Mermaids - women with fish tails - are among the oldest and still most fascinating of mythological creatures, possessing a powerful allure and compelling ambiguity. We, three geologists, became charmed and seduced by their local descriptions and stories while doing fieldwork along the Cornish coast.
The final idea for this book arose on a stormy December night while listening to miners’ Christmas songs in St Senara’s Church, Zennor, near Pendour Cove in west Cornwall. Cornwall is the home of numerous mermaid tales, in particular at Zennor where, according to legend, a tragic event took place in the sixteenth century. The Land’s End peninsula, where the village of Zennor is located, is the very western tip of Cornwall, a wild and mysterious land. Around its coast the sea sings constantly. Here, when staring out into the fog-cloaked ocean towards the coastal islets and skerries, it is easy to imagine mermaids intoning their seductive and fatal melodies, providing the material for these mysterious tales.
(L) The Mermaid of Zennor (The Mermaid Discovered) by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1900. The painting features Mathew Trewella, a chorister of St Senara’s church in Zennor, Cornwall, staring in astonishment at the mermaid. According to the legend, the mermaid was besotted by Mathew’s voice and so lured him to follow her into the sea. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons. (R) The Little Mermaid, frontispiece to Fairy Tales from Hans Christian Andersen by Charles Heath Robinson, 1899. Public domain. Internet Archive.
On weekends, we regularly met in Chris’s house at Higher Bojewyan near St Just, which we called "Number Eight" and which became our "Cornish Mermaid Research Centre". In the years to come, we became more and more intrigued by mermaid depictions and symbolism, akin to how seafarers were seduced by mermaids centuries before. So, we spent many hours on research, seeing mermaid images and descriptions in places and objects unknown to us before, in the process meeting many other mermaid enthusiasts and involving friends and family in this adventure as well. We wrote down the collected stories in front of the fireplace at Number Eight which seemed to be the navel of the world at the time. Soon our research extended over Europe and further to the Middle East away and back in time where the roots of Western mermaid imagery and legends originate.
A mermaid with a mirror and a comb, symbols of vanity or luxury, carved on a wooden pew in St Senara’s Church, Zennor, Cornwall, c. sixteenth century. Photo: Axel Müller.
Our book, Mermaids: Art, Symbolism and Mythology, presents a comprehensive and beautifully illustrated study of mermaids and their influence on Western culture. The roots of mermaid mythology and its metamorphosis through the centuries are discussed with examples from visual art, literature, music and architecture — from 600 BCE right up to the present day.
Our story starts in Mesopotamia, source of the earliest preserved illustrations of half-human, half-fish creatures. The myths and legends of the Mesopotamians were incorporated and adopted by ancient Greek, Etruscan and Roman cultures. Then, during the early medieval period, ancient mythological creatures such as mermaids were confused, transformed and reinterpreted by Christian tradition to begin a new strand in mermaid lore. Along the way, all manner of stunning—and sometimes bizarre or unsettling—depictions of mermaids emerged.
Detail showing three Nereids on The Mendebrunnen (Mende Fountain) in Leipzig, Germany, created by sculptor Jacob Unger and architect Adolf Gnauth, 1886. Photo: Axel Müller.
Written to be both accessible and entertaining, the book challenges conventional views of mermaid mythology, discusses mermaids in the light of evolutionary theory and aims to inspire future studies of these most curious of imaginary creatures. Naturally, some of our commentary is tongue-in-cheek, since we do not believe in the physical existence of mermaids, preferring to regard them as symbolising the potential for good and bad in all of us, and the pitfalls of lust and greed.
Blog written by Axel Müller and Ben Williamson.
~ Find out more about Mermaids: Art, Symbolism and Mythology by Axel Müller, Christopher Halls and Ben Williamson
~ Read a sample chapter of the book