|Mermaid from The Medieval Bestiary, British Library|
Our curiosity about these creatures, and belief/hope that they exist, goes back thousands of years, although they have always had a sinister side outside children's tales, particularly among sailors who viewed them as both beautiful and dangerous. The earliest known depiction of a mermaid dates back to the 18th century BC on a Babylonian sealstone and there are mermaid paintings still visible at Pompeii. One of the earliest stories is about Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike. After her death, a legend sprang up that she had turned into a mermaid who would ask the sailors on any ship she would encounter the question: “Is King Alexander alive?”. If the sailors answered “He lives and reigns and conquers the world” then she would leave the sea calm. If there was any other answer, she would stir up a terrible storm, destroying the ship and all its crew.
|Medieval carved mermaid with mirror & comb|
This dual and conflicting aspect, beautiful and seductive or siren-esque beast, is a key part of mermaid mythology. Who needs to blame God for a storm or a mysterious wrecking that sinks a ship, when you can blame a malicious beautiful woman out to kill human men in the full knowledge that the Church would happily support your view? Unsurprisingly, as the Christian Church sought to crush pagan beliefs, mermaids were increasingly depicted as vain and lustful, tempting men to risk not only their lives but also their souls. Their iconography of comb and mirror stems from this idea of vanity and mermaids were regularly used as pictorial shorthand for the deadly sin of lust. The image of a mermaid continued to have dark sexual connotations down the centuries and was employed as a euphemism for a prostitute with even Mary Queen of Scots falling foul of it: the people of Edinburgh depicting her as a mermaid when she married Bothwell in May 1567, a few weeks after Lord Darnley's murder.
|John William Waterhouse: Sketch for a Mermaid|
Other sightings include John Smith, of Pocahontas fame in 1614, who saw a mermaid swimming about with all possible grace. He noted that she had large eyes, a finely shaped nose that was somewhat short, and well-formed ears that were rather too long and that her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive. Christopher Columbus in 1493, however, was less impressed, writing in his diary: The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men. Perhaps his lack of enchantment would have made him better placed to listen to Olaus Magnus, a 16th century writer and cartographer whose map Carta Marina catalogued the many monsters of the seas around Scandinavia. He warned that fishermen maintain that if you reel in a mermaid and do not presently let them go, such a cruel tempest will arise, and such a horrid lamentation of that sort of men comes with it, and of some other monsters joining with them, that you would think the sky should fall.
What had they seen? Probably manatees or dugongs which have a flat, mermaid-like tail and two flippers that resemble stubby arms. Not a beautiful maiden by any stretch but many 'sightings' were from quite a distance away, possibly in poor light or during storms when fear was high and, being mostly submerged in water and waves, only parts of the 'mermaid's' body would be visible. A glimpse of a head, arm, or tail just before a creature dives under the waves in those circumstances might be just enough to spawn a legend.
|The Fiji Mermaid, Mead Art Museum|
Since then, mermaid encounters tend to be of the oddly-coloured hair/Starbucks cup/Disney type although news reports in 2009 claimed that a mermaid had been sighted off the coast of Israel in the town of town of Kiryat Yam, performing tricks for onlookers before just before sunset, then disappearing. One of the first people to see the mermaid, Shlomo Cohen, said, I was with friends when suddenly we saw a woman laying on the sand in a weird way. At first I thought she was just another sunbather, but when we approached she jumped into the water and disappeared. We were all in shock because we saw she had a tail. The town's tourism board offered a $1 million reward for the first person to photograph the creature but no one came forward and the mermaid has disappeared. I'm betting she's run off with Nessie.