Mermaids have deceived you your whole life

Carlos Carabaña

It’s easy to see Darwin’s concept of evolution when it comes to real animals: it’s logical, basic, evident. But evolution can also apply to mythological beings, which change much more quickly than in reality. Erwin Panofsky, a German art historian and essayist, had a term to define these strange changes: pseudomorphosis.

And few examples are clearer than the mermaids. Long before Disney released a watered-down version of the Hans Christian Andersen story, mermaids were present in Greek mythology. Specifically in The Odyssey, the return home  by Odysseus after the Trojan War. When he leaves the island where Circe lives, this witch advises him that during his travels he will find mermaids, strange beings whose song will drive anyone who hears it mad and impel them to throw themselves into the sea. So he asks his sailors to plug up their ears with wax and tie him to the mast. Odysseus thus becomes the first mortal to hear the mermaids’ song and live to tell about it.

The most common representation of this myth is similar to that painted by Herbert James Draper in 1909: when tied to that mast, Ulysses goes crazy while some beautiful women come out of the water and try to seduce him. But while there is no description of these beings in The Odyssey, “for Ovid they are birds with red plumage and the face of a woman; for Apollonius of Rhodes they have the upper body of a woman and below that they are marine birds,” writes Jorge Luis Borges in his Manual of Fantastic Zoology. In other words, more similar to the battle-axes faced by Jason and the Argonauts.

It’s in the Liber monstrorum, a book written somewhere between the 7th and 8th centuries and attributed to Audelinus, where we find a description of a mermaid as having “the head and bust of a woman, and from her navel down, the tail of a fish that disappears into the water.” Although there are different theories of how this conclusion is reached, the most common one believes it is based on the myths of the Barbarian and central and northern European cultures, in which the fish-woman is common.

As it does with the other mythological beings, Christianity considers mermaids as something sinister. While real animals can be positive or negative –witness the faithful dog or the devious scorpion– all unreal beings are classified as evil. Dragons, basilisks, fauns, centaurs, mermaids… are instruments of the Devil sent to tempt men. Something which fits in perfectly with their nature in The Odyssey, where they try to seduce with their song, although in a different form, with a pseudomorphosis that has made its way into the imagery of our culture.

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