Tag Archives: Greek Mythology

The Demise of Mermen in Folklore; as Depicted in “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son”

© 2011, Hye Eun Kim and Victoria Rose Regan 

Anon. "Hans, the Mermaid's Son." The Pink Fairy Book. Ed. Andrew Lang. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. 112-25.

Over the years mermaids have been shown as graceful, majestic, but conniving creatures. Books have shown that they live in the sea and swim like fish. We have also been shown the darker side of mermaids, with sirens leading sailors to their demise. But there is a certain void in our minds when we think of mermaids, and that is, where are all the men? We are skeptical as to if they existed in literature at all. It is a common misconception to assume that mermaids have a more prominent position in literature then mermen. When you think of mermaids, what comes to mind instantly: Little Mermaid or sirens? Do you ever think of the male gender of merfolk? Odds are not, because mermen took a back seat to mermaids as literature progressed. In Hans, the Mermaid’s Son from Andrew Lang’s The Pink Fairy Book the merman is portrayed as less mystical and less admirable in comparison to the mermaid. In order to determine what this means, let us explore the gender roles among merfolk related to mermen’s progression from strong, respected figures such as Poseidon, to less popular and disliked figures like Hans.

Through rigorous research it was exciting to find that mermen were not always understated. One of the earliest forms of stories is myths, “It seems probable that the mermaid folklore developed from ancient mythology…or the Chaldean sea god Oannes” (Waugh 73). This is proof that a sea god was a strong figure in stories and a prominent figure in history dating back to the late 6th century.



Oannes, a sea-god, is the first merman recorded in history of literature (Waugh 73). One of the first descriptions of the merman from the Babylonian tale is as follows: “The whole body of the animal was like that of a fish; and had under a fish’s head another head, and also feet below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish’s tale” (Waugh 73). The description makes the reader imagine a disfigured combination of a man and a fish.


The Vase 

Late 6th Century (BC) Etruscan vase, depicting a merman. Painted by Exekias.

This image of a vase dates back to the late 6th century. This vase depicts the myth where Dionysus turns a fleet of pirates into dolphins. Although the story doesn’t directly involve mermaids the artist, Exekias, chooses to incorporate an image of a half man half fish. This image is given a powerful body and a prominent location in the center of the vase. Exekias portrays this creature as strong, powerful, and more important than the other images. He is above the waves showing his super natural abilities. Not all sea creatures can go out of the water. He is also holding a large fish or dolphin emphasizes his size and strength seeing as he can list the large creatures as if they were small. This again gives him a certain amount of power over the other creatures showing his rank.



Poseidon was the god of the sea, and one of the most powerful gods in Greek mythology (Buxton 69). He was a very strong image associated with water and those that lived in it like the mermaids. Poseidon’s son, Triton was a merman, human above the waist and fish below (Buxton 72). Poseidon’s staple symbol is his trident, a signature of power and strength (Buxton 69). It holds all of his power and allows him to control the sea and its creatures. Most associations with the trident are associated with Poseidon and his power.

Poseidon with his trident. His trident holds all of his powers. Notice that he doesn't have fins.


As defined in the Dictionary of World Folklore “Mermaids are generally portrayed as beautiful women from the waist up” (Jones 300). This is evidence that while we are familiar with mermaids, we are not well acquainted with mermen. This is because mermaids appear more prominently in folktales over mermen. The dictionary as a medium is audience driven in the sense that there are various types created for specific audiences. It is easy to understand and useable by almost everyone. Because it is audience driven, the lack of a specific merman definition may imply that elaborate information on mermen is not in demand to the general public.

Mermaids became the more powerful and well-known gender. Arthur Waugh quotes in his article, “The central figure of the merfolk is, of course, the mermaid. There are so many attractive legends and folktales about her that I must perforce be brief in dealing with other merfolk” (Waugh 73). This shows that even an author, who is expected to touch on all aspects of merfolk, inevitable says there’s simply no space or event prominent enough to discuss about mermen. It seems as though mermen have fallen into the background, a footnote in the mermaid’s tale.

