This weekend is the 35th Annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade! So, for folklore Friday, we’ll be putting on our fins for mermaids.
Everyone knows the feisty red-haired mermaid from Disney’s 1989 interpretation of The Little Mermaid. The iconic splash against the rocks, the sinister undulations of Ursula the witch octopus, and Ariel’s cutesy misuse of objects like forks as combs, all come together to create the feel-good, Disney-fied version of the tale, where the kind dreamer overcomes the scheming villain to win true love and familial approval.
Earlier, though, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a version of the tale in 1836. Last week, the differences between La Belle et la Bête and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast were primarily superficial. The differences between these tales of a little mermaid are less so. In the earlier version of the story, our Ariel character (the little mermaid), agrees to lose her voice, to feel like she’s walking on knives with every step, to never again be a mermaid, and to die the morning after the prince marries someone else, all to have legs in hopes of both winning the prince’s love and gaining a soul, which mermaids don’t have—
instead, they become sea foam on their deaths. The prince thinks she’s cute, so he lets her follow him around and gives her a cushion so she can sleep on the floor outside of his bedroom door. She watches as he falls in love with the kind princess who found and nursed him after the mermaid saved him from a shipwreck. Her sisters come to her, each having cut off her beautiful hair, and give her a knife with the offer from the sea witch that, if she murders the prince on his wedding night, she’ll become a mermaid again, instead of dying in the morning. But, standing over the prince and princess with the knife, the mermaid can’t do it—so she throws herself into the ocean. She becomes a daughter of the air, who can labor to attain an immortal soul through good deeds. It’s hopeful and yet sad: she endured physical and emotional pain because of her unrequited love for the prince, but she may yet attain the immortality she desires.
Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid was by no means the earliest instance of a mermaid found in folklore. Atargatis, a Phoenician goddess, was had the tail of a fish. The classic Chinese text Shan hai jing has several types of mermaids; some resurrect themselveswhile others sound like crying babies. The Greek sirens, notable for haunting Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, weren’t exactly what we would call mermaids. Though he was sailing when he encountered them, they were half-bird, half-women who sang alluring songs—such that men would steer their ships into dangerous rocks and drown get closer. However, it’s not uncommon to find tales in which mermaids and sirens are conflated in pop culture today—though Ariel’s voice doesn’t lure men to their deaths, it certainly has extraordinary powers! Contemporary depictions of mermaids range from the 1984 Daryl Hanna/Tom Hanks romantic comedy film Splash, in which a mermaid goes ashore to find a man she rescued, to any of these popular mermaid books. Not to mention the ongoing mermaid-styling trends in fashion.
Christopher Columbus reported seeing some unattractive mermaids (probably manatees) as he sailed. You can see mermaids that aren’t manatees this weekend—just go to the Mermaid Parade!