Joanna here, asking: What did Regency mermaids get up to?
You have doubtless spent a lot of time wondering about this.
They differed significantly from modern mermaids. Disney’s singing amphibians were not a gleam on the horizon. Even the source story of that movie – Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, (Danish title Den Lille Havfrue) – wasn’t written till 1837 and not translated till 1845.
You ever notice how we don’t know the name of the mermaid in Andersen’s story? She’s like the heroine of Rebecca. This business of Fairy Tale protagonists having only a nickname or profession … Is this Fraught With Significance?
So. What kinda mermaids were floating around n 1800?
– You could pay your pence and go see an ugly, shriveled-up specimen on exhibition or
spot one displayed as a curiosity in a coffee house or tavern. The tradition of fake mermaids dated to at least the Sixteenth Century.
And, frankly, the mermaids were probably just as convincing as the duckbilled platypus in the next case.
They had accounts of sightings from reliable sources.
Nor yet is the figure generally attributed to the nereids at all a fiction; only in them, the portion of the body that resembles the human figure is still rough all over with scales. For one of these creatures was seen upon the same shores, and as it died, its plaintive murmurs were heard even by the inhabitants at a distance.
The legatus of Gaul, too, wrote word to the late Emperor Augustus that a considerable number of nereids had been found dead upon the sea-shore.
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History
On the previous day [8 Jan 1493], when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [on Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits. The Admiral says that he had seen some, at other times, on the coast of Guinea, where you find manequeta.
Dominican Bartolomé de la Casas quoting Christopher Columbus’, Journal of the First Voyage
"All day and night cleere sunshine. The wind at east. The latitude at noone 75 degrees 7 minutes. We held westward by our account 13 leagues. In the afternoon, the sea was asswaged, and the wind being at east we set sayle, and stood south and by east, and south southeast as we could. This morning one of our companie looking over boord saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up and by that time shee was come close to the ships side, looking earnestly on the men. A little after a sea came and overturned her. From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a womans, as they say that saw her, but her body as big as one of us. Her skin very white, and long haire hanging downe behinde of colour blacke. In her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a porposse, and speckled like a macrell. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner."
Henry Hudson, Logbook, Second Voyage, June 15, 1608
There continued to be a robust Regency sea folklore with sailors' eyewitness accounts. And rather more sailors repeating somebody else’s account
Many spoilsports suggested these were tall tales. Others posited drunken myopic sailors.And some folks offered manatees. Eighteenth Century Rationalists would have been perfectly happy with manatees, never having seen one.
Also, the stories of mermaids were of great antiquity which leant them an air of authority. I mean, who wants to argue with Pliny?
The very oldest mermaids aren't so much relevant to the Regency. It’s unlikely your average Regency banker or barrister or baron knew much about Babylonian and Sumerian deities like Atargatis (aka Desura) the half fish/half human chief goddess of northern Syria, mother of Semiramis.
But with the loose change of all that Classical education in their pockets 1800 folks couldn’t help but trip over Greek and Roman mermaids, nereids, and other exciting marine mythical sorts. Lots of pastiche animals.
Odysseus’ encounter with the sirens probably had feathers involved. Homer doesn’t get down to taxonomic details, but the available images show sirens as birds.
By Medieval times sirens stopped being bird-ladies and became fish-ladies. When Geoffrey Chaucer translated Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, (1378-1381) he translated “sirenae” as “meremaydenes.”
There’s a story that goes with that.
In Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene book II (1590s), "mermayds . . . making false melodies" tempt the heroes. These mermaids, Spenser explained, were once "fair ladies" but arrogantly challenged the "Heliconian maides" (the Greek Muses) and were turned to fish below the waist as punishment. (This sort of ties in with Pausanias’ Description of Greece from around the 2nd century A. D., where the Sirens and Muses had a singing competition. The Sirens lost and the Muses plucked out their feathers to make into crowns.)
Writing in the Margins, Fish or Fowl: How Did Sirens Become Mermaids?
Medieval mermaids differed from Disney’s Ariel in that they ate human flesh, sank ships, displayed sexually transgressive behavior, and lured men to their death.
Medieval mermaids had fishy reputations.
(Okay. I didn’t say that.)
In short – they were not just pretty faces.
They were badass
…spekth of meermaides in the see,
How þat so inly mirie syngith shee
that the shipman therwith fallith asleepe,
And by hir aftir deuoured is he.
From al swich song is good men hem to keepe
Thomas Hoccleve, Male Regle, 1406
We see lots of depictions of mermaids in Medieval bestiary, marginalia, and the odd Book of Hours. The combination of exotic sailor-killing sealife and nudity seems to have been irresistible.
They represented sexuality and tenptation. But respectable, y’know. It was natural history. Like painting zebras.
The split tailed mermaids — in case you've every wondered — showed up in the C7 onward. I find them a bit puzzling. Rude and earthy. Authentic, but odd. I suppose they made good sense in the cultural context.
Skipping nimbly past Shakespeare, who does not seem to have depicted mermaids as malevolent to any extent, we move into the Regency period.
Mermaids were trivialized.
The mermaids for supper provided such dishes
As suited the palates of Gods and of fishes …
A. Taby, The Fishes’ Feast with A Mermaid’s Song. 1806
In 1800, our sophisticated Regency character stands at the cusp, as it were, in the matter of mermaids. Sailors' tales are not taken seriously. There's a whole world of exotic animals out there for the scientifically minded to theorize about. The educated are skeptical of mermaid reality, unconcerned with them as a danger to shipping, and no longer fascinated with this particular model of dangerous femininity, having doubtless found others.
Mermaids have dwindled to minor creatures of Classical myth, subject of naughty sea shanties, and not yet established in children’s tales.
Significanyly, the Regency had not yet embraced the Romantic mermaids of Burne-Jones.
An unsatisfactory time for mermaids, I suppose.
But at least they're not yet wearing scallop shells on their breasts.
So. What legends do you wish were real. Mermaids? Brownies? (House brownies is my own secret desire.)
Do you have a favored bit of folklore you’d really like to be true?