Merphiles and merphobes
Humans have two principal reactions to merfolk:
- One is merphilia or fascination — the admiration for graceful and powerful beings who, though they are somewhat like us because they are half-human, can live in the sea and dive into what are to us forbidden depths.
- The opposite reaction also exists. Some people are merphobes: they are repulsed, finding merfolk grotesque or deformed — hideous monsters that seem at first to be human, but are actually finned, scale-covered, slimy things that live in the darkness of the cold sea.
Both reactions are possible. Regardless of whether a person is a merphile or a merphobe, no one seems indifferent to mers — another indication of the hold that merfolk have over us. According to Jung, the conscious mind is male and manifest in its nature while the unconscious is female and hidden in its nature. Thus we see the symbolism of the mermaid singing from that mysterious depth of the unconscious (the sea) calling the conscious mind (the land male) either to love or to death. Freud said that the unconscious is the deep passageway either into Eros (love and the life-instinct) on the one hand, or into Thanatos (the death-instinct) on the other. Symbolically, the mer beckons us into the mysteries of life and death.
Mer-heights & mer-depths
The mer, emerging from the deep, symbolizes for us the rising consciousness of the human as we evolve from our primitive origins in the sea. But such evolution is also potentially dangerous — it carries with it the possibility of sinking back into the night of the sea, ignorance, and death.
Puberty brings with it the awareness of the sensuous quality of the water. Water becomes overtly Freudian and sensual. We are naked or nearly naked in the water. Wet skin has a sexual appeal accenting the contours of the naked human form. Wetness is associated with sexual activity. In ancient mythic symbolism, the goddess of love Venus or Aphrodite is said to have been born of sea form — an obvious Freudian interrelationship of sea, salty water, salty air, womb, sperm, sexuality, etc. The classic portrayal of Venus shows her naked, standing on a sea shell. She comes forth as a voluptuous goddess from the sea offering sensual pleasures to humankind.
In dreams, a mermaid is often a symbol of repressed sexual urges or a sense of impending doom — or both. The lusty young sailor — lured by the sensual Lorelei — goes to his death either physically or spiritually. The mer is the dream world’s release into free-floating sensate, sensual, and sensuous warmth. As the lyrics in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” tells us, we “swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh.” In the dream state, being a mer, capturing a mer, or being captured by a mer would thus have various deeply rooted meanings in the awakening sexuality of a young person. Consider the obvious sexual meaning of a boy’s dreaming that he is a strong sea-man (the pun is no accident) harpooning a mermaid. In addition, young boys have discovered a homosexual urge when they dream of capturing or being captured by a merman. Likewise, some girls report dreams of being dragged down into the sea by a merman (sea-man). These dreams often coincide with the awakening of sexuality deep within the girls’ psyches.
The merphile profile
The merphile male has these characteristics: intelligent, introverted, given to imagination and creativity. He withdraws from the conventional world through his fascination with mers. He is called by the siren song into an unreal world of nearly obsessive fantasy. But the consequences can be disastrous — just as in the tales of old — since he may not be able to relate on a mature level with real people, especially females.
The merphile female, on the other hand, is less sexually oriented toward the mer. The female identifies with the beautiful grace and otherworldly quality of the mer, even fancying that she is or has been a mer herself. She rejects the mer as a siren, viewing the mer as a lovely nymph, a poetic and playful alter ego.
Again we see that the mer symbolizes a force of life or of death — Eros or Thanatos. The male is fascinated with the danger of the fatal siren and the id-like sea, while the female is drawn to the fairy-tale quality of the traditional mermaid.
The difference between the siren and the mermaid
Sirens and mermaids are two different beings. The ancient Greeks often pictured sirens as bird-women or harpies who caused havoc and sometimes lured sailors to their death on rocks. The mermaid is more closely related to the ancient sea nymph or water sprite. Such creatures were benevolent, though they could be mischievous. The hybrid combining of siren and fish-girl took place in the Dark Ages when mers were used in tales to show the deadly dangers of carnal sin –a linking of Freud’s Eros and Thanatos. Yet many stories and myths still made a distinction between the deadly siren and the friendly mermaid. The most famous mermaid of all time is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” The title character rescues a human in much the same fashion as a dolphin.
The great mer-paradox
The classic mer is a fish from the waist down. The mer thus is a paradoxical sexual and non-sexual combination. The pre-pubescent child sees the beauty of the mer as sensuous and aesthetic. The fish-girl is pretty but non-sexual, thus non-threatening. A boy can yearn for the temptations of the mermaid, but at the same time, he feels that she is “safe” since her love would have to be platonic. She thus becomes an idealized girlfriend. But, ironically, the long, cylindrical shape of the powerful and dangerous wet tail is an obvious Freudian phallic symbol, thus appealing at the subconscious level to the male sexual instinct.
The mer is perhaps a bisexual image of both male and female sexuality. This fact is in harmony with Jung’s idea of the hermaphrodite quality of the human — having a male consciousness and a female, sea-like subconscious. The mer-tail is a non-human or “animal” element indicating that the mer’s appeal is lusty in the same primitive fashion as the centaur or minotaur. These creatures openly display their naked, vigorous, and unabashed power — the “animal” within the human. Mermaids luring men to danger and death is clearly a symbol of the potential disaster of unrestrained “animal” instinct in the human.
The mer-tail is mammalian like that of a dolphin. Swimming would require an undulating motion not unlike that associated with sexual activity. Many swimmers report that the “butterfly stroke” is “sexy” because of the “dolphin kick” in which the legs are held parallel and kicked together in a dolphin-like fashion. Such movement may harken back to the deep primitive memory of the sperm’s swimming or of life in the sea — memories that are sunk deep in the Freudian and Jungian oceanic subconscious.
The Spiritual Mer
The irony is that the mer has a spiritual quality which seems to contradict the sexual or brutal qualities. Freud referred to the mystical religious experience as being something “limitless, unbounded … oceanic.” The elusive mer is seen as an emissary of the mystical spirit deep within the subconscious. The mer rises symbolically from the mysteries of the sea giving hints about the submerged kingdom deep below the tranquil surface. By delving into the archetypal aspects of the mer, we may begin to learn more about the mysteries of the subconscious deep below our seemingly calm surface.