures of undersea life. After all, how much fun can you have with someone who has a tail where most women have legs? It’s fascinating to discover that if you go far enough back, you can find mermaids with double tails (as in fact the famous statue in Copenhagen does), presumably to make them available to their male lovers.
But of course one of the recurring stories about mermaids involves one of them falling in love with a human, finding some way of pursuing him onto dry land and losing her tail in the process, only to either be forced back into the sea alone or, in some versions, dragging husband or children (or both) back in there with her. These ones suggest that mermaids can present a definite threat, and indeed this becomes the predominant view as you go further back in time. The scary carnivorous mermaids who surround the boat in Pirates of the Caribbean 4 have their ancestors at least as far back as the 13th century, when an encyclopedia described them as follows:
A beast of the sea wonderfully shapen as a maid from the navell upward, and a fish from the navell downeward, and this wonderfull beast is gladde and merrie in tempest, and sadde and heavy in faire weather. With sweetness of song this beast maketh shipmen to sleepe, and when shee seeth that they be asleep, she goeth into the ship, and ravisheth which she make take with her, and bringeth him into a drye place, and maketh him first lye by her, and doe the deede of lechery, and if he will not or may not, then she slayeth him and eateth his flesh.
There seems to be a strong suggestion that this threatening view of mermaids has its root in a sort of mysogenistic view of women as temptresses – as the 14th century poet Boccaccio wrote of Sirens, a form of mermaid, they ‘are fish from the navel down, for women are beautiful and honest to the girdle, but all their lust resides in the navel’ (a sentiment repeated a couple of hundred years later by Shakespeare in King Lear).
And what, actually, are mermaids, anyway? Nice though it would be to think they were real sea creatures, the likelihood seems to be that the myths and legends grew up from some long-ago sailors spotting manatees, which apparently have something resembling a woman’s naked torso. But who knows? In any case the myths and legends have been amazingly all pervasive and clearly have not lost their power even today.
This is truly a little gem of a book. Gorgeously illustrated with reproductions of paintings and prints, seriously researched but written with wit and style, it was a real pleasure to read.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and as a child always hoped she’d spot a mermaid one day.
Sophia Kingshill, Mermaids (Little Toller: Fratrum, Dorset, 2015). 9781908213266, 150pp., hardback.
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