Down in the Depths…

Mermaid, by John Reinhard Weguelin

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.

For your chance to win a bottle of Bois Naufrage, please comment below with how you imagine mermaids to smell. By commenting, you are giving us permission to contact you via your email address should you be successful.

Entries are now closed. Lemon Wedge will be judging winners next week.

Image from Wikimedia Commons


45 thoughts on “Down in the Depths…

  1. I always believed that mermaids should smell like a combination of seaweed, salt, sand and iodine. It doesn’t sound appealing to most but I really like that smell a lot!

  2. of course the sea smells of rotting stuff – and the release of oxygen! so i imagine mermaids would smell edge-of-decay (like tuberose) and at the same time highly invigorating!

  3. hmmm… i would think that the olfactory equivalent of a mermaid’s siren’s song would be something the opposite of beach/ocean. Something like an uncanny over-the-top rose…

  4. Salty and oiled like Greecian olives. A grounded wood smell perhaps mahogany and sage. Faint light and sweet beeswax. A lingering nuttiness like almonds. I would imagine the mermaid to far out to sea hiding and mysterious, so no smells typically classified as beachy or close to human interaction with the sea.

  5. Mermaids make me think of storms, green and blue, something fresh, cold and dark. Maybe green tea and hibiscus (like the flowers in their hair), fresh fruits like limes and papaya (both used to prevent scurvy at sea) over pale blonde woods, salt water, blueberry, rum and something like oysters. I would use ‘seaweed’ here as a base note with darker rosewood (rotting ships) and a metallic note to represent sunken treasures, rusted cannons and bloodshed. A bit of cherry or redcurrant could work here to make it sweeter (like a mermaid’s voice) and redder (like blood and full lips), maybe blackberry to make it darker, slightly unsettling and purple like a violent storm at sea. A red and purple violence in the base after a fresh, light blue/green opening would really capture the ‘mermaid’ I think 🙂

  6. I think Mermaids would smell of their shipwrecks, so yes to salty air and seaweed, but also burnt wood, and the sugar and spices carried by the ships (cinnamon I’d like!). So a mixture of salty and sweet with maybe a touch of tobacco from a sailor’s private stash.

  7. I like to think the scent of a mermaid would embody both her aquatic and human elements to represent her life in the ocean depths and when (secretly) basking on sun-warmed rocks ; the hint of a watery kingdom – seaweed, ambergris, brine-y + salty tang (to represent her tail perhaps?), and her skin if exposed while resting on a rock would smell of honeyed, buttery warm skin, perhaps beeswax, a hint of peach, violet-leaf and tuberose (for a hint of decay), and the hair of smoky toasted seashell, baked earth and ozone notes

  8. Mermaids smell like salt on suede, with hints of hot dry driftwood and the slightly acrid finish of seaweed and tansy

  9. A beguiling surface, smooth as polished brass (like the surface of a calm sea), hiding a swell of tempests underneath – reminiscent of all the mythical merpeople of old, both enchanting and discordant. An oily slick of something distinctly (tantalisingly) carnal, but more a whisper than a brazen seduction. A treacle slick of something dark and deep, with some unknowable, unquantifiable thing just outside your grasp (not unlike Attrape-Coeur). A rubik’s cube of a perfume: maddening and consuming. I have always thought of mermaids as having this dichotomy, shared with all mythical figures – beauty and darkness; indelible awe bound up in terror (another subject, but the reason I always thought Angel the perfect name for the perfume.) I think a mermaid would smell truly strange, but disquietingly irresistible. Salty and sweet in the way that sweat is, an umami mineral facet like seaweed or samphire with ambergris and just the merest trace of the soft, sour scent of mildewed briny driftwood. All opposed in identical quantities with musk and amber, sweet spices, dark unctuous molasses and the lost treasure twinkles of ruby pomegranate seeds (for their connotations of the underworld and entrapment in it.) Languid and strange.

  10. A combination of sea and salt and dry warm skin with a sprinkling of sand.and some narcotic tuberose thrown into the mix

  11. I was once ejected from a Tokyo leather bar for singing ‘A Part of Your World’ from Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ rather too enthusiastically. True story.

