Swimming with the Mainstream: Some Folkloric Thoughts on the Medieval Mermaid

Seana B Kozar

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paperpeer-review


    From siren to metamorphosed fairy lover, vilified symbol of heresy and lust to Christian martyr, the medieval mermaid is a truly polyvalent icon that not only admits, but indeed, seems to attract and almost require what Gilbert calls “localized intrusions” across many different Western narrative traditions. Like a net capturing a range of elemental creatures that, though clearly not related as derivations or variations of each other, mermaid stories can be placed along a spectrum of primarily songs and legends that have at their heart a consideration of the dynamics and perils of otherworldly relationships. Just as Liban of Ireland and Melusine of France can be seen to “bookend” the sacred/profane extents of this continuously moving, storied shoreline, the narrative landscape quickly becomes populated by ill-fated liaisons with fairies, selkies and their cross-cultural “cousins” depending upon whether one’s focus is drawn inland or seaward. In essence, the power of the mermaid lies in her shimmering multiplicity of meanings and guises that are as ambivalent and changeable as the sea itself. Far more than merely a symbol of purity or turpitude, the medieval mermaid: “…possessed associations ranging far beyond the allegory” (Gilbert, 2002, p.271). On another level, these stories metaphorically confront what happens when lovers, whether mortal or not, sacrifice or are compelled to relinquish some aspect of their elemental nature for the beloved/enchanting Other. Water seems to be the stronger and ultimately less redemptive element, however, since as Buchan notes in his analysis of supernatural land- versus sea-based ballads: “Their differentiation gives a sharper perspective to the patterning and thematic emphases and enables one to perceive a central distinction in the cultural messages conveyed: death, though perhaps a threat, does not result from dealings with land-based Otherworld beings, but death, for someone, does inevitably result from dealings with water-based Otherworld beings.” (1991, p. 149). In this paper, I will explore the development and transformation of the mermaid through literature and oral tradition from medieval times to the present day, looking particularly at her continued ability to evade official capture and subjugation while remaining an enduring fixture in the popular imagination. Indeed, even in her most recent contemporary incarnation, she remains the being beyond the allegory –or, in this case the force beyond the brand—serving us mildly addictive liquid in place of haunting songs and we keep coming back for more (Phillips & Rippin, 2010). References: Buchan, D. (1991). Ballads of Otherworld Beings. In P. Narvaez (Ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (pp. 142-49). New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc. Gilbert, J. (2002). Mermaid. In C. Lindahl, J. McNamara, & J. Lindow (Eds.), Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Legends, Tales, Beliefs and Customs (pp. 270-71). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Phillips, M., & Rippin, A. (2010). Howard and the Mermaid: Abjection and the Starbucks' Foundation Memoir. Organization, 17 (4), 481-99.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusIn preparation - 2014
    Event OUT OF THE MARGINS: NEW IDEAS ON THE BOUNDARIES OF MEDIEVAL STUDIES - University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
    Duration: 19 Sept 201420 Sept 2014


    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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