Mermaids - Spirits or Goddesses?


For thousands of years, men have told tales of beautiful and dangerous creatures that inhabit the waters of the world. But what do we really know about them? Are Mermaids goddesses or spirits? In European folklore, Mermaids (and more rarely, Mermen) were natural beings that, like fairies, had magical and prophetic powers. Although very long-lived, they were mortal and had no souls. There�s more to the story than this, though. So many creation myths concern female sea dragons and/or serpents that I feel that there could be a connection in these beliefs and myths to the Mermaid legends. It was later, in the Old Testament, that serpents and dragons became associated with the Devil and Satan - dragons are potent symbols of good fortune in Eastern religions. The fish is a covert Christian symbol 'ichthys', the initials of Jesus Christ, the Fisher of Men, and the ritual food - the Christian canon draws connections between Mary Magdalene and the ocean. Throughout, we see a pattern of sexual tension and mystery. So who are the Mermaids?

In �particularistic� religions there are no gods but a range of spirits, from sojourning ghosts and mortal witches to perennial beings, whose natures and dispositions to man are attributed by categories. For example, Mermaids and leprechauns are both usually pictured as irresponsible. Many folktales record marriages between men and Mermaids who might assume human form. In most the man steals the Mermaid�s cap, belt, comb, or mirror � some object which represents both her magic and her sexuality. If she finds the stolen item, she returns at once to the sea; but whilst the object remains hidden, she lives with him. In some variants, the marriage lasts while certain agreed-upon conditions are fulfilled and it ends when the conditions are broken. Thus the Mermaid�s fishy attributes represent her dual nature, neither wholly magical nor wholly mortal.

Though sometimes kindly, Mermaids were often dangerous to man. Some legends say that, if offended, they caused floods or other disasters; their gifts brought misfortune. To see one on a voyage meant an omen of shipwreck. Sometimes, like Lorelei of the Rhine, they lured mortals to death by drowning or enticed young people to live with them underwater, as did the "Merrymaid" whose image is carved on a bench in the church of Zennor in Cornwall. The Sirens of Greek mythology were half-bird rather than half-fish, but they sang with such unearthly sweetness that sailors wrecked their ships on the rocks while listening; this likely gave rise to the popular motif of Mermaids singing men to their doom or otherwise enchanting them.

Similar divine or semi-divine beings appear in other ancient mythologies, such as the Chaldean sea-god Ea, or Oannes, a Merman; sea monsters also occur in panels of Maori ancestral carvings, and they are occasionally female with fish tails and long hair. Of course there are many other legends of mythological hybrid creatures that frighten and fascinate, such as Echidna (snake-woman), Sphinx (woman-lion-bird), Chimera (lion-goat-serpent), Faun/Satyr (goat-man), Minotaur (bull-man), Centaur (horse-man), Pegasus (horse-bird), Hippocampus (fish-horse), Empusa (animal-metal), Griffin/Wyvern (lion-eagle), Barnacle Goose (mollusc-bird), Basilisk/Cockatrice (cock-serpent) and Mandrake (plant-man).

The Evolution of the Mermaid
Julie Bell's Lillith

From the earliest creation myths of Babylon and Mesopotamia about Tiamat, Great Mother goddesses have understandably been associated with water, fertility, and the moon and its cycles. Tiamat, the Dragon Queen of Creation, was the salt-water dragon or serpent goddess of chaos whose death gave rise to the creation of the world. Associated with Leviathan, Rabat and Tehom, Adam�s first wife Lilith was her handmaiden. In Greece, the similar figure of Thalassa was the daughter of Aetha (upper sky) and Hemera (day). On the other hand, the Hindu creator goddess Ganga had no form, being half light in the Milky Way and half water in the Ganges. Actually, the River Seine means breast, and on the other side of the world Polynesian women still express their breast milk into the ocean as an offering of thanks.

In Voodoo, a mixture of Roman Catholicism and West African tribal religions, practitioners worship Erzulie/Oshun,a goddess/Orisha whose avatar or totem is a water snake. She is a representation of the Virgin Mary, the Black Virgin, or Earth Goddess. (The Black Virgin is worshipped by French Gypsies as Sara-Kali at the Gypsy Festival of the Black Madonna at Saintes Maries de la Mer - the black goddess Kali, and Durga, are the Indian Great Mothers, and Sarah the Egyptian was the black servant of Mary Magdalene. Sophia (Wisdom) is also black.) Another aspect of the water goddess from Afro-Caribbean tradition is Yemaya/Yemonja, often depicted as a Mermaid with twin fishtails in place of legs, similar to the Germanic Melusine, or two snakes like Typhon.Yemaya is the Orisha of saltwater, and Oshun is the goddess of freshwater.