    I want to imagine mermaids scented like the freshest Whitstable oysters – a strange, near-rotten, other-worldly fleshiness, at once delicious and repellent. The salted beards of saddened molluscs, left behind by the tide; the triumphant spray of an enthusiastic wave as it crashes against a keel; the crackling ozone of a heavy coastal sky; a seductive sliver of sashimi washed down with salty soy and sweet, briny saké…

  12. I think mermaids do not smell like certain notes. I think they just smell enchanting and hypnotize you with their scent ❤

  13. Slightly saltly, but each will have her own sensual aroma to lure passing sailors to their doom

  14. I think mermaids would seduce with a fresh smell of sea air, seaweeds, salt, combined with the smell of the finest ambergris which has been floating on the waves for many years. It would be an ethereal scent, the seduction of a life at sea, far from earthly cares. And hidden the freshness would be a nuance of a very sexy musk, just a hint, enough to seduce land-dwelling humans to the sea, but so subtle as to be practically subliminal.

  15. What an intriguing question. A mermaid would smell of a combination of salty sea air and sand. She would possibly also smell of rotting fish if she ate that for breakfast ,but forgot to wash her teeth afterwards. Thanks for the draw.

  16. You’d be drawn in by a mix of spilled petroleum and Posidonia, Haitian vetiver and a thousand spices that never made their shores. But up close you’d inhale the airy top notes of fresh oyster iodine and dry ozone tang which lead to a swift but heady drowning in sea-green midnotes of comforting seamoss and tangled bladderwrack. The end comes as you sink into the deep base notes of old ambergris and shipwreck beams of decaying cedar.

  17. My Great Uncle worked on ships all of his life and used to tell me tales about meeting mermaids when I was little (and gulliable) I was jealous of the fact that he had actually met them in ‘real life’ he had been completley charmed by their beauty and told me that one day he would marry one and not come back.
    I rember his smell of rum and cigars so will always associate the smell of him with a mermaid, although I am sure that mermaids smell much sweeter and nicer than he did.
    Funny how he never did marry in the end, maybe he really did get his mermaid wife.

  18. Frighteningly seductive cold electric – a powerful sexy floral like tuberose with a cool slice of cucumber and mint… an yes, of course the vomitous ambergris!

  19. Oh what a wonderful question. I think a mermaid’s scent would be telling in its twisted tale; beginning with an innocent oceanic blast of fresh ozone, cucumber, lemon, mimosa and a touch of peppermint, but drying down to a heady, animalic, concoction of ambergris, exotic dry woods, rum and tobacco, spiked with something utterly indistinguishable. Just as the story told is more often about the weakness of the man who falls for her charms, so her perfume would, in the end, mirror the scent of the sailor’s neck.

  20. When I was younger, I used to dive a shipwreck off a tiny island in Lake Michigan. The ship was carrying men’s toiletries to the well-groomed port of Chicago before it ran aground in a particularly tumultuous storm.

    This was decades previous, but when we went down into the bowels of the ship, I’d always imagine that I could smell that shaving foam amongst the slippery algae surfaces in this underwater haunted house.

    My mermaid smell isn’t something of mystical beauty, but rather the smell of her shipwreck dwelling – the algae topnote, the rotted wood basenotes – then the imaginary in-between. I smell sailor’s rum, underwater sunshine and shaving foam. Twenty years later, the imaginary scents are still the best of all.

  21. Love the stories about mermaids! I am fortunate to live by the sea……It’s most magical time is sunset to me…….I can imagine mermaids making their appearances then while the fabulous sun is making it’s spectacular decent…….and my wonderful moon is rising……..the gentle breezes and sugar sand.

  22. mermaids would smell of great melancholy, intense beauty and of the ancient oceanic depths. i imagine their skin would smell of sweet sultry sun warmed ambergris, their breath to smell of wild coastal flowers, wrapped in an enveloping cloud of fresh ozonic salt air and a touch of seaweed. and of course being mythical, there would have to be one element of her scent that would be intangible and ethereal. . perhaps a metallic musk or a strange deep green fruit that has only ever been tasted or smelt in the long lost subterranean orchards of atlantis. who can say? all i know is that her scent would ultimately be profoundly disturbing, deeply sensual, wildly erotic and somehow sad. a bewitching brew of the deep dark depths of the unknown and lonely oceans.

  23. to my imagination, when I think of a “mermaids scent” a lot comes to mind, as I’m a Pisces, water lover. I have to be near it. to define it in a scent, I agree with Much aforementioned. rotting wood, sea kelp/seaweed scent, an exotic Tuberose, Lily, or immortelle flower to lend a feminine, luring, incandescent nature. ozone accord I think along with a temple incense smoke would follow with ambergris, gold of the sea to create a depth that is needed in a perfume relating to sea mysteries and not ocean vacations. perhaps followed up by moss, ever present around water, and perhaps a metallic accord, to impart the mental imagery of scales, pearls, and deep sea beauty which conceals hidden danger..

