(last update : 01 November 1998)
The universal myth of the mermaid is the myth of the possessive woman, killing her lovers after having made love with them : Sharon Stone in Basic instinct can be considered a modern adaptation of this timeless myth.
At the beginning, mermaids were creatures of the Greek mythology, whose charming sings lured the sailors, leading them to crash their boats on reefs. Everybody knows the famous passage from Homere's Odyssey, where Ulysses is attached to the mast of his boat to listen to the sings of the mermaids, while his crew stoped his ears with wax.
What is less known, is that the first mermaids of the Greek mythology were represented as creatures half-woman, half bird (figure 1).
The creature half-woman, half-fish, which we now knew (figure 2), appeared much later in the story of the myth.
Figure 1 : Ulysses and the mermaids
(greek pottery of the 5th century B.C.).
Figure 2 : traditional representation
of the mermaid (half-wife, half-fish).
A teratological anomaly, fortunately very rare, called symely, may have taken a part in the genesis of the mythe of the mermaid : il is a fusion of the lower limbs, giving birth to a human being with a kind of fish tail (figure 3).
Figure 3 : symelian child.
Then, the discovery by European sailors of the aquatic mammals which were precisely called "sirenians", the dugong (Dugong dugong) and the manatees (Trichechus), gave a new consistancy to the old myth. In the sirenians, the vulva indeed opens ventrally and the breasts are in a pectoral position (just like in a woman) ; the tail is flattened in the horizontal plan , like in cetaceans, but it can suggest the tail of a fish. All these elements gave new material for the old myth of the fish-wife. So, when Christopher Colombus observed American manatees for the first time, he remarked that these "mermaid" were not so beautiful as the ones from the legend.
But reports of "mermaids" are known from areas where, so far as we know, sirenians do not exist : in the most complete book yet written on the myth of the mermaid, Benwell and Waugh (1961) have published about 50 detailed sightings, which occured mainly off British islands and Scandinavia. Richard Carrington (1957) and Peter Costello (1979) proposed that these sightings refered to a still unknown species of maned seal, but it is unlikely : the inguinal position of the breasts in the pinnipeds definitely rule out such an identification. An animal with pectoral breasts is the condition sine qua non to be the base of the mythical and erotic divagations mythiques of the myth of the mermaid. Such pectoral breasts are found in proboscidians (elephants) and in chiropteres (bats), which can be hardly used as a creature half-woman, half-fish ; but also in sirenians, as said above, and finally in primates, more likely to play a part in this myth.
It is thus possible that unknown sirenians were recently living, or even are still living, in these areas. Another hypothesis, although much less likely, would be an aquatic primate, a kind of ape adapted to marine life, having get by convergency the tail of a cetacean.
For more information
BENWELL, Gwen, and Arthur WAUGH
1961 Sea enchantress : the tale of the mermaid and her kin. London, Hutchinson.
1957 Mermaids and mastodons. London.
1979 The magic zoo. London, Sphere Books.
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