The Medieval Mermaid

The story of the medieval mermaid is the story of the clash between Christianity and Paganism. When the early Christians came to Northern Europe, they found people worshipping different gods. They converted the people to Christianity and they converted some of their gods iinto Christian saints. The old gods continued to exist in folklore as ogres, giants, fairies, other monsters and mermaids.

Some people say that the merry in "Merry Olde England" does not refer to happiness but to mermaids. Merry, in Old English, means the sea. The old name for mermaids was merrymaids. This could be true, but I suspect that merry here simply means the sea, and that "Merry Olde England" just refers to England being surrounded by the sea.

The popularity of the medieval mermaid continued and in the Middle Ages the church decided to do something about it. They changed the mermaid into a symbol of lust and temptation. The story of Odysseus and the sirens was changed so that the sirens were now mermaids. Odysseus' ship was a symbol of the church, and it's mast the cross of Jesus. The mermaids were the temptations that call men away from the church.

The negative connotation of the word siren still exists today. Even now a siren is a woman who tempts men away from their duty to wife, family and church. Part of this propaganda was a reinterpretation of the mermaids traditional symbols: the comb and mirror. Originally, they came from the goddess Venus but were now equated with pride and luxury. Venus' mirror by the way actually represented the moon.

One further twist the church gave to the medieval mermaid's tail, was to say that mermaids did not have souls. The only way for a mermaid to get a soul was to steal it from men. Thus a mermaid tempts a man to steal his soul. There is a place in Ireland with many small round stones called mermaid's tears. Supposedly, they were shed when a mermaid begged a local saint for a soul and was turned down.

A strange part of the story of the medieval mermaid, is that images of mermaids are fairly common in old churches. They were part of the usual depictions of temptations and other vices that men were to resist. But, if you ask me, there are far too many images of half-naked women in churches. I think that this was just an expression of the sexual desire suppressed by the church. In the end, the church became a storehouse of the very images it tried to suppress.

Click here for more on Aphrodite and Venus.
Click here to see how the medieval mermaid fits into mermaid history.