Well, Serpent Goddesses aren�t Mermaids yet, but we are getting there!

Similar to Tiamat is the Australian Aboriginal creative spirit of the Dreamtime, the female Rainbow Serpent Ngaljod of fertility, water, rain, and thunder. This is perhaps an even older story. Aborigines also believe that songs created all living things. They still sing to encourage plant and animal life, and their rock paintings show the powerful sexuality of women in explicit detail. Nu-Wa the Creator Goddess in China, was a Rainbow Dragon, double serpent (ida/igala) or woman and Naga are serpent gods/devata in India.

To the Egyptians the serpent was an emblem of royalty, the uraeus or third Eye of Ra, and many religions feature the snake representing healing and wisdom, relating to Eve for example, as their supreme goddess. Also consider the double snake as seen in Hermes�/Mercury�s winged serpent staff of medicine Caduceus, in Hieros Gamos, the sacred marriage/cosmic union. The Aztec goddess Coatlicue is depicted wearing a serpent skirt, or as a double serpent, and her son is Feathered Serpent. Similar double serpent deities appear in Canada and the Mississippi areas of North America, and in China. Thus the supreme god/dess is often androgynous or hermaphroditic and capable of creation without a male partner. For example Gaia (Earth) in Greece gave birth alone to Chronos (Time) and Uranus (Space), and in Mali and Sudan the creator Nommo was a fish.


Still, Creator Serpents are nothing to do with Mermaids � or are they?

We�ll see how these myths became inextricably linked, and evolved across the world over time. The Great Mother Matronit/Shekinah in Syria, Atar Gatis, was in fact a Mermaid, as was Derceto, mother of Queen Semiramis; � and so was Roman moon goddess Diktynna - a Mermaid or snake. In Hinduism the god Vishnu was reincarnated in many forms including that of a fish, depicted as a Merman with a fish tail, Matsya; and the Greek god Triton, son of Poseidon (once the chief Greek god) and a Nymph, was also a Merman. Other sea dragons or crocodiles are the Kraken, Midgard the Germanic serpent of the primordial sea, and Apophis the Egyptian serpent of darkness. Probably one of the best-known Mermaids of popular legend is Lorelei, who lured sailors on the Rhine; her statue seated on a rock is a well-known landmark in Copenhagen.

One common thought holds that Mermaid legends arose from fishermen�s stories of Sirenians, the dugong and manatee sea cows that suckle their young with only two pectoral teats. Actually, the Mermaid legends are combined with those of the Sirens who lured sailors to their deaths with beautiful singing, while combing their luxurious long hair. The images of Mermaids often decorated boats for protection, as with ship�s figureheads. Greek myths generally described the Sirens as having the heads of women and the bodies of birds, but a few referred to them as having the bodies of fish.

Sirens were in fact Nymphs, which is Greek for "young girl." Also, "nymphae" is another name for the labia minori, hence "nymphomania" � more sexual references. Nymphs were lesser divinities in Greece and Rome, and like Mermaids and fairies of other European folklore, they could be harmful as well as life enhancing. Some other Sea Nymphs included Oceanids (such as Calypso and Electra) and Nereids/Dorids (such as Galatea and Amphitrite, mother of Triton). The Yara in Brazil is a Siren associated with charisma, as were the Graeco-Roman ones; today, "siren" survives as a term for a vampish woman, as well as the French word for mermaid, sir�ne. The Nymphs� brothers were the goat-legged Satyrs.

So here we are, having arrived at Mermaids by way of their more powerful but still fishy forbears.

Mermaid Mythology:

"Hair, vegetable, weedy and massed. A face that is beautful or cunning, and sometimes both. Lungs and larynx, a singing voice but without a song. Arms, usually rudimentary, but able to hold a mirrir, but sometimes a comb. The torso may vary from slender to voluptuous; an earthly mermaid - is that possible? Very occasionally mermaids, as seen in art or described in legend, wear garments of some sort, or at least a piece of fine veiling or aquatic plant that flows over and partially conceals their high, hard, rounded breasts. There might alo be a necklace or hair ornament.

In the matter or mermaids tails there is enormous variation. Tails may start well above the waist, flow out of the hips, or extend in a double set from the legs themselves. They're silvery with scales or dimpled with what looks like a watey form of cellulite. A mermaid's tail can be perfunctory or hugely long and coiled, suggesting a dragon's tail, or a serepent's, or a ferocious writhing penis. These tail are packed, muscular, impenetrable, and give powerful thrust to the whole of the body. Mermaid bodies are hard, rubbery, and indestructible, hereas human bodies are as easily shattered as meringues.

