For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God ~ 1 Corinthians 3:19a
The story of Svané got wrapped up in something bigger than her: an ancient religion. It’s unclear what this religion was, and frankly it doesn’t matter for our purposes. What does matter is how it shaped the women we know today as “mermaids.”
I originally got the idea of these mermaids – or sea maidens – being priestesses from an offhand comment in Norma Lorre Goodrich’s King Arthur. While speaking of the Lady of the Lake, she describes her as a queen, “or, as the Irish say about their ancient kings, she was a priestess.” I don’t know for certain that my supposition is correct; however, I’m fairly confident that it is a viable theory. How else can we explain the traits of our mermaids?
To a woman of the world who is wild, free, and untamed, Christianity looks like a fetter. These priestesses were powerful, both in this world and – in the people’s minds – in the spiritual world. They didn’t understand that we are meant to be wild, free, and untamed in Christ. They thought they already had what Christianity offered. In fact, they probably felt they had more.
What sort of “power” did they have? Quite a bit, if we simply look at our tales…
The Sea Maidens’ Powers
The two greatest powers of our story mermaids seem to have been foretelling the future and conjuring storms – aspects which our modern mermaid stories lack. But the fact that these women told the future is documented in many tales, and a large chunk of the older legends have mermaids appearing immediately before a storm.
Interestingly, there is one (relatively) modern documentation of mermaids foretelling the future. In 1721, “a mermaid prophesied the destruction of Zevenbergen, a wicked city in Holland.” In November “of the same year, a fearful tempest arose.” The dykes gave way and waters destroyed 72 villages and towns – one of which was Zevenbergen.
It’s unclear whether the tale was told after the fact (making them meaningful mermaids), or whether some women who lived near the sea truly did foretell this event. I’d hardly think they were truly priestesses of a pagan cult (such things weren’t tolerated in the 1700s). However, the truth of the event isn’t as important as the fact that it was thought to have happened. It shows the people believed in a strong connection between sea maidens, prophecies, and storms.
There are also hints of human sacrifice associated with these women. Stories of mermaids dragging young men to watery deaths are too numerous to count. However, there seems to be some historical basis for these stories, too. From old traditions to hints within the very stories themselves, scholars surmise that human sacrifice was a part of their priestess role.
Why the Sea Maidens were Unreachable
We’ve seen how these women could (in their minds) control the future, control the weather (and thus the safety of many), and rule with the fear of human sacrifice. With such “power,” why would they turn to Christianity?
Paul tells us that not many powerful or noble people recognized the truths of scripture in the ancient church (1 Cor. 1:26), and the same is true in any age – ours, as well as that of the “mermaids.” The sea maiden priestesses would be among the powerful and noble – their chances of recognizing the truth was slim. They would have regarded those bearing the name of Christ – and those who accepted Him – as “infants” (Matt. 11:25), with no knowledge or true wisdom.
And so, “claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles.” (Rom. 1:22). They chose their worldly freedom, worldly power, and their worldly wisdom over freedom, power, and wisdom in Christ.
But, there is another reason. As much as I adore Christ, Christians are not always Christ-like. I believe the priestesses who DID seek out salvation were rebuffed. This comes through strikingly in our stories, as we shall see.
What’s more, if they did leave, where would they go? The only roles for normal women – i.e. non-priestesses – were wife and mother. What sort of Christian man would want to associate with a former priestess of a powerful pagan cult? Let’s be honesty: not many. This is the same reason many nuns refused to leave the convent during the Reformation; they had nowhere to go, and many looked on them with suspicion. Thus, in our stories, “mermaids” have no soul unless they marry a Christian man.
What the Mermaid Tales Show
It seems our real mermaids – these priestesses who were faced with Christianity – chose to answer their questions in the world. It’s easy to see why. They would have lost power and influence, as we shall see next time. They would have become no one – just part of the rabble of wives and mothers. No wonder there is a sense of insolent pride among the mermaids in our stories! They clung to their worldly identity. However, some of them dared to seek salvation…and were still judged.
Women are privileged in our society. We can be wild, free, and powerful in Christ like never before. Don’t take that godly freedom for granted. Revel in it!
But of all the lessons of the mermaid, this part of their history is clear: we must not fall into the same mistake our ancestors did. We must not condemn the “mermaid.” They are beautiful, free, and powerful…they simply need to be redirected to Christ.
 Norma Lorre Goodrich, King Arthur (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1986) 163.
 Fables and Facts from Wonders of the Deep by Maximilian Schele de Vere, 35; Mermaid Balladry from Old Ballad Folk-Lore by James Napier, 59; Water Sprites and Mermaids by Fletcher S. Bassett, 129; Sea-People, or Mermen and Mermaids in Shetland, 173; The Mermaid’s Prophecy, 408-411; The Merman and Mermaid in Norway, 445, in Heidi Anne Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales from Around the World (Nashville, TN: SurLaLune Press, 2011).
 Fables and Facts from Wonders of the Deep by Maximilian Schele de Vere, 33; Mermaids and Mermen from Credulities Past and Present by William Jones, 64; Water Sprites and Mermaids by Fletcher S. Bassett, 128-129; ea-People, or Mermen and Mermaids in Shetland, 173; The Mermaid by John Leyden, 209; The Mermaid’s Rock, 325; The Mermaid’s Vengeance, 341; Mermaids, 393; The Merman and the Mermaid in the Faeroes, 398; The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Anderson, 425; Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, 546, in Heidi Anne Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales from Around the World.
 Water Sprites and Mermaids by Fletcher S. Bassett, 141.
 Fables and Facts from Wonders of the Deep by Maximilian Schele de Vere, 35.
 Water Spirits and Mer Folk of Connacht, Ireland, in Heidi Anne Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales from Around the World, 242.
 W.G. Hale & Audrey Coney, Martin Mere: Lancashire’s Lost Lake (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005) 94, Google Book.
 Michelle DeRusha, Katharina and Martin Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017), 112-114.