“She is a mermaid,
but approach her with caution.
Her mind swims at a depth
most would drown in.”
– J Iron Word
Pop culture’s captivation with mermaids speaks to an insidious truth about our perceptions and the treatment of women.
Mermaids have captivated the world ever since their first appearance in ancient folklore. However, with current mainstream media focused on their headline-grabbing and sanitised aspects, such as mermaid hair, makeup, food, and anything rainbow, the insidious undertones of their mythology have been all but forgotten.
Beautiful; carefree; elegant. Fascination with these bewitching sea-maidens is not hard to grasp. Yet much like other lore-ladies before them, the creation, adulteration, and sanitisation of the myths surrounding these sultry, scaly-tailed hybrid-women are inextricably rooted in the male gaze.
At the time of their first known appearance, circa the Iron Age of Mesopotamia, mermaids were not known as such — rather, mermaids were a representation of Atargatis, the Assyrian deity of fertility. Atargatis fell in love with a human shepherd, but, in true tragic-myth form, she accidentally killed him. In shame and mourning, Atargatis flung herself into the ocean with the hopes of becoming a fish. Yet her beauty was too great to go to waste, so she could never fully become a fish. Instead, she became half goddess, half fish, with a tail forming below the waist.
Much like the fish she had wanted to cohabitate with, Atargatis’ myth reeks. Mesopotamian artworks depict her in two forms. Atargatis is a nurturing but modest soul, with slippery scales for a body and long, flowing locks that softly curl at the end, her face veiled as she holds the timelessly universal symbol for fertility — an egg. Alternatively, she is depicted riding a lion, wearing a mural crown and holding a sceptre — mystery, ferocity, protector. A sultry lover, or a protective mother.
This loving role has persisted as the one-dimensional view that has limited women for generations; if you’re not a mother or a wife, you’re not a woman. Atargatis, as both a lover and protector, represents the dichotomous characterisation of women in wider society — and how quick we are to go from celebrating them to condemning them.
Let’s put this into context. Mesopotamia in 1000 B.C was on the cusp of the Iron Age, and Assyria, the large kingdom nestled between the flowing rivers of Tigris-Euphrates, functioned as the golden cornucopia of civilisation for centuries. Women enjoyed nearly equal rights to men — they could own land, file for divorce, and own their own business. Scholars believe early beer and wine brewers, as well as the healers, were initially women, although at some point in the next few centuries these lucrative professions were taken over by men.
If literature exists about women during this time, it has yet to be found. We can only assume that somehow, in the period between prosperity and pain, women slipped from their almost-equal status to ‘not-quite-so’. It was at this point Atargatis rose to notoriety, and spread from Mesopotamia across Europe.
Atargatis is both angel and devil. The beauty of her top half represents mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, while her tail serves as a stark reminder of her shame, signifying the slippery nature of these women who can suddenly turn on men. Whilst manslaughter is never encouraged, the way Atargatis and mermaids, are constantly associated with endangering men can be starkly contrasted with other Mesopotamic myths, including those in which male deities who behave aggressively are rewarded.
The condemnation of anti-patriarchal behaviours and the celebration of subservient women in the form of mermaids is highlighted further in tales of modern love, particularly in Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1837). The Little Mermaid, head-over-tail in love with a prince, serves her purpose as his saviour and unconditional companion. Her fate is intertwined with the prince’s choice in love, and ultimately, she is condemned to death when he chooses to marry a neighboring princess instead of her. The Little Mermaid is redeemed, however, when she refuses to kill him in revenge, and, like Atargatis, flings herself into the ocean. Unlike Atargatis, the Little Mermaid is celebrated, and is given eternal life with fellow daughters of air – ethereal earthbound spirits – as a reward for endangering her life to save that of a mans. The Prince is able to choose his destiny, a luxury the mermaid does not have – she is acquiescent to the decisions of her father, who forbade her from seeing the prince, and then subsequently, as a result of her disobedience, she is condemned to the whims of the prince’s heart. She is only celebrated once she reverts back to a passive role with a lack of autonomy – one that is barely alive.
Like in Anderson’s book, the fate of the the Little Mermaid, named Ariel in Disney’s film (1989), is linked to the decisions made by the men in her life – her father’s control of where she can go, and the prince’s freedom to pursue his hearts desire, while Ariel is not granted the same. Although the film follows a lighter and more child-friendly story, ultimately concluding with the Disney Happy EndingTM where Ariel gets to have her cake and eat it too, the central narrative and Ariel’s redemption emphasises – like Atargatis and Ariel’s Anderson origins – the significant weight of the whims of other men on Ariel’s life. Like her 1837 counterpart, Ariel’s condemnation and celebration is determined by the acceptance from the patriarchal figures in her life. She is punished when the prince chooses to be with Ursula’s wickedly stunning Vanessa. She is celebrated when the story culminates in her father, Triton, accepting that she wants to be with Eric and allowing her to turn into a human in order to do so.
Despite mermaids being sea ladies, their origins and subsequent inspired works show an astounding lack of female representation. Their depictions and narratives – from tribulation to triumph – centre on reactions to and of the men around them. Instead of the condemnation and destruction of agency, literature needs to celebrate independence and real representations of womankind.