The asexual morphology of mermaids is obvious, there being no feminine passage designed for ingress and egress.

Mermaids are the colour of water and of watery vegetation - brown, blue, green, silver. Mermen are found in art (adorning the church font at Anstey, Hertfordshire, UK) and in folk tales, and even merdogs and mercats, but among mythical fishy creatures, mermaids predominate.

Some folklorists have suggested that mermaids are matter and spirit fused.

Mermaids exist in all the world's cultures and go back to the dawn of time, always gesturing, it seems, at the origin of life itself, which began in the sea."


"The mermaid�is thus, an emblem of sexual ambiguity. Traditionally, women were regarded as lesser versions of men, with abbreviated sex organs, but the mermaid preceded even that image, being a female whose development was arrested at an early stage of evolution. She is erotic but passionless, a culturally charged gender model whose seductive capacity is valued over her reproductive capacity. In her double-tailed version she may call to mind the old Celtic sheila-na-gig, or the Indian Kali, aggressively squatting and displaying her yoni. In her far more familiar single-tailed version, though, she is closer to an Eve figure overlaid with the cult of the Virgin, a sealed vessel enclosing either sexual temptation or sexual virtue, or some paradoxical and potent mixture of the two."

� Carol Shields, The Republic of Love


This photo is from the church in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, UK and these graphic carvings of Sheila-na-gig in Irish churches are also associated with St. Bridget in Ireland and Wales, with the Celtic Brigantia, with Artemis/Diana the virgin goddess of hunting, childbirth etc., and with Romano-British Sulis Minerva who evolved from the Greek Athena. And like Athena, the Sumerian Inanna (Ishtar in Akkad) was goddess of love, war, fertility, and also rain and thunderstorms - the Indian Mahadevi (Great Mother) Durga is another warrior Virgin Goddess, her name meaning "Beyond Reach". The irony of virgin goddesses of fertility and childbirth seems to stem from the idea that the untapped sexual potency of virginity held great powers in beliefs, both sacred and profane, hence legends of virgin sacrifices and vampirism.

Then there is the Mordvinian (now in W. Russia) Mermaid Ved-Ava, the Water Mother, a spirit believed to rule the waters and their bounty; she is known as Vete-ema among the Estonians and Veen emo among the Finns. The water spirit belongs to a class of nature spirits common to the Finno-Ugric peoples dependent on fishing for much of their livelihood. One of the chief symbols of the Maori is a fish-hook. Fishermen sacrifice to the water spirit as a personification of their concerns, give her the first of their catch, and observe numerous taboos while fishing. Ved-ava, however, is also responsible for promoting fertility in humans and in livestock.

In appearance, the Water Mother reflects general European traditions of the Mermaid: long hair that she may be seen combing while seated on a stone, large breasts, the lower part of the body fishlike. She can often be seen or heard playing music to entice people, but seeing Ved-ava generally bodes misfortune, most often drowning. Ved-ava has also been thought of as the spirit of a drowned person, like Russian Rusalka. At other times she is simply a personification of the water itself.

The Selkie or Seal Wife occurs in Celtic legend and ballads, which are deeply saturated in a mystical atmosphere imparted by the presence of magical appearances and apparatus. One such ballad, about a male Selkie or Silkie ("The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry") tells how he begets upon an earthly woman a son who, on attaining maturity, joins his seal father in the sea. Shortly thereafter, father and son both die at the hands of the woman�s human husband.

In Scandinavia they're known as Havfine, Havfrue (Mermen), or Havmand. The Japanese Mermaid known as Ningyo was depicted as a fish with only a human head; whereas the Polynesian mythology includes a creator named Vatea who was depicted as half human and half porpoise. Greeks and Romans believed dolphins carried the soul to the afterlife.

Mary Magdalene Associated with Mermaids
Waterhouse's mermaid

Mary Magdalene is sometimes shown with a fish tail as Marina, often depicted with a jar of ointment (spikenard was usually used for anointing), a crown of thorns, long loose hair, and a mirror � as Mermaids are shown with a mirror combing their long hair, and singing like Sirens. Mary is the patron saint of hairdressers, perfumiers, gardeners and prostitutes.

An association between Mary Magdalene and the sea grew up, as it did with the Holy Grail which, according to the Nag Hammadi Codices, Magdalene took with her to France after the Crucifixion. The Chalice also represented the uterus to the cultists (as does the horseshoe), and the wine the menstrual blood. Tantric and alchemical texts refer to menstrual blood by a number of colourful names including Star Fire, Gold of the Gods, and Vehicle of Light. This provides another root for vampire legend. The Roman goddess Mens (Bright Moment/Mind) is also associated with menstruation and Tantric shakti.

