Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Many Uses of the Mermaid

In keeping with one of the evolving themes of this blog, images as iconography, this post is devoted to the mermaid, its origins and significance, and the many uses for the figure that have been devised. Before or after reading this piece, log on to eBay and search “mermaid.” Checking in there regularly I find no fewer than 57,000 entries of mermaid-related items on auction.

That is a rather astounding number but then the mermaid has an impressive history. The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria about 1000 B.C. The goddess Atargatis loved a mortal shepherd and killed him by accident. So bereaved, she jumped into a lake to become a fish but was, so the story goes, was so beautiful that the waters would not mask her face or breasts. As a result she was human above the waist, a fish below -- and lo! the mermaid was born. Similar stories appear in the mythology of Greece, Syria, Arabia, China, India, Scotland and England.

One influential image was created by British artist John William Waterhouse in the late 1800s. Entitled “A Mermaid,” is an example of late British Academy style artwork. The painting, shown here, debuted to considerable acclaim (and secured Waterhouse's place as a member of the Royal Academy). It is currently in the collection of the Royal Academy in London. Waterhouse has captured a romantic, enduring image of this mythical creature.

But as occurs so frequently, human nature seems to demand that we find other -- often practical -- uses for our icons. The artifact that launched me on this post was a cast iron brown mermaid with a bulbous nose and both arms raised high. As it turns out, she is a bootjack, a device for that uses her V-shaped arms to help extract someone’s foot from a boot. She is purely utilitarian and a far cry from the beauty in Waterhouse’s painting.

The bootjack mermaid, like Waterhouse’s, has bare breasts. This anatomical reality has caused a problem for those using the mermaid for practical purposes. The frontal nudity has draw criticism from persons made uncomfortable by the unclothed female figure. Thus a number of strategies have been devised to deal a more modest mermaid. The bottle opener shown here is an example of one solution: crossed arms. Another ploy, one used frequently in the movies, is the mermaid’s hair streaming over her bosom. Witness a door knocker where the visitor is greeted with a welcome sign and a chance to grab the knocker.

A third way of covering up the lass is to give her a C-cup in seashells. This is demonstrated by a waving mermaid, flanked by a leaping porpoise and a lighthouse. Is she urging sailors onto the rocks to their doom? No, she really is part of a metal plate meant to disguise a hose reel. Some artifacts have gone so far as to put the fishy lady in swimming togs. Shown here is a metal coin bank mermaid-style. She appears to be wearing a two-piece bathing suit and a matching cap. Even more modestly dressed is the wide-eyed, blonde haired mermaid. Believe it or not, she is a pencil sharpener.

It is not hard to get a handle on the next mermaid. She IS a handle and appears to be wearing a bathing suit as she anchors a cup on a maritime saucer. Note that her tail is double and a variant on the usual fin. Another artistic effort, this one by glass artist, Milan Townsend, transmutes the mermaid into a bottle. Her human half makes up the stopper, while the fishy part is the actual container. Here too the artist has taken liberties with the usual image by including porpoise-like flippers as well as a cleft tail.

The last figure shown here uses the classic shape of the mermaid, bare breasts and all, but colors her hair red, body green, and inserts one nasty looking hook from her naval and another from her tail. My Dad always said there were fishing lures meant to catch fishermen rather than fish. This clearly is one of them. It provides another example of the many uses of the mermaid. If space permitted, I could have included images of mermaids as finger rings, fountains,vases, tattoos, and a dozen other uses. Clearly the notion of the half woman, half fish, conceived first in antiquity, has a continuing fascination in contemporary culture. That helps explain those 57,000 plus items for sale every day on eBay.


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