Tuesday, September 6, 2011

World of Symbols: Mermaids

The World of Symbols: Mermaids
Michelle Snyder, the Symbologist
White Knight Studio

Stories about mermaids have been told throughout the ages. They are related in symbolism to elementals and water spirits, and appear before storms and disasters strike. Mermaids and mer-men are associated with things of the sea, and like other popular story characters, mermaids have roots in ancient cultures. Mermaid means sea-maid or sea-woman. Their history entwines with that of Helen and Medusa, and they are descendants of the Ancient Mariners (circa 4000 BC). Ancient navigators were called Gorgons and are the basis of the beautiful female figureheads carved on the prows of ships, symbolic of a powerful Gorgon watching the sky and sea. Some stories describe mermaids living underwater in riches and splendor, eloquent and cultured.

Mer-people generally kept to the sea and rarely married mortals. When they did, they took their wives from land to the sea. Some mermaids fell in love with human males, who, then enchanted, did whatever they could to marry the beautiful creatures. 
Mer-people speak the language of the sea and the language of land-dwellers. A Syrian story records that if a mer-man and a human wife have a baby, the child will know the language of both the Earth and Sea – that of farming and navigation .

 In early religions of the world there  were images of gods that were half human and half fish. In Syria they are called Kukullu, which means fish-man. These fish-men also show up in Mesopotamian and Babylonian history. Sumerians and Assyrians depicted bearded human figures with a fish body hanging off their head down the back to their toes like a cape. Mer-people images and sculptures are found in Assyrian, Babylonian, and Mesopotamian art and temples. In Japan they are known as ninayo; Hispanic folklore describes water maidens as small human-shaped beings with stars on their heads and golden hair (stars being associated with knowledge of astronomy, and golden hair a symbol of the sun).

Legends also says that by obtaining an object belonging to a mer-person, one can keep them from returning to the sea until the object is returned to them or retrieved; this refers to maidens kept for marriage. If you were in business, you knew that captured mer-people could not refuse to keep a bargain they made, but they were considered tricky and dangerous to deal with. Sometimes mer-people were caught and held for ransom: Their wisdom and their knowledge of astronomy and natural science were unsurpassed. Knowledge and wisdom of such great value, worthy of a ransom, was that associated with navigation: astronomy, longitude, currents, and mapping.

Many legends and historic accounts tell of Faerie-Queen Melucine (circa 400 AD), a double-tailed mermaid called a Siren. She was the daughter of Queen Pressine, and Elinas, King of Albania. Despite palimpsest accounts of  betrayal, abandonment, and deformed children, many monarchies go to great lengths to have their genealogies traced to her family. 

The Little Mermaid, made popular by Hans Christian Anderson in 1873, is a Faerie tale with roots in the history of the ancient mariner culture. This, and other similar folklore, are legends of courage - originally tales of adults willing to sacrifice themselves to protect their children. Passed down through the millennia in legends and symbols, stories about mermaids have become childhood favorites. These powerful elusive creatures are still associated with water, and have come to express the concepts of the unconscious and wisdom.


  1. Very cook, Debra - and interesting! What do you think about the idea that all tales have some basis in truth ... if so, what do you suppose the basis is for mer-people? And don't say sea cows or I'll have to do something mean to one of your characters next time I edit a book ... X-D I've been thinking about stuff like this a lot, wondering how my dreams tie into reality - sometimes what I dream feels to real, so familiar ... I just had a strange one and now I feel melancholy, because ... I don't know.

    Wow, I wandered off-topic there, didn't I? WHOA Nellie! TTYL!

  2. Hey Katie,

    Thanks for commenting. I do believe that these tales have some basis in truth. I recently got the book Symbology: Decoding Classic Images and it's fantastic. So interesting.


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