According to the Gnostic gospels, the three Marys � Mary Magdalene, Mary-Salome (Helena), Mary Jacob, together with Martha and Lazarus, fled into exile in France after the crucifixion and resurrection - where the men were not present. Mary Magdalene was said to be bearing the child of Jesus, his daughter Tamar. They arrived at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer (Three Marys of the Sea, Tr�s Matres) and here arose associations with Triple Goddesses like the Fates and the Morrigan. In fact, the idea of a Holy Trinity did not form part of Israelite theology, and only became a Christian concept as the gospel spread into the Pagan world, where a Holy Triad or family was a well established device.

An extension of the hermaphroditic goddess is the Virgin Mother: There were many Virgin Mothers of gods, some with parallels to the Virgin Mary � the Roman Kore was a virgin goddess who gave birth to Dionysus, whose name is sometimes written Ies or Jesus. At the end of the 6th century Pope Gregory I defamed the red cloaked priestesses of early Judaeo-Christianity, the hierodulai such as Mary Magdalene, as harlots, scarlet women, although nowhere in the Bible does it identify Magdalene as a sacred prostitute. She is often portrayed in a red cloak over a green dress of fertility. As a head sister Mary was entitled to wear black, like the priests of Isis, and there are many statues of Black Madonnas with black hands and faces in France, in churches like Notre Dame, on pagan sites dedicated to Isis and Athena. Mary the mother of Jesus, the token woman in the Roman and Orthodox Church, was therefore only permitted to be portrayed wearing blue cloak (heaven) and white dress (purity) � traditional ocean colours! Earlier she wore a red dress - her mother St Anne wore a red dress (love) and green cloak (rebirth), like Mary Magdalen. As Isis she was known as Stella Maris, Miriam - Star of the Sea (originally Stilla Maris, Myrrh of the Sea), and a church in Rome is called Santa Maria della Navicella, Our Lady of the Boat, again a uterine reference?

In addition to the connection of Magdalene to the sea, there appeared a general connection to water. La Dompna del Aquae (Mistress of the Waters) was a term for her who, legend has it, was buried at Aix en Provence (Acqs � water). Royal descendants in Grail lore, the Merovingian kings, became known as Fisher Kings - the successor to the French throne is the "dauphin", dolphin! The Red Dragon of Wales emblem evolved from serpents, dragons or Holy Crocodile, Draco, that represented the Pendragon Celtic kings. Gnostics and Celts venerated females in association with lakes, wells, fountains, and springs. In Arthurian legend, the Lady of the Lake was transposed into Britain; the gallant knights and troubadours of the Age of Chivalry idealised women with Courtly Love. The Lady of the Lake has further associations with Vivian/Nimue, originally the Welsh moon goddess. She in turn was linked with Rhiannon/Rigantona, wife of the King of Dyfed, who rode a white horse, her avatar.

Another Celtic horse goddess, Epona, was connected with the colossal white horses carved in chalk hills in southern England; the association of goddesses with horses and their moon-shaped hoof prints, the moon, tides and water was widespread. The male symbol of a unicorn submitting to a maiden featured widely in pre-Raphaelite paintings of the nineteenth century, which sensually portrayed other themes of romantic legend including Mermaids and water sprites. Springs were said to have arisen from the hoof-prints of Pegasus, the son of Medusa; and there are legends of Water Horse spirits such as the Scottish Kelpie, Nykur, and the Germanic Nix who could be a Mermaid or centaur!

In Ireland Mermaids are known as Merrow, and although obviously from "mer" or "mare" for "sea", the word "Mermaid" is sometimes presumed to come from the same root as Mary/Miriam from the Egyptian for "beloved." So are the word "marry", and the term "Merrie England." This archaic use also appears in Robin Hood�s "Merry Men," and some consider Maid Marion herself a link to Mary Magdalene. During the Qumran era, Miriam (Mary) and Martha were not simply names, but titles for those who participated in a formal ministry within spiritual orders such as the ascetic and healing community of the Therapeutate, Moses being the masculine equivalent.

