Mermaids went from dangerous and sinful to magical and political, and were finally trivialized by Disney and Starbucks.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*A lecture at Pinacoteca Comunale Carlo Servolini, Collesalvetti, Italy, February 9, 2023, for the series “La Livorno di d’Annunzio e l’Europa di Baudelaire,” organized by Fondazione Livorno, Fondazione Livorno Arte e Cultura, and the City of Collesalvetti, created and curated by Francesca Cagianelli, in connection with the exhibition “La Beata Riva: Gino Romiti e lo spiritualismo a Livorno. Protagonisti e Cenacoli tra la Scuola di Guglielmo Micheli, il Caffè Bardi e Bottega d’Arte.”
Thanks to curator Francesca Cagianelli, the Collesalvetti portion of the “La Beata Riva” exhibition (another portion is in Livorno) presents us with some of the most extraordinary mermaids of Italian Symbolist and Spiritualist art, created by artists such as Gino Romiti and Francesco Nonni, in dialogue with a broader European milieu, as demonstrated by the presence on the exhibition of Jean de Bosschère.
There is not much left to say about Symbolist mermaids, but I would like to propose a comparison with Armand Point’s “The Mermaid with the Serpent,” a pastel on canvas from 1901. Here we are at the heart of the “purity-danger” couple that would be evoked much later (1966) by anthropologist Mary Douglas. The mermaid is dangerous, because her embrace can lead into the abyss and kill, but she also embodies the dream of a seductive and lost purity that the males of the Belle Époque, whatever risks they might take, no longer wanted to give up.
The mermaid of Armand Point is actually a real-life dangerous woman, Helga Weeke, a Danish singer, who was the widow of the Norwegian poet Sigbjørn Ostfelder and an esotericism buff. Considered one of the most beautiful women of the century, her blue eyes had driven more than one artist crazy. Point married her, but Helga left him after eight years of marriage and ended up dying in an asylum at age 53.
The story of Helga Weeke and Armand Point also evokes the couple mermaid/beauty. In her style and even hairstyles Helga consciously imitated a lady who for the previous generation of the Pre-Raphaelites had been “the most beautiful woman in the world,” Jane Morris. And Point makes an explicit reference, with the snake (which is in fact not a snake) around the neck of Helga depicted as a mermaid, to another candidate for the title of most comely woman ever, Simonetta Vespucci, Botticelli’s Venus, and her famous portrait attributed to Piero di Cosimo where she has on her neck a similar snake or snakish mythological animal (or perhaps the adder who killed Cleopatra).
Leaving symbolism behind, I offer here six stories of mermaids. The first is about a confusion. The Italian word “sirena” can be translated into English as either “siren” or “mermaid.” Look at two depictions of Odysseus’ ship threatening shipwreck lured by the deadly sirens’ song, one Greek and one Victorian, by Herbert James Draper. Notice at once that the “sirens” of Ulysses originally are not “fish women” at all but “bird women,” while in the Middle Ages the siren merges with the mermaid, a figure that comes from Norse mythology and is in fact a fish woman.
My second story is about the mermaid of submission. In a good number of Romanesque churches, mermaids support baptisteries or stoups. This does not mean that the Catholic Church loved mermaids; in fact, the opposite was true. Somewhat like the devil holding up the stoup in the notorious “church of mysteries” in Rennes-le-Château, which Dan Brown famously but wrongly interpreted as an allusion to Satanism, mermaids for the Christian Middle Ages are demonic creatures, lustful and animalistic women who seduce and kill, and whom the Church has subdued, “put under” the places of baptism and holy water as it did with devils.
The Pre-Raphaelites thought that subdued mermaids were typical of English medieval country churches, but in fact there are also some of them in Italy, for example in the stoup of the baptistery in Cremona. They also appear in the stoups of the churches of San Giorgio in Ganaceto (Modena) and Santa Maria Assunta in Rubbiano (Parma), which some art historians have even attributed to one of the greatest sculptors of the Italian Middle Ages, Wiligelmus.
Enter the third story, the political siren. Mermaids do not always sit submissively by. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, and magic and esotericism became fashionable among the educated classes, the mermaid was rediscovered as a symbol of the deep union between humans and nature, and also between water and eroticism. Some noble families included mermaids in their foundation myths, the best known of which involved the great French house of Lusignan.
The ancestress of the Lusignan, Melusine, in successive versions of the story is a fairy, a shape-shifter, a dragon, a siren, and eventually a mermaid. Raymondin, the founder of the household, finds her swimming in the Enchanted Fountain. Melusine marries him but on one condition: her husband must never look at her on Saturdays when she is bathing. That is the day when Melusine reveals her mermaid tail. Raymondin breaks his vow after seven years, and Melusine disappears, but in the meantime she has sired ten children for him, who will make the Lusignan lineage numerous and powerful.
Melusine at the bath has never ceased to fascinate artists, from medieval miniatures to Romantic painters such as Julius Hübner and the Art Nouveau of Heinrich Vogeler.
But going back to politics and the Lusignan lineage, are these mythologies that have lost interest today? Not everywhere, as the fourth story, about the African siren, demonstrates. In his 2011 dissertation, French ethnologist Thomas Mouzard described the public and political funeral of a mermaid that took place in southern Madagascar in 2001–2002. The premise was the claim of royal houses and entire ethnic groups in Madagascar to be descended from mermaids. One could say that the same mythologies are at work in different cultures, if it were not for the fact that since the French conquest in the late 1800s a preexisting local folklore has absorbed European elements in its representation of mermaids.
