© 2011, Hye Eun Kim and Victoria Rose Regan
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.