Mermaids and Sirens: Women’s Relationship with Water from Myth to Renaissance

By Elysia S.
 Though Renaissance ideas of the mermaid shape our modern vision of her, we can trace her origins as polymorphous character back to pre-literary visual records. Arguably this is where the mermaid’s power lies–not in her unabashed sexuality, as early modern artists asserted, but rather in her changeability.  This quality ties her with the sea. Women’s symbolic relationship to water has even been referenced as far back as the charter myths of the Assyrians, Mesopotamians, and Sumerians. According to Sumerian reliefs, the world was born as Abizu, the bisexual, primordial sea. Abizu was composed of the male fresh water named Abzu and female salt water named Tiamat. Coincidentally, A. A. Barb notes that Abizu is one of the many names of Hebrew demonic entity, Lilith. We see the name transcending regional and religious mythology, still maintaining however, its original definition: “of the sea” (Barb 7).

The sirens, bird-woman and the first representations of what we now call the mermaid, are usually attributed to the oldest water divinity, Achelous. Their existence is problematic because there are multiple stories describing how the sirens gained or lost wings and came to the water. Meri Lao explains that, in one version of the story, the sirens are banished to the sky by a jealous Aphrodite. In another, their wings are torn off by the Muses after the sirens dared challenge them to a singing contest (Lao 29). Even as creatures of the sky, they drown themselves when they fail to seduce Ulysses.

This return to the sea and its symbolic relationship is also demonstrative of the knowledge possessed by sirens. Lao states, “It is of the marine element, and thus prophetic and secret […] sirens call to man, urging him to abandon what he is…fear of the sirens is the fear of upsetting the established equilibrium, of transforming, of being replaced” (21). Lilith and Tiamat were said to possess similar knowledge: the kind that wreaks fear in the hearts of men. Lao describes said marine knowledge as ambivalent: water can be both a blessing and a curse. She says, “All the vital processes take place in aqueous substance […] in Greek mythology, rivers are the passage to the underworld” (20). Consequently, any woman tied to water or marine instinct should be feared for possessing the capability to dispense both death and immortality.

Before and during the Renaissance, the mermaid existed as a sort of anti-woman. For authors such as Poliziana, Milton, and Calderόn de la Barca, the mermaid’s knowledge or beauty led men from their paths to righteousness. The Catholic Church accepted this imagery, using the mermaid in masonry and carving for nearly 600 years. To Catholic priests, she was the temptress standing, or swimming, between a man and God (Philpotts 50). Michelangelo’s, The Fall of Man and his Expulsion from Paradise, further perpetuates this fear of the sexualized, learned woman. The figure seducing Adam and Eve at the Tree of Knowledge is a woman with a serpentine tail, reminiscent of the mermaid in shape and substance.

The question remains, is the mermaid subhuman because the Catholic Church, among others, depict her as evil? Or is the mermaid a sort of goddess entity, a purveyor of immortality? I suppose the answer lies in whether she has the opportunity to utilize her knowledge. She becomes problematic as a relatively silent figure in mythology—even committing suicide when she is not allowed to share. Perhaps the only truth of the mermaid is that she exists as a paradox. We fear her voice—that it may lull us to death. In this manner, she stays suspended in silence.


Images: Burney Relief. British Museum.

“Odysseus and the Sirens.”

Barb, A. A. “Antaura. The Mermaid and the Devil’s Grandmother: A Lecture.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 29 (1966): 1-23.

Franco-Lao, Meri. Sirens: Symbols of Seduction. Rochester, VT: Park Street, 1998.

Phillpotts, Beatrice. Mermaids. New York: Ballantine, 1980.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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