Mermaids have taken a spot at the forefront of merfolk legend, until Andrew Lang published his Pink Fairy Book, which included a translated Danish tale called Hans, the Mermaid’s Son.


The Tale

The story Hans, the Mermaid’s Son from The Pink Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang, is a translated Danish folktale. A smith goes out to sea one day and is invited by a mermaid to stay a couple of days as her guest. Afterwards, the smith is always in lucky in finding fish and treasures along the sea and his wealth grows. Another outcome of this encounter is their son, Hans. When Hans turns six, the mermaid sends him ashore to find his father and to live among the humans. His father cannot satisfy Hans’ unusually large appetite so Hans decides to leave. He asks his father to make the significance of the staff, which will be discussed further later on.

Hans sets off to find a place to stay where he’ll find plenty of food to eat. The haven he finds is at the home of a squire. Here, Hans is expected to do the work of twelve men.  He still is not well liked because his strength intimidates the others, including the squire. As a remedy, the squire plans to have Hans killed, but fails. Oblivious to the murder plot against him, Hans thinks that he is taken as a joke. Hans decides that he will go back to live at sea with his mother.

This story suggests that certain strengths are powerful over humans, while others are ridiculed and seen as a threat.


The Illustration

“Basmus and the Mermaid” illustrated by H. J. Ford. The mermaid is leading the Basmus into her world where they will spend three days together.

In the illustration of Basmus, Hans’s father, and the mermaid in The Pink Fairy Book, Basmus is entering the sea world as the mermaid’s guest. Basmus looks confused and almost bedazzled while the other sea creatures belittle him with their eyes. The octopus hovering over Basmus with a side-glance emphasizes the sea creatures’ hostility. This shows the discomfort the humans and the mystical world experience upon close encounter thereby foreshadowing the unease Hans would bring to the humans.

The illustration gives an insight to the dominant power the mermaid possesses over Basmus. The mermaid is oblivious to the surroundings and is leading Basmus by the hand. She is in control and does not seem to be hindered by the intimidation Basmus feels. This reveals the dominance the mermaid has in the relationship, which empowers her.

By being placed in the middle, the mermaid becomes the central focus of the illustration. There is limited detail and shading on her upper body, which makes her stand out from the rest of the drawing. It also gives her an air of mystery as she is in contrast to the other creatures.


Male versus Female

Hans is born to a mermaid and a man. This makes Hans three-quarters human. But how does he survive under water? This question is left to us to decide. Another lingering question is, whether or not he had a tail when his mother, a mermaid, did.

An illustration included in the story shows that Hans had the appearance of a man. Though the drawing shows Hans from the back, it shows that he has two hands, two legs, and two separate feet. He does not have fins or gills and does not have any physical deformities. His mother, however, has an upper body that looks human and her lower body like a fish. Placed above her ears are what seem to be gills to help her breath underwater. This gives the mermaid tangible proof of being supernatural. Hans, on the other hand looks like an average, mortal human. On the surface the mermaid is more powerful then Hans.

“Old Erik Catches Hans” Illustrated by H.J. Ford. Old Erik is a demonic creature Hans defeats while working for the squire. Notice how he doesn’t have fins.

Why is it that the mermaid is portrayed differently from the merman? Historical evidence shows that Oannes and Poseidon were illustrated with hands and feet. It is only with Triton, Poseidon’s son when the fish tale appears on a merman. One similarity Hans and Poseidon have is their staff. Poseidon is said to have ruled with the trident and it symbolized his power and Hans asks his father, the smith to make him an iron rod that is stronger than any metal. While Hans’ iron rod does not play a significant role in depicting Hans’ mystical image, it is nevertheless an important connection to his supernatural ancestors. It draws parallels between Poseidon’s power and Hans’.

The humans accept Hans and the mermaid differently. Hans is portrayed as a burden to the humans, but his mother has power over them. Fish and treasures washed ashore for Basmus to discover after his visit with the mermaid, but Hans ate all of Basmus’ food and left him hungry after Hans’ visit. The mermaid has complete power over Basmus, controlling his every move, whereas the squire takes Hans advantage of. We as readers acknowledge the mermaid’s power and see that Hans’ presence on land causes unease.


