Maidens of the Medieval Seas

Two years ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared once and for all that mermaids – now known by the politically correct term of “aquatic humanoids” – do not exist. But, considering that tales of the luscious watery vixens have existed for eons, it’s not likely people will stop believing in them any time soon. Drunken sailors notwithstanding, these mythical figures have appeared in Paleolithic (Stone Age) cave drawings, dating some 30,000 years ago. They also show up in stories from the Orient where they were the wives of sea dragons; in Australian Aboriginal folklore where they were often called “yawkyawks”; and, of course, in Homer’s classic “The Odyssey.”

Mermaids took on a more evil persona in medieval Europe where – not surprisingly – the Roman Catholic Church viewed them as the diabolical spawn of Eve; proof, they declared from their ivory towers, that women were harbingers of doom. Drawings of the creatures during this period often show them with mirrors and combs; both signs of vanity and lust. But, there are plenty of them! It seems that, while mermaids were viewed with some level of disdain, they still fascinated scores of medieval artists.

Depiction of Atargatis, chief goddess of Northern Syria, from the medieval text “Oedipus Aegyptiacus,” 1652.

Depiction of Atargatis, chief goddess of Northern Syria, from the medieval text “Oedipus Aegyptiacus,” 1652.

A stone replica of Atargatis who is considered the Syrian counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite.

A stone replica of Atargatis who is considered the Syrian counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite.

Mermaid in the margins of “Calendarium, Decretals of Gregory IX,” a medieval text now housed in the British Museum.

Mermaid in the margins of “Calendarium, Decretals of Gregory IX,” a medieval text now housed in the British Museum.

Wood carving of a mermaid on a bench in the Church of St. Senara, in the village of Zennor, West Cornwall, England.

Wood carving of a mermaid on a bench in the Church of St. Senara, in the village of Zennor, West Cornwall, England.

Stone delineation of a mermaid in the Monastery of Santa Maria in Ripoll, Spain, which was founded in A.D. 879.

Stone delineation of a mermaid in the Monastery of Santa Maria in Ripoll, Spain, which was founded in A.D. 879.

A mermaid on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, England, c. 1400.

A mermaid on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, England, c. 1400.

From the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne in Elne, France, which was consecrated in A.D. 1069.

From the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne in Elne, France, which was consecrated in A.D. 1069.

From the Church of Arles Saint Trophime in Arles, France, built between the 14th and 15th centuries A.D.

From the Church of Arles Saint Trophime in Arles, France, built between the 14th and 15th centuries A.D.

Mermaid spearing a man’s heart in “Book of the Holy Trinity,” 15th century Germany, München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 598, fol. 2r.

Mermaid spearing a man’s heart in “Book of the Holy Trinity,” 15th century Germany, München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 598, fol. 2r.

Mermaid and dolphin in the “Roman Book of Hours,” late 15th century, made in either Venice or Padua, Italy.

Mermaid and dolphin in the “Roman Book of Hours,” late 15th century, made in either Venice or Padua, Italy.

Pendant (enameled gold, pearls, diamonds and rubies) of a mermaid from Germany, c. 1580 – 1590, housed at the Museo degli argenti, Florence, Italy.

Pendant (enameled gold, pearls, diamonds and rubies) of a mermaid from Germany, c. 1580 –
1590, housed at the Museo degli argenti, Florence, Italy.

Mermaids besiege a ship and its crew in another medieval text.

Mermaids besiege a ship and its crew in another medieval text.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Maidens of the Medieval Seas

  1. Well they surely did make them ugly didn’t they? I thought they were part of the offspring of Lilith and her frolic by the lake with the fallen angels, that they were part of the cursed demons. Is that the wrong fable?

    Oh well, give a man an inch and a woman and he will find a way to make a woman the bad guy!

    Good one. I love all the different sources especially the last one, that one is beautiful.

    • I believe they’ve manifested themselves in so many different forms in several different cultures that it’s now almost impossible to determine where the genesis of such legends exists. But, it does prove one thing: humans are tied to the world’s oceans and therefore, have a fascination with them and the creatures that reside there. I also believe there’s a possibly aquatic humanoids could exist, or once existed. Science just haven’t proven it yet, since we know more about the surface of the moon than the depths of our own oceans.

  2. Fascinating. These are the fist depictions i have seen or heard of where the mermaid’s tails are split.

  3. Yes, I was surprised to see that.

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