How to catch a mermaid
You will now learn the purpose behind our desire to either capture or be captured by merfolk. Through the ages, we have been fascinated by merfolk and the magical possibility of encountering them. Such meetings are rarely peaceful and are, of course, never mundane. The encounters usually take one of two forms: either the human catches a mer or the mer catches a human. In both cases, some form of violence is involved which shakes the unlikely pair and changes their whole perception of themselves and of their two very different worlds.
To understand the point, let’s look at the catch scenes in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid and Miranda as well as the seductions in Night Tide and Madonna’s “Cherish” video. This age-old meeting of mer and human involves the primitive themes of pleasure and pain, dominance and submission, pride and humility. These themes are the very reasons that the mers are enduring objects of our delight and intrigue.
In the 1948 Universal-International film Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, Mr. Peabody’s fishing pole becomes a phallic symbol considering its position protruding from his groin area. Using it, he probes the feminine sea and takes from her something that brings him both physical pleasure and emotional pain. Lenore, the mermaid, is hooked in the flukes, and her tail battles powerfully against the inevitable pain of capture. But she finally surrenders to Mr. Peabody with a look of dazed wonder, an expression of eagerness to discover what he is like. She could easily escape by leaping out of his boat, but she does not. Thus the male has conquered the female — much to his later vexation.
In the 1948 British film Miranda, the Doctor is pulled into the feminine sea because he is unwilling to surrender his fishing pole or his pipe — both of which are male symbols. He is dragged down into the mysterious womb-like cave of the sea. The male surrenders to the female — the rigidity of the land being captured by the fluidity of the encompassing feminine sea.
Night Tide is a less widely known 1963 American-International film which tells of a sailor being lured into desertion from the navy because of his infatuation with a mysterious girl. He is then further enticed almost to his death by the passion which ironically destroys not him, but the mermaid-like girl with whom he is obsessed. In his troubled dreams, he sees her as a beautiful woman who becomes first a seductive mermaid and then a deadly octopus trying to kill him.
Madonna’s 1989 “Cherish” video gives us scenes of an erotic encounter between mermen and a land-based siren who lures them to come out of the sea to her. From this encounter, an aboriginal, androgynous child is born. The child sometimes has legs and sometimes has a fishtail. This schizophrenic child searches for identity, symbolizing the state of human confusion: though we evolved from the sea with a body that consists mostly of salt water, and though we are born from the salty sea-like maternal womb, we chose to live on dry land, thus alienating ourselves from our true origins.
These stories evoke our fascination with danger: the danger of total loss of identity through both sexual conquest and death. Peabody escapes from the restrictive chill of his native Boston to the warm tropics where he encounters something totally alien to his lifestyle: a naked, amorous mermaid more than willing to give herself to him. Reaching his 50th birthday — which he calls “The age of youth and the youth of age” — Peabody realizes that even though he still can desire this lovely gift of the sea, he may be too old for her. In addition, she is what he calls “imperfect” because, although she adores him and he is totally charmed by her, she is nevertheless a fish from the waist down.
Likewise, Miranda‘s prim Doctor, on vacation from his customary Victorian surroundings, is suddenly submerged into a whole other world where passion awaits in the form of a naked, amorous mermaid who demands that he become her lover. However, passion does not come without a price: either he must remain forever drowned in the mermaid’s cove, or he has to take her back to London where he must awkwardly explain his indiscretions to his wife.
For Peabody and Lenore as well as for the Doctor and Miranda, pain is involved: the pain of being helpless, the pain of being captured, the pain of dealing with something for which one is not prepared — in other words, the pain of facing one’s true condition in life. In the primitive subcultures of all lands, this pain is formalized into a spiritual ritual through which each person must pass in order to become fully human and part of the tribe. Pain and ecstasy are bound together in these rituals to create a shift of awareness: such rituals have their powerful consciousness-altering effect by disrupting the ordinary mental viewpoint and creating a new, destabilized frame of mind that allows the person to see himself or herself and the whole world differently. The rite of passage involves total absorption in something that is ordinarily forbidden, bringing about a burst of fresh insight.
This life-changing alteration is what happens when Peabody and the Doctor unexpectedly free themselves from the Victorian and puritanical restraints of stuffy Boston and polite London — as personified by their wives. Indulging in the naked joy personified by Lenore and Miranda, Peabody and the Doctor abandon fear and inhibition for a time. Their deeper, instinctive fantasies and desires are realized in the magical mermaid encounter. The power of the soul has been stimulated in its hidden places. The humans dive into the fluid domain of the erotic with all of its primitive power as well as of its innate innocence.
The two pairs of mermaid-human lovers act out for us the primitive, socially unacceptable and unacknowledged needs to dominate and to be dominated. The stories show us something about power, passion, and the role of power and passion in our human condition. Being caught or catching the ecstasy that is usually missing from and forbidden in mundane living, we cross the barriers between life and death. We are pulled either into the sea or from the sea. We conquer or we surrender. Symbolically we put our lives on the line.
The mermaids live in and must return to the sea — Jung’s archetype of the sea-mother goddess. The humans live on and must return to the land — the place of masculine achievement and industry. The magical meeting of mermaid and human is the joining of male and female — a process charged with ecstasy and torture, and usually both. The mermaid is the unacknowledged part of the male. Thus, their meeting symbolizes the delving of one’s innermost self, an examination which is both enlightening and disturbing, combining pleasure and pain. It is the confrontation with one’s own life, one’s alter ego, one’s dark shadow. If the meeting is not a disaster, it can be fertile, producing the fully-integrated self and thus bringing about a state of erotic as well as cosmic awareness. It is a turning point full of raw power and beauty, the birth of the soul amidstfire and rapture.
The mermaid represents Jung’s Dionysian consciousness: oceanic, unrestrained, primitive, ecstatic, orgiastic, sensual, euphoric, and transcendent. The human represents Jung’s Apollonian consciousness: dry, restrained, rational, subdued, mundane, puritanical, and civilized. When these two opposing forces come together, there is disruption, as in the comic mix-ups of Peabody and the Doctor. The danger of total disaster is portrayed in the tragic conclusion of Night Tide, a title which foreshadows the destructive darkness befalling the ill-fated sailor and his mermaid-like lover.
Yet there is the possibility of a more positive outcome: the creation of a divine balance symbolized in the birth of the androgynous, aboriginal, sometimes-mer, sometimes-human child in “Cherish.” But this balance is delicate at best as seen in the fact that the “Cherish” child seems confused or lost with either tail or with legs: a wandering soul caught on the beach which is the border between sea and land. This child is all of us — we are all part land and part sea, part male and part female, part pride and part humility, part mortal and part divine.
We can hope that, unlike Peabody and the Doctor, we can attain a fully loving relationship with the mysterious, beautiful, and enchanting spirit which is our true nature. We can hope that, unlike the sailor who is almost destroyed by his lover and ultimately loses her, we can not only survive but thrive when our loving relationship with our true self is attained. We can hope that the mer-human “Cherish” child wandering on the beach will eventually lead us to our higher awareness of who we are and where we are headed.
Ultimately, by contemplating these tales of catching and being caught, we can hope for true magick!