Three summers ago at the ocean shore near my home, I watched two little girls playing mermaid. It involved repeatedly diving into the water, then crawling back onto the beach where they lay pulling their fingers through their hair and singing Under the Sea. At the time I’d already conceived the idea for my forthcoming novel The Mermaid Chair
, but I hadn’t yet begun writing it. I found myself sitting on the beach wondering at the human fascination with mermaids. What is it about supernatural, sea-dwelling half-women/half-fish who are sometimes dangerous and sometimes beneficent, but always beautiful, alluring, subversive, magical and elusive? Where did the image come from and why had it persisted in art and books and the imagination for hundreds of years?
Not long after that I became thoroughly immersed in trying to figure this out. I read book after book, and there were days when I left my desk and absconded to the sea where I stared aimlessly at the water. I did not consider this loitering. I euphemistically called these excursions field trips. Like the little girls at play, I suppose I was out there falling hopelessly under the mermaid mystique.
Mermaids are rich in history, meaning and legend. They seem to have derived from ancient sea goddesses and divinities connected to the moon and the water, with ties to the mythological sirens of Ancient Greece. One folk tale that I stumbled upon said mermaids were the Pharaoh’s children who drowned in the Red Sea while pursuing Moses and the Hebrew people. Another claims they were old pagan women whom St. Patrick drove out of Ireland along with the snakes.
There are accounts of mermaids not only luring sailors to their deaths, but going out of their way to save them. Stories abound of mermaids taking human shape, marrying and settling down, at least for a while, though they almost always wind up back in the sea, or if not, then yearning for it.
Sometimes mermaids don’t have to give up their watery home, but entice their lovers to take the plunge. A marvelous example is the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor. This mermaid fell in love with a church chorister and lured him into the sea where he was never heard from again. The mermaid’s image is carved on a chair that sits in a medieval church in the village of Zennor in Cornwall, England.
As I’ve written in the Journal on my website, The Mermaid Chair
owes its existence to this chair. Back on a summer day in 2001, a friend happened to mention to me that she’d seen a mermaid chair during a visit to England. Intrigued, to say the least, my curiosity led me to discover the chair in the Zennor church. Inspired, I began to weave my own story, creating
a distinctly different mermaid chair for the novel-- different in appearance, in history, and in the mythology that surrounds it, though I did use some fragments from the Zennor legend.
One of these borrowed fragments is the theme of the mermaid’s bewitching pull on those who are seemingly most immune. Some lines of poetry from T. S. Elliot floated around in the back of my mind as I worked on the novel:I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Funny how people think they’re exempt from such things.
The idea of mermaids singing is an ancient one. In stories, poems and myths, hearing a mermaid’s song was considered a haunting and hazardous experience. Typically it lured the listener to toss aside safety and sometimes his or her whole, known world, and plunge into the waves. Such a leap could bring doom or it could bring salvation. Sometimes it brought both.
While I was working on the novel, a friend gave me a framed print of James William Waterhouse’s A Mermaid painted in 1900. It portrays a rather beguiling-looking mermaid sitting on a rock. It is A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse at FulcrumGallery.comeasy to imagine her singing
as she combs her long red tresses. It was while gazing at her that I came to understand that at least part of the mermaid’s complex meaning is contained in her song.
As far as I can tell, mermaids sing to people who are living rigid, orderly, mechanical sorts of lives, ones that are overwhelmed by duty. In The Mermaid Chair
my character Jessie is moving through life on automatic pilot, living on the surface. At 42, her passion for her life has waned. That, of course, is when she hears the singing.
The mermaid’s song inevitably calls us to the unknown, to the impassioned world of change and possibility. Ultimately mermaids persist in the imagination because they represent a primal human need: to dive deep into the mystery of our un-lived life.
Jessie dove. According to her, it was a leap that was both saving and necessary.