The name Magdalene comes from the Hebrew "magdala" or "migdal" � a tower, one of her emblems, and the term maudlin meaning sorrowful, evolved from Magdalene sobbing at the foot of the cross. Along with the cult of Mary Magdalene is that of Mary the Gypsy, sacred harlot and love cultess. She is identified with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love who was 'born from the foam' - the Indian goddess Lakshmi was born from the primordial sea of milk. The name of Gaia's daughter Rhea (Titan mother of the gods) means milk in Greek. Anglo-Saxons portrayed Mary Magdalene as the May Queen. May celebrations such as Morris Men dancing and the Maypole, a fertility symbol, naturally have pagan associations with Maia goddess of spring and fertility, just as Christmas is associated with the winter solstice.

Water and Serpent Goddesses
Julie Bell's serpent goddesses

In ancient Sumer Ki/Ninti was a double serpent goddess of the earth (also known as Ninhursag), and Enki was god of water. The Holy of Holies in Solomon�s Temple represented the womb of Ashtoreth (Asherah, in Sumer), the Phoenician goddess of love and fruitfulness whose symbol was also the double serpents. Ashtoreth merged with her daughter Anath to become Jehovah�s consort, the Shekinah/Matronit. Sarah (Princess), wife of Abraham, revered as a goddess of health and fertility, is also said to be embodied in the Shekinah (Indwelling). Celts worshipped the Shekinah at dolmen or cromlechs.

The Syrians knew Ashtoreth as Atar Gatis, a Mermaid. Other associations include the Greek/Roman goddesses Hecate (witchcraft), Selene (moon), and Aphrodite/Venus (love - incidentally the Pisces constellation represents Aphrodite and her son/lover Eros, disguised as two fish to hide from Typhon.) The list also features Artemis/Diana, who is in turn linked to the fishermen�s moon goddess Britomartis (Sweet Maiden). Another Roman moon goddess of childbirth, chastity, and young women is Diktynna, a Mermaid or snake. Obviously creator goddesses have always been associated with the moon, perhaps because of its monthly cycle, even to its control of tides, and the purifying essence of life-giving water. So many civilisations believe that water is the foundation of all things - Nun was the Egyptian primordial ocean, Oceanus to the Greeks, and Apsu the primeval watery abyss in Mesoptamia was the consort of Tiamat. The Mesopotamians had the same word for 'fresh water' as 'semen', denoting its fecundity. Water is the instrument of purification and expiation - the Ashanti hold rivers most sacred, underground rivers like the Styx conduct the dead to the Underworld. Eskimos too, believe that their sea goddess, Sedna, lives in a world under the ocean.

In the Zoroastrian 'dualism' religion of the prophet Zoroastra/Zarathustra in Persia, the wives of Lord Wisdom, the Ahuranis, were rain clouds and water. Anahita was their goddess of the moon, fertility and rain; she has associations with Anath, Aphrodite, Artemis, and Magna Mater. Similar to the Ahuranis were Varma�s Varmanis of the Hindu Rig-Veda book of knowledge. The blue and white clothed Indian goddess Saraswati (Flowering One) embodies rivers, the flow of blood as well as water, purification and fertility, shamanic healing, art, music, learning and speech.

18th century Tantric Buddhist carving depicts a Yogini or female teacher with serpentine energy (kundalini � Sanskrit for "snake") emanating from her yoni (genitalia, or "sacred space"). In Tantrism, Star Fire is the menstruum; Jade Fluid is the woman�s saliva, nourishing to the man. Chalchiuhtlicue, was the Aztec goddess of running water, and her husband/brother was Tlaloc, god of rain and the oldest Aztec god - chief gods Zeus and Indra were also gods of rain. Yet again and again we see the connections between femininity, fluids, fish or serpents, and life.

Python, the original Oracle at Dephi was a pythoness, as were the Scandinavian sibyls or volvas. The Greeks and Egyptians depicted a serpent swallowing its tail in a circle, a symbol known as Ouroboros, representing eternity and renewal because it sheds its skin, a sign which was later adopted by alchemists and hermetics. And so we�re back to a serpent Great Mother creator such as Tiamat, for as you can see, very many of these ancient myths and legends of creation, rebirth, female spirituality and sexual potency concern divine serpents and water goddesses. Perhaps mermaids, too, are a manifestation of these beliefs in simple folklore.

"All the Great Mothers are born from the primeval ocean or the watery abyss, the primordial womb of life from which all created forms emerge: the ideogram for the Sumerian goddess Nammu was the sea; Isis was 'born from all-wetness'; Hathor is 'the watery abyss of heaven'; Nut, the sky goddess, lets fall her milk as rain; Aphrodite is born from the foam of the sea. The brightly painted 'mermaids', flinging their arms and hair to the winds of every quarter on the prows of ships, may be a folk remnant of this inheritance."

Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess (Mary as the Great Mother Goddess).

Copyright 2001 Patience Gent 2001

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