Final Thoughts

Mermen, in folktale were once familiar creatures. However, they have lost their popularity throughout time and have been replaced by mermaids. There is still evidence of the mermen’s power through the significance of the staff, which associates Hans with Poseidon, and his strength. Since the fishermen were the tellers of tales out at sea, it would suit them to tell stories of the beautiful yet supernatural mermaids as opposed to mermen who may be more powerful then themselves.  Mermen have lost their place the world of folk- and fairytales and their demise occurred as the popularity of their female counterparts increased.



Select Bibliography

  • Anon. “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son.” The Pink Fairy Book. Ed. Andrew Lang. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. 112-25. Print.
  • Buxton, Richard. The Complete World of Greek Mythology. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004. Print.
  • Green, Roger Lancelyn. “Andrew Lang and the Fairy Tale.” The Review of English Studies Vol 20. No 79 (1944): 227-231. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2011.
  •  Jones, Alison. Dictionary of World Folklore. New York, N.Y.: Larousse pcl, 1995: 300-301, 379-380, 430, 475. Print.
  •  Robinson, Margaret. “Some Fabulous Beasts.” Folklore Vol. 76 No. 4 (1965): 273-87. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2011.
  •  Waugh, Arthur. “The Folklore of the Merfolk.” Folklore Vol. 71 No. 2 (1960): 73-84. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2011.


Mermaids: Exploring Gender Inequality in “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son”

The cover page of The Pink Fairy Book, edited and compiled by Andrew Lang

©Copyright 2011, Katherine Smyk, Mark Moliterni

Andrew Lang, ed. Hans, the Mermaid’s Son. The Pink Fairy Book. Ill. Ford, H. J. New York: Dover, 1967. 112-125. Print.

Andrew Lang as a Patriarchal Storyteller

Andrew Lang’s The Pink Fairy Book, originally published in 1897, was part of a lucrative series of ‘coloured’ fairy tale anthologies.  With 41 stories in this volume alone, Lang covered a vast array of folk and fairy tales over the course of his career. The series was enormously popular and a new book was released each Christmas to much fan fervour (“Andrew Lang”). Lang, who was considered conservative even in his time, championed fairy tales as a storytelling medium mainly for children (“Andrew Lang”). Accordingly, he used his stories to reinforce the patriarchal beliefs of his time, rather than subverting them. H.J. Ford, his long time partner, illustrated the text with sixty-nine classically drawn, black and white images, further emphasizing the book’s conservatism. Tucked away in this version of the Fairy Books is a little known Danish story called “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son” which demonstrates the masculine bias in Lang’s work and its place in the greater historical trend of patriarchal folk and fairy tales. In this story, the mermaid takes a role behind the scenes of the narrative, obscuring her as a subject.

Mark Moliterni will be analyzing the myth of the mermaid by contrasting Lang’s characterization of the mermaid with the characterization of her son. Historically, mermaids have been used in literature and folk tales as a representation of femininity in a condescending manner, depicting them as little more than objects of sex and beauty. In her study of the story’s context Katherine Smyk will be focusing on the origins of “Hans” by analyzing it in the context of Greek mythological figures Hercules and the Sirens. Essentially, this exhibit will explore the inherent gender inequality of the mermaid myth, as has been seen throughout folk and fairy tale history.

The Mermaid as an Object of Sexuality and Beauty

“Hans, the Mermaid’s Son” follows the life of the titular half-merman on his journey of maturation. The plot begins with a human blacksmith named Basmus who goes missing at sea. Three days after his disappearance, Basmus mysteriously returns back to town with a boat full of fish and a life’s supply of treasures. Six years later, when Hans arrives at Basmus’s home, it is revealed that the blacksmith was rescued by a mermaid during his three days at sea and together they conceived a son. Though only six, Hans has the physique and stature of an eighteen year old man and his mother can no longer handle him, thus bringing him to his father’s house.

