The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

History of an Archetype

While today mermaids and similar sea creatures and spirits are simply the subjects of folk literature, there was a time when people actually believed in their existence, especially in days when ocean voyages were rare and dangerous. Many seafarers whom we might normally consider to be reliable reported mermaid sightings. Most notable was Christopher Columbus, who reported having seen mermaids from a distance but observed that they were hardly as beautiful as they were reputed to be. What was going on? The most commonly accepted explanation is that he (along with some others) may have seen manatees or similar sea creatures, whose faces seem to have human features when seen from a distance.

Long before Darwin, in ancient times, people seem to have intuitively understood that life began in the sea. The Babylonian creation myth “Enuma Elish” described the key role played by the sea goddess Tiamat. The book of Genesis tried to de-mythologize the creation story, but many scholars have seen the reference to the “deep” in Genesis 1:2 as a remnant of the Tiamat story, in that the Hebrew word for “deep” is “tehom” (without a definite article). In Job 28:14, surprisingly, “tehom” is given a voice.

Mermaids per se seem to go back at least three thousand years, with the Assyrian legend of the goddess Atargatis, who fell in love with a human and was forced to return to a lake as half-fish, half-human. The Phoenician god Dagon was pictured as being half-man and half-fish. In Irish, Scottish, and Welsh folklore we have tales of “selkies” (or “silkies”), creatures that can transform themselves into human-like creatures when on land. The best known such tale is The Silkie of Sule Skerry, which became a popular folk song in America during the 1960’s.

Non-mermaid sea creatures also abound in various folklores around the world. There were the “sirens,” women who sang so beautifully that they could lure sailors to their death by causing them to sail too close to the rocks in order to get closer the source of their music. Perhaps the best-known version of the siren legend is in Homer’s Odyssey, one of the oldest literary works that survives to this day. There were also numerous legends of water sprites throughout Europe, and a great variety of such legendary creatures throughout the world, in places as remote from Europe as Japan, Africa, and North America (among Native Americans, long before the arrival of Columbus). What is most remarkable is the universality of such legends and the similar traits among cultures who would have had little contact with each other.

Perhaps most important to our discussion is the creature called the rusalka, the Slavic version of the mermaid legend. While in the opera Rusalka is used as the heroine’s proper name, rusalki (plural form) were a particular form of water creature. Though their characteristics vary from one region to the next, they were generally the spirits of human women who had died young, most frequently homicide victims who died near a lake (or were drowned in one) and came back to haunt the lake, sometimes in mermaid form. They are capable of coming out on land on moonlit nights. Often, but not always, they are malevolent beings capable of killing the men they encounter. In earlier versions of the legend, however, they were more benevolent, and were linked with fertility goddesses. Scholars of folklore link them to the vili (vilia, singular form) who were reported to live near the Danube. A more benign version of the vilia is the subject of an aria in Lehar’s The Merry Widow. The use of the name Rusalka appears to be the librettist’s way of localizing the mermaid of Danish origin to Bohemia.

While no longer related to anyone’s belief system, religious or otherwise, mermaids continue to fascinate us. One of the most interesting treatments of the subject was a 1984 film, Splash, which includes many of the features of the legends we have discussed – a young mermaid falls in love with a human and follows him to his land-based home. As in the opera and many other versions of the legend, human civilization turns out to be corrupt. The film’s original twist, however, was to have the human leave his land-based environment to become part of the mermaid’s world.

Author Skye Alexander, who has studied the lore extensively, has suggested a few reasons for our continuing interest in the legends, relating not to beliefs but to our psychological needs. “Psychologically,” she writes, “mermaids have been said to represent the complexity of women’s emotions.” More fundamentally, she asks, “Does the shift from water spirit to human…symbolize our own evolution from creatures of the sea to human beings – and our own longing to return to the source from which we came?”

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