Mermaids have always rather given me the horrors. How would you imagine one: Marina from Stingray? A pretty little cartoon in a cockleshell bra? Glynis Johns waving a prosthetic tail in the bath? A manatee in a dim light? Or are you seeing and smelling something unnatural, sinister and highly disturbing. I’m thinking about the ship-wrecking Lorelei, Scylla and Charybdis; and the terrifying heart-breaking selkies, beautiful women who come from the sea and marry mortal men but who are really seals. They keep their seal skins about the house – sometimes having asked their mate to lock it away for everyone’s peace of mind – but one dark night no matter what precautions her poor husbands take, the selkie’s longing for the sea becomes too great. She steals back her fur pelt and is away to the ocean forever. A terrifying story for child or adult – the ultimate parable of total abandonment, worse than death. A concept of eternal separation that links up ancient Celtic myth to “The End of the Affair”.
Old Breton folk tales tell of maidens snatched from the shores by lustful tritons and Matthew Arnold’s poem the Forsaken Merman develops this, having a mortal woman marrying the Sea King and raising children by him; yet that favourite Victorian theme, the awakening conscience, supervenes and the wife returns to the upper air and the Church which shuts out her sea family for ever –
“Come, dear children,let us away;
Down and away below…”
And what of Hans Andersen’s dreadful tale? The sea witch suckling serpents, the splitting of the mermaid tail into legs, the agonising pain as though walking on knives, the blood, severed tongue, proposed murder (“that instrument of death…”) and dissolution into sea foam. Lord knows what it reveals of Andersen’s inner tortured psyche and sexual hysteria. You also think a bit about the motives and mentality of those who keep stealing the statue from Copenhagen harbour: an object of fixation like the Mona Lisa. But the story is completely in keeping with the ancient beliefs that what lurks in the sea is monstrous and alien, incompatible and obscene.
Funny that, seeing that like perfume and cucumbers our principal human component is water. Water and dust, we are. Life crawled from the primeval oceans (probably more than once) and so much of our modern escapist fantasy, therapy and relaxation is centred on sea and water – from swimming and hydrotherapy to birthing pools and boating. Most of us still see holidays in terms of sea, sand and sun – the environment in which our ancestors spawned. We feel an close affinity with water, it soothes and stimulates us, and yet we project onto it our deepest subconscious fears: that another form of life may come creeping out of it to challenge and subsume us.
That other life is always thrithing and gliding and thrashing around down there in the depths – a mass of uncontrolled impulses and desires that have been sanitised and reined in by the land people, but given personified and incarnated in the realm of water. Grimms tales warn us that these horrors even invade country ponds and pools – nixies who make off with unwary children, witches who live at the bottom of wells. To the Tudor mind mermaids were soulless seducers, prostitutes, wreckers of ships and men: Marie Stuart, after the murder of her husband, was tormented with banners depicting her as a bare breasted mermaid with loose hair and crown. Men who offend Heaven may be seized abruptly by beasts from the sea: the serpents who asphyxiate Laocoon and his sons; the monster sent by Poseidon that brings about Hippolytus’s dreadful off-stage death in Phedre. This is by no means a concept that has left us with the glory that was Greece: “Jaws” and all its spin-offs, “Extreme Shark Attacks” and the like show how powerful, eternal (and popular) a metaphor this is. Only this week prime time television news bulletins (and You Tube, naturally) went crazy over the story of a man wrestling with an alligator stranded in an American ditch, presented as comic horror, like Punch and Judy. “Sharks very rarely venture inland” Dame Edna used to say. But secretly we most of us fear that they might. Our only weapon is a laugh.
Mermaid scent then must be a weird erotic disturbing perfume, complementing the barnacled jewellery of the drowned, a corpse-like pallor and as Hans Andersen tells us, bivalves affixed to the tail as a badge of rank. “This is like eating a mermaid” says Don Draper as he wolfs down the oysters; but eschewing salty, marine scents, I smell Caron’s Tubereuse – sweet and waxen and the perfect coronet for a head of streaming green hair above nether regions glistening with opalescent sequin-scales. Tuberoses (“dangerous pleasures”) are such strange wicked hypnotic flowers, not quite of this world; the Spanish won’t wear them, associating them with death. I fancy their creamy sultry on-the-edge-of-decay fragrance would even exude here, against nature, at the bottom of the sea, mixed maybe with floating ambergris and exotic fruits and vanilla orchid, wrecked cargo of some Spanish treasure fleet. “A ceiling of amber, a pavement of pearl”. Golden scent in oily rays in the dark waters, mermaids sinuously laving themselves like eels.
And what of the scent of the shipwrecks mermaids would cause? The inimitable Pierre Guillaume has crafted that for us in Bois Naufrage: a scent of salt, figs, coconut, beaches and wood so dry it would turn to powder beneath your feet.
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Image from Wikimedia Commons