The story deemphasizes the significance of the mermaid, never going beyond her role as a mythical wish-fulfilling creature and mother. She receives no name, no dialogue, and little agency over the plot. Her main purpose is to serve as a tool for Basmus’ survival and to facilitate a sort of mythical sexual fantasy, sleeping with him during their time together and conceiving his son. Although she receives no descriptive characterization in the text, there is an illustration devoted to her, which further accentuates her position as an object of desire and sex. In a rather beautiful image, the naked mermaid with long, luscious hair guides the fully clothed Basmus by the hand through her magical world under the sea.

H.J. Ford illustrates the mermaid's and Basmus' first meeting

Besides providing Basmus with sexual fulfilment, there is little else that can be concluded about the mermaid other than her inadequacy as a mother. She takes on a subordinate role as a woman who cannot manage her own son, sending him off to his father because he is much too strong for her. This strength manifests itself physically but, in actuality, works as a metaphor for man’s overall power over woman. The mermaid’s lack of characterization, especially in contrast to her son and Basmus, says more than anything else. By deciding not to focus on the mermaid, Lang implicitly suggests that her story is not worth telling and her character lacks significance, despite her importance as a plot-device.

Hans as the Idealized Masculine Figure

In contrast, Hans is characterized as being unstoppably powerful, with no apparent qualities from his mother’s “race,” other than super strength. With the body of a human man, Hans is unrecognizable as a mer-person and little is said of his physical appearance (as opposed to the emphasis placed upon his mother’s beauty). The attribution of supernatural strength for Hans is not particularly inspired; a cliché ability for a male character to be endowed with. Perceived as a metaphorical extension of man’s mental and intellectual power, super strength has defined many male characters throughout literary history from Hercules to the Hulk.

Old Eric attacks Hans, as illustrated by H.J. Ford

Hans is also characterized as intellectually superior to everyone he encounters. Many of the characters Hans meets on his journey attempt to outsmart him by assigning him with seemingly impossible tasks, which he always completes in the end. The story’s only other illustration depicts the sea creature, Old Eric, attempting to drown Hans by sneakily attacking from behind. Hans, of course, lives; he is, after all, the almighty hero of the story.

Instead of carving a new archetype for the mermaid in his story, Lang only perpetuates the myth of the mermaid and many of the misogynistic beliefs which helped define it. In fact, nearly all of the classic tropes of the mermaid myth are played upon here: her elusiveness as a character, her role as a sex symbol and seductress, and the mysteriousness of the mermaid child rearing and birthing process (Banse; Jewitt). After all, she seduces Basmus, a father of many young children (and so, presumably, married), symbolizing sexual temptation and “deviations from the righteous path” (Banse 150). The reader never gets to know the mermaid; she vanishes from the plot after the second page and even then, everything we know of her comes second hand. Due to Lang’s conservatism and his decision to direct his fairy tales at children, there is no explanation as to how she gave birth to Hans (or how, anatomically, she and Basmus were even able to conceive). Furthermore, there is no detail into her relationship with her son or how she raised him to be so out of control that she had to send him away in the end.

The portrayal of the mermaid in Lang’s text only perpetuates the patriarchal views of gender in society and the inherent misogyny in the myth of the mermaid. Where the mermaid could have been more than just an object of affection and an actual character with definitive personality traits, she amounts to little more than a plot device.

Mermaids in Greek Mythology

By analyzing the mermaid from the contextual perspective of Greek Mythology, the earlier qualities conceived of the female archetype as a seductive mythological creature can be examined. By looking at the Sirens as well as the elusive quality of the ocean itself, the influence that the Greeks had upon Andrew Lang’s depiction of the mermaid become apparent. The inequality inherent to the power relations of the male and female can be seen as the female resorts to manipulation and abduction. The development of the mermaid within the lore of the British Isles as well as Denmark drew inspiration from the Sirens of Greek Mythology. Most notably appearing within Homer’s Odyssey, the Sirens assailed Odysseus and his crew. The half-woman, half-eagle creatures accosted these men with their enticing singing, both vicious and mysterious in their beauty (Vredeveld 846). The Greeks, a seafaring people, viewed the sea as a world of its own, parallel to that of earth. The unexpected appearance of the Sirens is a testament to the mystery that the sea possesses (Greene 427-428).

