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What is the origin of the mermaid myth (and when did they start having a fish tail)

It was recently the world premiere of the new version of the Disney factory of “The Little Mermaid”, a free adaptation of the story by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, originally published in 1837.

This classic was already brought to the big screen by Disney in 1989 as an animated film. The new version, with flesh and blood actors, closely follows that mold.

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In Andersen’s tale and in the two film adaptations, the protagonist is a beautiful young woman with a fish tail and a captivating voice. But have mermaids always been represented in this way?

The first mermaids were winged women

The first mention of mermaids in Western literature dates back to the homeric odyssey. On his return to his homeland Ithaca after the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus (Ulysses for the Romans) suffered many adventures in the Mediterranean and had to do with dangerous beings, including sirens.

The magician Circe warns him of all these dangers, and the first of them are the sirens “who enchant men”.

Who, unwary, approaches them and hears their voice feels hopelessly attracted and does not return to their homeland. Those mermaids would live somewhere in the current neapolitan coast. With their sweet singing -which they inherited from their mother, one of the muses- they bewitch and retain men, for which reason the coast is full of the bones of unfortunate sailors.

In classical mythology and literature there are hybrid beings, such as mermaids, with parts of their bodies in human form and other parts with animal features. (GETTY IMAGES).

Odysseus follows Circe’s advice to be able to enjoy the sweet voice of the sirens without risk: he is tied to the mast and his men cover their ears with wax. Homer does not describe them, but we have ceramics that reproduce this scene from the Odyssey and represent them as half woman, half bird.

They had also been encountered by the Argonauts on their return journey after seizing the Golden Fleece. On this occasion it is Orfeo who, with his singing, counterprograms them and manages to overcome the danger. And in a much later poem entitled the Orphic Argonautics, Orpheus’s song brings about the death of the sirens and their transformation into rocks.

In classical mythology and literature there are hybrid beings, such as mermaids, with parts of their bodies in the form of humans and other parts with animal features: harpies, gorgons, sphinxes, associated with the negative, with the downfall of men. They are all women.

Seductive with fish tail

The first testimony that describes mermaids with fish tails is the “Book of Monsters of Various Kinds”, an anonymous bestiary (that is, a collection of descriptions of real or fantastic animals) in Latin from the s. VIII:

“Mermaids are sea maidens who deceive sailors with their beautiful appearance and the sweetness of their song; from head to navel they have the body of a maiden and are very similar to human beings, but nevertheless have scaly fish tails” .

Thus, they left their habitat on earth, although near the coast, to submerge at the bottom of the sea, and their beauty stands out from them for the first time.

Of the mermaids, her beauty and her voice stand out.  (GETTY IMAGES).

Of the mermaids, her beauty and her voice stand out. (GETTY IMAGES).

The writer and humanist Boccaccio (14th century) collects in his “Genealogy of the Pagan Gods” classical and medieval traditions and offers an allegorical interpretation of these hybrid beings. He insists on her beauty and her ability to cajole men, assimilating them to prostitutes.

From here on out, associated with the worst of the female gender: the eroticism of their physical attractiveness (often they are represented with bare breasts and long hair) seduces naive men and makes them lose their money and, worse still, even their souls, becoming a continuous temptation against which they He preaches from Christian morality.

From wicked to in love

In Romanticism, the negative vision of the mermaid is countered by the new, much more positive image represented in Andersen’s tale. The protagonist of this one, when she turns 15 and comes to the surface, falls in love with a handsome prince, whom she rescues during a shipwreck.

Out of love for him, she renounces the safety of her environment and makes a dark pact with the sea witch: she exchanges her precious voice for two legs. Her spell causes him excruciating pain when he walks or dances, but she doesn’t care.

Despite this sweetening of their image, the trace of the negative vision of mermaids still remains in our world.  (GETTY IMAGES).

Despite this sweetening of their image, the trace of the negative vision of mermaids still remains in our world. (GETTY IMAGES).

The deal with the witch forces her to marry the prince to save herself. The little mermaid knows that if she doesn’t make it, she will die and melt into sea foam. Although the prince loves her like his sister, he marries the princess who believes that she saved him from drowning in her sinking.

The witch offers her a way out so as not to die: kill him and be able to become a mermaid again. She is unable to carry it out and throws herself into the sea to avoid it. But, thanks to her love, instead of turning into foam, she becomes one of the daughters of the air, beings who can get an immortal soul if they do good deeds.

The 21st century and the mermaids

Despite this softening of his image, he still the trace of the negative vision of mermaids remains in our world. Thus, the expression “mermaid songs” is used to designate a pleasant and persuasive speech that contains a deception.

Fortunately, this concept coexists with another, much more positive one, which portrays mermaids as girls with fish tails, beautiful and harmless, even beneficent, like the one in Andersen’s tale or the Disney adaptation.

Beings that have become symbols of cities, like the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, or even of companies, like the two-tailed mermaid in the Starbucks logo.

*Regla Fernández Garrido is Professor of Greek Philology, University of Huelva, Spain

*This article was published on The Conversation and reproduced here under the Creative Commons license. Click here to read the original version.

Source: Elcomercio

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