In January 2002, out of the blue in the bazaar of Toliara, in southwestern Madagascar, word spread that fishermen in nearby Port-Dauphin had caught a mermaid a few weeks earlier and brought her to the village elders who, impatient that she kept drinking their rum, had killed her. Before she died, she asked to be buried in Ankilibe, where her descendants lived. Mouzard noted that older Malagasy do believe that mermaids exist; but in this case there were also bones laid in a coffin and transported from one village to another, which were now on their way to Toliara.
There are thirteen kilometers between Toliara and Ankilibe, but a funeral procession was formed and took a longer route because all the villages wanted to pay their respects to the mermaid and lay in the coffin, after a night of prayers and after many had lined up to touch her, a record signed by the local political and military authorities and monetary offerings. Mouzard noted the villagers’ unanimous participation in these rites, including the Catholic nuns who resided there.
When television also arrives and the mermaid’s funeral becomes a national event the ruling authoritarian regime, suspicious of any movement it does not control, sends soldiers, led by a colonel who exhorts the crowd to “pray only to Jesus Christ,” to seize the mermaid’s coffin (and the money it contains, by now a considerable sum), along with a committee of four university professors who have the casket opened.
The professors declare that the body is that of a lemur called aye-aye, and have it displayed in the Regional Ethnological Museum together with the records of its passage through the villages (minus the money, which has been confiscated). The locals, while angry about the disappearance of the offerings that they planned to use to build a mausoleum for the mermaid, are not impressed. They observe that the aye-aye is a rare and sacred animal anyway, which can well shapeshift into a mermaid, and several years later were still going to pray to the mermaid at the museum. But the political power had succeeded in exorcising any possible subversive meaning of the mermaid; only the religious one remained.
I was in South Africa last month and learned a somewhat parallel story. Khotso Sethuntsa, the most famous South African herbalist of the 20th century and before he died in 1972 a force to be reckoned with in South African politics, claimed that his magical powers came from his mystical marriage with a mermaid, who lived in a pond near his first residence in Kokstad. Such marriages are not uncommon in Southern African esoteric lore. They give to the man enormous powers but come at a price, since the mermaid asks her husband to relinquish any human love, and may kill his loved ones if he does not comply with her injunction. Purity and danger, again.
My fifth story is something totally different, as it is about the Surrealist mermaid. In an entirely different setting, it was precisely the subversive potential of the mermaid that was of interest to the Surrealists. In 1941, several Surrealists, who had to flee German-occupied Paris, were housed in a mansion in Marseille while waiting to leave for America. Here, remembering that the city was famous for the ancient “Tarot of Marseilles,” they decided to produce a Surrealist Tarot deck—and they did not forget the mermaids.
The Marseille Surrealist Tarot deck includes four mermaids. André Masson drew the “Mermaid of Love,” the “Portuguese nun,” who had a subversive and anti-Catholic meaning. He alluded to the “Portuguese Letters,” an apocryphal but highly successful text published in 1669 that claimed to collect five letters from a Portuguese Franciscan nun to her lover, a French marquis.
Romanian surrealist Jacques Hérold (Herold Blumer) drew the “Mermaid of the Revolution,” Lamiel, the heroine of a novel begun but not finished by Stendhal and published after his death in 1889. Lamiel is a free woman who wants to experience all forms of sexual pleasure, and in this sense for the Surrealists she embodies a “revolution” that is also theirs. In fact, it seems that Stendhal, if he had finished the novel, would have made Lamiel find what in the published part she was seeking without finding it, true love.
The “Mermaid of Dreams” painted by Cuban surrealist Wilfredo Lam was the Alice of “Alice in Wonderland.” Surrealists were well aware that it was not just a children’s book but a text dense with esoteric allusions to the secret societies active in England in the nineteenth century.
For the Surrealists of 1941—and for her influence on later Surrealism—the most important mermaid was Victor Brauner’s “Mermaid of Knowledge.” She is the only one who represents a non-fictional character: Hélène Smith, or rather, Catherine-Elise Müller, a patient of the Genevan psychiatrist Théodore Flournoy. The psychiatrist had published in 1900 a very important book for the history of esotericism, “From the Indies to Planet Mars,” including Hélène’s revelations received in a trance state.
But what might the “mermaid” Hélène Smith represent for the Surrealists? Breton had been interested in esotericism since the founding of Surrealism in the 1920s, but he was basically a materialist and did not believe in the existence of the supernatural or of spirits. However, as Surrealism developed and progressed, this somewhat dogmatic idea of Breton’s—“yes” to esotericism as a symbolic and metaphorical language, but “no” to the supernatural—was called into question, and some Surrealists begin to believe in the supernatural for real.
We have now arrived at the last story, number six. The “evil” mermaid of the ambush of Odysseus and the Romanesque churches became the ambiguous mermaid of the lineages in search of mythological ancestors and of our symbolists, then the mermaid as a symbol of esoteric knowledge of the mysteries that bind humans to nature of the modern esotericists and Surrealists. What remained dark and ambiguous in Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” —a story that does not end well at all, since the prince marries another woman and instead of human the mermaid becomes invisible—was exorcised by Disney’s version that introduced an apocryphal happy ending.
And finally, Starbucks arrived. After the creators of the future global coffee giant had chosen for their company a seafaring name (Starbucks is the first officer on the ship Pequod from the novel “Moby Dick”), their advertising agency created a logo with a mermaid, which was subsequently modified more than once. But what is now the world’s most famous mermaid remained in the logo. It attested that mermaids—to return to the couple studied by Mary Douglas of purity and danger—have finally freed themselves from danger altogether. Only purity remains, even if it is just that of coffee beans.