Odysseus is assailed by the Sirens in this Greek vase painting.

Aesthetically, mermaids have been characterized in similar ways to the Sirens. Each feminine creature embodies notions of sexuality, violence, and intrigue. Both the Sirens and the mermaids belong to a single element – air in the case of the Siren, and water in the case of the mermaid (Aggard). The tale of “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son,” offers a story that is also focused upon the luring of a male to sea, as well as the consequences of the man’s vulnerability to the mermaid’s temptation. The intention of the mermaid is similar to that of the Sirens within The Odyssey. Both The Odyssey and “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son” acknowledge the seductive influence of an archetypical female figure, as well as the naivety of man. The mermaid’s son represents the unification between the mermaid’s power and human mortality. The son is sent to live with his father among mortals, where he encounters hostility as a result of this unification. This echoes the trials and tribulations faced by Hercules within Greek Mythology. Hercules, a demigod, cannot truly be comfortable within the company of mortals (Aggard). He is constantly being challenged, mocked, and questioned. The same is true of Hans, who is resented and opposed by the mortals that he comes to live among. Andrew Lang, a Scottish folklorist, historian, and editor, depicted the son of the mermaid as a Herculean figure who overcomes his obstacles, ultimately departing from the land of the mortals for the sea. Once again, the juxtaposition of water and air can be identified as Hercules departs for Olympus, a kingdom elevated above the mortal world.

Perpetuating Patriarchy through the Mermaid Myth 

In summation, Hans, the Mermaid’s Son depicts a literary female archetype that is manipulative and seductive while being mysterious and elusive. During her brief appearance at the beginning of the narrative, she lures a naïve man into her clutches and conceives his child who grows up to be a problem for them both. Later returned to land, the man has been dumbfounded by the mermaid and cannot recall being ensnared by her overt display of feminine power (Greene 430). The man must then deal with the consequences of his naivety when eventually faced with his son. The son, who unites characteristics of his influential mother with those of his credulous father, is a representational bond of the analogous genders as well as that of two races – the mermaid and the mortal. This outcome is a demonstration of female persuasion and coercion. From the contextual perspective of Greek Mythology, this characterization of the mermaid was used as a literary tool, converting femininity into an archetype. This, initially done with the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, first offered a female archetype utilizing her sexual appeal as a leveraging tool. Later drawn upon by “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son”, the female harnesses the water as an elemental power within a new narrative. The power struggle displayed between the male and the female ultimately leaves the woman as the antagonist of the story. This depiction is a testament to the gender inequality within literary characterizations. With only a brief appearance within the narrative, the story largely omits the importance of the mermaid for anything other than her use to man, perpetuating a patriarchal ideal.

Works Cited

Aggard, Walter R. “Greek Prototypes of American Myths.” Classical Journal of the Middle           West and South. 54.8 (1959): 338-343. Print. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3294970>.

“Andrew Lang.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Literature Resource               Center. Web. 17 Oct. 2011.

Banse, Karl. “Mermaids- Their Biology, Culture, and Demise.” Limnology and                               Oceanography 35.1 (1990): 148-53. Jstor. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Greene, William Chase. “The Sea in the Greek Poets.” North American Review. 199.700             (1914): 427-443. Print. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25120207>.

Jewitt, Llewellynn. “The Mermaid of Legend and of Art.” The Art Journal 6 (1880): 117-               20. Jstor. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Rosenstein, Roy. “Andrew Lang.” Nineteenth-Century British Book Collectors and                       Bibliographers. Ed. William Baker and Kenneth Womack. Detroit: Gale Research,              1997. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 184. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4            Oct. 2011.

Vredeveld, Harry. “”Deaf as Ulysses to the Siren’s Song”: The Story of a Forgotten Topos.”        Renaissance Quarterly. 54. The University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.                              <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1261926>.