Last time, I talked about sea maidens in Asia, and how they compare to their Northern European cousins. They obviously have a common link, which seems to be the true story of the Fall of Man as recorded in Genesis.
But…they look so different! Sometimes it’s hard to see the link until you have an example. And fortunately, we have two tales that bridge this divide, linking east and west…
Sirens: Bridging East and West
It would be unconscionable to do a series on mermaids without touching on the sirens, however briefly. In our culture, sirens and mermaids have become synonyms, meaning a half-fish, half-woman creature.
But they didn’t start out that way. The actual Greek Sirens from mythology were half-bird, half-women. Not quite as alluring, is it?
That’s ok, because they were not meant to allure men – not with their bodies at least. Fascinatingly, they allured with knowledge.
Yup, that’s right! I was pretty floored when I found that out. I feel like it shows how shallow our society really is. Goodness, we seem to think men would willingly go to their death for a beautiful woman, when the ancient Greeks went to their death for knowledge. May all our men be *that* honorable!
And then Meri Lao says something else…something peculiar: the Sirens “render man happy and fulfilled by making him knowledgeable. They tempt him by promising to gratify his lust, provide him with supreme refreshment, and lead him to the ultimate adventure. In other words, they offer to make him immortal, a god…”
Now, doesn’t that sound a lot like our Serpent from the Garden? “No! You will not die,” the serpent said to the woman. “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” (Gen. 3:4-5).
Death for knowledge. I have a feeling our Sirens’ song was exactly those words, showing them to be another primordial memory of the fall of man, albeit warped and twisted. Rather than revere these women, as the Asians did, the Greeks villainized them, turning them into monsters…
Melusine: Bridging Sirens and Mermaids
But how did Sirens become Mermaids? I’ve gone into detail on that question on my “Mermaids vs. Sirens” page, and won’t cover that here; but interestingly, there is a story of one Siren/Mermaid caught in transition.
Melusine is not my favorite tale, even though it is one of the first recorded mermaid stories. It has similarities to Undine’s tale: a man falls in love with a beautiful woman, and she agrees to be his wife on one condition (well, two): he never try to find her on Saturdays. Naturally, after some time, the man breaks his promise and seeks her out.
He finds, and sees…
A mermaid with wings! Well, kind of. He sees “membraned bat’s wings, wrinkled skin like that of a dragon, ungulate’s hoof, silver-blue scales…and, slithering along the floor, the coils of a serpent.”
So not quite a mermaid…like if a dragon had a baby with a mermaid…
But unlike Melusine’s poor husband, that’s actually what we’re looking to find! It combines the dragon/serpent women of the East, the sirens in the West, and the mermaid lore of the North.
Scholars are convinced Melusine has mermaid origins, and say the original French writer didn’t understand the Celtic material. Maybe. Or she could be a rare combination of all the sea-women into one.
You can find a little more on how Melusine is linked to mermaid types on my site here, or you can read this article here (which has most of the particulars). And, it turns out that most of us have seen her likeness. Starbucks uses it.
From Eve to Mermaids
There’s no big lesson in this blog, except to show how sea maidens – in every culture – are connected. They may have wings, fish-tales, or snake coils, but all of them seem born from the tale of Eve and the Serpent in the Garden.
How did she become associated with water? I like to imagine that before the Fall, Eve took a swim one day, and looked like a mermaid in Adam’s mind – streaking through the water, unafraid and unashamed. So fast that her legs were a blur, and looked like one. And when she burst out of the water, Adam was so in love with her, he couldn’t stand it!
And then after the Fall, when they reminisced about the garden, I like to think he shared that story with his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, until it became the stories we know today.
But that’s the writer in me. The historian says that water symbolizes the separation between us and God because of sin. It also has a lot of “feminine” qualities. It gives life, but can also bring death, just like (in mankind’s warped version of it) Eve did. It is beautiful, but dangerous, (again, in man’s warped version of it) like Eve. It is familiar, and yet unknowable, which Eve became to Adam the second she ate of the fruit.
But, perhaps it’s both…
 Meri Lao, Sirens: Symbols of Seduction (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1998), 19, 51.
 Ibid., 19.
 Lao, 127.
 Melusina from Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould in eidi Anne Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales from Around the World (Nashville, TN: SurLaLune Press, 2011), 13.