  24. I always thought mermaids smell good! Some green stuff (galbanum perhaps) from the grasses in the river, some white flowers from the garlands on their heads, some cooling aldehydes. I was thinking about the river mermaids — undinas — and their scent, gentle, captivating, cool live river water in the evening and alluring like night blooming flowers.

    Thank you for a lovely post and the draw! I am very happy to discover this blog *came because of the link on Facebook*

  25. Mermaids should smell of amber, of deep salty waters, of golden sands and romantic pink sunsets…They should smell of everlasting summer…

  26. I think that to attract the attention of unfortunate sailors, mermaids would smell of something a little unexpected, maybe a little musky, with maybe some tuberrose or jasmine lying underneath, adding a sweet, almost rotting undertone…

  27. Personally I would liken a mermaid scent to damp gun powder and musk from the sunken battleship and sailors that she drowned. A heart note of tiare to display her exotic side and a top note of black orchid and violet leaf to beguile, intoxicate and stimulate your libido like their siren song. Yum.

  28. Mermaids have an underlying salty smell, but the rest depends on the things they have recently touched. I have an idea of a mermaid who has returned to her rock after swimming out to examine her latest wreck. Traces of spilled cargo lace her hair: molasses, tobacco, sherry and sandalwood. She has brought back with her some trophies. She has a leather shoe from a drowned sailor, and from the cabin of the ship’s doctor, a little metal box filled with lavender-scented ointment and a clear glass bottle of laudanum. The bottle has broken in her hands, and the bitter laudanum spilled all over her scales. Now she is lying in a swoon on her rock, all the different scents mixing and unmixing in the salty air. The scent comes and goes, depending on which way the wind blows.

  29. Well I guess in all probabilty, if mermaids really did exist, they would smell rather fishy…but given a bit of artistic licence my ideal mermaid would smell so amazing that you’d want to forsake being a landlubber and dive in to the depths and join her.
    So a mermaid would smell salty, fresh breezy iodine salty, with a bewitching Rose layered over that plus a little fish extract!

  30. I can already imagine my self in the middle of the ocean, with a small island in sight. The waves are crushing the small reefs, and there, on top of them i can see her..and I think I can smell her. The wind is gently caressing me and I can smell her hair..a touch of woody-flower scent. Maybe a hint of orange flower, cedar and vetiver – I know it reminds me of something –’s like golden breeze. And her skin seams snow white, maybe a bluish glow – I am not sure from this distance. Looks cold – I can imagine a combination of petite grain and seaweed smell, some saltiness is getting to me – but it might be just the sea around me.. bitterness – is it Angelica? Mandarin maybe…. And her song..I am sure I can hear it and it’s calling for me – sounds like butterflies in the is so tuberose and pink pepper.
    And then – when I lost her from my sight – she left a dimming trail of a dream – and the sea takes over…the glorious blue salty scent, with a hint of amber and woods..

  31. What a gorgeous reflection on smelly mermaids this is!

    I’m with you in wanting them to smell strange and otherworldly. For me, salt is a non-negotiable. I also think of seaweed, amber, ink, and maybe rubber. The combination of warm and cold is what says mermaid to me.

  32. Every entry was a joy to read: many congratulations on a very high standard all round. A highly stimulating and amusing excursion to the outer reaches of the imagination. I was heartened to find that my visions of tuberoses and ambergris were shared by many of you.

    I was especially beguiled by Laura Underwood’s evocation of oil + saltiness, strangeness and alienation; and by Wendy’s voluptuous reverie. Titiansmodel was agreeably perverse and vivid; and I found Britt Ase’s scents of box and honeysuckle inspired and totally unexpected. Thecroft is wonderfully startling, exciting and weird. After much thought I award the palm to Jenny S for her brief but memorable “Mermaids smell of sailors’ broken hearts”.

    I love the sly poetical brevity and the siren-like slithery elusiveness of this; the way that Jenny solves one insoluble mystery by at once posing another. Almost, indeed, giving us scope for another competition. Congratulations and enjoy your marine treasure!

    Thank you all so much for your wit and good humour.


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